Composer Karel Havlíček on Hollywood trailers, freedom of flying solo for LP ‘Spoken’

Karel Havlíček

Czech composer and multi-instrumentalist Karel Havlíček has long divided his time between homes and studios in Prague and Los Angeles, which he shares with his twin brother, Maxim, a fellow musician and visual artist. In recent years, he has focused mainly on writing music for television series, such as HBO Europe’s ‘Mamon’ and ‘Therapy’, and trailers for Hollywood films – including the next ‘Batman’ movie and sci-fi thriller ‘Reminiscence’ starring Hugh Jackman. But he felt most free working on his new solo album, ‘Spoken’.

I began by asking Karel Havlíček how he got his start in music and eventually came to work in Hollywood.

“I was studying piano while at an electro-technical school and bought my first computer, an Atari 1040 with a MIDI (sequencer) built in, and started doing my own music. A couple years after the Velvet Revolution, my brother moved to the United States. It was a very big step also for me because we’re twins and very connected.

“I started visiting him every year, and then more and more often. It was my first step to get the know the culture in the States, the people, how they think. It was a completely different world, and a big adventure. My brother plays guitar, and we formed a band there playing covers, David Bowie – classical rock.

“I also started doing more professional music here in Prague, doing movies, TV shows, jingles and music for theatres. With that experience, I started working in the States, like a second market – step by step.

Karel Havlíček | Photo: Lucie Vysloužilová

“It was a slow start – because I also need money. So, I got a job as a sound engineer in TV and started doing jingles, and then documentaries and things like that. I have many friends in TV, started doing music them, slowly moved into commercials and got into big movies. It was a period of about 10 to 15 years. Step by step, a very slow process.”

Is there a particular moment that you would consider to have been your big breakthrough?

“I remember a really big international commercial for Telefonica 02. They were looking for composers, and I was part of the team that won the pitch. It was a big break in my career because it was a huge job, international.

“The Czech Republic is pretty small, so everybody in the ad business saw it. It was like a big boom – people started calling me, and I started to do a lot of commercials, and also got more TV show jobs and movies. It was that commercial that started everything.”

You were interviewed by Czech Radio recently, and the headline noted you worked with Leo DiCaprio. What can you tell us about that experience?

“It was for a commercial – I was well known for doing music for ads. I think the Leo DiCaprio one was 10 years ago. A big group of maybe 20 people showed up in the studio. His personal assistant said, ‘Don’t ask him this question’, ‘Don’t take pictures’, ‘Are you sure everything is backed up and saved in two, three ways?’, ‘Everything must be ready!’

Karel Havlíček | Photo: Vojtěch Mervart

“And I was really stressed. But he was very humble, very cool, very talented guy, and everything went smoothly. The first take was the best take. It was awesome! He’s one of my favourite actors.”

I read that you were involved in the Bleeding Fingers project of Hans Zimmer (the German film score composer and record producer who has done music for some 150 films)...

“Hans Zimmer is I think the biggest music factory – the super studio in Santa Monica is so huge. It’s an international house of super talented people. Bleeding Fingers is small group working for him and others composers. I first did a remix for them on a movie maybe 12 years ago. They called me to take part in a competition to create my version of some music. They said it was cool and took it.”

Most recently, you worked on a trailer for a ‘Batman’ movie..,

“Yeah. I’m not sure if it’s out now – they postponed the premiere of the movie. There are maybe five trailers for the new ‘Batman’ movie, and I created one of them. My friend in LA is a drummer – my favourite drummer, we play together in the studio and also live – and he works as a video editor for one of the companies creating trailers. He asked if I wanted to try my version.

“So, I did a lot of research, studied the ‘Batman’ music. It’s like a trademark for Marvel and Americans, and I didn’t want to destroy the value of this iconic music! I created something and after many rounds of revisions, maybe ten, they took it.

“It’s super dark. – if you remember the movie Joker, they went a dark direction, and the next ‘Batman’ movie will keep the same tone. There’s a lot of vibrant bass, but also some classical instruments.

Live SESSION - Karel Havlicek - Above Ground

Speaking of classical music, you have a solo LP out now...

“It’s called ‘Spoken’, and I released it in L.A. last summer. It’s like my diary. I created the whole album over three years. I travel around the world going to different studios, but when I have free time, I like to observe the world around me.

“In downtown L.A., I saw eagles flying around the skyscrapers as if they were massive peaks. I was very inspired and decided to write everything down – all such moments.

“I created a little portable set-up – a laptop, keyboards, and hard drives, sound cards, in a car. So, a quick, super easy set-up. I started putting those moments to songs. After three years, I realised I had 16 full songs and decided to release an album.

“It’s like memories for myself – and a lot of freedom, because I do so many jobs for someone else, like following a story in a movie. I wanted total freedom to express myself in the purest way.”

Is there a track you’d like to play along with this interview? And could you tell us a bit about it?

Karel Havlíček | Photo: Lucie Vysloužilová

“You know, my favourite track right now is number three, called ‘Above the Ground’. It’s a very simple song. But the power of the song is in the harmonies. I love it. It’s actually the one about the eagles circling skyscrapers of downtown L.A., about observing the city.

“It’s about beauty, about moments. There are many dynamics; moments that are very loud, then suddenly quiet. Those dynamic changes help me to feel it more, to be closer to the moment that inspired the song.”

You mentioned how close you are to your twin brother, Maxim, and that his art inspired your music in some instances…

“We do some sessions in Maxim’s studio in L.A. I will play some live music while he is painting. It’s a cool and magical moment, the connection between us. It’s nonverbal communication – we’re quiet and doing our own stuff but still feel the connection. There’s a special energy in the room. It’s perfect.

“We do a lot of stuff together, like audio-visual exhibitions. We’re preparing one for next year under the same name as my album, ‘Spoken’. And I’m going to shoot a big music video for the ‘Above the Ground’ song. It will be like from space – astronauts in space.

Maxim Havlíček | Photo: Jiří Němec,  Radio Prague International

“I’m waiting for the space suits. I ordered them in New York. They’re creating super cool, custom-made space suits. It will be a connection between space, Maxim and me. We’re creating something big, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Lastly, is there any upcoming project you would like to mention?

“I’m working on a comic book with pictures and music. When you go through the pages, there will be a kind of artificial intelligence synchronising the music with the book. It’s pretty high-tech. It’ll be cool.

“I’m working on it with Nina Bergman, an actress who was in the movie ‘Doom: Annihilation’, based on the game, and ‘Call of Duty’, which is also a game. She’s also a singer, and we hope to play it live at a comics festival next year in the US. It’s a pretty interesting concept, new for me.”