Stephen Trask has it all. This passionate composer/conductor lives in New Haven with his longtime boyfriend, Professor Michael Trask of English Department fame, and has done everything from serve coffee to deliver pizza on his road to success
Co-author of the sensational off-Broadway show, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (later made into a movie), Trask is certainly not one to rest on his laurels. On Oct. 3, Trask will travel to New York for the premier of his new movie, “The Station Agent.” Stylistically unique from the rock musical style of “Hedwig” and accompanying melodies of this summer’s, “Camp,” “The Station Agent”‘s unique tones and distinctive instruments have critics and audiences alike discussing Trask’s musical compositions.
scene recently spoke to Stephen Trask.
scene: I guess to start off, a question about the evolution of your career. How did you start after graduating college?
Trask: Left Wesleyan, went to New York to play in a band. I went to New York to be a rock musician. In addition, I also wanted to do work with bands and film. I lived in Brooklyn for a few years, delivered pizza, made cappuccino. I was a foot massager, too. During long periods of unemployment, I would write songs and practice with my band and try and make it. I had a band call Bimbo Limbo Spam and a band called Cheater. Cheater was started in the early ’90s. I figured I would make it as a musician, and everything else would fall into place.
The New York Times recently quoted you as saying that your “rock star ambitions began to wane as worries about satisfying audience expectations made performing uncomfortable.” Have you found that that has changed as you’ve become a produced/conductor/composer?
Well, it’s different when you are standing in front and audience performing. I don’t worry about audience expectations when they aren’t there. You are writing something, and you know it’s good so you just imagine that they are going to like it. But when they are actually there, in front of you, it is a test as to whether or not they will like it. I kind of like having that removed. You know, turning it in and having a response as opposed to creating it right there in front of them, waiting for the end of the song and their response.
You had said that while you lived in New York as a struggling musician, you worked as a delivery boy and cappuccino man. Did you lose hope?
I just figured that it would all work out. You had to just have the belief that it would work out. There were times that Cheater got hot, and then our bass player went to rehab. That kinda was a problem. Then I started performing at Squeeze Box regularly. I was the founding member of the band and the musical director, too. It was a hot club for a couple of years. That was a good time.
Before “Hedwig” began — before that whole phenomenon — did you ever feel that music wasn’t for you?
No. I knew it was for me. The only time I thought I would change plans was when Michael [Trask] and I moved to New Haven. I still had a couple of things hanging out. My band was still in New York. I was dancing at a dance company in New York, and we were also still trying to get “Hedwig” up. I told him that if by the end of the school year, nothing had happened with the band, and “Hedwig” was still down, I would just give up the whole New York thing and make a living some other way. I would, of course, have continued to make music but would have had it be something as self-expression. I also thought I could get a degree or teach. Actually, we moved here in September, and the following February “Hedwig” went up. I only gave it nine months, but sometime in the middle it all worked out.
Is it difficult living in New Haven and commuting to projects in New York or California?
That’s not so difficult. Actually, I live in L.A. three months out of the year. The commuting to New York is rough because it’s close enough that I don’t need to stay over, but then there are the four hours on the train. A lot of writing or recording I do here because I have a studio in my home, here in New Haven. The director, because he is done editing the film, came here a lot and hung out and stayed at our house. It really depends on the job. If I have a big job in L.A., I’ll just go move there.
That must be hard at times.
It’s hard being apart from Michael. It’s hard being apart from my dog.
Which is worse?
Ha. It’s more difficult being away from Michael. But there is a different king of sadness with the dog. She doesn’t know where the hell I went, and there is no way to explain it to her. With Michael, I can talk to him six times a day. I guess, then, I’ll have to say the dog.
About your relationship with Professor Trask: you changed your last name to his. In a previous interview, you once said it was for career reasons. Is that a decision that you discussed beforehand?
We discussed it, but he didn’t want me to do it, partly because he has a brother named Trask. It just seemed to make sense. I had tried other names, but I like having the same last name. It throws people for a loop.
Did you have any idea that when you guys started dating in college that you would still be together this far in the future?
Um, most college kids think it’s going to last this long. They aren’t necessarily right, so I guess yes. But the coincidence is that we were correct about it as opposed to hundreds of other college couples that thought that they would be together forever.
Back to “Hedwig” for a moment. Can you talk about working so closely with John Cameron Mitchell?
We created it together, thought of it together and wrote it together. It’s challenging to work with another person that closely — Why don’t you ask the same question of somebody else?
I’ll say this. My collaboration with John produced great results, but it was not the easiest collaboration that I have had. It was a lot of head-butting–
Let me ask something else. Something that many people compliment you on is your ability to bring in new ideas and turn things around. Do you ever find it difficult in your collaboration to get people to open up to your new ideas?
Yeah — It’s sort of hard to have an idea in my head and explain it in words. Sometimes, the only way to do it is just to show it. A lot of times with first-time directors — and I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors — they are afraid of what music is going to do to their work. The directors spend a lot of time trying to make the acting real, the set real, a real feel, and then music comes in and gives it an artificial feel. People’s lives aren’t scored. So it’s a hard thing for director to accept. What often happens is that a first-time director wants it to be less and less, then just to hold one note, then just a note. The music becomes more of a distraction than having an impact on the movie. I try and work with a director to get it to work in a way that will make him feel comfortable. When you think about it, there should be some distinguishing sound, like in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” — there is that whistle sound they make with their hands. I try and bring elements like that in. You have to string them along in that process. You watch a movie over and over again and look for things, do research, come up with themes and present the director with your ideas. I encourage a director who is afraid of music not to be afraid to have music make a strong statement. If I can succeed in that, then the next step is to come up with some basic theme with the sounds I need — I always come up with a pallette of instruments. I once did something where I brought in a violin player, a steel drummer, synthesizers, complex sound effects, a Latin percussionist, a jazz player, a vibraphone player and a tr
umpet. Then you work with a sound designer to bring it all in the landscape of your score — You also find that if you time things well, like with movement, when you grab a cup of coffee or someone buries their head in their hands, it comes off stronger on-screen later.
To change subjects back to Hedwig, it was a fantastically successful off-Broadway show. However, the movie was called an artistic success but a commercial failure. Why do you think that was?
Well, really two reasons. First, I don’t think that the production company got it. They didn’t know what it was. They marketed it as a gay movie, not understanding that it wasn’t a gay hit. It has a huge cross section. Also, all the producers all got fired when AOL bought Time Warner. The thing is that film companies will decide before the movie comes out what the best goal for it box-office wise is. They make a model where they say we break even at this amount of money. They pick the one that has the best ratio. If you don’t have a producer in there that’s in there demanding things, then you can’t get people to commit more. They feel short of their modest goals. That has to do with the fact I think the ending stinks. It was badly conceived.
In what sense?
It doesn’t wrap up anything.
When you look at “Hedwig,” what sticks out in your mind as the message you want people to take away?
I keep thinking of quotes from people: “Have a good time all the time.” “In the end the love you take is the love you make.” I guess to me, the way the play ended, there was a resolution of Hedwig’s search for her other half that works really. She gives up the search for her other half. The idea that we are incomplete and that we need to find someone else to be complete is a bullshit idea. I mean, it’s really great as a story. As a way of running your life, it’s kind of retarded. As a life philosophy put into practice, it would be a disaster. I would try to give up that paradigm. Also, to celebrate the idea of yourself and community is what I was encouraging.
So are you excited for the October 3rd release of “The Station Agent”?
I am very excited for October 3rd. The premier is this Tuesday at the Walter Reid Theater in New York.
What type of audience response do you expect?
Well, I can say this. Its plotline seems to make it unlikely to be popular. However, all indications are that audiences are going to go nuts for this movie. Miramax, when they put their mind to it, has the ability to put unusual movies to audiences very successfully. They know how to take movies that shouldn’t be popular and make them be popular by attracting great audiences. They know how to do it. I have the hope that they can make it into a nice-sized hit. If audiences weren’t responding to it, I would say that it was just a nice movie, but audiences are going nuts for it. Miramax can get audiences to come in and see the movie and then explain it to their friends. People could say you have to go see this movie about a midget or a dwarf that lives in a train station and is friends with a hot dog vendor. Then their friends would just say, “Whatever.” But this movie is leaving a larger mark, which is nice to see.
Do you ever feel like music is underappreciated in films?
With my music? Not yet. I think some of my music is the most talked about stuff in those films
I hear and read all the time that people say the music is the best part of those films. With “The Station Agent,” I’ve been at screenings where people have just talked about how much they love the music. In movies, oftentimes reviewers don’t mention the music, but I’ve been mentioned in reviews for both “Camp” and “Hedwig.” Directors have even called me to say that, “Dude, we were just in Spain at the San Bastion Film Festival, and everyone was talking about your music.” I don’t feel underappreciated.
I know you had a Master’s Tea here at Yale. Are you interested in having a role on campus?
Well, they did “Hedwig” here, but I don’t get involved with “Hedwig” anywhere. Right now, I would love to meet with more students and see what they are doing. I work like 70 hours a week, and I don’t have much time left, but you know, I’m always available for a cup of coffee. I’d go see “Hedwig.”
Yeah. When they were doing it here, I thought it would be funny to show up for the auditions for the music and play my role. But I didn’t do it.
Definitely would have been intimating if nothing else.
Well, it was before the movie came out, so I didn’t know if anyone would recognize me. I liked doing the Master’s Tea, though, and Michael and I frequently get together with his students.
Who would you say are the most inspirational people to you musically?
John Lennon and Duke Ellington.
They are really good.
Good enough. What’s your favorite restaurant in New Haven?
I like The Spot.
As opposed to The Place?
I haven’t been there since I was eight. I like The Spot. I like Mamoun’s. I like Ivy Noodle and Lorico.