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Q&A – Bear McCreary (Composer)

The composer for The Walking Dead discusses the show’s Hitchcock heritage, subverting horror music tropes, and his method-acting approach to creating undead banjo licks.

Q: At Comic Con you said you’d be approaching the score by taking classic horror score tropes and doing unexpected things with them. What does that mean?

A: Well, there are certain things that horror music needs to do: It needs to create spooky atmosphere, and loud noises when something scary happens. These things are necessary and they work. So Frank wants to avoid those things, but you can’t just say “I wanna avoid those things” and then not do them. Your sound design has to be built with this kind of different approach in mind. So one of the things I think people are going to be struck with is the general lack of score altogether. And the way that Frank has built these scenes so that they can function without horror score really makes it something that is unusual.

Q: Even though you avoided some tropes, other parts of the score, like the strings in the Main Theme, sound very reminiscent of old horror films.

A: With the string element, I wanted to go back pretty far, and with that we’re really referencing Bernard Herman’s work with Hitchcock and genre films from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. And one of the things you would do is really small, bizarre ensembles. Psycho is a perfect example of this: a small string orchestra, an unusual brass ensemble and then bizarre percussion. And one of the things that’s happened in horror, really starting in the ’80s and ’90s is that horror now is all about volume. It’s just screeching, screaming, noises. And there isn’t anything I find spooky about that music. I wanted to create something that I find more scary, which is that dissonance that sneaks in; dissonance that isn’t screaming at you.

Q: Did you draw any inspiration from the South in composing your music?

A: We thought it would be fun to reference two ideas in the score on a very subtle level: One idea is that this does take place in the South, and so there’s a musical heritage there we can draw from; the other is there’s no electricity any more. So it was almost the idea of taking these instruments associated with the South, but take them in their most acoustic and raw and primitive form. My main guitarist is this guy named Steve Bartek. We were working on some banjo licks, and he was trying some stuff and it just sounded too good. So I said, “Steve, picture this: You are in a bluegrass band in Atlanta. You’re one of the best banjo players in town and things are going well — and then you get bitten by a zombie. Now you are an undead banjo player, and your brain is dead, but your muscles still remember those riffs. What would that sound like?” And he starts moving his fingers and he starts playing, and I’m like “Ah! That’s The Walking Dead.” It was sort of method acting of playing, but it’s what we wanted to hear.

Q: You’re best known for your work on Battlestar Galactica, on which you developed musical themes for different characters and situations. Are you planning something similar for The Walking Dead?

A: It’s interesting. I’d love to give you the answer that you’re looking for, but I’ve found that there’s very little room in The Walking Dead to approach it with character themes. The trick with themes is you need to establish them, so one of the things that I’ve found has been happening is I’ve just been scoring the show, I’ve just been giving it the dramatic arcs that it needs. The characters are all enduring the same thing. It’s a shared experience, so instead of trying to highlight all the subtle differences between them, I’m trying to unify them all together. With the music being so minimal, you really have to rethink what you’re going to do. You gotta make it count.

Q: So you’re not looking for The Walking Dead‘s version of All Along the Watchtower?

A: [Laughs] I would tell fans not to hold their breath.

Q: What was your favorite moment in the series to score?

A: So many. Episode 4 takes us on an interesting detour, and one of the things I had a lot of fun with was playing up this expectation — it feels like the episode is going in one direction, and the score is really leading you to believe a certain type of conflict is about to happen. And then in the last act it reveals it’s not at all what you think it’s going to be, and then the music can totally change. Taking part in that kind of intentional misdirect, that’s always a lot of fun for me.

Q: Not to beat a dead horse, but misdirection is another thing horror scores are known for…

A: [Laughs] Absolutely. The thing that makes the music of The Walking Dead effective is that audiences have become so aware of what you’re describing — they have become so aware that music is trying to lull you into a false sense of security when you’re about to get scared, or that the music is genuinely scary when it’s about to turn out to be a cat walking around the corner. These are things that we just don’t do. I find that as I watch these finished cuts now, you’re watching a scene and there’s no music. It’s almost like that’s the only way we can really get around this. It becomes really disconcerting when you’re walking down a hallway and you don’t hear anything — you don’t know what’s going to happen.

Click here to check out Bear McCreary’s blog, on which the composer writes weekly about his work on every episode of The Walking Dead.

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