Interview with Brian Reitzell

Surely one of the most deliriously strange and original composers working for Hollywood’s golden calves of television, film and videogames, it’s likely that Brian Reitzell would be playing for the both teams in “American Gods. Indeed, the old school overlords and shock of the new idols have been paid tribute. One on hand nightmarishly skilled in the classical instruments that serve as “Hannibal’s” favorite cooking accompaniment, and on the other showing that he’s keyboard-techno hip for the punk kids of “The Bling Ring,” the uniquely sorcerous sounds that resonate from Reitzell for the likes of “30 Days of Night,” “Boss” and “Watch Dogs” represent the height of eclectic music. And that doesn’t begin to cover the styles that capture the sacred and profane of this Starz series, which has just recently completed its first season’s road trip to reveal the true nature of the beings controlling the destiny of ex-con Shadow Moon, his sassily decaying wife Laura and humanity in general.

Adapted from the book by otherworldly fantasist Neil Gaiman by “Hannibal” show runners Bryan Fuller and David Slade, “American Gods” stands tall as one of the most visually striking and thematically profound genre shows yet put on cable – delivering on the graphic and intellectual promise that the cannibal stretched to the limits on network television. Delving into the need for belief that’s part of mankind’s DNA at figuring out their place in a universe so twisted and uncaring that it could only be ruled by supernatural figures, the first season of “American Gods” ripped open a curtain of rebooted deities, as masked for our particular culture. Here our iconic deities have masked themselves as media bros, a weapons manufacturer, an impossibly cheerful bunny wrangler, a surly slaughterhouse worker and a punch-drunk Irishman among many others.

Packed with all-consuming sex, gory showers and clever mini-episodes that show how prayers ironically deliver, “American Gods” is a field day for Reitzell’s most imaginative, and accessible work yet in the TV medium. Drawing on America’s indigenous jazz, the ancient rhythms of Egypt and the satiric pop of David Bowie for inspiration, Reitzell prostrates himself with unimaginable fusions of inspiration, whether it be hip-hop Celtic jazz, Wagnerian blood and thunder or the Arabic-cosmic lovemaking between cabbie and Djinn. Now with Reitzell’s work compiled by Milan fathomable and enthralling as its gods’ motivations. Reitzell’s music thrusts us into a world of ancient rhythm and the impossibly hip, at hypnotic peace in a way that new and old gods certainly won’t in the ensuing throwdown to come when “American Gods” returns – as heard by a lunatic composer who worships all.

Were you familiar with Neil Gaiman’s work, and this particular book before getting the series? And if not, did you dive into it once you had the show?

Yes, I was aware of Neil’s work but hadn’t read “American Gods.” David Slade had recommended it to me so I had a copy already on my shelf. I dove right in. Read the book, read the scripts and even listened to an audio book in my car. I wanted to totally respect what Neil had created. I needed to soak it all in and then I could decide where to go from there.

“Hannibal” allowed you to create some of the most unusual music ever heard on network television. With you working for that show’s creators on Starz, were the gloves truly off to just be as musically insane as you wanted?

Oh I took the gloves off long ago! “Hannibal” evolved into something that was uniquely it’s own. It had it’s own custom instruments. It’s own sonic language. Will Graham lost his mind and the music went there with him. I was blessed with having 100% creative freedom plus the love and support from Bryan Fuller, David Slade, Martha De Laurentiis and the studios. With “American Gods,” even though I was essentially working with both Bryan and David again, it was a very different situation. It was also a very different story and has it’s own universe. I approached it in a slightly more conventional manner because that felt right. There are moments when we are pushing things even further then we did with “Hannibal” but it’s certainly not as far out as that show overall. I did the show “Boss” for Starz a few years back as well and that was a lovely experience. They get it, and yes, the gloves are off. But the protective goggles are on!

Tell me about scoring the main titles, and what you wanted the music to convey about what was to unfold. How did the visuals inspire you?

When I was tasked with composing the Main Title sequence I was deep into scoring the show so I had to create it during after hours. Doing double duty in this business is very common as I’m sure you know. I knew it was coming so I started messing around with a chord sequence just based on the concepts that I was being fed by Bryan Fuller. When we had our first meeting with Patrick from Elastic who directed the titles I already had the chords and a full demo. He showed me a bunch of storyboards and he, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green talked me through the shape of it. I suggested doing it at 120 BPM which would make my chord sequence fit perfectly into 90 seconds. I originally wanted it to be more classic, more John Barry. Big orchestral. Pop. Bryan and Michael wanted it to be more percussive and dirty, and when I saw the images, that’s exactly what it needed. It all came together fairly naturally but it’s a monster. I maxed out ProTools. I wanted to score the images, not just play a song or background music. I also wanted a hook and for it to have lots of ear candy to accentuate all the visuals. I also wanted to cover the sound design with the music – engine sounds and such, but to do it musically and be cohesive. I wanted it to be thrilling and trippy and also to introduce Shirley Manson and Mark Lanegan’s voices as gods.

How did you want to get across the difference between the old, and new gods that represent blood and thunder tradition versus crass technology?

I wanted to give all the gods their own sound. I also liked giving a nod to both Monty Python and Looney Tunes so it goes over the top like a 50’s cartoon at times. I wanted it to be fun and to go deep. Most people won’t even get the reference of Norwegian Black Metal music for the Vikings but that’s where it started for me. I wanted Mr. Wednesday to be scored with a jazz combo and for the pre-historic Nunnyunnini animated sequence to sound like pre-historic music so I only used bones, shells, skins, wood and voice as my instruments for that cue. No digital or analogue effects even. I threw out all western musical forms and tried to make something that could have been made in pre-historic times. On the flip side for Techno Boy I only used a 909 drum machine and a computer program to score him. I love these kinds of challenges. Much of it is psychological rather than purely musical.

Many episodes would start with a self-contained tale that dwelt on belief, which often didn’t have the expected results for the gods’ worshippers. How did you view the importance of these pre-sequences and their music?

Those cues were pretty epic. They were standalone sequences and a chance for me to bring in whatever felt right regardless of what came before or after them. Each one was completely different from the next so all the instrumentation and style was altered to fit the particular scene / god / time / etc… I just try to get inside of the story and color it in a way that makes it as immersive and entertaining as possible. It’s always important for me to seduce the audience into the show so if the show would open with one of those sequences as it often did, then it was a way for me to have fun with the classic popcorn film score. It was a nice departure but it was also totally linked to the overall story of belief and worship. I wanted those scenes to feel connected but also be a very different experience.

Did you have a favorite god to score for?

I loved them all really. Each one had it’s own unique voice but the Nunnyunnini sequence was my favorite. I’m now very interested in doing more animation. I would like to do an entire episode or film that is animated. The only problem is that it takes them so long to make the picture. I think that scene took about 9 months and it’s only around 4 minutes long!

“American Gods” allowed you to also dig back into ancient, ethnic music, but with a twist. Could you talk about scoring the gods’ original homelands?

In between projects I like to travel, and when I travel, I always seek out indigenous musical instruments to bring home. I keep my studio as stocked with as many instruments as I have physical space for. It’s a bit out of control at the moment! One never knows when one needs a fish skin Riq from North Africa or a Chinese Sho. I like to play the instrument. Put my hands on it. To experiment with the different methods of making various sounds and textures. “American Gods” did afford me the opportunity to incorporate many of these instruments into the score. I don’t pretend to be an expert in any one style of music except my own. I am very interested in using instruments from all over the world and to have a basic knowledge of how to play them.

If I need something special or for something to be played by an expert of a particular instrument then I bring them into my world. This was certainly the case with episode 7 where I needed to create Celtic Doo Whop music. I brought in a couple of Celtic musicians to play on top of the Doo Whop tracks I created. That was fun. We had never heard Celtic Doo Whop and had no idea if it would work but it did! It wasn’t just the instruments either. We experimented with incorporating specific music forms on top of other musical forms, which was really interesting. We mixed a traditional Irish Reel on top of American Jazz with some Phil Spector.

The idea of making ancient music is very interesting to me. There aren’t any recordings of ancient music so there’s plenty of room for me to do it my own way. Over the years I have studied so many different musical time periods. I love it when I get presented with something that I haven’t yet researched to death. The greatest thing about music for me is how expansive it is. I will never learn or discover all of it so when I discover a music / musician / style / composer / instrument that I like and wasn’t aware of it’s a wonderful feeling. It’s been there all along but we were never introduced until now! I love the challenges that this show presented me. It’s just like cooking. You gather your indigenous ingredients, respect the traditions and make it your own using the most appropriate tools. This show took me to so many places but it’s important for me to be an individual. To make it my own, so maybe that’s the twist you mention. I have my strengths and I have my limitations so at the end of the day it all some how sounds like me.

“American Gods” had rather extreme, and stylish amounts of sex and violence, particularly in the all-consuming goddess Bilquis. Could you talk about scoring her, and her rather unusual lovemaking sequences?

There are a few Biquis scenes but they are all connected by the instrumentation. We made a flute sound for the melody by blending two very different wind instruments. I have been presented with some rather unusual sex scenes over the past few years. I just do my best to make the audience feel like they are in the film and in the case of that first Bilquis scene the audience is devoured! It was a very intense scene to score. It was all consuming to say the least!

“American Gods” had what’s arguably the most romantic, and explicit homosexual love scene been on cable between Salim and the Jinn. Could you talk about scoring this sequence?

That was the only cue that I scored and then had to throw out and start over. I originally did something more like legit softcore porn music – sax and piano. It was cheesy and romantic. It was hilarious! When I showed it to Bryan he said no, it needs to be sexy, primal. He wanted me to turn the audience on and get them all hot and bothered. I knew exactly what to do and in the end it came out really cool. Lee Scott, my music editor who also did “Hannibal” with me said it was the best cue he’d ever heard me do though it did get watered down a bit in the final dub. SO I have done a few sex scenes over the years, though nothing quite like this!

It’s all percussion and one horn. Many of the percussion instruments I played I wasn’t even aware of what they were called, so my engineer and I would have to Google them so we knew what to put on the track sheets. You can’t just put percussion 1 – 30 it would be too overwhelming. I learned a bit in that process. The VFX came in a bit late so I had to go back and hit all the fire FX after I had scored the scene. The VFX really need the music to make them work. To make them feel alive. If I hadn’t hit everything the way I did then it would have been filled with sound effects, which would have broken the sauce and cheapened the experience. It was a tremendous amount of work but it’s not every day that I get to score a gay Muslim sex scene. I wanted it to be very special. It had to be!

It’s often hard to get a grip on the gods’ motivations, and if they’re good, or evil. How was it to score characters that people viewed in moral absolutes, but were rather unknowable?

I just do what feels right to me. I don’t ever like for the audience to feel like they are being spoon fed or manipulated. I want to take their hand, strap them in and let them enjoy the ride. I’m just adding to the whole experience. Adding my color, my comments to what is already on the plate. It’s not always what you think it is on the surface. Laura for example found her way into the audience’s hearts but if you look at her story she did some unforgivable things. I loved that about what Neil, Bryan and Michael gave me to work with. It’s deep. It might be confusing at times but it’s always great to look at and it makes you think.

Music has always been part of worship and ritual, no matter the culture. How do you think that tradition plays into your approach?

I have studied sacred music of all kinds for many years. As a kid growing up with hippy parents in Northern California we even had our own ritual, something we called the “Riddim.” We would all grab an instrument, mostly drums, shakers, pots and pans and play them in unison as we danced from the house down to the Russian River that was basically in our backyard. We would all chant “Riddim, Riddim” and when we got to the river we formed a circle as the music reached a clamorous crescendo. The neighbors probably thought we were nuts but we did it for years. As a kid growing up, my gods were musicians. Concert halls were my churches. When I make music it’s a sort of worship to all the gods of music I worshiped and studied growing up and still continue to this day. Making a track that was influenced by Giorgio Moroder and then sung by the goddess Debbie Harry is certainly a form of worship! Same is true with the tracks I made with Shirley Manson and Mark Lanegan. It’s all ritual and worship really.

On the other hand, I found your music for “American Gods” more melodic, and fun as such. Would you agree, and how it important was it to play to the series’ satiric tone?

Yes, totally. It was fun to make that kind of music. To give a wink and be silly when it felt right. To go over the top and to honor a more melodic and traditional approach at times. In some ways it’s much easier to do that then to do something like “Hannibal” or “30 Days of Night” where I have to invent rather then re-invent. I really embraced the satire of it. Once I did the first episode and thought about all those great BBC shows of my childhood like Monty Python and Benny Hill even, it was very clear where I was going. I’m a very selfish composer. I take the jobs that allow me to make the music that I want to make so it’s always rewarding. But this show was so diverse musically that it took pretty much all I had. I love doing comedy and I love doing horror and it was a real pleasure to combine the two.

In the way that iconic visions of gods are warped here, how did you want to bend the music we’d expect from them, i.e. Irish jigs for Leprechauns, etc.

I’m always bending things! I like making music that fits a characters style but not doing what is always expected. The idea of using a jig for Mad Sweeney was too easy and surface. I liked using the Yamaha organ and doing something a bit more like Garage Rock for him. Of course when we got to episode 7 and we were in old time Ireland it made sense but the whole concept of using something like contemporary Irish music over him is just too expected and isn’t cool to me. I always want to do cool things so I try to add to the characters style to make something new rather than what everybody expects us to do. It’s too cheap!

Could you talk about the major role of jazz in its many forms “American Gods?” Was it because jazz is essentially America’s indigenous music?

When I started working on the show everyone around me assumed it was going to be Americana / Folk music and there is some of that. But to me when I saw Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday jazz felt right. Jazz is such an American hybrid. It’s magical. For me it seemed totally appropriate to go there. I think of Ellington, Coltrane, Bird, Monk, etc… as American gods. I could also permutate that music into so many emotions from a smoky piano combo to hard core Be Bop and everything in between. For me jazz is the deepest kind of music. You have to be able to play. It can’t be made on a lap top or just written out. I’m lucky to have a black book filled with some of the best musicians on the planet that I get to play with. New Orleans. Man, that place is America if you think about how Cajun / Creole food and jazz music came to be. It was the ultimate fusion of cultures and traditions.

There are a lot of cool “pastiches” of classic pop and rock in “American Gods” from Donna Summer to David Bowie. As a musician with a rock background, did that make the series particularly appealing in twisting about the iconic sound of the American rock songbook?

Definitely. There are places where it would have been easier to just license an existing track but for me it’s very appealing to create something special for the show that showcases those references. Bowie, especially the Berlin era and Moroder are in my blood stream. I have all the gear and instruments so those cues were quite fun for us to make. It’s nice to steer away a bit from scoring and to make a fully produced song and even better to connect it with the score that is very natural to me. Plus I’m the show’s music supervisor and Bryan Fuller is well aware of what we can do in here. He will sometimes put something in and say “you know something like this but make it even better and can we get Debbie Harry to sing on it.”

Shadow Moon is sort of our “everyman” guide as to what it’s like to be in the company of a god, while trying to comprehend this insane road trip he’s on. How did you want to reflect his flawed humanity in the face of the cosmic?

I used a whole bag of tricks for Shadow but I liked the more acoustic and minimal. That’s also where I first had Mark Lanegan in to sing on “In The Pines”. That track and especially Mark’s voice just nailed that guy. I was trying to bring a bit more emotion to his character because he played it very low key like Neil had him written. I had to be carful to not go to far. It’s a super fine balance.

Could you talk about playing the relationship between Shadow and Laura Moon?

It varied quite a bit depending on the episode but mostly theirs was a tragic love story and was pretty straight musically. Lot’s of cello, piano and trumpet.

Could you tell us about which experimental film composers you admire, and how they might have played a role in “American Gods?”

There are too many to name but Toru Takemitsu in my opinion was the greatest film / TV composer of all time and his sensibilities are something I really admire. There are nods to 60’s Morricone, Elmer Bernstein by way of Elmer Leonard, Bernard Herrmann, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Pierre Shaeffer, Carl Stalling and Treg Brown in the show. I loved being able to do jazz. To go over the top and make it fun in places. To improvise to picture like Miles did back in the day. I work without sound effects mostly so I’m covering everything with my instruments – locks turning, cards shuffling, ceiling collapsing, sun shining in your eyes, etc… I found myself thinking like a silent film composer, like I was behind a curtain with all my instruments. The dialogue is always my top line when it’s in.

Do you see a similarity between your work for “Hannibal” and “American Gods?”

Yes, it’s still very much me but “Hannibal” was more uniquely my own style and more me as the main musician. “American Gods” required more musicians, a slightly more conventional approach and massive stylistic diversity. Both shows have Bryan Fuller at the helm and Bryan loves for me to cocoon the audience with sound to create a heightened sense of reality, which I embrace to the fullest! Both shows share a similar approach in that there is a heavy emphasis on musical performance and gut reaction. I try to never repeat myself so I had to move some of my “Hannibal” instruments out of the studio and put into my storage room so I couldn’t rely on my past.

Could you talk about working on the vocal songs in “American Gods,” especially when it came to collaborating with Garbage’s Shirley Manson?

There was a scene in episode 4 where a Garbage song had been temped. I thought the song was lyrically off because it was too on the nose but Shirley’s voice and her whole vibe was perfect. Butch Vig (Garbage drummer / producer) is a friend of mine so I told him about the scene and thought I could go through their catalog and find something that would beat the temp. Everybody loved the temp – except me I think. Remember I always want things to be special. So since I didn’t find the perfect track in their catalog, Butch put me in touch with Shirley, who luckily lives in the neighborhood. She came by the studio and I showed her the episode. She totally got the episode and with the character of Laura Moon.

Since I was super busy scoring the show I brought in my friend Roger Manning to help me quickly co-compose and record a track. The scene starts with the sound and image of a punching bag so I took that as my starting place and built a rhythm track based around that sort of cadence. Slapping flam taps on my legs and then adding drums, percussion and keyboards. It had a really nice post punk feel to it. Shirley wrote lyrics and came down and sang on it. It all happened really quickly because it was so natural for all of us. I think Roger and I had the backing track written and recorded in a couple hours and Shirley popped in a day or so later and after an hour we were done. The mix took a bit longer. I then brought Shirley back in to sing on the Main Title sequence and again be part of our own little ABBA with Debbie Harry for the last episode. I considered Shirley, Debbie and Mark Lanegan all musical gods / goddesses and liked bringing them back through out the life of the show.

What was the most difficult episode for you to score, and why?

The first one took the longest, which it always does. The most demanding though was the final episode. It required so many styles from Bob Fosee to Vivaldi to Herrmann to Moroder to Bugs Bunny to Morricone to…. The arc of the episode was brutal and I knew when I watched it that I wasn’t going to sleep for a week. I only had a week because the shows schedule got super compressed due to the VFX. I worked 95 days straight to pull it all off and I was getting tired so seeing that episode and knowing what I needed to do was daunting to say the least. Luckily I had started on the Moroder track a few weeks ahead because I knew it was coming and I needed to get it to Debbie who was in Australia on tour. It all worked out great and I’m very proud of it. I have an excellent team and could not have managed it without them. I work pretty old school so it takes a whole kitchen crew to get the food out on time and at such a high level. Regardless of any past successes I want to keep my Michelin stars! Every score is like a new frontier.

You wouldn’t expect tearful emotion from this show, but we certainly got it in the episode where we find out about Laura’s Irish ancestor. Could you talk about taking a relatively conventional approach to elicit that response?

I always just score what they give me. That episode was the one where we made Celtic Doo Whop too. I brought in some incredibly talented Celtic musicians who I had never worked with. I wanted it to feel like a children’s fairy tale. Big strings, whistles, pipes and choir. It might be the straightest episode except for that Doo Whop slant. That was fun for me. I rarely go there, but the whole experience with scoring this show was to try and faithfully create what the show needed. Those sweeping shots of the sea cliffs, the visions of leprechauns, a grandmother telling stories to her grand daughter. It reminded me of so many films I saw as a kid and so that’s where I went. I can be the straight guy but I rarely get asked to do that sort of thing and honestly I rarely want to because it’s been done so well for so long. There are a 1,000 people in LA that can do that same thing effortlessly. I mostly like being myself rather than doing what’s expected. But I love a good popcorn movie and that episode was a treat for me.

What was it like for you to finally unleash the musical thunder when Wednesday reveals his true identity in the climactic episode?

You mean to bring in the brass! That was something that had been building really since the first episode. It was great to have a big orchestra and to play with the swirling of the storm. That whole last act goes from one three-minute cue into another. I felt like I was making side two of Abbey Road but with a giant orchestra it’s all connected but goes so many different places. Ian McShane is such a powerful actor, it’s thrilling to color his performances.

Do you think that “American Gods” shows that the sky is truly the limit for genre shows, especially in terms of their music? And how do you hope “American Gods” develops for its second season?

The sky is always the limit! We have definitely entered a new era yet again. The bar keeps going up and up. I have never worked on anything quite like “American Gods.” Nobody had. It’s not film, TV or a video game. It’s all three rolled into one! All the different departments were working harder, longer and doing things they had never done before to get to the finish line. We had two show runners so it was doubly intense for all departments. This show could not have been made five or ten years ago. The times and the technology have made any and everything possible. Everything that I have done in my career prepared me for this, which is what I say ever year. But seriously this show made me go to places I hadn’t been in years and made me stretch myself out to places I had never been to before. To work in styles I had only ever listened to or appreciated from the audience. My mind is being blown on a weekly basis. I hope that next season is 10 episodes and that there is more animation, more musical collaborations and more of the same only different just like the book.

There still remains hope that “Hannibal” can be resurrected. If so, what would your hopes be for a third season’s story, and relationship arch?

I trust Bryan Fuller completely with the story. If we get the chance to do a 4th season or a film version I would welcome that. That was such a special show. Working with Mads and Hugh on the screen is such a pleasure.

If you could create you own musical god, how you describe him, or her? And how would you play it?

To me the most powerful and beautiful sounds come from nature. I would like to have a Mother Nature god and to score her with musical instruments that sound like nature. Everything from thunder storms to ocean waves to birds to wind.

Worship Brian Reitzell’s score to “American Gods” on Mr. World’s foul new media digital format HERE, or go Odin old school CD HERE

Watch “American Gods” on Starz HERE

Listen to Brian Reitzell’s nightmarish seasons of “Hannibal” HERE