Interview with Siddhartha Khosla

Everyone loves a mystery. The podcast problem for the unlikely Arconia apartment three amigos of ex TV cop Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin), had-it Broadway producer Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) and snarky, decidedly younger Mabel (Selena Gomez) is that they just can’t stay out of trouble. But then, do they really want to, even when a new, way more incriminating body lands in their laps for the second season of “Only Murders in the Building?” Yet what better way to convey elder Manhattanites with a hipper social media generation than combining chamber music with the retro hipster energy of a team heist score? That’s the ingenuity of composer Siddhartha Khosla for a theme-driven soundtrack whose music is a big, distinguishing presence for the distinctly NYC Woody Allen-esque wit meets NPR snark of a game afoot. A hit when it pandemically premiered at showing just how much fun it could be to be a shut-in with a killing to solve, Khosla gets an even more interesting case to solve for a new case in “The Building” that literally opens up the origins or the Arconia and the heroes’ ties to it. 

Best known in the non-streaming world for scoring the smash (and now concluded) three-tissue series “This is Us,” for which his songs would net Emmy nominations and chart-topping success, Siddhartha’s TV roots chart back to such series as “The Neighbors,” “Grandfathered” and “The Royals.” He’s also played youthful energy to spare with “Runaways,” “Love, Victor” and another snoopy young lady named “Nancy Drew,” as well as criminally cutting coupons with grrll power in the film “Queenpins.” But when it comes to Siddhartha’s vibrantly hip talents, it’s how he breathes new life into Manhattan murder mysteries that’s the violin to these wannabe Sherlocks. 

Evoking a Tony world of oh-so-with-it residents with strings, piano and a classical sense of melody, as crossed with a decidedly 60’s sense of vocalese and crime jazz, Khosla gives “Murders” a truly catchy peppiness of has-beens finding a new sense of purpose along with their exasperated confidant. Brilliantly constructed in a way where nearly every brick in the Arconia wall is a variation is what sets “Murders” apart. But what also differentiates the show, particularly in this new season, is that it isn’t all just fun and games. While on the aged face of it the victim is just another kvetch, the new case reveals a real sense of poignance for the characters, let alone sympathy for the murderee. Musically digging deeper, yet with no end of humorous creative flair, Khosla keeps up the quickly identifiable motifs from the past with newfound emotion. It’s a second season case that shows a composer and show definitely not intent on being bound into expectations when it comes to cleverly, and suspensefully teaming up to find the culprit among the bodies that will likely keep turning up at The Arconia for some seasons to come.  

Tell us about what led you into composing. 

Before composing for film and television, I began my music career as the singer/songwriter of a band called “Goldspot.” A number of my band’s songs had appeared in film and television thanks to some music supervisors like Alex Patsavas and LA radio DJ Nic Harcourt who played our music on his radio show. Ultimately it was my college friend Dan Fogelman who hired me on his television show “The Neighbors,” that got me into composing for TV  and film. Dan went onto create “This Is Us,” for which I composed the original music, and that show really helped put me on the map in a huge way.

John Hoffman (Photo by David Muller)

How did you take up residency in the “Building?”

Dan Fogelman introduced me to the “Only Murders in the Building” co-creator, John Hoffman, and when John and I met we instantly hit it off. He’s a special, creative soul, and with him I found a creative kindred spirit. He heard and liked some pieces of music I had been writing, and we clicked right away.

How did you develop the musical concept for “Murders?”

Honestly, it was all about the space that John Hoffman and the producers created for me to do my thing. They wanted me to write from my gut, and not having any boundaries allowed me to be as quirky and original as I could in my approach. I heard a melody off of reading the script that I thought could convey the vibe of the show. That piece ended up becoming the main theme of the show you hear in the main title and woven orchestrally throughout. We wanted something that felt classic and modern all at the same time. I always liken the sound of the show to what it must feel like inside the walls of the Arconia.

Why do you think a neo-classical approach is particularly funny here, particularly in the way that it conveys the upper-class, suddenly woke world of New York?

I don’t find the neo-classical approach overtly “funny,” but rather a dramatic take on the mystery of the show. The drama in the score helps to bring out the seriousness of the mystery, and maybe that is what oddly enough helps to bring out the comedy in the show.

Could you talk about your main theme music, particularly when it comes to its clever chorus. Do you think it’s harder to get across a memorable main theme given that so many are truncated now?

Even from my days in a band, melody has always been my guiding light in music. I hear melody, I hear hooks, and I always structure my scores around memorable motifs. Thanks for noticing, I’m quite proud of this one. And yes, with little time to get a concept across it became even more imperative that we have a signature theme.

Tell us about your main themes and their orchestration. How do you think they distinguish the characters?

I try to keep a central palate that can be used across all the characters, but it does change some. Charles has the most regal sound in the score, big strings, classical, sweeping. Oliver tends to have a little more pizzazz, woodwinds, some horns, a little more snark. Mabel has a cooler palate – more atmospheric, mysterious, emotive. My orchestrating team is amazing and we have a great time playing to the characters inside our wonderful world.

How did you want to get across the age and generation gap between Charles, Oliver and Mabel, yet convey a bond that keeps them together?

What keeps them together is the thematic threads, melodically, that we weave throughout the score. The age and generation gap is performed so effectively by Steve, Marty, and Selena that I don’t need to do much. In fact the score plays its own tune, committing to a few main themes, while the three of them are the creative geniuses that keep us engaged.

Who’s your favorite character to play?

All of them, ha!

Do you think a string and piano-driven style helps the scoring when it gets into more emotional areas, particularly in a new season that deals with various aspects of loneliness?

I think the strings and piano allow for me to delve into a more classical space, nothing too trendy, and timeless. Loneliness is a timeless emotion, and the score needs to support it.

Bunny Folger (Jayne Houdyshell)

In that respect, how do you think the scoring captures actual empathy for Bunny, whose murder sets off this season?

I had a single “Bunny” theme that you hear woven throughout her special standalone episode. And that helped us to really feel for her loneliness. That was such a special episode.

Is it difficult playing actual and jeopardy in the context of these “Murders?”  

I always keep in mind that although we are dealing with murder, there is also a sense that all will be ok. It’s a fun line on which to balance, the idea that we are dealing with some serious stuff here, but we’re also not, too.

There are a lot of funny fourth-wall jokes here about not falling into second season traps. Having been through numerous seasons of various shows like “Nancy Drew” and “The Royals” yourself, what do you think those pitfalls are, and how did you want to keep your new visit to “Murders” fresh?

I never worried about “Only Murders in the Building” living up to expectations in Season 2. We have amazing writers and legendary actors. Can’t go wrong IMO.

One of Season 2’s musical standouts is an ingenious game of “Son of Sam” where you do an “Ocean’s 11”-esque take on your main theme. Tell us about scoring it?

That was all John Hoffman, who pushed me to lean into the 70’s funk of it all. It was such an outside the box scene to begin with, something that felt born out of Oliver’s wacky mind, and John wanted me to lean into his craziness with the score. I’m so proud of that scene and that score there. It was so much fun.

Much of the music in “Murders” are often ingenious variations on your main themes. Is there a trick to making them so malleable?

I think the key is a strong melody/theme to start, something memorable — and from there it’s almost like I’ve covering and varying that theme over and over again. The confidence to do that comes from John and Dan who continually push me to be thematic. The trick too is a strong orchestrating team who have been such a valued part of my process.

Do you listen to podcasts, particularly true crime ones? And do you find anything particularly vain or absurd about the genre that the show takes off?

I recently started listening to “To Live and Die in LA” and I can see why people are so addicted to these podcasts.

Season 2 gives us the characters’ origins, as well as the history of the Arconia. What was it like getting to explore those backstories?

I am so impressed with the depth with of our show. The fact that we take a mystery/comedy and give it history and a backstory is such a testament to our writers and producers. The show is so much more than a bunch of laughs – by exploring backstories it gives such powerful context to everything we’re seeing on screen. It allows me to score this show like a prestige drama, and that’s incredibly rewarding.

Season 2 has a bit more drama and emotional revelations. Are you glad to expand your score in that way?

For sure. I love exploring the emotional subtext of why characters make the choices that they do, so leaning into that emotion musically is pretty inspiring for me.

Has the process of recording “Murders” gotten easier as pandemic restrictions have eased a bit?

Yes. We began S1 recording our incredible orchestral players remotely – and though that kind of worked, nothing replaces having live musicians in a room together. We got to record at the legendary Capitol studios and Village studios for Season 2  – and there was so much magic in the room. Some of the best players in the country played on this score, and their incredible musicianship is so vital to my process.

What was it like to reach the end This is Us?” and what do you think you musically accomplished with your run on that show?

“This Is Us” is a once in a generation show, created by a once in a generation talent in Dan Fogelman. Working on that show was a privilege and a gift for which I’ll forever be grateful. I got to emotionally integrate myself into the show in a way that I’ve never experienced. I scored it for my friend, Dan, and that was incredible special for me. I’m proud of the original sound we created for the show, I cared so much about every sound and every note. We ended on about as high as a note as you can in this business. I’m thrilled about what we created.

Composer Nainita Desai

Indian composers like yourself and “14 Peaks'” Nainita Desai have really been coming into their own in Hollywood and England. Do you think there’s a renaissance going on for composers of Asian origin?

We’re in an age where unique and original voices are finding their way to the top of heap of content. And to do that, diverse voices in front of and behind the scenes are needed more than ever. Nainita does amazing work, and I’m so proud of the great work that’s being done by so many minority composers. Hopefully this renaissance lasts forever.

I really enjoyed “Queenpins” and your bouncy approach for its coupon ring. Could you tell me about that score, and how you hope to expand more into feature scoring? Or do you think that television offers more creative opportunities now?

I really loved scoring “Queenpins.” Our brilliant directors Aron and Gita were a dream to work with. I love the bond that happens between director and composer – a unique friendship forms, based on trust. I feel a similar kinship with Aline McKenna with whom I just worked with on “Your Place or Mine,” an upcoming film starring Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher.

What musical areas do you think you have left to explore in the Arconia, and doubtless seasons to come? Is there any place you’d particularly like to go in it?

 I guess that’s a mystery at this point, but one I can’t wait to decipher.

Watch “Only Murders in the Building” on Hulu, with the first season soundtrack by Siddhartha Khosla available HERE

https://music.apple.com/us/album/only-murders-in-the-building-original-score/1581503290

Visit Siddhartha Khosla’s web site HERE

https://nicemgmt.com/siddharthakhosla

Special thanks to Jana Davidoff and Alix Becq-Weinstein