Eli Brueggemann has been the musical director at NBC’s popular late night show, Saturday Night Live, since 2011. He’s been there through some of the biggest developments and changes for the show, both comedically and musically, and he’s been nominated eight times for Emmys, having won for co-writing an original song in 2018.
In March, when the COVID pandemic hit New York, the entire cast and crew of Saturday Night Live had to shift gears, and so was born, SNL At Home, which had everyone, including hosts and musicians, all trying to put together a show without being at their normal base of Studio 8H at 30 Rockfeller Plaza in New York City. This added a whole new level of complexity for Brueggeman, and his weekly musical collaborators, Leon Pendarvis and Lenny Pickett, all of whom have been nominated for their musical direction on one of those shows. (Two years ago, the trio even Musical-Directed the Emmy awards show itself!)
Below the Line spoke with Brueggeman over the phone last week for the following interview:
Below the Line: I’m sure we could cover your entire career, but let’s really focus on SNL. You started there in 2011, so what was involved with coming on board? Did you know someone there that recommended you?
Eli Brueggemann: Yeah, it was very random. I had done a gig and a session with Jared Scharff, the guitar player, and she recommended me for the piano chair that was vacant. And I had some frequent flyer miles and so I flew out and I met Lenny Pickett and we connected immediately. And then I got a call from him a couple months later that I did not get the gig. We had a really long conversation and I was like, “This is a really weird way of letting me down.” He didn’t let me know at the time but the current music director at the time was thinking about leaving and so they were looking to possibly replace her but it wasn’t yet confirmed yet so that’s why he kept me in the loop. And as my predecessor was moving out they mainlined me for the gig.
BTL: Who did that role before you? I know the late Hal Willner did it for a while but he left before that, right?
Brueggemann: Yeah. Katreese Barnes, a wonderful musician who recently actually passed away from complications of cancer. I never actually met her but her reputation in the New York music scene was deep and her musicianship spoke for itself.
BTL: Do you ever sit in and play with the band?
Brueggemann: I’ve sat in with the band a number of times filling in like if one of the keyboard players gets sick or something like that, but it’s not often. My job is so all-consuming off the band stand. Before, they would have longtime pianist Cheryl Hardick doing double duty on the bandstand and also writing the arrangements and stuff. Since a lot of the music has gone into the compute, there now needs to be a full-time musical producer that doesn’t have his hands tied when the band is performing in front of an audience. So they created this extra music chair when Katreese was here and we’ve continued doing it since. It gives the writers a lot more flexibility to change things at the last minute, because they always have a representative from the music department that’s available even right up until show time and at meetings and stuff between dress and air.
BTL: I know you were nominated for Emmys for a number of songs you co-wrote and won one as well…
Brueggemann: I co-wrote “Come Back Barack,” that won in 2018.
BTL: This is only the second time you’ve been nominated as musical director with Lenny and Leon, so has that been due to changing roles?
Brueggemann: I think what we do between Lenny, Leon [Pendarvis], and myself, it’s really unlike any other television show. We got a taste of what our fellow nominees go through in 2018 when we music-directed the Emmy awards. A lot of times the music direction nominees are from award shows or the Super Bowl or something like that, but what we do at SNL is really a different animal. It’s such a tight ship and everything is created, start to finish, from Tuesday to Saturday, so it’s a total honor being nominated alongside all of these amazing musical directors. I’ve always felt that what we do is not easily compared to what an Adam Blackstone does for the Super Bowl; it’s a completely different gig.
BTL: I saw James Franco’s documentary about SNL that was probably made before you started there. It’s really amazing to see how much of the show starts with nothing on Monday and then everything is written and recorded and developed for the Saturday show. Are you there from the very beginning of the process?
Brueggemann: I’m kind of the shortstop. I’m the one who’s there when the ideas are being birthed on Tuesday night. I create stuff throughout the night on Tuesday for a table read on Wednesday, then they pick the stuff that they want to do on Wednesday night and then we go into more full production on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. We have a division of labor in our department. I mainly put together the music for sketches, producing the music for the music videos, assisting the writer with whatever they need, musically. Lenny is the head of the department and deals with personnel stuff, and he writes most of the charts for the band, although everybody in the band contributes to that music, and then Leon is the conductor of the band. He’s the organ player and deals with getting the band in and out of commercials and stuff, logistically.
BTL: You’re also obviously involved with the music video sketches, but a host like John Mulaney has done a few musical sketches, so did he just present you the lyrics and you went from there?
Brueggemann: Those are always based on preexisting songs, based on Broadway songs or pop songs, and they’re thrown into these really weird situations. He and Colin Jost wrote those. I think you’re talking about “Diner Lobster” and “The Bodega”…
BTL: Right, and the one set at LaGuardia, the trilogy…
Brueggemann: Those, they’re super, super funny. I love working on those, and Colin is an amazingly brilliant writer, and he’s so clear, it’s always just been total fun working on those. Really, anytime with him, but those sketches especially, because I love all those songs that we do, and it’s fun to recreate them. Mulaney is a fantastic talent, too; he’s so funny and he connects with the audience really well.
BTL: In general do the writers give you lyrics to work from, since you have to record the track?
Brueggemann: So music can either be done in a couple of different ways. It could be a live sketch, and I can make the music in the computer that is then played back on the set for them to sing to, or I’ll write a chart for the band to play live alongside the live act. We do that kind of thing when there’s a lot of ins and outs and that you need a human being connecting the music to the performance like in a Broadway show, but a lot of the music is in the box now. It’s done in the computer for music videos and prerecorded music, and so I would say 70% of what I do is in the box now, meaning in the computer.
BTL: So you just have a stereo output that feeds the mixing board or is there stuff that’s split out so they can mix elements of it live?
Brueggemann: No, it’s pretty simple. I just provide a stereo mix to our music editor who launches the track live and that’s played back through monitors on the set and then it gives me the ability to go out there and queue them. So I can still conduct the cast but I don’t have to worry about the playback of my track. And then if it’s the live band playing along with a sketch then I’ll be on a microphone to the band counting them through transitions and gluing it all together with my hands pointing to cast. Because no one can see each other lots of time.
BTL: That’s interesting. I never even thought about that, really, that the band’s stage is kind of off to one side.
Brueggemann: Exactly. There’s oftentimes no visual. The band all has monitors of the cast, so that’s very helpful. For instance, when someone on the set is miming playing a musical instrument someone on our band stage can see what they’re doing on the monitor and make it sound like they’re playing the instrument.
BTL: I know what’s involved with recording computer stuff and I imagine writing charts takes time as well, so the fact you’re doing all of that in a week, I imagine you don’t get much sleep between Tuesday and Saturday during a show week.
Brueggemann: Especially when I first started, because I wasn’t as efficient as I am now. After doing this gig for 10 years, I can see the storm clouds coming before they materialize, and in a lot of ways, the job has gotten easier in that sense. The challenging part really is making sure that the cast and the talent is comfortable with what they’re doing, and that requires a lot of flexibility on my part and the writer’s part. A lot of very clear, simple communication under time duress because people don’t have time to sit there and rehearse with me for an hour. So I have to be able to get inside of Kate McKinnon’s head and know what she needs to get the job done. I need to know what Melissa Villaseñor needs to get the job done, and Kenan Thompson, et cetera, so it requires getting inside everybody’s head and giving them what they need.
BTL: You don’t have to name any names, but have there been any hosts who wants to do a musical thing and then you get them into the studio, and it’s just not working, so you had to cancel before Saturday night?
Brueggemann: SNL is famous for cutting stuff at the last minute and oftentimes something can be the most brilliant musical thing in the world, and there’s just not enough time to get it in, so it gets cut. Sometimes, the host doesn’t look comfortable doing what they’re doing but they’re still game to try it live and Lorne decides whether to go for it or not. I’m not going to name any names but, yes, there have been some hosts that we’ve had to simplify things at the last minute. We usually don’t cut or change musical stuff too much for the host at the last minute but we will cut stuff down. Always after the show, a host that might be a little challenged is very thankful that we make those little changes, because the show is all about the confidence of the performer and communicating the joke. If the performer is not totally secure in what’s being communicated then the joke suffers.
BTL: When a musical act appears on the show, do they generally have their own thing going or does the band sometimes play along? How does that work?
Brueggemann: These days, the guest bands usually bring in their own personnel, and we will contract out musicians like horn players or strings occasionally to fill it out, or we’ll do choir sometimes. Those are always done in collaboration with the management of the guest band. I think Lenny sat in with Taylor Swift last time she played, and he played an amazing tenor saxophone solo with her, so it’s always a joy for me to see our guys play with the guest bands.
BTL: I’m going to shift to the three “SNL at Home” episodes. I’ve spoken to quite a few people who have been involved with shifting shows to tht format, including the Trevor Noah show. What was your shift like to doing the SNL at home? How quickly were you able to figure out how to make those happen?
Brueggemann: Well, producing the music was no problem. The challenge was in figuring out how to get the cast recorded properly, so production shipped out nice microphones to the cast where they could record into their phones and then that would, in turn, go to a Dropbox. Now the biggest challenge for me was in music videos because a lot of times when we record, you want to get several takes. If I’m manning the computer, and someone’s in my studio laying down vocal tracks, everything is being recorded into my computer, and everything is synced up so I can very easily edit takes together. This was just a total nightmare, because I had to line all of the vocals up. For example, for the music video “Let Kids Drink,” we had 12 different people singing and nothing was synced to my track. I just got all this raw audio of cast members. One person had a wood paneled room, another person’s in a concrete room, so I had to fix a lot of audio. I had to place it in, and the mix was a lot more time-consuming, but as we went on, it got better and better and easier and easier to figure out our new workflow to the point where I feel like we could continue doing that and keep getting better at it.
BTL: Do you have your own studio where you can do all the recording?
Brueggemann: No, it’s just a laptop computer.
BTL: And you can basically figure out the scheduling to get everyone to record when you need them?
Brueggemann: I can make it happen. If they give me an audio file, I can put it in the right place and the tools right now for mixing are pretty great.
BTL: That’s pretty amazing, especially with the SNL At Home, for instance, that intro with the band all in separate places.
Brueggemann: Yeah, they all recorded it. The drummer always has a click track, so it was pretty easy to do that, and all of the guys in the band have microphones and they’re all professionals when it comes to doing that kind of stuff so that was actually no problem doing that. I know they had to edit it together and make it look fun, which is another element of that, which I think they did. Really, the MVPs of these at home shows were the editors and the post people, because there was a lot of data to organize. The music department, basically me at the time, we were basically in close communication with those people who were running the technical aspect of the show, so they’re the ones who deserve an honorary Emmy.
(Note: We spoke a little more with Brueggemann about SNL’s return to 30 Rock and Studio 8H, although nothing has been set in stone, so we’ve kept that part of the discussion off the record.)
Brueggemann has received his eighth Emmy nomination, along with Lenny Pickett and Leon Pendarvis, for their musical direction of the Saturday Night Live at Home episode with Tom Hanks and Chris Martin.
Below, you can watch one of the musical videos (not from that episode) referenced by Brueggemann in the interview: