By Marc Ciafardini
For more than a decade, Derek Mount has been shredding guitar and having a laugh with Family Force 5 (if you’ve never heard of them, really, go check them out). They are truly dynamic, and while you can liken their music to having an edge like 311, or Rage Against the Machine, these guys just have a lot more fun on the job. A bit of rap, a bit of metal, a whole lotta crazy, but it’s mixed together with that distinctive southern flair by those country gentlemen who can bring the goods.
Mount may be the guitarist for Family Force 5, but he also composes, creates music libraries, records as a session player, orchestrates church music, and teaches kids and adults. He has a solo project, Brique A Braq, and under that moniker is writing really unique themes – check out his recent album “Cirque Noir“. This multi-faceted musician is about as diverse as they come. Enjoy our interview with Derek Mount.
GoSeeTalk: Derek, it seems like you’ve done it all – toured the world with a popular band, been in very energetic and memorable music videos, written music for worship, and even have time to give back to the masses and educate those willing to learn guitar.
So here’s a bit of a grapefruit. Tell us about your background, your goals, and your extreme range of talents, styles, and interests. How well-rounded are you?
Derek Mount: Well, I don’t know if it’s well-rounded, or just eccentric! [Laughs] But I have this deep passion for film music. I grew up loving it. I love traditional scores, but also the more obscure and innovative ones. The way music contributes to the art of telling a story has always blown my mind, and I remember falling in love with the electric guitar, especially when I watched Back to the Future. That scene in the beginning of the film when Michael J. Fox blows up Doc’s speaker, had me jump out of my chair yelling, “Mom! I gotta do that!” Because of that, and the guitar solo at the end, I started begging my parents to play.
Now we didn’t have a guitar at the time, but my parents bought a piano from this lady down the street who won The Price is Right. She was mad that she didn’t win a car, so she started selling all her prizes. My Mom knew how to play, and that’s how I got my start – just sitting down at the piano with her. She helped me learn the ways of music, so I got into classical music and then, later, I started playing percussion in the school band.
That took a backseat as I got older because I really loved sports. I was on the football, basketball, and the baseball teams, and I had to scale back the music. But I had a very large appreciation for music, which never went away. So when I was 13, my Uncle Brad gave me his old Yamaha acoustic guitar, and I would just play and play and play.
So I studied theory, and composed, and wrote, and really got immersed in it. But what I think is really amazing about music is its diversity. For instance, last night, I got a call from a producer who asked if I would play guitar in this ’80s new wave song, and the day before that, I was working on a worship record for a talented vocalist named Stephen Christian. Then there’s my composition project and it’s very artsy, and avant garde. So, anything I do is really just trying to serve the song or the art in the best way possible. Bouncing back and forth between genres actually keeps me more excited than putting all of my focus on just one sound.
Whatever the project is, whether it’s you trying something new, or being commissioned to compose something, what is your go-to instrument? What’s your approach when you have something in your head and need to get it out?
I think the one that’s easiest for me to speak with is the guitar or the bass. I feel like I’m able to say things with a guitar that I can’t even communicate with words. That’s my go-to if I’m just trying to get a rough idea out when writing for a rock or pop song. I still have a deep, deep appreciation for Eddie Van Halen and Tom Morello.
That’s what I wanted to be when I was younger – a crazy shredder guitarist who found a new way to look at a block of wood and six wires. But what’s really fun for me is the challenge of writing on piano. I don’t consider myself to be a super skilled pianist, yet sometimes that’s what I need in order to write from a different perspective.
It helps to work on something that’s a little off, or different, because you’re forcing your mind to view things differently. On a piano, everything looks a little more linear, and there are less options, whereas on the guitar, I ask, “okay which of the 12 E notes am I going to play here?” On the piano, it’s like “I’m going to play that one!” So sometimes, when I’m doing something for Brique A Braq, I gravitate towards the piano because I can’t flow as easily, and it’s more of an exercise to push myself.
At what point did you want to start doing your own thing, but stay part of the band? Where’s Brique A Braq fall in your book of life?
I definitely didn’t feel a burning desire to become a solo artist. If so, I probably should’ve chosen a more popular style of music! I just wanted to make a new type of art. A lot of it came out of necessity, and it started when a filmmaker named Isaac Deitz was making a documentary about our bassist, who nearly passed away. He asked me if I would score the film instead of using other means, like needle drop. It was a brand new experience for me, but my response was, “Yeah, I don’t really know how to do it, but let me figure it out.” Isaac and I worked wonderfully together. He’s just a very gracious person, and helped improve the ideas and execution of everything I presented. And after completing that short film, he said, “I’ve got some more work for you. You wanna give it a shot?”
There were so many little Family Force 5 projects that needed music, and they were all fun, like our music video “Zombie”. I got to score the intro to that, which was like the story before the video to Michael Jackson’s Bad, or Thriller. I also got to write the theme song for our online show called “Living the Dream,” and make different cues another web series called “The 30 Second Variety Hour.” Then, somehow, that moved me into plenty of outside projects. Living in Los Angeles, every person I knew was making a film or a short. I would ask them, “Hey can I make music for free for you?” And they happily agreed.
Eventually, I was commissioned to write music for the church, and that was a totally new experience. I didn’t really know how to do a lot of stuff, but I just gave it a shot – I would tell the trumpet player how I envisioned his part sounding, and show the violin player what to play – and I just dove in headfirst. Eventually after a while doing that, I got a call from this wonderful music supervisor named Holly Adams, who worked with Family Force 5 when we were at Warner Bros., and she asked me if I would come work on a feature film.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity, even though it was an extremely quick turnaround time. I think the pitch was, “Hey, there’s a 99% chance we won’t use your submission but you’re more than welcome to try.” And I said, “Sure!” and spent the entire night working on the themes with my friend Riley Friesen, who is one of my favorite musical partners in the history of the universe. We ended up landing the gig, and that opened more opportunities with another supervisor named Mary Ramos. Holly and Mary are brilliant, and they have really played a large role in helping me widen my scope and try my hand at so many other styles that I never could have imagined.
I’ve been a fan of Family Force 5 since I picked up the album “Business Up Front, Party In the Back” when I was in Japan in 2006, but I guess I’ve never looked into your history. Give us some backstory on them and yourself.
The band does have a fun background; three of the original guys are brothers. I’m not related to anyone in the band, but we’ve been together so long, we all feel like family. When the band started, it was called “The Family”. Their Dad was the manager, and their Mom ran sound for us. Side note, when they were younger, the brothers actually were a boy band. They wore headset mics and parachute pants, and were doing all these Bobby Brown-styled choreographed moves taught to them by a choreographer named Bojangles.
There’s been a really big evolution of the band and the sound over the years – from ’90s era pop, to Southern rock, to electro trap. It’s ever-changing dance party music and we’ve been making it for 11 years. We have gotten to tour all over the world, and we’re really so grateful, especially for the longevity with which we’ve been able to do it.
One thing I have to ask you about before we go any further: Sammy Stephens! How did you and he cross paths? I saw that video of him on stage with you guys and it is awesome. Do tell!
That was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and that goes back to Isaac, actually. He was touring with us in 2005 or 2006, and YouTube had just started surfacing. Before it became a phenomenon, we were all into EbaumsWorld. Not sure if you remember that, but we were watching all these funny videos online, and I’m sure, at least I hope, everyone reading this has heard of Sammy Stephens, but if not. Check him out.
He was the owner of Flea Market Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama, and he did a life-changing song-and- dance routine in his commercial. It is hilarious and ridiculous, and it had millions and millions of views. Sammy Stephens was on The Ellen Show, and this show and that show, you name it. He was just an Internet sensation…he was even parodied on The Cleveland Show.
We watched it all night in our hotel room, and the next day when we were driving to the show, we looked at each other and said, “Hey, we’re playing Montgomery. Let’s call him up!” This was in the days when he had to use 411 to get information, there was no Internet on the road, but Isaac found him, called him and it was the funniest thing. We were all listening intently, and over the speakerphone you could just hear him being awesome.
As soon as the phone picked up he started singing, “Living rooms, bedrooms, dinettes, oh yeah!” This guy lives his character from the commercial! So Isaac asked if we could come over and interview him, and Sammy was really excited. So we brought him out on stage that night, in Montgomery, and it’s probably the loudest cheer we’ve ever had as a band! [Laughs]
The web-series we made was called The Really Real Show. We released maybe 30 or 40 episodes of it, but that is probably the most popular one that’s on YouTube. When we played the Vans Warped Tour, kids would come up to us and say, “I don’t even like your band, but I love that thing you did with Sammy Stephens. Can I get a picture!?”
As a musician, you tell a story with your music, but you also do so with a video. Your videos can be pretty crazy at times, but what’s the goal for you guys? Do you just try to be as ludicrous as possible? One of your best is “Dance or Die“, so what was that like? And what’s your favorite one to date?
Oh man, I love music videos. We are about to shoot one for our newest single, “Out of This World” which will be on our as-yet-untitled album. Actually, it has a great title, but we’re not allowed to announce it at this point. Each video is a blast, and with Family Force 5, it’s a very collaborative creative process. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we have a “no blocking” rule, which means no one is allowed to say no to any idea when we get started, and nothing anyone suggests will be shut down. So that means we end up with a spreadsheet filled with ludicrous ideas. Nathan, our keyboard player is really, really good with visuals, so he’ll often oversee the facilitation of project managing the videos.
“Dance or Die” was a unique one. On Warped Tour, which we’ve done five times, Micah Dean Johnson from Tooth and Nail Records came up to us and said, “I have someone I want you to meet, and I think he’d be a great fit for you. He wants to direct the video for Dance or Die.”
So we checked out his stuff. The guy’s name was Steven Schultz, and Steven made a test run of the video superimposing himself to demonstrate the dance moves all five of us would eventually do…man, it was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen! I wish I had that test footage.
He’s the most wonderful person in the world. He’s very eccentric, and at the time, he had this Rollie Fingers mustache, and he always, always wore bike shorts. He had a collection of striking stop-animation videos that showed witty elements to his style. As soon as we watched it, we knew this is the guy.
Now the problem back then was that we’d tour 200 to 300 days a year, and the days that we were home we were usually reserved for recording. So there wasn’t really time to shoot a video. As a result, Steven toured with us for a little while, and he brought a couple green bed sheets so we had “green screens” every single day in whatever venue we found ourselves.
We would wake up, get started, do our thing, and after lunch, we’d go practice dance moves. Then we would get set up, grab some shots, and then we would play our show. After the set, we would take a small break, put on our video costumes and then shoot the video all night, or until we got kicked out of the venue. We did that for a couple weeks, and had an absolute blast. It really is fun getting to do what we do. To me, that video is particularly special because it’s got everything from Ewoks to Tron to Voltron. It’s amazing that Steven got all that in there.
So you make very structured music for an album, or digital library, or a church, but when coming up with Brique A Braq and your album “Cirque Noir”, it seems like stream of consciousness. When something is as seemingly free-flowing as this album is – from delicate piano to grandiose choir – how did you decide where you wanted to take it?
Click this image to stream tracks from the album on Spotify.
A lot of times, when I’m in the studio with a writer, or a producer, I hear the same conversation repeated over and over, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if we could make something we really wanted to make?” So my response was, “Why can’t we? Everybody’s got these rules and agendas when they’re writing for another artist or another project, but I just wanted to carve out some time to make music I wanted to make.” Next week, I’m headed to a studio in Nebraska to spend a week with Philip Zach, one of my closest friends, and we are going to try to do the exact same thing: just make a record that rules…without any rules.
So Cirque Noir is a project that is somewhat self-indulgent, and something that I just think is cool. More importantly, it’s something I love. So when it’s something that is so inherently “you”, you can just let loose, and express yourself. Cirque Noir, as you said, is just a stream of consciousness. Ironically, Brique a Braq is the least commercial music I’ve ever made, but a lot of filmmakers have been using these songs in documentaries, commercials, and corporate presentations, which is a massive honor to me.
I like to get up early on tour, and everybody makes fun of me. They call me the anti- musician. I was asking the security guards to let me in the venue, and they would say something like, “Dude. Go back to bed. You’re a musician…you’re supposed to sleep till noon.” [Laughs] And so I decided to just spend my mornings making this really ambient, nonconforming music, and it came from some random dressing room, or whatever space I could find based on the venue.
I really love French culture, and I started watching these French movies, but I would turn off the audio and pretend that I was scoring those scenes. I just wrote what came to me, and Cirque Noir is what resulted.
After having done a number of music projects under the sun, at what point do you get to to where you know enough about a keyboard, a bass, and electric guitar to start teaching music? Also, how do you fit that in with everything you have on your plate?
I taught a lot of lessons when I was in college. So when Family Force 5 started touring, I actually had to stop, and that was difficult, because I had some students that were really, really making good progress, and the parents started calling me saying, “hey, I really want you to keep teaching.” But, at the time, I didn’t even live in Georgia anymore. So I didn’t really know how that was going to work. But I thought about it a lot, and eventually decided to try teaching Skype lessons.
At first it was really hard, but now it’s just second nature. I have a ton of students, kids and adults, and it’s been such a blessing to watch them grow. One student in particular lives in Iowa, and he was in the front row at one of our concerts just rocking out. I leaned over to him at the end of the set, and asked, “Do you remember how to play ‘Chainsaw?’” And he said, “Yeah!!”. So I pulled him up on stage and handed him my guitar. He just nailed it! He did such a good job, and the whole crowd was eating it up. His parents were ecstatic, but I have to admit that I think I was the most excited person in the building. They said that was a dream come true for him, and I consider it to be one of the greatest highlights in my musical journey. When I teach somebody, and then get to show him or her all the gear backstage at one of our concerts, it brings everything full circle.
There was one girl who even played a couple songs with us during our acoustic set, and it’s stuff like that that I remember most fondly. These students become part my world, and make me remember what’s really important.
Being able to sort of give back and help somebody learn a craft and apply it is important, but what’s better is having that connection with him or her during these special moments. It is incredibly gratifying.
Mostly, I teach when we’re home, but one time I was doing a round of lessons from a hotel during an off-day. I had hours of lessons lined up, but the WiFi in the hotel went out. So I freaked out, and didn’t know what to do. But I grabbed my guitar, and backpack and ran over to an IHOP. I threw my stuff down at the table and I was there teaching from a booth for about five hours. Every time a waiter would come by, I would say “Hey, I’m not really hungry, but I want to support the restaurant so you won’t kick me out. Can I buy some pancakes?” They were like, “Sure!”
So if we haven’t got a deep enough look at your style and interests, what are some movies you watched, quality notwithstanding, repeatedly as a kid and still do to this day?
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is probably in the top three of my most watched in my entire life. I even think Bogus Journey was a good movie; it’s rare that you get a sequel that outdoes the first, and Steve Vai’s awesome guitar work probably had a lot to do with that. Now I don’t want to pigeon-hole myself like a rocker bonehead by saying the next two films, but This Is Spinal Tap, and Wayne’s World probably take the number 2 and 3 spots. But I also love a lot of Wes Anderson films – from Bottle Rocket to Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’m such a sucker for that one. I also am a big fan of Amelie…I guess my film choices are as scattered as my music interests!
Thanks to Derek for bringing us into his weird, wild, and colorful musical world! Head to his official website (www.derekmount.com) where you can stream tracks from Cirque Noir or check them out on Spotify.
For all you Family Force 5 fans, their new album, that includes the single, “Out of This World” (which has been featured on Monday Night Football throughout the NFL season), comes out in March or April of this year. To all of you in Texas, FF5 will be in Dallas on March 26. Get your tickets now. You know we’ll be there!