Lucky Hank Q&A — Composer Joe Wong on Creating Lucky Hank’s Retro Sound
From the executive producers of Better Call Saul and The Office comes Lucky Hank, starring Bob Odenkirk and Mireille Enos. Meet Professor Hank Devereaux (Odenkirk), the English department chairman at an underfunded college in a ho-hum town where mediocrity prevails. Life’s been throwing him some curveballs lately with his wife Lily’s (Enos) new career goals, constant chaos at work, and the return of his estranged father. With that, Hank spirals into a midlife meltdown taking everyone with him. In this interview with amc.com we speak with composer Joe Wong about creating the theme song for the show, working with music supervisor Brienne Rose to compliment her choice cuts, and why a COVID-induced fog was just what he needed to find the show’s sonic sauce.
Q: You’ve worked on some pretty incredible projects like Russian Doll and Master of None. How did you first get involved with this project? Were you a fan of the novel?
A: I had worked with one of the producers, Jess Held, and the music supervisor Brienne Rose before. Brienne and I worked together on Russian Doll, and Jess and I worked together on a few projects. So, I was involved with some of the folks that were making the show. I was a huge fan of a lot of the people involved. When I was in college, Mr. Show was almost like a religion for me and my friends, so I was thrilled to jump in. The show really spoke to me from the moment I saw the first cut. In fact, Jess asked to come over and show it to me and we watched it in my studio. I loved the writing really right away and I understood what I wanted to do or what I could add to the equation.
Q: So, I know you worked on the theme for the show and were quickly given the first two episodes to dig into. Did those end up serving as the groundwork for the rest of your composing for the season?
A: Yeah, I think it enabled us to create a palette for the show. I always try to narrow down the possibilities when I first start a show. It's like finding the intersection of taste between you and the showrunners that also serves to advance the narrative. And we did that really quickly! I should also mention the day that I got hired for this show I also found out I had COVID, so I was just totally out of my mind those first two days, working long days and then just sleeping the rest of the time. [Laughs]
Q: Oh god that’s intense! What’s your creative process like? You said you saw full episodes, but I assume you also read scripts for later episodes as production moved along.
A: It's different with every project. I think when someone asks me what I do—or what distinguishes being a composer for visual media versus just writing my own songs—I say it's like babysitting someone else's child versus having your own child. It's a different skill set because you have to serve someone else's vision. As a result, I would say 60% of my job is speaking with the creators of the show and understanding their vision for it. Then from there the other 40% is writing music, but that happens subconsciously for me. I mean, I just try to create an environment where I'm not thinking with my rational mind when I'm actually writing the music.
I started off speaking to the guys [Paul and Aaron] first, and it gave me a sense of what they were looking for and how the music needed to function in the show. They were very clear that they didn't want the music to lead the emotions and at times it needed to represent the internal world of the characters. I came in pretty late into production, so for this project it was really about sitting down and watching it because they were ready to go. I felt like I had a good understanding of what they were trying to do from a storytelling standpoint. Then we talked it through, and I would ask, "Why does this piece of music speak to you here and what's working there?" From there I kind of just went into a COVID-induced fugue state and the score came out!
The theme song has a vaguely exotic feel to it and the idea was that they wanted it to feel like something that was not at home at all within the world of Railton College. They wanted it to sound kind of vintage. So I was drawing from my love of Turkish psychedelic rock, Bollywood music, etc. I scored a film in India almost 20 years ago and I worked with a producer who's a Bollywood legend named Kersi Lord. He's not with us anymore, but he was in his seventies at the time. He had brought the Moog synthesizer and all these other instruments into Bollywood scores in the '70s, and I always thought Bollywood was such a cool fusion of Eastern and Western sounds and compositional ideas. I was inspired by that spirit when I was writing this theme song. I was kind of imagining a super group that maybe included a Turkish guitar goddess and a Bollywood orchestra, and I was imagining it as if they made some record that was never released 50 years ago. What would that have sounded like if some cool record label reissued it now? I always play those games and use a thought experiment to frame the process, because the truth is, there's infinite ways to score something equally as effectively, so it's all a matter of narrowing it down. The best way to do that is understanding the taste of the people you're working with. Then you can find that intersection of your taste, their taste, and see if you can make something bigger than the sum of its parts.
Q: I did talk to Paul and Aaron a little bit about music so obviously they brought you up! We talked about how they find it difficult to talk about music in regard to what they like and what they don't like, but what they can say is the feeling that they get when it's the right thing, when it's the right track. It's hard to contextualize that. It's hard to verbalize what that is.
A: It’s what I was saying about babysitting for someone else's kid. That’s the part where you're cooking a meal for a toddler that can't vocalize like, "Oh, I hate onions. I don't like spicy food." You just have to be experimental with it like, "Oh, you like that? Okay, what if we add this?" And you have to just go slowly until you understand their baseline taste. Then from there, once there's a level of trust and they feel heard and know that you understand their vision, then they're more likely to go on an adventure with you and try something new! And I think we got there with this. We had to move really quickly. I think I scored the whole season in like five weeks. But I think that worked to our advantage!
Q: You mentioned you worked with music supervisor Brienne Rose on the show. Can you talk a bit about what that experience was like and how composers and music supervisors collaborate on projects like this? I'm curious how that working relationship functions.
A: Again, it's different on every project. In this instance she’d been working with the guys for much longer than I had, so she had a better sense of their esthetic. Plus, we already had a shorthand from working on other projects together and I trust her. So, I could really talk to her and get a sense for what the guys were responding to as far as needle drop. Then from there I had to figure out how to make the spiritual complement to what was happening in the needle drop world. What that means is something that's distinct from it but that’s maybe drawing from some of the elements of what’s working needle dropwise.
I wanted the score to feel like it could have been recorded in 2023 or it could have been recorded in 1963. You know, I didn't really use anything that would be identifiable as modern. I also used some recording techniques that are kind of rare nowadays. I tracked things to tape and then dumped it into the computer later, all just to make it feel seamless with the stuff that Brienne was using as needle drop. I think the only difference is some of the score has orchestral elements or bigger elements that aren’t found in the pop songs or the deep cut songs that she had pulled.
Q: Just going through Episodes 1 and 2 and picking out some of those needle drop moments, I didn't realize that I Started a Joke was by the Bee Gees [Ed note: the song used at the end of Episode 1].
A: Yeah! They had a long career before they went falsetto. I believe that one is sung by Robin Gibb. I think during the Saturday Night Fever era lots of their hits had Barry Gibb as the lead. I'm actually a big Robin Gibb solo fan too. Brienne used that one and then she had some cool Brazilian stuff in later episodes. So when I was thinking of complementary sounds I was like, "Oh, what if it was like a Brazilian Bee Gees?" I was always thinking about fusing different elements of the needle drop together for the score.
Q: In Ep 1 Hank talks about “the misery business” always outperforming the “happiness business,” and it’s a concept that stuck with me. I especially love the music in that scene as he’s driving and waxing poetic—it’s pretty upbeat so the juxtaposition is just perfect.
A: That was the first piece of music I wrote for the show.
Ah! That’s so cool. Well, my question to you is, how do you disrupt the misery business? What are the little day-to-day things you do that bring you joy? Not to answer for you, but I'm assuming music is one of them?
Well, music is the currency of my life, so it's brought me plenty of joy. Then there are things that are tangentially related to music—disappointments relating to my career or heartbreak—those also stem from music. It's just the water of my life. You can drink it, or you can drown in it. Music brings me together with good people and my relationship to music constantly shifts, so I have to pay attention to that and kind of go where it's telling me to go.
One thing I do really enjoy is what you're doing. I interview people. I have a podcast and we've had over 300 guests—it’s called The Trap Set and it's on everything except for Spotify. When you interview someone else, it gets you out of your own head, right? It allows you to focus on someone else and engage in a way that I find rare in everyday life, even though I think as human beings we're geared towards having conversations and social interactions. But the world we've built for ourselves makes those increasingly rare. So that's one thing I really love doing.
And another thing I told Bob [Odenkirk] about is that last year I got into running and I ran a few marathons. When you're doing marathons, you have to train a lot and I got into listening to audiobooks. One of the audiobooks I listened to was his memoir, so that really brought it all full circle.
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