by Steven Sanchez
Filmmaker, editor, musician, producer, these are the many titles that shape Robert J. Thissen’s identity. This Central Valley artist has made a name for himself in Hollywood for his work as a television and associate editor on several TV shows ranging from Hart of Dixie, Life In Pieces, Rizzoli and Isles, and that’s just naming a few. He’s become a go-to from the big studios in Tinseltown, maybe you’ve heard of them, the selection being Warner Bros. Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Disney, along with others. But now he’s shifting gear and his focus to another craft…music.
He’s no stranger to the art form since he’s a Fresno State Graduate with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Mass Communication and was heavily involved in both the television and music departments at the college. He may be in charge of just the post-production process of filmmaking, but when it comes to his music, he’s the one running the entire show. He composed, played all the instruments, and recorded all the music on his album and serves as the lead singer/guitarist of Mission To Eden, his band without an “actual band.” A solo artist with multiple rolls, he’s been developing his own unique style combining rock, acoustic, and symphony elements for the last couple years.
Think if the greatest film composer, John Williams, decided to add loud guitars and drums and soulful vocals into his orchestra, you would get Mission To Eden. The track that best exemplifies his sound is “What I Want.” The song would definitely serve as great background music to a dramatic scene in a movie or television show or trailer. He resembles Trent Reznor in that Robert is the ring master of this multi-faceted musical carnival from as early as the songwriting process and all the way to the music video direction. Yes, I said it, he also directs and edits the music videos to his songs. He’s more than qualified since he was a camera operator back in the day for live concerts for Carlos Santana, Chris Isaak, Wynonna Judd, Huey Lewis, The Beach Boys and about forty other bands. He took the best qualities of both of those things, filming those artists and getting the chance to witness them in person, as a way to incorporate them into his style as a performer and to help facilitate the visual presentation of his musical project.
A man of many talents, it was a thrill getting a chance to interview this local artistic polymath. We talked about his process on what it took to play all the instruments while producing his music; is editing a scene or recording a song the most challenging; and the similarities and differences between the film business and music industry.
KRL: So how would you best describe yourself? A director/editor who plays music or a musician who just so happens to be an editor and director?
Robert: I would say that I am an aspiring Director who loves to edit and jam/sing with some cool cats. Music has always been a part of me, I would say it’s literally in my blood. Although I’ve written several songs throughout the years, it’s difficult to describe myself if I had to choose just one thing that I do. But I would have to admit that they all play equal roles in my life.
KRL: You’re involved in the TV and film world where you see visuals all the time. I see that you recently directed the music video to the track “What I Want.” So, when you’re recording your music, do you already have a visual in your head on how you want the music video to look for each particular song?
Robert: Absolutely! Songwriting is just another great medium for telling an interesting story. I knew I really wanted to feature the musicians in the video, so I’ve included high energy shots of some intense guitar playing, and there’s a lot of extraordinary footage of the string musicians (two violinists and a cellist). Everyone is just rocking out on this track having a great time. There is even some head banging just for kicks; it was definitely a lot of fun to shoot.
One scene I had in my mind when recording was an intense storm scene. I’m actually standing on a tower balcony in the middle of thunder and lightning—as it’s pouring down rain! It was actually very safe to shoot, since we filmed that scene on a warm, Central Valley 80-degree day. The sun was brightly shining! I later added the storm effects when I was editing the video in post-production.
The song “What I Want” will be included later this year on my new LP being released. The Music Video is Now Available online and can be seen here: vimeo.com/405650083.
KRL: Musicians are inspired by the geography of where they’re from or where they live, and they incorporate it into their music. How has the Central Valley inspired your music?
Robert: I’ve seen a lot of great bands over the years in our valley. The Central Valley has a fantastic mix of culture, influences, and a multitude of genres. Although I believe my sound really has its own, unique style, I have been inspired by a combination of things. I think that we all just absorb things in life, and it all becomes a part of you.
For instance, I’ve always loved the rock scene that is for sure. But sometimes, I would go to a club, and a group is playing some cool rhythm with some Latin percussion. Then I would walk around the corner where a blues band is jamming with a string bass in a coffee shop. And of course, there’s the country scene, which is huge in our area—I mean I could go on. How can you really choose what influences you? It’s all great stuff!
KRL: What was your first love; was it music or film and television?
Robert: I started playing music at the age of five in my dad’s music studio in our home. He taught lessons there while also a music teacher at Dairyland Elementary of 40+ years (now retired). I’ve always been involved in music, so I would definitely say that music was first.
I played in several rock bands over the years. I even took classes and performed in many groups as a student, including the Redskin Marching Band in Chowchilla, the Fresno State Bulldog Marching Band (played trumpet and was Drum Major), Bulldog Beat, Jazz Band, etc. I was even a high school music teacher when I first graduated FSU.
I was introduced to television, however, at Fresno State where I first studied music. I started mixing sound for a college TV show and was hooked! I began studying both music and television at the same time. So, music actually lead the way to my future career working on TV shows in Hollywood.
KRL: There are quite a bit of artists out there that are very involved with all facets of production ranging from writing all the songs, producing, and playing all the instruments. Some of the most notable ones are Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan. For various reasons like creative control, nobody can play like they can, or they don’t want people interfering with their vision, to save money, the list goes on. You’re a solo artist but you’re a one-man band, why is that?
Robert: Well, I love to play all the instruments, I can’t help it [laughs]. When I’m in the songwriting process, I also record at the same time. I literally play all the parts (instruments) and record them when composing a piece. It just happens that way. It’s what I love to do.
I do have other musicians that record with me on various occasions. My last two albums include the very talented Julie Chambers, who is a powerhouse vocalist! She has been featured on “Mission To Eden: An Enchanting Christmas Journey” and my debut, self-titled Rock Album “Mission To Eden.” Both albums are released and available on iTunes.
As for the near future, I am planning to audition musicians to join Mission To Eden for a live stage show. It will include a full band with a rockin’ string quartet. That’s going to be insane!
KRL: You told me that you’ve been developing your own unique style combining Rock, Acoustic and Symphony elements for the last couple years and you’re ready to take the sound on the mainstream market. I personally dig the combination of rock music and orchestra sounds in it, I think it’s epic. For some reason that kind of genre isn’t mainstream, why do you think that is?
Robert: There are a few groups out there that I admire like Evanescence and Within Temptation, and I really dig Metallica on their S&M (Symphony and Metal) album—that one just gets into me. So, there are a few out there. But my sound definitely has a different feel to it. And I enjoy telling a different story than the rest.
KRL: Hearing your music, the symphony sounds very cinematic. Is that really a personal choice for you to channel your passion and experience with cinema into your sound for that purpose?
Robert: The music that I produce is initially a rock sound at its core. But my music is a combination of things, my own personal formula. You may hear the sounds of a violin or string quartet within a song I recorded, and it may sound really cool, but it all plays a role to further enhance or tell the story.
I’ve always enjoyed the sound of an orchestra or a small string quartet. They always seem to feel so majestic and mysterious, and at times, so very powerful and intense. And adding an acoustic or electric rock guitar to that mix, it just takes that to another level.
KRL: You don’t see a lot of experimentation with music like that nowadays. Back then it was considered cool, whether it was mainstream or not, people did respect that people were willing to do things differently. Now it’s kind of considered too risky. Is the risk worth it?
Robert: I have always been a risk-taker, I think most artists should be. I mean it’s YOUR voice, it’s WHO you are, so why hide it? Otherwise where’s the authenticity? What is so genuine and unique about you as an artist is you are not fully putting yourself out there.
KRL: You mentioned that you were a camera operator back in the day for live concerts for Carlos Santana, Chris Isaak, Wynonna Judd, Huey Lewis, and The Beach Boys. What did you take away from them as performers? Did they inspire you, and if they did, how so?
Robert: As a guitarist, Santana is an absolute inspiration. He is just totally insane in the way that he plays. I’ve filmed over forty bands back in the day. Being up close and personal with such legends, you just hope that some of that talent just magically rubs off on you. And if it didn’t, it was certainly a great ride, and I had some incredible experiences at the very least.
KRL: From a personal perspective, what is the most challenging thing to work on: editing a scene together or recording a song?
Robert: Well, in songwriting, you have to tell an entire story with very few lines or words with a repeating chorus. I have always admired country artists especially, in this respect, because they really do know how to tell great stories in a short format.
In film/television editing, you are cutting a scene to an actor’s performance (whether it’s a person or an object), and it’s really on you of how great it’s going to look on screen in the final process. Honestly, there’s really no comparison; everything has its own unique challenges.
KRL: Going through the behind the scenes photos and reading the credits to your music video, I see that you’re mostly an auteur by doing the majority of the production jobs except for a few. How hard does it get that, not only do you wear multiple hats in the studio, but you also do it on your music video sets? And how do you deal with the stress that comes with those responsibilities?
Robert: It’s never really been an issue with me. I’ve always directed my own projects, except when I’m editing or assisting on a TV show at the studios. I guess it’s pretty much the same when an actor directs themselves in a movie. It’s actually much easier for me because I know I’ll at least get the footage that I need when I’m editing it later.
KRL: I noticed that you don’t actually use your name for your solo act, but you go by Mission To Eden. What’s the significance behind the name?
Robert: Well, I started as a solo act to create my own music, developing my own voice. Although I’m playing all the parts for now, if you listen to the albums you can hear an entire band with an orchestra—it’s all there! When the quarantine ends, I’m planning to have a live band with other musicians performing with me.
As for the name—it sounds almost biblical in a sense. Eden is a place of Hope. Eden is Paradise. Is it Heaven perhaps? Who wouldn’t want to take that journey?
KRL: From your experience, what are the differences and similarities between the film business and the music industry?
Robert: It really depends, especially if you work in both fields. Everything seems to intertwine in this industry. I have scored the soundtrack for some film projects and even had a couple songs featured on a video game. So, it all seems to be related at this moment, which works out great for me!
KRL: Where can readers and fans find you?
Robert: I have an Official Facebook page for Mission To Eden where fans can add us at facebook.com/MissionToEden which includes updates, behind-the-scenes, album links, and more!