Tina Guo is probably the best-known cellist in the world of film music. She’s been a key part in many soundtracks (Wonder Woman, Sherlock Holmes, Pirates of the Caribbean, Pacific Rim, Journey, The Lion King-2019, etc..) a core musician of the ‘Hans Zimmer Live’ tours, and she is actually touring across Europe with the ‘World of Hans Zimmer’ show.
Gorka Oteiza had the chance to interview her recently, and they talked about her classical training, the first steps in her career, how she entered the world of film music, her touring experience with the ‘Hans Zimmer Live / World of Hans Zimmer’ shows, and the concerts she gave with her own album ‘Game On!’ in 2017 & 2018.
Gorka Oteiza: Tina, thank you very much for taking some time to talk with SoundTrackFest. First, we’d like to know a little bit more about you. How did you decide to go into music and not into engineering or being a lawyer or… any other career?
Tina Guo: I was born in China, in Shanghai, and when I was five I came to the United States. Both of my parents are classical musicians. I didn’t have a choice. I was forced into the family trade. (*laughs*)
So you were led into the family tradition!
Yeah, family tradition, like Russian circus families… Asian music families. (*laughs*)
That’s a nice and funny answer (*laughs*)
Well, my father is a cellist and my mother is a violinist. At first, I started on the piano like all Chinese children. Okay, maybe not all but most… so when I was three I played the piano and then when I moved to America, being around six years old, I tried violin for one year. I was horrible! I was so bad! One year, I played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and it just sounded really bad and they said, “Oh, my god. It’s horrible.” (*laughs*)
So you decided to do something else…
Yeah. My dad said, “Okay, maybe you could try the cello.” Initially, it was too big for me… But, we found a very small cello and that was much easier. So I started cello when I was about seven and a half, almost eight, but, it came to me much more naturally. I progressed much faster, so that actually helped the many, many hours of practicing and training, which I’m grateful for now. When I was growing up, of course, it wasn’t fun.
When you’re a kid you have to do things you don’t want to… looking into your future…
Yes! Now I’m so grateful that I was forced to, because without the constant practicing, you can’t build the muscle memory and if you’re struggling when you perform, like… “Oh God, can I play this? Am I going to be able to play it in tune? Is it too fast?” So, if you start thinking about the technical part, all the music goes away.
That brings to my mind a phrase that Hans Zimmer said in one of his concerts of the ‘Hans Zimmer Live Tour’ I attended… he said something like… “It is incredible, you are practicing and training your whole life, and one day, you don’t have to train anymore. You know everything. And you just go and enjoy it, and make music with your friends.”
Well, you still have to practice (*laughs*). Even if you have that muscle memory. But yes, on stage when you perform, then it is playing, it’s freedom. And after the concert, back to practicing! (*laughs*)
When you started playing the cello and you started developing the skills and saw that you liked it, did you have any idea what your career could be, or where you could get to?
There were two sides of me. I think I’m usually pretty calculated, so I try to tell myself, “I don’t want to think about things that are ridiculous”, so I didn’t think, “Oh I want to be famous.” I didn’t really think that, but on the other side, I always wanted to play rock music and metal music. So I thought “Oh, it would be really cool if I could play in bigger venues.” Not just classical venues, but rock shows and stuff like that, and so it was in the back of my head. But for me, it was more of being trained from such a young age in a very Asian mentality where you have to be the best, you have to keep practicing, you have to win first place… I did every competition you can imagine. Constantly working, working, working… so it wasn’t really necessarily a specific goal. For me, it was just to try to, with each thing that came up, to do the best that I could and to keep practicing and keep growing.
I’ve read that you entered into the rock world playing with metal bands, which looks quite a contradiction considering your classical training. How did that happen? How was that experience?
Well, I started out when I was in college, cause my parents were, again, very conservative and they didn’t allow me to play different kinds of music. So when I was growing up, until I was eighteen, I only played classical music. I listened to classical music. So everything was very, very small. Not bad, but just a small world.
It was a great training ground, but when I got to college and I moved out for the first time… I had access to the internet! When I was in middle school (I think the internet started to boom when I was about thirteen) my parents were again very strict – no internet, no email, so I couldn’t have a lot of exposure. But when I got to college it was like this explosion of freedom… you know?… “Oh my God, I can listen to anything.”
So many new inputs and so many new areas you could explore…
It was very exciting. So that’s when I really started experimenting, and after a couple of years I bought my first electric cello at Guitar Center, a Yamaha electric cello. And at first I played sitting (now I play standing), but it was very awkward because the position is different. The instrument keeps moving, and it sounded very bad. It’s harder to play the electric cello in tune because when you’re sitting, it doesn’t move. The cello’s a little bit more parallel to the ground, so it’s easier when you play the bow, but standing it’s completely perpendicular, so it’s a very strange position, but I thought, “Oh, it would look cooler. It would look better, you can move more.”
Well, I’ve seen you moving on stage like a rock star when you play the cello…
Yes! You can be more expressive. Which again, nothing wrong with it, but I just wanted to do more. It took about one year until I started being able to play in tune (*laughs*) and it’s been a learning process for the last thirty-four years… I started playing electric cello when I was eighteen, nineteen, so it’s been fifteen years that it’s taken, and I keep learning. There’re always new things to learn.
Let’s talk about soundtracks now, because you moved from playing in rock bands to getting into the soundtrack world. How was that transition? Was it something that you wanted to do or it just came in your way?
When I went to college and I was studying classical music, classical cello, I was experimenting with the electric cello, but honestly I didn’t really think about soundtracks. I didn’t even know that there was a whole world. I don’t know what I thought – maybe that the music just magically appeared on movies! (*laughs*) I just didn’t think about it. I didn’t think, “Wow, there’s a whole industry behind that.” So when I was in college at USC, they have an amazing film scoring program, and I started doing some gigs for very little money, like twenty dollars for one hour to record for student composers.
So you were part of the soundtrack of some student films…
Yeah, student films. And for me at the time, I was teaching piano, I was teaching cello, I was doing small gigs here and there, and so when they said, “Do you want to record?” I said, “Okay, sure.” I’d never used click track, I’d never used headphones in a studio, so it was an amazing learning experience. It was fun, it was nice, I’m like, “Oh, this is cool that I can get paid to record.”
So I started by doing student films, and then I met Austin Wintory when I was in college. I’ve played on so many of his projects! So he was in college at the same time, and he was the first composer to hire me for a solo feature on Journey, the PlayStation game.
I know Journey! I love the music in Journey!
I love it too. I’m so excited when I think about it – goosebumps already! (*laughs*)
Indeed! Just thinking of the main theme…
Yes, it is wonderful! So, we worked on a lot of different projects together, but for me, playing on bigger movie projects specifically, not in the orchestra but as a soloist, came through a music video I released called ‘Queen Bee’. It was my first music video. An electric cello heavy metal video. I think that came out in 2009. Then Hans Zimmer, John Debney, Brian Tyler, a few composers saw the video and they actually just contacted me. Hans had his office call my cell phone. John Debney just wrote to me on Facebook like, “Hey, I saw your video!”
Really it was unexpected. I didn’t make music videos to try to be on scores. For me, I wanted to play with Rammstein. I was hoping like, “Oh, maybe a metal band will see my video and invite me on tour!” But that didn’t happen. (*laughs*)
And it was funny because that video started a completely different career, but I loved it, I really enjoyed it. I remember going in for Iron Man II, John Debney‘s score, and he just let me be myself. It was like a guitar solo, like, “Yeah, just play whatever over the changes”, so I got the solo. I got to be free to experiment.
It’s interesting you mention that, because your cello performance is very important and gives a very particular voice to the soundtracks you’re part of, like in Wonder Woman for example. How much freedom do you usually have to improvise or to get your voice in the projects you participate?
It varies. Sometimes I’ll do project where the composer has a very specific idea of what they want down to the micro details. But that’s rare. For the most part, people are like, “You could play this or play something else. It doesn’t matter.” And I do a lot of remote recording sessions.
I’ve been working with a few Polish composers after I met them at the Krakow Film Music Festival, so I played on some projects remotely, from my home studio, everything online. Usually what I do for that is, if they have music that’s pre-written, I’ll do a few takes of what is written, and then I always add extra like, “Or if you want, you can try this interpretation with slightly more, slightly less.”
So you always try to give something extra, something from yourself…
Yes, but in the end, of course, it’s up to them. They edit what they want.
But you deliver your performance, your idea of what that piece should be.
Yes. And again, if you go back to any piece of music… When you have two people playing it, even on the same instrument, it feels, it sounds completely different. So it always depends on the performance for me.
Very interesting! So, let me show you something now… I have 2 CDs here with me that I want to show you, because I want to talk about two of your projects: ‘Autumn Winds’ (2009) & ‘Game On!’ (2017)
Oh! Thank you!
What can you tell us about them?
The first one, ‘Autumn Winds’… Well, this is funny, because you have my first CD (‘Autumn Winds’) and my newest CD (‘Game On!’). Number one and number ten, I think. So Autumn Winds was my very first album. I recorded it a long time ago. It was all classical cello and I did the arrangements in the studio – I didn’t write anything down, so I did the arrangements on this album just as I went along. I took mostly classical pieces and made them a little bit more new-age. I did the arrangements and I did mix it myself.
For ‘Game On!’, I signed with Sony and it took me a while to decide, because I’ve always released all my own music and I’ve had control over everything. But finally, I did sign with them and we released an album of video game music. It was a lot of fun. We recorded at Remote Control and also at my home studio. It was probably my biggest project, and we used the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and a lot of samples. Actually it was mostly samples, believe it or not, because some of the stuff was a little complex, so it was difficult for a live orchestra to play.
I listened to the album and that was my next question! You just anticipated it! (*laughs*)
I think I learned a big lesson there, because I thought, specifically with Zelda and also with Tetris, that the parts were not easy – they were very fast, very high, and when you use samples you’re like, “Oh, that’s easy.” But then you want to do it live, and it’s, “Okay, how do I translate this music to a live concert? To an orchestra?”. It was very difficult. I’m sure they could have played it if they had time to practice, but as you know, when you go into the studio, it’s recording from the first take. No time to lose. But it did work out in the end and I also ended up hiring a couple more other musicians; solo musicians, and layering it. They have time to look at the music a little bit and practice it or record it piece-by-piece, so it ended up working out and it’s been a lot of fun.
What do you think about the concerts you gave with the ‘Game On!’ album? You had concerts in the UK and in LA. How was that experience?
It was a lot of fun, it was great.
You have always been part of bigger concerts or tours, but those were your own concerts. A very personal project…
Yes, my own shows. I was really afraid that nobody would come. I said, “Oh, my God. I’m going to be so embarrassed. There will be like thirty people there.” I was really worried, but actually it turned out well. Of course, not as big as a Hans Zimmer or Cirque de Soleil concert, but they were all full. Also in LA I was even more worried, as for some reason, there were a lot of walk-ups -people who bought tickets at the door- because the pre-sale numbers weren’t great. It was only a few hundred sold for the pre-sale and I said, “Oh, my God. It’s going to be empty.”
I remember being so nervous that I didn’t want to look outside before I came out. I remember I walked out from behind and it was full and I said, “Oh, thank God. Okay.” and then I felt okay. It’s all so nerve-wrecking, because when you do your own concerts, you’re responsible for everything.
You’re in charge of everything!
That’s it. You’re in charge of everything! It was wonderful and amazing that people took their time and their hard-earned money to actually come and see me play, so I was very grateful for that.
It was a very fun project, and I like to have different experiences with different music, to never have a regular schedule. So it’s good that there’s always different music to be played (movies, video games, classical…).
Let’s go finishing this interview with a couple of questions about your best-known concert tours: Hans Zimmer Live and the World of Hans Zimmer. You’ve been touring with Hans Zimmer Live for a few years now, all over the world. How was the experience? It has to be fantastic but exhausting at the same time…
Some people said, “It’s very tiring” but believe it or not, for me, it was actually… not easy… but it was actually very relaxing. When I’m at home, whenever I’m in LA, that’s when I’m exhausted… cause I’m practicing, I’m doing usually maybe two sessions, sometimes even three, per day. I’m doing a lot of different remote sessions, I’m running my business, just constantly with emails and doing all my office stuff, and self-manage all my merchandise…
You have that Asian spirit inside you… always working hard…
Yeah, a workaholic! (*laughs*)… But on tour it’s so easy…
Well, you have the same repertoire to play…
Indeed. The same music every day, but also you’re in a hotel so I don’t have to cook, I don’t have to clean, I don’t have to do laundry. People were like, “Oh, I’m so tired.” And I’m like, “What? We only play one show.” (*laughs*)
(*laughs*) It’s “just” one concert!
For me, the concert is playing, it’s fun. So I’m happy that’s all we have to do. Well, that and the soundcheck. Ok, it’s a lot of time on the bus, but I don’t really party, I don’t really drink, so I play the show, take off my makeup, sleep, wake up, go to the hotel, free breakfast buffet, and then I do some work on the computer.
When I’m on tour I feel like it’s very relaxing. For me touring and performing is the easy part. When I’m at home it’s training, working… And I think also because I went on tour before from 2011 to 2013 with Cirque de Soleil and that tour was two years long – a little over two years – so a few months is nothing. That one, the first year I was high energy, but after one and a half years, I started getting, “it’s too much of the same music.” We were traveling every two, three days. So I think after that experience, everything’s easy.
Well, that was a long touring experience! And what can you tell us about your participation in the ‘World of Hans Zimmer’? The show started touring in 2018, and you just got to it a few concerts ago…
The experience is completely amazing. I’ve done so far 5 shows, and everybody here is amazing. The quality of the musicians is definitely next level. Everyone here is really-really friends. Of course, on Hans Zimmer Live we’re also friends, but it’s a different type of energy here, which I’m glad you could be part of and experience. I feel personally very grateful to be part of it. I’ve been very welcomed into the family and that feels great! I look forward to all the upcoming shows! And technically speaking, in Hans Zimmer Live I play the electrical cello and here in the World of Hans Zimmer I play classical cello, so it’s a completely different instrument and sound. I really enjoy doing it, as in recent years I haven’t been playing classical cello as much as the electrical one, especially live. So I feel I’m giving a different part of myself on stage, to express and connect to others musically.
Thank you very much Tina for your time, and we hope you have great success with ‘The World of Hans Zimmer’ this 2019 and next 2020 (read more), and also with upcoming Hans Zimmer Live 2021 (read more).
Thanks to you for being here with us on-tour!
Interview by Gorka Oteiza
Photos by Rafa Melgar