Colin Bell shares his fascinating journey into the world of music and film scoring

Colin Bell’s life is filled with many exciting stories, being an accomplished instrumental music teacher; music arranger; composer for film, TV, and video games; and owner of Colin Bell Music. From being born into a family of musicians and touring from a very young age to stepping into the limelight of the entertainment industry as a film composer, Bell’s professional trajectory is anything but ordinary.

His rich career, spanning almost two decades, has taken him all over the map, through outstanding performances and unique musical projects. Colin has worked with numerous bands and artists, including big names in the film and music industry like Rod Stewart, Janina Gavankar, and Questlove. His success is the sum of his undeniable talent, hard work, and passion, with a hint of good luck. We had the chance to sit down with this talented artist and got to know the man behind the music. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started your career in music.

I was born into a musical family – the majority of my family is immigrants from Scotland, my grandparents’ generation. And with them, they brought a rich tradition of playing Scottish music, bagpipes, drums, and such. So, when my grandparents came over, they kind of started spreading bagpipe bands and Scottish Highland dancing across the country with the few immigrants that came with them. Then my father’s generation had many brothers and a sister and they all either played bagpipes or the drums. It was a family tradition. They had a family band growing up that was world-famous, they traveled to Scotland all the time right out of New Jersey where I’m from.

So, when I was born, the next generation after that, pretty much the question was: are you going to play bagpipes, or drums? My dad was a drummer, I loved drums, since birth I had drumsticks in my hands, playing along with him, and in the family band. I believe I was two weeks old when I was taken to Montreal to my first Scottish music festival, so I was literally born into it. I started playing drums at the age of eight and did the Scottish-style pipe-band drumming all the way through. Then I got to middle school and high school and got into the school band and that kind of music, doing drumline, marching bands, drum corps, and stuff like that.

Didn’t you open for a famous musician playing at concerts? What was that like?

Yes, I did. I opened for Rod Stewart, the world-famous pop star and singer. He’s Scottish, so at all his concerts, when he would tour around in the late ‘80s, the ‘90s, and the early 2000s, he would have a bagpipe band open up for him. He also used to kick soccer balls off the stage, so he really embraced his home culture. Every time his tour came through New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut we would end up playing there, so we played at Madison Square Garden, the old Devils stadium called the Brendan Byrne Arena, PNC Bank Arts Center in New Jersey, and places like that. We opened up for him, playing on the stage, and marching around the stadium and it was great. I got to meet him and his band, and we did that for many years.

Colin Bell

That’s pretty cool. But there’s also another interesting story about how you got into music composition. You were kind of discovered, right? Tell us a little bit more about that story.

Moving on past high school and college, I did the drumline thing, I toured with a drum and bugle corps called The Boston Crusaders, and I got into composing and arranging music for school and college bands, marching bands, percussion ensembles, orchestras, concert bands, and I did that for a very long time. One day, out of the blue, Janina Gavankar contacts a drum and bugle corps that I was writing music for called the Jersey Surf from New Jersey. She wrote an email to the group saying I’m looking to do a music video with a drum and bugle corps. She grew up playing in a drumline herself, so she has a big drumming background and she’s a really gifted musician. She reached out and said, “would you be interested in doing it?” I immediately pounced on it – I was already a fan of Janina’s from a show called The League which I absolutely love.

From the time I answered the email, I got a response from her and the very next day we were on a Zoom call, discussing what she wanted to do. She had a copy of a Martin Garrix and Usher collaboration called Don’t Look Down. It was a song that was going to come out in the summer, and she had permission to do a cover of it, so she wanted to do this really creative reinvention with the drumline, horns, and the drum corps style and I got tapped to do that. I talked to her, she gave me a big brain dump, and I wrote the entire thing in a day pretty much. I sent it to her the next day, just stayed up through the night, made a couple of tweaks that next day and that was pretty much it.

Once we had that down on paper, we had a plan. We had under four weeks to do the entire thing which is just crazy. From the phone call out of nowhere from this actress that I loved on the show to we’re going to do this music video and recording sessions and everything in four weeks, I was like alright, here we go. We did three recording sessions. I made a temp track, I sequenced, and we used that as the base. Then she recorded her vocals in her home studio in LA, and then I ran two recording sessions.

One was at Millersville University in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I had a contact up there and they offered up their recording and instruments to us, which was great. They have amazing instruments, like $25,000 marimbas and all these wonderful microphones. We had all the concert percussion instruments there, so I did an 18-hour recording session straight, me and my other friend, Rich Klimowicz. He and I played the instruments and we did all the recording. For that one, Janina was still in NY so she was Skyping with us in between shoots for Mysteries of Laura from her trailer.

Colin Bell

Then, we did a separate recording session in New Jersey at a place called Portrait Recording Studios. Chris Badami is the owner, he’s an engineer there and a great guy. We did the drumline and the brass recordings there, the horns and the drums. That was another 18-hour nonstop session. We started at seven in the morning and we were well into the next day when we were finished. Janina was there in person for that one, so she and I were in the booth working together. I also played in the drumline, we tracked the drumline, we tracked the brass, I had the score out, we were talking details, and she was hands-on.

Janina is a very bright and intelligent musician, so she really knew her stuff and it was good to talk to her. She was very articulate about what she wanted and her vision, and I was happy to make sure that vision came alive, including sharing my own ideas. So, we had two 18-hour sessions, she banged her thing out. We sent them to my engineer, Joe Costable, and he ended up doing the final mix.

Two weeks later, I met with Jersey Surf’s director, Bob Jacobs, and we got a cast of people together. We went to Camden County Technical Schools in Camden County, New Jersey, to a black box theater. Janina brought her production team from NBC with her, cameras, and the whole crew, and we did the entire video in another 18 to 19-hour session straight. We were choreographing the video as we were going. She had a loose idea of what she wanted. I served as music director and choreographer along with her for the video, we went back and forth and did the entire thing in a day. We wrapped and that was it and the whole thing was done in a month, and it was out. It was pretty crazy, we pulled up an absolutely insane timeline.

There’s a great behind-the-scenes video and it really gives you the scope of how huge it was. This involved a cast of about 50 people in the video itself, including the entire organization, bringing all the equipment – we’re talking 30 drums, marimbas, timpani, 35 brass instruments, -outfits, it was a huge operation that we pulled off, and we pulled it off because of our planning, and because Janina is a really good person. You know, you see a lot of people on TV and they’re one way and you come to find they’re a different way, and she’s authentic. She saw something in me and she went in all the way. She supported me and really put my name out there. Nobody knew who I was and she stuck by me and helped me make connections which led to other things. So, Janina is a really good person that invests in up-and-coming people that are genuine and who she believes in.

But the story doesn’t really stop there, right? It keeps going.

Yes, to her credit, just a couple of months later, I got a call from Janina again and she asked me if I would arrange a piece of music for her to perform with Questlove at Carnegie Hall. I was like “sure, I’m in, let’s go”. Questlove was performing at this charity event called Best Buddies in NY and he asked Janina to come and perform because they are very close friends. He was really in tune with what we were doing, so that’s why she recommended me and he was like, alright, bring him on board.

We went back and forth with what to do for a while. Questlove is a huge curator and connoisseur of music, and a big Prince fan, as are most of us. Janina wanted to play percussion, so I suggested Diamonds and Pearls because that has a nice little mallet part and the glockenspiel, it’s a great tune and everybody knows it. They agreed to that, so I wrote an arrangement for it – Questlove is playing drums and Janina is playing vibraphone and glockenspiel.

It was a little empty, so I wrote some backing tracks that could be triggered from a loop, and sent it to them. I said “good luck, thank you so much. It’s a little empty, we need some base and strings and background sounds, so here are some files. Just have Questlove trigger this on a sample when you start, it will sound good”. And she said ”no, we don’t want to do that, why don’t you just play with us?” And I was like “sure, cool”. The next day I had my gear, I was at 30 Rock in NY, at the front door. I was brought upstairs, got in the studio, hanging out with Questlove and Janina, practicing, playing some synth strings, base, and stuff like that. I rehearsed with them and played with them at Carnegie Hall, and it was amazing.

Before that you were a school teacher, right?

Yes, I taught at all the great levels. My main gig was 4th and 5th-grade instrumental music. That means taking 9- and 10-year-olds and giving them their first violin, flute, clarinet, drums, guitar, piano, trumpet, all that stuff. I taught over 300 kids a year doing that across many schools in a town called Old Bridge.

Colin Bell

Let’s talk about your current project. You wrote the score for the upcoming feature film Bezos, a biopic film about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, which is going to be in theaters soon.

This is another example of meeting people in the right place at the right time. The director of the film Khoa Le owns a place called KVibe Studios in New Jersey and I just so happened to attend a film and TV event he was holding. I just started getting into putting music to pictures and I said let me go to this event as a composer and just meet people. I went there, met a bunch of people, and met Khoa himself. I talked to him for a nice long time. He was really passionate about his company and I was really feeling the energy he was bringing. So, I gave him my card and said if you got anything coming up, let me know. He called me and said “would you be interested in doing this film Bezos?”, and I was like “absolutely”.

We hit it off pretty fast. It was a four-week timeline to get the whole thing done. We went up to his place at KVibe Studios, we did a couple of spotting sessions and off it went. They had the film all caught up already, so I didn’t have to deal with any edit changes or anything like that. It was picture lock which was nice. Khoa and I worked and I just composed the entire score in four weeks. This film has a very clear aesthetic musically and it was fun to write. I really liked the picture and the story; it was well-shot and well-directed and it was a pleasure to be a part of this.

I think that I’m lucky because I have always been passionate about learning and mastering everything I do. A big thing in my life that I always wanted to make sure I did was play music, teach music and write music, and do all that at the highest level possible. I have a real go-after personality and I want to be the best at what I do in everything that I do. As you get older and things come along you start narrowing down that pathway. So now that I’m doing films, I’m really all into the score composer thing, but I’ve never shied away from anything. I gave you a couple of stories of things that I’ve come across and I could have easily been intimidated. But I just jumped with both feet in, fearlessly, and came out, and Bezos was definitely one of those things as well and I’m really excited for the film.