Jason LaRocca recently took the time to talk to us about his journey from the rockstar life to sound engineering for major motion pictures.
Jason LaRocca’s credits include movies such as Bad Boys for Life, Godzilla, Warrior, and many more. But his musical journey started in the punk rock band The Briggs, who he played guitar and sang for for years.
Now, his life involves making many of the movies we watch sound crisp and clear. Sound engineers such as LaRocca ensure that the whole score of a movie is perfect before it hits our ears in those theater seats.
Jason recently had some free time in between his work on Bad Boys and Marvel’s Morbius to talk about the road he took to that industry.
Heres what Jason LaRocca has to say about rocking with The Briggs, and eventually, finding his way to major motion picture sound design.
Ryan Mekkes: I’d like to go back to the start of your public musical journey when you were the guitarist for The Briggs. Can you share a little bit about your beginnings with the band?
Jason LaRocca: Yeah. I played guitar and I sang in the Briggs. We toured for three years. I think it was 2002 when we made our first record. Then shortly after that, we ended up getting signed to a little indie label and they had some other bands that were touring around the world. They put us on with them and one of those bands was Flogging Molly. We were all just kind of wide-eyed, thinking, what is this going to like? We all got in the van and drove to New York to play our first show with them. It was in front of 1,500 people and we were like, “This is insane.”
Before that, we were playing in bars for like five people. We did that for a number of years. But playing in the band was a lot of fun and it definitely matured me in some ways in terms of music and what it all means and how it relates to audiences. It’s a very different world being out there playing shows as opposed to being in a studio making music. You can think something’s great in a studio, but when you get out in front of a crowd, you’ll know right away if something works or doesn’t work.
Ryan Mekkes: Wow. I was curious — for you, what was the experience like playing in front of audiences on a regular basis like that? What was that feeling like for you?
Jason LaRocca: At first, it was hard for me — only because I really enjoyed it. I really liked it. But our band just wasn’t well known at first, and we’d play in front of these really large crowds and they’d all just be staring at us. At first, there was a lot of having to “win crowds over” in different cities. As we started to roll through cities more and more, we started to grow a fan base. Then it was really great because then we had people singing along and we had people jumping up on stage and crowd surfing and the whole thing that comes with the gritty sort of underground punk following.
So then it really started to get fun, but the beginning is tough. When you’re a band starting out and you get some exposure, it’s great. But you then suddenly realize that no one just likes you automatically; you have to win people over. It took some time and some learning. It was great.
Ryan Mekkes: That’s not what I would have expected you to say; that’s a really cool answer.
Jason LaRocca: Looking back, it was all fun at the time. But I came to realize that there were a lot of interesting things along the way that I learned about the reality of what it’s about coming from nothing and trying to make something of yourself on the road. It is a lifestyle. You start from the bottom, and if you’ve got anything worth your weight and goals, you’ll make something of it.
Ryan Mekkes: That’s awesome. So every band has their favorite go-to restaurant or fast-food on the road; what was yours?
Jason LaRocca: Yeah, we had several, depending on how much money we were making. But if we had a really good night and we had some extra cash, we’d go to TGI Fridays.
Ryan Mekkes: Awesome.
Jason LaRocca: We would party down, and that was awesome. Every once in awhile, we’d go to a Cracker Barrel. Because if you’re a band and you’re on tour — some bands don’t know this but if any of them ever read this article, they’ll know this now — if you go to a Cracker Barrel and you show them your badge, a tour laminate that shows that you’re actually a band on tour, they give you a free meal. I don’t know if this is still a thing they do; it was something we were able to finagle sometimes. Maybe it was sort of unwritten law or whatever you’d call it. You rolled up and you showed them the tour laminate, you could get free food.
Then, of course, there’s the Waffle House, which only certain people know about depending on where in the States you live. When it was late at night after a show at 2:00 AM, it was usually the only place you could eat, if you found one. We would definitely go there.
Ryan Mekkes: I never understood the hate toward Waffle House. Maybe I’m just living under a rock, but I’ve been to quite a few of them. I’ve never had a bad experience. Anyway — as far as transitioning from the stage to producing, was producing something you always had a knack for? Were you always able to work the software and be the “tech guy” in the band?
Jason LaRocca: Yeah. For sure. Before we started going on the road, I had saved up a bunch of money one summer and bought some basic recording equipment so that we could record demos and things like that. No one in the band really knew how to use Pro Tools or anything like that. I was like, well, we can’t pay a guy to always be in here and record this stuff for us and tell us what to do and all that. So I just saved up a bunch of money and bought my own recording equipment. That’s what forced me to stay at it because I thought, “Well if I’m going to invest in this and I’m going to do all this, I should just really make a thing of it.”
That’s how I did it. And it just grew from there. Basically, I had a bedroom studio. My bedroom was a live room where we cut a hole between my bedroom and my brother’s bedroom. We shared a wall and we cut a hole through his bedroom and mine where we ran a bunch of mic cables. His bedroom had the recording equipment and pro tools and the console and all that stuff. Then my room had all the instruments in it. And we would just record our own demos. We would put them out as our early releases. Then other bands started hearing them and going, “Oh, record us.”
And it was like an odd little thing because we were just recording stuff out of our bedroom. I didn’t really think much of it, but then it started to become this thing. That was where the technical side for me just kept growing. Because I was like, “Wow, people are now asking me to do this for them — maybe this is something I’ll do when I’m out on the road.” That’s how it grew. And it was like, when I’m not on tour, maybe I’ll just do this for other people. That’s what ended up happening. I just kept buying gear and doing all this different stuff in the studios, and I just developed my craft on the side.
Ryan Mekkes: So it was kind of a natural progression that just happened over the years?
Jason LaRocca: Yeah, it was. A lot of it was pretty natural. And certain things I was doing came from necessity. We had to put out a song or a single or something. We didn’t even have enough time to have somebody mix it or whatever, so I would just do it myself. When you find yourself in a band or, I guess, in the right place at the right time in a scene, people utilize everybody’s abilities. People knew that I did that and the word got around, and I was finding myself doing it a lot. I just got better and better at it. And I actually tried to get a formal job doing that at one point.
That was the main way I segued into film and TV — because I was trying to get a job in the studio. And I wasn’t really getting anybody to even return my emails. But if I did, people were like, “Oh yeah, we don’t really need anyone right now” or whatever. I wasn’t really finding any work. I finally found an opportunity to work for a film composer, and I was like, I don’t know anything about film music; I don’t think I’ll get the job. But I went and met this composer, who now, I work for as an independent producer and engineer.
But at the time, he gave me my first job basically interning for him. His name is Mark Isham. That’s how I segued into film and TV because I started interning for him when I was 18. I didn’t know anything about film and TV music. But he had this beautiful recording studio, and I was like, “Wow, I can learn so much here and utilize this in my endeavor as a singer/songwriter in the band.” I wanted to really have one help the other — one facet of my music help the other. So I basically just didn’t sleep. I was working in the studio during the day, and at night, I was rehearsing with the band — and that’s seven days of the week.
Ryan Mekkes: What a cool story; what a cool set of events.
Jason LaRocca: What happened eventually was that I was so busy doing both that I wasn’t sure what to really do about the problem. Because now I had this band that was getting asked to go on tour with all these big punk bands and stuff, and we were thinking, wow, this is an opportunity that probably won’t present itself again at any later date. Maybe I just need to go see where this takes me. Eventually, I had to leave my job as an in-house assistant and engineer for Mark Isham to pursue it. That was when I really went, okay, I’m out on my own now. I’m ready to make this work, as I have no day job anymore. The only solution then was to just tour more, and more, and more because the only way to make money was to be on the road and make a couple hundred bucks a night playing shows.
Eventually, that grew. And when I wasn’t on the road, I stayed in touch with Mark and he talked to a couple of other composers and guys who needed work. Eventually, I started getting into some of the other camps and stuff like that. But I started out in a studio, interning for Mark Isham in 1998. I’m where I’m at now, really, as a result of just being an intern and making coffee.
I was determined to make it happen, figure it out. I didn’t go to a recording school, so if I had an opportunity to get my foot in a door in a recording studio somewhere, I had to take it because I didn’t think there were going to be many opportunities, and that was the opportunity that presented itself.
Ryan Mekkes: Mark Isham — he’s done some really incredible work: Blade, for example.
Jason LaRocca: Yeah. Well, when I first started working for him, that was the movie he was doing. Blade was the first thing I worked on.
Ryan Mekkes: You’re kidding me.
Jason LaRocca: I wasn’t really doing much, but I was an assistant in the room and I got to see all the stuff that went down and all the crazy meetings and all that stuff. I was like, “Whoa, this world is crazy.”
Ryan Mekkes: Oh my goodness, that is so cool.
Jason LaRocca: This was in the days when you had synthesizers and hardware samplers and stuff, which were all a major pain in the butt to load up and get working and everything. Nowadays you have everything on a laptop. It’s so taken for granted. But back in the day, to get all your sounds to load, it took like three hours.
Ryan Mekkes: Wow. So you were working with Mark Isham for a while, kind of balancing that and the band. Then you decided, “I’m going to go all out; I’m going to tour with the band.” But you stay in contact with Mark. What happens after that? Do you eventually choose to go toward the sound-producing/engineering side again? What was your process like getting back into that?
Jason LaRocca: Yeah. That was basically what happened. We were touring about nine months out of the year, between 2004 and 2009. I was starting to get more calls to do film things that were pretty good opportunities, and I had to turn a few of them down because of tours and things like that. I was pretty happy with that, generally, not feeling like I was missing any opportunities overall in my life. But I was starting to want to stay in Los Angeles more. I was not loving the idea of constantly living on the road. So in about 2008, I began thinking, I want to try and balance this out a little bit more.
I felt a little bit too disconnected from a lot of my life, honestly. I was married and I barely saw my wife. And I thought, I don’t want to be doing this for the next 25 years, just being on the road all the time. I didn’t want to be that guy who was like wheeled out on a wheelchair or something like that — still can go rock and roll! I felt like it ran its course for me. So I started leaning back toward wanting to come into the studio side of production and say yes to a few of these calls that were coming in to do production and mixing for film, TV, and even records.
I eventually left the band because I just felt like I was letting them down or something. I was pretty happy with staying at home at that point.
Ryan Mekkes: Did you have an “Aha” moment? Do you remember a specific point in time when you were like, “Okay, this is the direction I’m going to head in?”
Jason LaRocca: I think the moment that it hit me was when we were playing warped tour 2008. It was a really amazing experience. We had played all 46 shows or whatever — the tour was really long and fabulous. But I felt like I didn’t really know where the music scene of the underground punk world was headed. It’s like it was dividing and it was changing. And it was becoming something that I wasn’t sure I felt like I wanted to keep trying to understand. For some reason, it wasn’t settling for me. I felt like I wanted to be a part of it, but it was not trying to be a part of me. I just felt confused and frustrated by it. We had some great shows; we had some incredible support and stuff like that — a lot of people really loved the band. And everyone in the production of Warped Tour really supported us.
But ultimately, I just felt like I could have a stronger voice somewhere else. So I just started to segue back a little bit more into the studio production, and that’s where I just settled in and really felt like I was building some serious momentum. It got to the point where I needed to get my own studio. So now I have my own studio. I’ve got guys that work for me now and stuff like that. It’s become this really great operation and something really exciting that has more or less taken my attention pretty much fully away from the touring days altogether, really.
Ryan Mekkes: So after Warped Tour wraps, when you initially decided to go back into music engineering/ sound engineering/ producing — at that point, do you go back to working with Mark Isham? Or are you working at your own place? What did that look like for you?
Jason LaRocca: Yeah, I was living in an apartment, so I didn’t even have a studio. I had to engineer or produce wherever people were or were putting us up. So I was very largely at the mercy of budgets and the quality of the production that I was a part of. I did some stuff with Mark; Mark has a really great studio at his house. Anything I did with him, I was pretty much set for. But anything I did with other people, I had to figure it out. I had some friends that had studios, so I would ask them sometimes if I could get in and make a song. A friend of mine who had a commercial studio at one point, he let me in at odd hours to make songs. I was kind of a vagabond for a little bit.
Ryan Mekkes: Okay. So after reentering the sound engineering field, was there a phase in which you were working on/with both bands and film scorers before easing more into feature films?
Jason LaRocca: I was doing kind of a mix. I was doing some punk records; I was doing some jazz records and some various things and then some film things. It was kind of a mix of stuff, but I eventually started to get pretty steadily involved in the film and TV world.
Ryan Mekkes: What role did Mark Isham play in getting you back involved in that realm?
Jason LaRocca: Mark was still a big contact for me. I did a movie called The Crazies with him, and then Warrior. Then work started to pick up with him because he got this show called Once Upon a Time for ABC, which went on to become this seven-season hit. We used a full live orchestra every week. That was where I really cut my teeth pretty good on recording full orchestras — mixing it in film surround every week. To do that every week for seven years was pretty awesome. That was the closest thing I had done to a day job. (laughs)
Ryan Mekkes That’s incredible. So when you say you worked on Warrior, are you talking about the 2011 movie with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton?
Jason LaRocca: Yes.
Ryan Mekkes: Oh my goodness. That is literally one of my favorite movies.
Jason LaRocca: Really?
Ryan Mekkes: Yeah. Warrior and Troy. Those are my two favorite movies of all time, and I had no idea you worked on it.
Jason LaRocca: Oh my gosh, that’s so fun. It’s a really incredible movie. Not many people know about it, but the acting in that film was so incredible. That was one of the early-on films that I got to mix on.
Ryan Mekkes: What was your involvement in that movie?
Jason LaRocca: I mixed on that and I also played some guitar. I played on it and I mixed it. I don’t think I did any recording on that because the orchestra was recorded in Eastern Europe.
Ryan Mekkes: Oh my gosh, that is amazing. You actually played on it too?
Jason LaRocca: I did, yeah.
Ryan Mekkes: Oh my goodness! Man, I’m having a serious geek-out over here. That movie was sick. So my friends made fun of me for how much I watched that movie. When it first came out, I was watching it like — it was absurd how much I was watching that movie. It was like once every two days for the span of two weeks. It’s my most-watched movie by far.
Jason LaRocca: Wow. Amazing. Well, the end of it for me is pretty incredible. Incredible film-making and editing. And the use of The National song and how it plays against the score. Of course, I got the opportunity to mix that, which was great because The National is an incredible band. That was mixed with the score, and it was this big, emotional moment at the end of the film. That was a pretty exciting moment for me because I was like, wow, this is everything I love — it’s rock music, it’s film score music, it’s the dialogue and everything kind of getting out of the way of the music as the music speaks to the emotion of the film. It was a really good moment of filmmaking, for sure.
Ryan Mekkes: Man, that is incredible. I was doing the math here in my head: I’ve watched Bad Boys twice, I saw Aquaman three times — I normally only ever watch movies once. But with Bad Boys, Aquaman, and Warrior, I’ve seen all those movies tons of times, and you worked on all of them. Pretty cool!
Jason LaRocca: That is insane, wow.
Ryan Mekkes: And Aquaman, oh my gosh! Talk about just an incredible all-around movie. That thing was ahead of its time. I think people realized when it came out that it was something special.
Jason LaRocca: Yeah. For sure. Those visual effects had never been done before. It was definitely a pretty great use of seriously modern technology used in a really clear way — in a way that really serves the film.
Ryan Mekkes: Agreed. Okay, let’s get into Bad Boys a bit!