He Shoots He Scores – Orin Issacs & Battle of the Blades

Cover October 21, 2010

By Bill Delingat

BATTLE OF THE BLADES is the brainchild of Kevin Albrecht with development by Sandra Bezic. BATTLE OF THE BLADES executive producers are John Brunton, Barbara Bowlby and Kevin Albrecht. It is produced by Insight Productions in association with CBC Television.

BATTLE OF THE BLADES is a fierce competition of grace and drama as some of Canada’s elite Olympic and World female figure skaters team up with eight of the NHL’s greatest hockey players in this pair’s figure skating showdown. Over seven weeks and 14 episodes, the pairs take to the ice at the historic Maple Leaf Gardens in rehearsals with coaches and mentors, and ultimately work together to perform a new routine live on the Sunday night telecast. Viewers will vote for their favourite pairs and the bottom two will return the following night (Monday) for a skate-off, with the four judge panel deciding who gets to continue. Each week, the eliminated pair will donate $25,000 to the charity of their choice. At the completion of the seven week series, the winning pair will make a combined donation of $100,000 to their chosen charities. The benefactors include Make-A-Wish Canada, Heart and Stroke Foundation, Alberta Cancer Foundation, MA Foundation, The Foundation Fighting Blindness, Diabetes Hope Foundation, Wounded Warriors, The Spinal Cord Injury Treatment Centre Society, Bloorview Kids Rehab and World Vision Canada.

Produced by Insight Productions in association with CBC Television, the series premiered Sunday, October 4 at 8:00 p.m. EST on CBC Television.

This unusual, but very successful reality show has an incredible team behind the scenes working to make a potential train wreck a weekly success by combining the glitz and glamour of figure skating with the big boys and sometimes bad boys of NHL hockey. This is tied together by the magic of “ice dancing and music.”

Cashbox had the opportunity to speak to the musical director of Battle of the Blades, Orin Isaacs.

Orin Isaacs is no stranger to television and became a popular on screen figure as musical director for “Canadian idol”, but he is also an accomplished musician, teacher, producer and of course, a family man.   Isaacs starting playing a home made bass as a young curious 11 year old and later on got his first real bass and began to learn the basics of the instrument. The curiosity for this odd instrument continued with Isaacs into school where he went through the “trials and tribulations” of learning the french horn in music class, all the time staring at the “big ole doghouse” standing in the corner waiting for someone to pick it up and play it. Well those days were not too far off as after receiving top marks for the french horn, Isaacs was allowed to choose his next instrument; the stand up bass. His neighborhood and friends all thought he had  lost his mind, dragging his new partner around with him on and off the bus. Now years later that young boy with a dream to play the bass is one of Canada’s top producers, writers and musical directors in the country.

Isaacs went on to perform in various groups and eventually at 19 years of age landed a spot in the Salome Bey  band, it was in 1997 when he got the call from producer John Brunton of Insight TV for a spot as MD on the late night variety show Late Night with Mike Bullard. This new partnership with John landed him the same spot in Canada’s first reality show “Canadian Idol where Isaacs became instrumental in bringing a live band to the stage and show. Off shoots include recordings and tours, numerous awards with the songbirds of CI until it was finally shelved in 1999. Having opened his own studio and production company, Isaacs still has time to spread his wealth of knowledge through his websites and blogs to encourage and teach bass on line as well.

Today Isaacs is back at it with the new task of musical director for “BATTLE of the BLADES&rdquo. Cashbox had a chance to speak to Isaacs about his career and the new hit CBC reality show.

CB: Orin, you started out as a young musician self trained and moved on to taking lessons at the National Conservatory of Music and formed your first band 24K all in your early teens. Later you turned professional with the band “Brass Traxz” and eventually at the age of 18 years you became Salome Bey’s bass player. On top of it all you started your own music production company called “Bassmint Productions” where you ended up with a “Juno Award” for “best rap recording” a song by Devon called “Keep it Slammin’” That is an incredible show of will and determination on its own can you tell us a little bit about these early days of your musical journey and what was it that got you started?

Isaacs: Well, the real abbreviated version is I just wanted to stay out of trouble, so when my friends decided it’s better to be in a band than hangout and cause trouble I signed on as the bass player that was age 12. I practiced night & day I wouldn’t put the bass down, this continued throughout middle and high school. By the time I was in grade 13 my after school job was touring with Salome Bey while my friends were working at McDonald’s.

After high school I knew I wanted to do music full time so I played in as many bands as possible and got a $10,000 loan from the musician’s credit union to start my production company Bassmint Productions (Bass for the instrument, mint for the money) and it was in my mom’s basement. I produced everything I could over the next year, eventually I hooked up with Devon and did his first record, from that I got a publishing deal with EMI and hooked up with Insight Productions that was in 1992, I’ve been working for them ever since.

CB: With a rap hit and award under your belt you started “North 49th St. Sound” and it seemed it was around this time you developed a client base, got married and started to produce music for several television shows and more records and awards. How hard was it to maintain this fast pace and how did it effect you as a musician now that you were known more as “the producer”

Isaacs: It damn near ruined my marriage! I was so focused and driven that I’d neglect the people that meant the most to me. It all worked out in the end. At that time I didn’t care if people wanted to hire me as a bass player or producer as long as they hired me. Funny, at that time I was in two separate circles.

My TV clientele didn’t even know I played bass. I remember one day John Brunton and the Insight crew had a night out at a club called The Wellington which I happened to be playing at. At first I was a little embarrassed cause I thought maybe they’d look down at that kind of thing since they knew me only as a music producer. Instead they were having the time of their lives. I really put on a show that night, I played my ass off. I think that in the back of John’s mind it helped him realize I was more than just a music producer; I was an entertainer that I could really play. Sure enough he called me within a year to do Bullard.

CB: Mike Bullard was a unique Canadian approach to late night TV talk shows, how did you end up as the “Orin Isaacs Open Mike band” in 1997?

Isaacs: John called me into his office to meet a comedian named Mike Bullard. They were looking for a bandleader. The first thing out of Mike’s mouth was “He’s not black enough” it took me off guard, but this went on for the whole meeting. After I got used to him we just hit it off. During the meeting he said since I’m black we’ll need a token white guy and that’s how the 3 black guys and a white dude in the band came about. After the meeting John had his assistant call me to apologize, for his antics. I said apologize, it was refreshing. I said if he has that much balls and is that funny on TV we might actually have something. I signed on for 3 months and we lasted 6 and a half years.

CB: What was it like working with the “cherub of laughs” in the early days?

Isaacs:It was and still is the most enjoyable experience of my career. I got paid to lead a band, play my bass, write my own music and have fun 5 days a week. What can be better??? At the time we were just having so much fun, there weren’t any rules, we just made it up as we went along. In the beginning it was hard to get used to him, because he’s so damn fast, so early on I knew my role was to be the straight guy to his antics.

I remember early in our second season we were at a golf tournament and their MC didn’t show up. They asked Mike if he’d MC, he said sure. So he got up there and just read down from the sponsor list. He started with his trademark “Where ya from and what do you do?” After an hour an a half of having the whole place in stitches I called my wife and said. “Start looking for a new house” we’re gonna be fine.

Mike and I really became really good friends, and still are. I think that’s what made it so much fun. He’s a great guy, I just wish he could golf better.

CB: After the end of “Open Mike” what did you do and how did you get started with “Canadian Idol?”

Isaacs:Funny, I was doing Canadian Idol while I was doing Bullard; the first season of Idol nearly killed me. John Brunton produced both shows and at first he asked me to be a judge but I didn’t want to miss any Bullard shows cause of the Idol audition tour. I just wanted to be the music guy, be he was insisting for me to be a judge, this went on for about 2 weeks. It took some convincing but after a while he finally backed down and let me just do the music.

This is where I learned how brilliant John’s management style is. If he trusts you, he’ll let you do your thing. I remember him saying, “Look Orin every major studio in Toronto is looking to get this account so just let me know what studio you want and it’s yours”. I thought about it, but up to that point I was so used to doing it my way I couldn’t see me going anywhere else. So he calls me into his office a week later and says, “Ok where’s it going to be” I look at him, I muster all the courage I got and say “John I’m going to do it out of my basement”.  He pauses for a second with a blank look and says “ok”. I started construction on my basement the next week and I’ve never looked back.

CB: You were the one to bring “live music” to the Idol stage and it was a phenomenal success that must have been a difficult task and exhilarating at its best. Was there any particular moment on Idol that sticks out in your mind and any reflections on the show itself?

Isaacs: Ya, I remember when we in the pre production process of getting the show together and the fly in producer from Freemantle England who’s in charge of quality control for the Idol franchise worldwide has to meet with all the department heads for a one on one meeting, to make sure we know what we’re doing.

She comes in and the first thing she says is, “around the world we’ve had three MD’s have nervous breakdowns, one hospitalized trying to do this show, how do you plan to avoid that?” I knew this was a big job, but I had a very well thought out plan, that was based around the most current technology available. I knew most MD’s on shows like this are kind of old school, so I was coming from a totally different angle. I presented the plan to her. She said “hmmm, sounds interesting, looks like you have it well in hand, good luck” and she leaves. Needless to say when we finally went to air everything worked as planned.

It was a great honour to be the MD and in charge of a music performance/variety show the size and magnitude of Idol. I’d say it was the second most enjoyable experience of my career. It would have been the first but at times the pressure made my hair fall out.  One moment  I remember is when Lionel Richie was on and at that time we were not doing it live I was producing the re-records (out of my basement). He and his musical director Chuckii Booker said they were trying to figure where we got the instrumental for his medley from.  It was the breakdown from All Night Long I think that got them, it’s very intricate. At first they didn’t know I produced it from scratch, they were very impressed.

To tell you the truth, every time we finished a show I felt like a million dollars. I’d drive home and say to myself, “wow I just performed live for 2 million people” that would last the night until the next day when you realize you had to do it all over again. That’s when the reality of the live situation would settle in. You just went from week to week praying that you did every right to prevent a car crash. Luckily we never had a major incident in the 3 years we did it live. We had some close calls, and I’ll be honest when something does happen in the heat of the moment you do piss yourself, no a lot, but a little trickle will come out. LOL Welcome to live TV!

CB: “Idol” is in limbo and here you are back with the Insight Team with the “Battle of the Blades”, now the top reality show on CBC where hockey bullies team up with beautiful figure skaters in what most would call a train wreck waiting to happen but after the first week, not only is it a ratings success with more than 1.95 million viewers on the first episode it is a great concept. What was your original reaction when you were approached to be the MD for this unusual mix of talent and themes?

Isaacs: Funny, John was talking about this for 2 years before it went to air. But he’d never tell me the concept all he’d say is “I’m gonna bring you and Sandra back together” (Sandra Bezic who is a judge and producer on Blades was a producer on Stars on Ice when I was their MD years ago)

When Blades got green light, he still waited half a year before he finally told me the concept. I thought it was brilliant! I just wanted to be a part of it. So I was excited to be the MD of this show cause I thought cool, a totally original Canadian reality show concept and at the end of the day money goes to charity. I want in. So I was happy when they asked me to be the MD. I thought it was going to do well, I just didn’t think it was going to do the numbers it did. I didn’t think Canadians were watching that much TV anymore. The industry was taking a beating with the ad revenue recession collapse and things weren’t looking great in TV land. Blades has kind of restored my faith that maybe we are bouncing back here in Canada.

CB: We are seeing a very mixed concept in music on the show similar to other dance reality shows where the pairs are put through all styles of music, who selects the music they dance to on Ice?

Isaacs: Well the producers choose a weekly theme or musical genre and then the actual competitors choose the music with the help of their choreographers, but at the end of the day it’s the competitors that have the final say. They are the ones competing; we have to stay out of it.

CB: What is your role in the selected canned music?

Isaacs:My role is very basic when it comes to the canned stuff. I just have to edit the music to the length of that’s weeks times. This week the songs are one minute and forty seconds. Sometimes I have to put endings on songs if they fade out. Nothing, crazy. So really I’m not musically directing the show the music directs itself.

When I first signed on, we thought I’d be re-recording all the music to avoid the clearance issues, in the end it was just better for the show if we used the original masters. So I’m more of a ME (musical editor) than MD. The only thing that’s come up where I had to MD is where I had to think of how to incorporate the live organ on the show. This week, I had to recreate a score for a song that got denied for our guest skater world champ Yu Na Kim, you can call that more composing and producing than musical directing. I usually call myself an MD if there is a live band involved.

CB: There are other tunes on air that is not part of the dance competition portion of the show, are those your songs and are they written specifically for the show?

Isaacs: Yes and no, I wrote the theme for the packing of the show, so everything you hear after our opening and closing credits is me. The opening and closing is a song called “There Will Never Be another Tonight” by Bryan Adams, which is good for the sentiment of the show over the opening visuals. The producers asked me to come up with something to help brand it going in and out of commercials and during the show. They wanted a combination of something funky but also something that felt like you were watching a sports program, an event. So I worked on the 5 sec sting first, they loved it as soon as they heard it. That’s what’s basically on air now untouched from the day I wrote it. The body of the theme took a few tries but I eventually got it. The rest of the music that you would hear in the B-roll footage or pre-packaged videos comes from my music library. I just write a bunch of stuff and let them choose what they want to use. There are over 400 music cues in my library so they have a lot to choose from.

CB: There must be a lot of side events and head banging with such a mix of 2 worlds from even the hosts side with Kurt Browning a figure skating Icon and Ron Maclean ,from Hockey Night in Canada  is it as awkward working with these two elements or is it as light hearted as it seems on air?

Isaacs: To tell you the truth I think it’s perfect for me since I do Hockey Night in Canada as well. So I’m pretty familiar with the vibe. In my world the funky and light hearted vibe is Kurt and the serious sports sound is Ron, even though Ron is a pretty funny guy, in a straight man kind of way. Not to mention that guys know hockey, you can’t mess with him.

It’s funny I’m constantly walking the line of the two worlds. That’s why the body of the theme took me 3 tries. I couldn’t find the balance that made everyone happy. My first idea was to funky, too minor key sounding it didn’t have enough sport. My second idea was to sport sounding too major key, too Olympics and wasn’t funky enough. So my third idea I just went with a groove in a minor key, but the actual lead/hook line is in major. It just works. That’s the whole vibe of this show Hockey being the minor groove and the Figure Skating being that major sound.

So musically I guess the two world’s together works and it seems to be working on air with Ron & Kurt as well.

CB: Men of my generation will always remember the organ player at the gardens (Mr. Dungale) playing all the licks and charges on the organ in the sky ( rafters ) in between the action, but now it is all computerized tunes ,you have written some music for Hockey Night in Canada, can you tell us a bit about that?

Isaacs: Well technically we do have an organ player, Mark Lalama. We wanted to incorporate him more during the show, we just don’t have any time, we are wall to wall. Traditionally the organ is there do get the crowd going during breaks in play. So if you check out a show live he does his thing during the commercial breaks.  On air he’ll play over the skaters when they go to Kurt’s kiss and cry position just after they get the judges comments. It’s a combination of him & me during the judging and results. But he’s there.

For Hockey Night I do the weekly packaged segment music so everything from the Hockey Tonight Show to the main broadcast up until the late-night Replay show is what I do. Oh Ya I didn’t do the new theme and coaches corner ( I didn’t want to touch that).

CB: What about the famous theme song for Hockey night in Canada, what will be replacing it if anything?

Isaacs: Hockey Night held a song writing competition when they lost the rights to the original theme. Now they have a new theme. The ratings are good and life goes on. Now only if the Leafs can get outta this slump, life in hockey land would be great!

CB: Any hints on things to come on Battle of the Blades?

Isaacs: Nope sorry, no can do. I have a very strict confidentiality clause in my contract the prevents me from revealing any information about upcoming shows. Especially on such a public forum such as this. PS “I can be bought, if the price is right”

CB: Other than your position as MD for some of Canada’s top television shows you still have your own projects like “Moca Music, Swing Low and Ruff Rhyme”, can you tell us a bit about the concept of the companies, the direction and your artists?

Isaacs:When I got into the biz I thought I was going to only be doing records, I fell into the TV thing. (Thank God) So Moca Music is actually my record label. Unfortunately everybody knows the trouble that recorded music is in right now. Until we come out of this transition period I won’t be putting out any records anytime soon.

Ruff Rhyme is my music publishing company co-published by EMI Music Publishing Canada. They basically keep the sharks at bay when it comes to my music cues for TV.

Swing Low is my production company and studio; I contract all my production stuff through Swing Low. As well it’s my production outlet for Artist Development. When you’ve done as many lives shows as I have, at the level I have, you get to learn a thing or two about putting on a show. So I wanna help up and coming artists be able to see that vision early one in their careers. I’m excited about a young female singer-songwriter named Vaness Alegassi. She has a totally unique sound she mixes Urban with Rock in a very cool way. Also there is an Urban band called Capitol Stacks I’m looking at, they got a very unique thing happening since they are actually a band doing Hip hop and RnB.

CB: Lastly are there any words of wisdom or advice you could give a young musician like you were once on how to get started and what to look out for?

Isaacs:Hmm, that’s a tough one because today’s music world is very different from when I was coming up. The internet has changed the game; I say www stands for the Wild Wild West.

So to get started, I’d say just go out there and do as much as possible and in as many genres as possible. If you’re not able to do every style of music from classical to Hip Hop you’re limiting your chances to succeed.

What to look out for? Who knows, I do know what people are looking for?? It’s very simple. If you’re really good and people really like you, the rest will take care of itself. You’ll be surprised at how many people don’t understand this very simple concept. The real question is what makes a person really good? Everybody has a different answer to that, so I just try and be the best I can be at all times with whatever I’m doing. I don’t think I’m naturally talented; I’m just willing to work harder at what I do then most people. I get along with people, and I like to have fun, at the same time I’m very professional. So that combination has been working for me. So start there and hopefully everything will work out for you.

CB: Thanks Orin and what do you listen to on your IPod on your days off?

Isaacs: Jay-Z the Blueprint 3 is bumping in my truck right now, Little Wayne, 50 Cent, Hip Hop the hard stuff!! When I’m not doing music for TV, I get back to my roots! It helps remind me of how far I’ve come and how blessed I am.