New York-based rocker Ray Wall has been creating rock ‘n’ roll inspired by comic-book characters since 2005. The Ray Wall Band has created songs inspired by the Joker, Watchmen, X-Men and Iron Man.
He recently answered some questions for Nerdage about his music.
Nerdage: What is “Comic Book Rock” and how did you start creating it?
Ray Wall: Comic Book Rock is a new genre of music that we began introducing and defining in 2005 for what we viewed as an underserved and emerging fan base. It’s an innovation that allows contemporary music to explicitly intersect with comics and imagination based fiction. In other words, Comic Book Rock is real deal, fan-based, content-true music that talks about super-heroes by name, their powers, what they do, their arch-enemies and so on.
For me this has been a kind of personal odyssey. As a kid I was mega comic fan and collector, who like many, drifted away as they got older. My teenage years were dominated by music and becoming a rock guitarist, while later still, college, grad school and career took me even farther away. With few exceptions, comics seemed left behind. That all changed with a vengeance after the first rounds of major Hollywood super-hero movies brought me back into the fold!
However, even as these new movies were getting better and better, I grew impatient with the pop/rock/urban soundtracks that accompanied them and felt that they were not delivering an experience as powerful as the movies themselves. On a gut level something fundamental seemed missing. Where were the cool super-hero tunes I remembered as a kid? I wondered why the major film companies would spend over $100 million dollars on a movie and not even a few thousand on an awesome super-hero song that would prolong everyone’s enjoyment of it.
When the first FF movie came out I decided to submit my “The Fantastic Four Song” for it which I wrote years earlier, and at the same time make a music video. In a strange twist, the music started to rank on iTunes and the video got on public TV in a couple of big cities. All this was a couple of years before Myspace and Youtube hit big but the feedback we were getting as we went forward moved me to write and develop more Comic Book Rock. I had the realization that we can move comics from our eyes to our ears and that combining music with super-heroes can be a powerful and fun listening experience.
Nerdage: Tell me about the various songs you’ve created.
Ray Wall: To date we have released about half a dozen songs covering The X-Men, The Joker, Watchmen, FF, etc. The tunes are quite different from one another in part because the characters demand it and because we change around our sound and bandmates as needed. Some of the tunes have voice actors and sound effects as a kicker. Others are classic theme song structured like our Spider-Man track and still others like Watchmen attempt to covey the essence of an entire graphic novel in one sitting. To date we have covered both Marvel and DC but eventually we will expand into other universes.
For our upcoming songs, we did a thought experiment and imagined what the world would be like if “only” super-hero songs existed on the radio (laughs). Well, you would have super-hero love songs, comic book dance tunes, hero-hip-hop, super-villain operas, and bad guy blues – all of which you may see us release in the future.
Nerdage: What are you working on now?
Ray Wall: Next year we will be putting out our first full length CD. Until now we have only released singles and generally not pre-announced our songs. Most of our fans understand that we release new music when major comic book movies come out. Usually, when Hollywood starts advertising a new movie our mail box fills ups with letters asking if we are making a song for it. This approach has been fun but it has really limited the quantity of recordings we have done to date. The other result is that I have a huge stack of songs that have been written and are waiting for their respective movies to come out. Hence, now we feel the need to speed things up. It’s a big change from our old approach and requires a lot of planning so right now we are working on finding the right studio and producer to work with. A major goal is to push our new production values as high as possible.
Nerdage: What’s the process – do you immerse yourself in particular issues or trades to get a feel for the characters?
Ray Wall: For me writing music, as opposed to playing music, is a very mysterious process. I usually like to walk around and gently think about the characters for a few hours or couple of days. The next time I pick up the guitar I often just start playing a new tune immediately out of thin air. I don’t understand how this happens but most of the lyrics and music are just sitting there with a few gaps that I fill in later. But realistically, sometimes I get stuck and a particular song may sit for months before I figure it out. Other times, yes, I do have to immerse myself but usually only if I don’t know much about the character. When I wrote The X-Men Song: A Super-Hero Rock Opera, I knew almost nothing about the X-universe because it was not one of the comics I ever read. Before the first X-movie was released I went to our public library and checked out one hundred collected X-Men comics across all the years and read one a night. Since it was close to bedtime I started to dream the music and lyrics. Because this went on for three months I ended up writing a nine minute opera rather than a normal song (laughs). Lately, I find it’s a movie trailer that can jump start a song. I had already read the Watchmen series, but it was the dark spooky looking trailer that hooked me to create our music for it. Also, I would have never written The Joker without seeing what Heath Ledger was doing in the Dark Knight trailer clips.
Lastly, I think emotions play a big role in all this. The best comics you will ever read in your life are those you read when you were a kid. We’re adults now (laughs) but we still have the capacity to tap into our pre-adolescent brain if we want to. On a real level part of my process is to try to feed those feelings back through my ears to make this music.
Nerdage: What’s been the most difficult song to work on?
Ray Wall: We have something coming up on our CD called Silver Surfer Rises which will be an extension of the Comic Book Rock concept into something I call “Musical Comic Books”. The song has a full plot: a beginning, middle, and end. You can practically read the lyrics like a comic book. We were going to release it when the FF-2 movie came out but the track was not ready. The music is very simple but the unfolding arrangement is difficult to figure out as elements appear and disappear in the track. Moreover, it is a long song and the singing is very exacting and emotional. I have already made a few attempts and it’s going to be tough. If you can think of how Robert Plant sang Stairway to Heaven and how perfect, poised, well timed, and expressive he was throughout that vocal to tell the story you get the picture. Not easy!
Nerdage: Who is your favorite character?
Ray Wall: My all time favorite character is Spider-Man and favorite team book is The Fantastic Four; pretty much hands down. During my boyhood years I also collected Cap, Iron Man, Hulk, Sub-Mariner and a few other books. I also loved the worlds of The Inhumans and of Glactus and the Silver Surfer. I think the Lee and Kirby years were the best for this material as they invented most of it. When I was an even younger kid, I was completely in the DC camp and liked Superman, Flash, and funny stuff like The Metal Men. Batman I was watching on TV.
My favorite female character is the underappreciated Kitty Pride because in her origin she rescued the X-Men while barely knowing how to use her powers and being not much more than a scared kid. I guess I like her bravery.
Finally, my interest lately has been really drawn to The Justice League, but not totally by the comics. I’ve been listening to DC’s stories on CD about them. These are much more than someone just reading a novel. They have a full cast of professional actors, readers, sound effects, and great music soundtracks. These are awesome; it’s like a movie in your head! That’s really cool and after all that’s in part where I want to take Comic Book Rock in the future. To have comic books in your ears!