(photo by Victoria Smith)
Just about the last thing anyone wants to do is enter the mind of pure evil, let alone hear it meticulously, and deliciously describe its murderous exploits. That a view inside of its horrifying headspace has resulted in such eerily intoxicating music is a testament to the powerfully emerging voice of Jason Hill in “Mindhunter.” Created by serial killer media enabler par excellence David Fincher, this acclaimed Netflix series’ twist is that we barely see any violence at all. Rather, the acts and its reasoning are told to FBI profilers Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), who traverse the country to find out what makes madmen tick. That the birth of the agency’s serial killer profiling unit is no work of fiction makes their subjects’ descriptions all the more terrifying, if no less fascinating in the awfulness that’s drawn entertainment to these predators again and again. That Jason Hill hears the recording sessions, and their effect upon the agents, with such dark poetry is all the more unsettling.
If the interview subjects of “Mindhunter” have seemed to emerge from the shadows, seemingly out of nowhere, the same might be said (if not murderously) about how Hill’s innovative talent has burst upon the binge-watching scene. With only one scoring credit for a dirt biking madman behind him, Hill’s production work for the likes of David Bowie, The New York Dolls and The Killers along with his band Louis XIV have led him into Fincher’s company – a band of musical profilers whose work has ranged from the raging orchestra of Howard Shore’s “Se7en” to the subtle, conspiratorial piano of David Shire’s “Zodiac” and the piercing electronics of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ “Gone Girl.”
Hill’s realization of a twisted psyche is just as uncommon and original, eschewing the kind of dissonance that scores most associate with serial killers, Hill’s soundtrack for this hit, ten-part series is poetic, even beautiful in its crystalline use of sound and samples, music that suggests a voyage to an alternate, shimmering universe far more than it does a basement torture dungeon. Its ethereal, even poignant stuff, yet with a tonality that tells us something is unholy in its deceptively surreal bliss. Even as brilliantly crazy as Brian Reitzell’s music was for the equally astounding “Hannibal,” there’s never been quite a serial killer show, or soundtrack like “Mindhunter.” In no small part, we can thank an essentially newfound composer who’s brave enough to hear shocking words that might drive others’ insane, and turn the description of the deeds into things of hypnotic, unearthly beauty that dares us to turn away. And like the subject of the increasingly unnerved agents, Hill is the killer who keeps the tape machine running, now describing in detail to us how he draws listeners ever deeper into “Mindhunter’s” entrancing madness.
Tell us about your musical background, and what got you into scoring?
I began playing guitar around 13, finally realizing these annoying little things in my head were actually melodies and if I could only figure out how to play this thing, then maybe I could get them out of my head and into the cosmos. As so many new musicians realize, it is a very frustrating thing at first and for a very long time. In some ways it never goes away. But the fog eventually lifts as you become more and more proficient. From the time, I learned 3 chords I began to write songs. I wasn’t interested in learning other people’s styles or music. I just wanted to write my own music. Of course, I would learn little bits of others’ music over time but my main focus was always making things up.
Not even knowing a single chord, I formed a band with my neighbor. He was to sing and I would play guitar and we would write the songs. I was focused like a laser from then on, not understanding why any band members wouldn’t be as serious as I was about it, ”What do you mean you have soccer practice!” I wouldn’t tolerate it. I was ridiculously driven to grow in music. It wasn’t the usual trappings of wanting girls, for me it was about getting creative, making things up, exploration and discovery. But I also wanted to be able to do this and not have to do anything else. There was never a plan B sort of thing.
From the first mono tape cassette recorder I owned I was enamored with recording. That first tape recorder had varispeed and I realized that if I slowed down or sped things up, they became less ordinary than dull real life, and I was awestruck by it. Also, we would record over and over on the same tape until we got a particular song right. In the process, the tape would retain artifacts from the past performances. They would sound like angels in the background. The glimmer and shimmer of ghost vocals and guitar harmonic chimes would peak through. There was magic in that tape.
At 16 my bandmates and I had worked jobs to afford time in a “big” studio, with a lot of help from my Mother and Father, whom were always tremendously supportive. Although I was happy at the time to work in the “big” studio I remember vividly my singer at the time, Ryan Ramos doing a vocal and it didn’t sound right – not the performance, the SOUND. The engineer said to me, “That’s how you get a vocal.” It was a U87 thru an MCI board and just a small touch of compression probably. But it wasn’t right, and I had no idea why. I couldn’t articulate it and it upset me internally. I hated his answer, instinctively knowing there was never ONE way to do things. So I set out to learn everything I could about recording so I could control and never be at the mercy of someone else.
By 18 we were touring the California circuit constantly, although this would be several bands later as the bands would change and members would come in and out. I also began playing piano and drums and anything I could get my hands on. At the same time I began to collect recording gear. And by my mid twenties we had signed a record deal with my band Convoy. A few years later feeling unsatisfied I left the deal on the table and formed another band Louis XIV. Louis XIV would sign with Atlantic records and take me around the world for years, making records and playing to massive crowds. I loved it but after a while I grew tired of the touring and wanted to grow more as a musician and in the studio. The touring, mainly the waiting around doing nothing between performances took its toll and I grew restless creatively and in life. I think you have to NEED the adulation from others in order to be a successful artist, and I had no longer needed it. I wanted roots to set.
I would produce, mix and engineer all our records and I had begun the same for other artists at this time. So in 2010 I moved to Los Angeles with the mindset of focus on producing. Even while being an artist I was always most interested in recording and thought of myself as a producer first and artist second. I had a vivid memory of playing the O2 arena in London. It was a sold-out show that 25,000 people, were at. The crowd was going wild but my mind was somewhere else and I was feeling unfulfilled and I knew it was time for me to move in new directions. Life is fragile and short. I was fortunate, a couple of years later when David Fincher reached out, and thus began my new journey into scoring.
How do you think working with artists like The Killers, David Bowie and The New York Dolls, as well as your own band Louis XIV shaped your voice as a composer?
That’s hard to say. I think since the beginning I was always the leader in the bands I was in, which I think every band needs. Nothing will get done and things will fracture when multiple leaders try to take the reins. That doesn’t mean fellow bandmates don’t make the band what they are and aren’t as important, but it’s just like a football team which can only have one quarterback at a time. But that football team still needs a wide receiver, blockers and what not. Understanding the dynamics of what makes a great band has helped me to be a producer. As a composer, I think my command and understanding in the studio has been one of my greatest assets so far. The ability to PLAY with sound in the studio and experiment. In many ways, it’s all just about creating and being liquid when it comes to following inspiration and getting to something tangible.
I’m very new to composing for picture and still very much learning and growing. Which is what is exciting for me. My approach to recording has always been very sonically based. It’s quite often the sonics that inspire me. Finding new sounds and then reacting off of them. As a composer and artist, I haven’t wanted to sound like anyone else. As a producer, it is very much the same. Songs and “compositions” have different forms, but my approach toward being turned on by original sounds remains. Also, whenever you work with talented people it brings out the best in you. Most importantly, it inspires you to achieve greater things and learn.
Your first credit before “Mindhunter” was 2009’s “The Mind of the Demon.” Where you might expect it to be about a serial killer, it’s actually a documentary about a self-destructive dirt bike racing pioneer. Do you think it helped pave the way for “Mindhunter?”
One of my oldest friends, Adam Barker, made “The Mind of the Demon.” He’s a very talented and driven guy. He was the kid that always had a massive video recorder on his shoulder. Lazy is not a word that he knows. He was always filming these tremendous skateboarders or motocross guys, and up for anything they did, so everybody loved him. Because of that he was welcome anywhere, around the best of the best. He and I were always creating things together – for no reason but to do it, which has been the mantra of my life…JUST CREATE. The rest will sort itself out. When he made the documentary, he asked me to do some music for it but I wouldn’t say I really scored it in the traditional sense. I made some really cool music for it, with guitars and strings, as I have always had a tremendous affection for strings. I’m not sure why, especially from the old songs – Burt Bacharach, old black music of the 60’s-70’s, old country music, I’ve always loved the songs with the big string arrangements. It was a small dose of the excitement of composing for film, so in a way I suppose it opened that door.
How did you meet up with David Fincher, and become part of the scoring team for “Gone Girl?” And what do you think it was about your contribution that gave you the big break for your first major soundtrack with “Mindhunter?”
I was originally asked to do the teaser/trailer for “Gone Girl.” Cean Chaffin called and set up a meeting with David. They were fans of some of my music and we just hit it off. He asked me to produce a version of the old French artist Charles Aznevour’s song “She”, a beautifully dark love song. Fincher focused on that dark side of it. The true nature of the song, in between the lines, was spectacular for the two main characters in “Gone Girl.” In the shadows of this gorgeous love song, was a song about dysfunctional relationships and codependency and being in love with a woman that kind of isn’t right for you. At least that’s the way I saw it as well. Most people probably see it as a song about true love. David thought it would be perfect for the teaser. His teasers are always a big deal, I had remembered the boys choir doing Radiohead’s “Creep” for “The Social Network.” Very iconic and probably the only teaser I ever remembered.
The song “She” was originally done in the 70’s but Elvis Costello had done a fairly vanilla version for the film “Knotting Hill” focused on the surface love song in it. No slight to Elvis, as it’s a good version but David wanted something different. And I think the “Knotting Hill” aspect only added to Fincher wanting to use it, which allowed for more of a twist. He wanted this dark version sung by someone who was sort of this reclusive Count on the hill, a man who has LIVED. It needed to be a more disturbed and conflicted version and he wanted Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs to sing it. I had been in a relationship with someone for several years but literally 3 days before I got the call to meet with David, we had broken up, on Valentines Day. So it was still tender and fresh and I was LIVING this song. It was fate. I poured everything I was into it and I think it turned out remarkable. One of my favorite productions I’ve ever done.
I worked mostly in Phil Spector and Brian Wilson’s favorite room at Studio 3 at East West, which was the old Western Recorders, of which I wanted to use the iconic Steinway they had there. I pretty much just stayed there for a month, brought in a choir, an orchestra. It was a dream. David let me make something special and I loved working with him. I learned a lot about his approach to editing and dialogue during the vocal mixing. He had me move vocals a frame this way or that way and made what appeared just fine fantastically better by little increments. Something that now working on “Mindhunter” I saw him do on a grand level. Like a sculptor he would whittle down. Ultimately, I think David saw that I put everything I could into it and appreciated that.
What did David Fincher’s work mean to you in his approach to the serial killer genre, especially in the scores he’s gotten from his composers?
“Zodiac” is one of my favorite films of all time. “Se7en” as well. At the time I met David he had just released season 2 of “House of Cards,” for which those first two seasons were a masterpiece. “Mindhunter” shares the perspective that David had on “Zodiac.” With David you know you are going to get very thoughtful, minutely detailed and purposeful stories that look phenomenal. He also marries an artful classic cinema approach to framing shots but with a very futuristic use of digital technologies. Most of all, his filmmaking is very unique. I think David’s approach to visuals is very similar to my approach sonically. And, like a broken record that I probably sound like, we both want to do something original at all times.
David Shire did the score for “Zodiac” and he is one of my favorites, I adore his score for “All the Presidents Men,” which was a film I associated a lot with “Mindhunter” in its concept about two men on the hunt for information. Of course, Trent and Atticus’ shadow loomed over me having scored David’s last three films. They are very distinct as well, but mostly I realized I had to go somewhere else. If I tried to go anywhere near their sound it would be just like Trent and Atticus light. I’m not someone who flourishes with copying other composers, I have to find my own path. Jeff Beal did a terrific job on “House of Cards” too. He really defined the sound of that show and the moment I heard the title sequence I was hooked. These were all big shoes to attempt to fill.
What were your initial meetings like about what David Fincher wanted to achieve with “Mindhunter’s” music, and to give it a distinct identity?
The very first conversations were talking about Bernard Herrmann and “Psycho.” BUT this wasn’t going to be “Psycho,” no shivering stabs. We weren’t going to have any moments that called for that. This music was going to be a big tease of sorts that was about the psychological. So I immersed myself in Herrmann’s music, really to realize that our score wouldn’t be anything like his, even though it was a part of the process. One of the best pieces I wrote for the show was after digesting “Taxi Driver.” I think it only made the end credits, which of course no one hears anymore, because of the way Netflix quickly goes to the next episode. But for anyone interested, they should try to listen through the “Mindhunter” end credits, because some of the best music is in them.
There was so much music made, it was like a faucet pouring out daily. TIME was talked about a lot as well, building a sense of something to represent that the more time that goes by, the more death will happen. There is consequence to remaining in the dark. That is what is most underlying about the show, that because of this fog bad things will continue to happen and then happen again – because without lifting it, we won’t have the knowledge to be able to catch these terrible people. In many ways, it’s a futile project. But like in so many other ways, it is imperative. We also talked a lot about very high, extended violins. Although again, the final score ended up somewhere different, it’s all about the initial dialogue, which became the prompt for me to then go search and discover. David throws out these very articulate but sometimes just conceptual ideas that I would run with to find myself experimenting down these very strange paths. If it were somewhere I‘d never been and was turning me on, I would know I was on the right path.
What brilliantly sets “Mindhunter” apart from other shows, and movies of the serial killer genre is that there’s practically no violence shown about the murderers’ exploits. It’s all about the aftermath. How did that cerebral take on the subject affect your approach in conveying the horror that took place before we meet these psychopaths?
Even though it’s about serial killers, I never really thought of the score as something in that “genre”. It was something that was its own. It had to live more in the mind, be more liquid – slippery and elusive. Ultimately the music took on this glistening aspect. But just as the mind is very slippery, drifting from thought to thought, these intangible things surfaced. So the music needed to mirror that.
“Mindhunter’s” dialogue is balanced between the psychological jargon of the FBI with the far more terrifyingly down-to-earth “explanations” of the killers for their urges and modus operandi. How did you want the music to link that vocabulary?
To be honest I’m not sure I really ever thought of it in that regard but it’s an interesting concept. Just as those two bricks built the house, I suppose I wanted the music to be the mortar, or really the water that makes the mortar turn to something concrete.
David Fincher’s projects are notable for their main title sequences. How did you want to set the series’ tone with “Mindhunter’s?”
David’s title sequences are legendary, which I think comes from his music video days. He’s probably The King of music videos and title sequences. I knew it had to be unmistakable. It couldn’t follow in the footsteps of anything. This was my main goal for the show in all ways, as I’ve said. I wanted a person to hear it from another room and in two seconds know what it was. David mentioned the film “Klute,” which inspired me a lot in the end for other aspects. I had begun thinking about the title sequence since day one and did a number of potential pieces. But the one that ultimately was the ONE happened very late one night and all in about an hour or two. The writing and recording of it as well as the mix. I think I was out that night and came back to the studio sometime after midnight. I sat down on the piano and started playing the piece. It just sort of wrote itself. I was conscious of simplicity. The main piano part came quickly, focusing on the chords dancing with each other, never more than two notes for the chords, leaving a hole for melody to dance in between them. Then the rest I just completely improvised each part on the spot. Press record and play an instrument, and then move to another.
It all came out on first takes without knowing what I was going to play. And in a very short time, felt like 20 minutes, but I’m sure it was more. It was loose, which I loved, in three sections, not to time or a click, all just free and flowing and emotional – like thoughts in the mind. Slippery. I wouldn’t be surprised if tears may have come down my cheeks, because music can take me there at times. I love those moments. The piece was simple and without too many elements. I remember really wanting to go to sleep, exhausted but forcing myself to finish. I did a very quick rough mix. Then I went to bed. The funny thing is I had totally forgotten about it. I had been making a lot of music in those days and it was just a part of the pack and actually was recorded after another piece on the other pieces session, and wasn’t even labeled as its own. It wasn’t until a month or so later that I found it, randomly looking for something else, and sent it to David. When I saw him a few days, he had cut it into the title sequence. I didn’t write it to picture and hadn’t yet seen the title sequence. When I saw it, I was floored because it was so good.
I would go on to attempt to make it bigger, bringing in all sorts of elements, string sections, drums, trying to make the third act of it more grand, but in the end we went with the rough mix from the night of its creation. There was this magic that happened and it never felt as good. In fact, there is a fairly atonal or really out of key low thing that happens at the very, very end. I can’t remember the instrument, maybe a cello, that always sounded so out of tune on later mixes. So I had to lose it on those later mixes but in the original mix it sounded fantastic. I still don’t comprehend why, but in the end, we just decided not to question the magic and go with the purest version. There was also a bit of crackle to that original mix, pushing the Neve console to the point of distortion, for better or worse.
For a show set during the 70’s, did you want the music to capture any of the rock / pop vibe of the period?
I would say no as far as rock/pop of the period. David had said to me to specifically NOT do anything reminiscent of the era but I wanted to in my own way. I think David was possibly thinking of the rock and pop of the era when he said that. The soundtrack, however, would be only of the period, in the actual years of the show, never beyond and we were really tight on that. It needed to reflect the period and what was on the radio and what the characters would be listening to. A lot of care was put into that. But score-wise, what I consider of the period isn’t necessarily going to reflect what David perceived as of the period. My view is more peripheral, especially because David is so educated in Cinema.
I’m a big fan of the films of the 70’s, so in my mind I went there. But not in the popular music of the time but to film scores like “Last Tango in Paris,” “Chinatown,” “The Conversation,” “All the President’s Men” and that sort of thing – but from my peripheral point of view. It occurred to me that a lot of film and TV scores had moved to this unmelodic thing and I wanted to think more melodically. I wanted to think more thematically. That was something I brought up in the early discussions as well.
What’s the trick of scoring interview as opposed to action?
Well I haven’t scored an action film so I’ll be able to answer that better when I do, which would be fun. But I think probably I was able to make things creep and breathe as opposed to attack. I lived in the space of air and mist, less in the earth. Action would live more in the tangible earthy places – more proactive and less reactive. With this approach, I could swim in the back end of things where, as with action, I think you would be more on top of the beats. And on a sonic level I could live in the sub lows and highest highs. Action seems to live more in the more present middles.
Did you have any particular “favorite” killer, or interview that you scored?
That’s too hard to say. I ultimately like most all of what came about. I’ve had enough distance to appreciate it. While working, I would have a favorite, but then I would score a new scene and that would be my favorite… till the next one. I was conscious of trying to have each killer or case have their own sonic identity. Though everything in a way was thru the lens of Holden.
Would you find yourself getting disturbed while scoring the series?
No, I don’t think so. I was brought on to the project so early, far before I even saw picture, reading the scripts and immersing myself in it all. I wanted to learn as much as I could from working with David. But I have always been someone drawn to these sorts of things in a way, the documentaries about human darkness. And as I said, “Zodiac” is one of my favorite films. I think human beings are capable of terrible things It’s all around us, all the time. Human Beings can be awful, selfish, ugly creatures. It’s in the way we eat, our approach toward dominion and how we treat animals, the way we treat the earth, each other. Humans think we are so special. The center of the universe. Which to me is complete bullshit. We are insignificant little ants, which are inadvertently an inaccurate slight on ants because we are far worse, because ants don’t seem to have the egos or selfish needs like we do. We are capable of such beauty and love but sadly too often such pettiness, cruelty and selfishness. Humans never stop amazing me in their cruelty and smallminded ways. The psychological aspects I understand, I despise, but I understand them. Ultimately, I’m a realist. It’s hard to faze me and I have a very dark sense of humor. I believe it is something David and I share.
Conversely, “Mindhunter” has a tone that you might expect more from a science fiction series as opposed to a “horror” one as such. Did you want to avoid a truly dark and bleak sound?
I never thought of “Mindhunter” as a “horror” thing. I agree it lives in more of a science fiction space in that regard. We wanted to go dark, but not dirge-like. It is much more complicated, then mere horror. And even in its’ darkness there was light. This is Holden’s story mostly, and his story has light. With this complexity, I wanted the music to sparkle and glisten at times as well.
Could you talk about your haunting orchestrations, and want went into their particularly eerie effects?
David initially told me to just ruminate on it all for a while before making music. And it was simple and great advice. So I spent most of my time in perpetual thought about it all. Once I began working, a lot of time was spent experimenting with sounds and combinations of effects and studio things. Trying to find the SOUND. That was what was most important. Once I ultimately did, everything just poured out of me easily. I didn’t use any sound libraries, not really any plug-ins either. I made all the sounds that you hear, which was extremely important to me. I built a lot out of plate reverbs and tape echoes, hooking up tape machines together for phasing and length in the decays. I also recorded directly onto tape machines as well to give it that saturated warm sound. Things would go from tape to computer to tapes and back again. I would build pieces, mess them up and then build again from them. Sometimes I would bring in the built piece and play it like it was a new instrument in a sampler. It was complicated in its process, and not the same from one piece to the next. Although I did want them all to swim in the same sea, I would always say that they were “going to the same party”.
There’s almost a weird poignancy to “Mindhunter.” Is it difficult to capture conventional emotion when using such an unusual approach?
Ultimately most all of the pieces of music were done very quickly. I might take my sweet time building sounds. But when it came time to create I work very fast and I improvise so much. I prefer to never look at things to directly. Because if you do, the magic will disappear. Again, I would look from the peripheral. So if I felt something coming, this unexplainable feeling when you just know there is something about to come out of you if you let it, would happen. I would sit down with an instrument and just play. Then I would pick up another instrument and just play another reaction off the original thing – first takes mostly, and then another and so forth. I would try to think little and just react. Music when played great is about listening and a dialogue between instruments. This approach, no matter how sophisticated the process to build sounds was, made it so that the actual score became entirely about the emotion.
You use a water bowl sound in the cue “Beyond the Pleasure Principal,” an instrument that was heard quite a bit in 70’s film scores, especially by Jack Nitzsche. Then there’s reverberating, bell-like percussion for “The Man from the Alarm Company” that could have been in Michael Small’s “Klute.” Did you hope to capture the dark, conspiratorial sound of the period’s soundtracks as well?
I know Jack’s arrangements from his rock/pop records of the 60’s-70’s. The Phil Spector stuff, Rolling Stones, I love the orchestration he did on Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid.” He is responsible for countless of the most compelling orchestrations in existence. Jack’s work is spectacular. I adore their sophistication. He scored William Friedkin’s “Cruising,” which is such a wonderfully weird movie. It’s full of holes, but it’s terrific. However, I absolutely did vibe off of Michael Small’s “Klute” once David turned me on to the film and I had already been thinking about “Marathon Man,” which was also Michael Small. So yes, and I think that is a very apt description of the period’s “dark, conspiratorial sound.” I very much love films of that period. And I also love the sound of the foley in films of the period, like in “Cruising” or “Blow Out” or “The Conversation,” where things sound so much like they are in a vacuum. Like when a man is being chased at night and we hear the click clack of the footsteps and breathing, but only those things. Not the sounds around them of the night like would sound in a modern flick. I responded to that but in a musical direction. Not about realism as much as artistic effect.
The water bowl sounds were several things including glass amonica on other tracks. But on “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” and many others, it was just regular crystal wine glasses taped to half of a broken guitar case set on a keyboard stand. I set them up like a piano and tuned them up with water into a couple of octaves. I could bend the notes by pushing my hips up to the case and turning it on its side a little, making the water move around. But I didn’t get that idea from anyone, although I know I’m not the first I am sure, but I sort of thought of it one day and tried it. Although having 24 glasses full of water set up for a year in a recording studio surrounded by electricity everywhere is a VERY VERY sketchy thing. The moment I was finished I packed them up. In the days ahead I will be breaking them back out to begin work on Season 2.
What’s the balance between organic instruments and electronic effects in “Mindhunter?” And how did you achieve some of the more surreal sampling, especially the kind of chopped, bubbling insanity we hear inside “Ed Kemper’s Cage?”
There is actually very little electronic synths, only in a few pieces, most all were built upon organic sounds but then morphed through studio magic like tape machines and plate reverbs and often played again thru samplers and such. Or for instance on one or two of the pieces I made an old 70’s drum machine trigger the wine glasses allowing for different octaves then I could make in real life, and looped them at unique rhythms. On “Ed Kemper’s Cage,” I wrote a very elaborate classic cinema type piece for the second half of it during the early period of absorbing Bernard Herrmann and being inspired by his stuff. If you heard it without all the crazy tape savagery it is quite fantastic and complex. But, of course, I had to fuck it all up and that is essentially what we hear. I had to do away with any preciousness toward beauty and allow the work to be twisted into sonic clusters. The violin at the top of the piece is my good friend and magnificent talent, Davide Rossi, playing off of me on violin. And at the end, the music’s insanity was playing with that pristine piece running through 4 tape machines and funneling into another one, feeding back and phasing while I messed with the varispeeds, slowing and speeding the tapes off of each other so it went nuts. Basically, I would play and conduct the recording gear like it was an instrument.
Given how insane the scoring could be in a show like this, “Mindhunter” is surprisingly melodic, and even beautiful in its eeriness and stillness. Did you want that kind of contrast with the horrifying, visceral words your score is accompanying?
Yes, as I mentioned earlier. I wanted to bring in melody like in the old films I adore. But I think I bridged it with a modern approach to soundscape.
How did you want to play the difference between the approaches of agents Holden and Bill?
They were both so different, generationally as well. Bill Tench was older, in his forties and Holden in his late 20’s. They had different perspectives, responsibilities in life and tastes, so the themes reflected that. Just as Wendy’s themes reflected her in such a different way than the others.
How did you want to reflect how Holden was basically losing his mind over the course of the show? And how did you want that disintegration to musically affect the relationship between Holden and Debbie?
Holden ultimately gets stronger mentally as well as sort of losing himself simultaneously. That conflict was important. There’s only one use of a guitar on the entire score and that was in “Weird Thing,” which was Holden’s “failure” theme. It happens several times, or variations of it, in several points of failure for Holden. First in the beginning after the failure of the botched hostage situation and again in his failures with his relationship with Debbie. There was something about the single use of the guitar with the live piano and strings that made it special and also of the period in a way. With its open tuning it reminded me of a memory of walking the undeveloped hills of my hometown, listening with headphones to a cassette of Led Zeppelin III, the acoustic album. It was my neighbors cassette, hand made.
Their song “That’s the Way” blew me away. It was my first real introduction to Zeppelin, I was probably 12 or 13 and I have that vivid memory. When I first played my cue “Weird Thing,” it just reminded me of that for whatever reason. For the very climax of the season, we end the show with Led Zeppelin’s “Into the Light” for Holden’s panic attack, which I believe editor Kirk Baxter first brought in but before “Weird Thing” was also placed there. I think he unconsciously associated that piece with Zeppelin as well, prompting that inspiration. I am sort of just connecting those dots at this moment. “Weird Thing” is one of my favorite pieces, and one I get a lot of feedback about from fans of the show. It is very emotional yet stylized in such a way with this glistening transcendent quality.
With “Mindhunter” running ten episodes, what was the challenge in doing a “best of” cd? And what are your favorite cues here?
To put together the album I enlisted the help of Jonathon Stevens, who was the music editor and a tremendous help. Ren Klyce, who has done sound design for Fincher for years as well, added some great ideas to the process. It was Ren’s idea for instance to combine the “Main Titles” with the piece that now forms the tail of it on the album. Before that I had them as separate pieces. Jonathon helped combine some pieces. He’s amazing at his job. And on a couple of tracks, he took elements of several pieces and combined them together to make something new as in “Rose Confession.” He was invaluable in the whole process.
I was conscious of making the cues for the show stay within the same keys so as to be able to layer them to make new pieces from the elements. For this “Best of, ” we had to look at all the material used, which was a lot and many variations upon main themes, then try to combine them and edit out bits that became too repetitive. There were threads and melodic elements that purposefully would float from one piece to another. But we needed to be very conscious, to not be too repetitive for this album.
I also wanted the album to feel cohesive so some of the pieces from the show that didn’t make it were ones that were on the fringes of the sound of the show, or little cues. It was such a great thing to do, because it really helped solidify what was the CREAM of the music and give me perspective on it all, allowing us a place to build from for Season 2. Of my favorites, in a way, I sort of stacked the deck, meaning I arranged the album putting some of my favorites on the top, although I do like all of the pieces that make the record. But the ones I come back to are often “Four Windows,” “Weird Thing,” “Main Titles” (mostly it’s outro which isn’t featured in the show’s main titles, but in other places), “Fantasies,” “Wendy’s Suite,” “A Bird in the Fan” and “Welcome to Nowhere.” But truthfully, I like them all. I was just looking at the album line up and if it’s on there that means it’s one of my favorites. There was a debate on whether to put it in the order of how it appeared on the show vs. what would make the best listening experience. In the end, I decided to make it more a stand-alone album and make the listening experience its own thing.
Given “Mindhunter’s” critical and ratings success, it looks like Holden and Bill will be on the case for many years to come. How do you hope the show and its music develop? Would you like to see it deal with multiple subjects, or center around a particular case that might take it in a more “traditional” serial killer show direction?
I am excited in the same way a fan is of the show is. I want to see and hear what happens next. Just like when I walk into the studio to create and explore I don’t like to know what is going to come out. It’s boring if I do, then it means it’s just connecting dots and it becomes paint by numbers. When making records I can get bored if the song is there and the band has to merely record their parts. Drums, then bass, then guitars and so forth it can be a snore. Sometimes that’s the right approach but it’s not where the magic is for me. I like to discover, to react and play, leave the thinking aside. We have to be in a state of play to find new exciting things. And I love working with David Fincher. He’s a brilliant man and he puts together brilliant people and let’s them push themselves to try and find greatness. Good leaders do that. So I just want to explore as the seasons go forward and see what we discover with no preconceptions about where this story goes. I just want to react off of it.
Tell us about your “collective” studio the Department of Recording and Power?
I bought a building in 2016 and built my dream studio with the help of my wonderful partner in life, Keely King. It’s a great place and a continuing art project for us. We have our offices to handle our business and rooms for art and all sorts of projects. It’s a large building and has been a blast working on it, aside from a drainage pipe on the roof busting during the big rains two days before Christmas last year where there was literally a waterfall pouring over our beautiful vintage NEVE console. That was one of the worst nights of my life, helpless and spending the entire night with buckets and trash cans trying to avoid meltdown. The morning after I was set to meet with David to watch the show and spot where music should be happening. I sent him a video of the waterfall at about 4am saying I would be there but I would be wet. But now things are back to normal, things have been fixed or replaced and the place is a gem.
I like to build things as I make music, switching back and forth, which I find clears my head. It’s very big with isolation rooms, with large movable walls on wheels so that rooms of all sorts can be made inside the very large live room. It’s an analog lover’s dream, and my temple of sound. It has a big kitchen, several offices, shower, residences to sleep when working late, and it sounds spectacular. The control room has been scientifically designed and is tremendous. It’s best control room I have ever worked in, very accurate. It is open for others to work in as well. All the usual top studio stuff and we master records as well.
I often refer to it as a collective because of the many talented friends, like Mark Leone, whom I have an animation arm of the company with. They come by and help me in various ways and the broader company we are forming to collaborate on future projects. When I would visit my Grandfather he would always put me to work, whether helping to build garage or mowing his lawn, I am sort of the same way. People come by and we get into projects. To me it makes life fun.
With “Mindhunter,” do you hope to be part of the crowd of “come from nowhere” composers like Mica Levi, Oneohtrix Point and Brian Reitzell who are coming up with bizarrely hypnotic and unique scores for film and television projects like “Under the Skin,” “Good Time” and “Hannibal?”
I can’t say I know of Oneohtrix Point’s work yet, but I adore Mica Levi’s score for “Jackie.” It’s just incredible and so exciting. Those bendy swells just melt me, that are the main component of Jackie trying to hold onto herself and the legacy of her husband. I immediately bought the soundtrack after I saw the film and played it over and over for days. Brian has oddly become a new friend of mine lately, and I love his work very much. JC from Milan records, who released the “Mindhunter” score, along with some of Brian’s work, introduced us because our studios happen to be about 100 yards away from each other. To be mentioned in a bucket with them is an honor. “Come from nowhere,” I’m not so sure that’s apt. But in terms of the composing for film, I suppose it does apply. I’m just happy to be challenging myself, growing and working with amazingly talented people and being a part of something I love.
Now that word is out to your scoring, where do you hope your own career goes? And would you welcome projects that are far happier in tone?
Yes, in fact I would prefer to do different things and not be asked to repeat myself. If someone said to me to do the “Mindhunter thing” I wouldn’t want to do it. For me it’s always about finding new places to go musically. I know if I stay stagnant for too long I will get restless and it won’t serve me. I’m best when I’m moving into new uncharted directions.
Visit Jason Hill’s The Department of Recording and Power HERE