Benjamin Wynn, best known as Deru, is the hypnotizing Emmy winning composer, sound designer, and electronic music producer behind YouTube Red's Impulse, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, Jonah Hex, and Marvel's very first podcast, Wolverine: The Long Night. As a solo artist, Deru has released four mesmeric albums of ambient electronic music, most notably 1979 released on Friends of Friends. He is a founding member and serves as creative director of The Echo Society, a Los Angeles based collective of artists and innovators. In our focused discussion, Deru speaks on his mission to integrate his scoring work with his artistic identity and the origins of his scientific approach to music making.
I understand you grew up in Chicago. What was your entrance to music making? Who were the most influential musical figures in your life during your formative years?
My first love was photography, and I credit my high-school photography teacher for helping me discover creative sensibilities. Both she and my older brother helped form my love of art. In high school, I realized the difference between all of my academic classes, which were mostly focused on memorization and critical thinking, and my photography class, which was more about what I had to say as an individual and crafting a point of view.
I also got into underground hip-hop around that time. I grew up in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago, which is where the University of Chicago is located. They have an amazing college radio station called WHPK. Back then, they had an incredible hip-hop show run by JP Chill. He had fantastic taste and it was almost a pseudo religious experience for us. We would tape it every week and play it in our cars and walkmen. He drew out all of the underground rappers and producers in Chicago.
What I loved about hip-hop was the feeling of the music. It had a quality that I hadn’t hear in other music before that. It had dirt, grit, vibe, static, noise. It brought out qualities that most other music would try to minimize, and I fell in love with those noises and the textures. I got into DJing, eventually bought a sampler, and started making instrumental hip-hop beats. On a local level, I was inspired by people like Common Sense, No I.D., Molemen, Rhymefest, Juice. On a wider level, I was inspired by DJ Krush, DJ Shadow, Amon Tobin. To this day, I credit these influences and I still listen to this music regularly.
Tell us about your time at California Institute of the Arts. What insights did you gain in college that shaped your professional trajectory?
When I found out that I could study music technology in school, I was pretty shocked and instantly sold on the idea. Growing up, I played trumpet and piano but I wasn't really passionate about it until I got into the technological side of things. Working with samplers, I loved how you could transform sounds. How you could pitch them, loop them, reverse it, throw them through effects, then re-record it to create something very different from where they started. I began to crave the amount of control that I could have on sound as I began to learn more and more about signal processing and software. I discovered how I could turn them into a piece of recorded music and how they could impart an artistic sensibility. For me, the whole purpose of making music is to express myself, so I wanted to develop the skills to convey my ideas.
When I got to CalArts, I was listening to underground hip-hop almost exclusively, but my musical tastes exploded after that. I heard classical music that moved me, avant-garde music, jazz, and world music. I loved CalArts, not only for the teaching but for the open environment. I was inspired by the teachers, but also the students that I was surrounded by. When I was there, I took African drumming classes, I took Balinese gamelan classes. I had the opportunity to do a duet performance with John Bergamo, who's one of the most amazing percussionists the world has known in the last decade. I also studied with Morton Subotnick, which was amazing.
These experiences expanded my appreciation and knowledge of music in a broader sense and gave me a deep love for writing with real instruments, integrating them into the electronic music I produce. Now, when I compose with organic instruments, one of the most powerful ways I approach this is by imagining the effects, transformations, and processes I want beforehand. This really gives me a way to blend the acoustics and electronics in a way I really love. My aim is to make my electronic music sound organic. I love for those lines to be blurred and that’s what’s led me down this path.
How was the moniker of Deru adopted?
By the time I was graduating from CalArts, I’d assembled a CD of original material and realized that it worked as a cohesive album. This was around 2002 and the landscape for releasing music was incredibly different compared to now. Everything had to be done through a label. I remember researching and finding the addresses of 14 different labels that I respected. I burned CDs, printed up address labels, and attached little notes that said, “Please put this in your CD player or your demo pile, whichever comes first”. I mailed it out on a Sunday and by Wednesday, I had a response from a British label and it totally blew my mind. That became my first release.
In terms of the name Deru, I came across it in the back of a dictionary, as an Indo-European root of other words, like duration, endurance, and tree. I responded to the idea of trees, as I liked the idea that as all of these people all over the world listen to my music. It’s like growing roots.
One of the things that I like about releasing music is that once you give it to the world, it’s no longer your own. You spend all this time and energy making it the best you can, and then you put it out into the world and it becomes the listeners'. Everyone has their own unique experiences with it that you can’t control or predetermine.
Can you tell us about your first paid gig as a composer?
While I was in school, I was introduced to a man that ran a music house in Hollywood named Walter Werzowa. He does everything from commercials to films and TV to sound branding work.
The interview process was hilarious. My friend brought me over to his studio and we had a beer. We talked a little bit about CalArts and other things completely unrelated to music. At the end of the beer, he was like, “Well, cool. It was great meeting you.” and we took off. I remember asking my friend, “Did I get the job?” and he was like, “Yeah, just start showing up!”. So, I did. *laughs* From the very beginning, I was thrown into some really interesting projects, generating ideas for ‘experience centers’ and installations, making music for commercials, and doing some sound design. When I got my first check for writing a piece of music, it felt like I’d cheated somehow to get paid for something that I enjoyed.
After college, I began freelancing on my own, and I was living with one of my friends, Bryan Konietzko. He came home one day from his job at Nickelodeon and said, “Mike and I pitched this show and it got picked up. Do you and Jeremy want to do the sound and music?”. That became Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it led to the formation of Jeremy and my company, The Track Team, which went on for over a decade.
While running The Track Team with Jeremy Zuckerman, you contributed to the likes of Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Jonah Hex. What were some of your personal highlights from these experiences?
Avatar was an incredible project for so many reasons. Bryan, Mike, and Jeremy are three dear friends, and it was inspiring to see Mike and Bryan assemble a production team by asking their friends to get involved. It was a bold move because in some cases like ours, they had to advocate for people who didn’t have a lot of prior experience. I was 24 and I’d never worked on anything that large. The whole process was new. Looking back, I think our inexperience was a benefit in many ways. It led us to come up with creative solutions.
After completing three seasons of Avatar, we were asked to demo for the Kung Fu Panda TV show that Nickelodeon was developing. We got it and the showrunner turned out to be such a great person that three years went by as a fun yet intense ride. After that, we went on to do The Legend of Korra with Bryan and Mike again.
Whenever people ask for advice on how to break into the industry, it’s hard to give them the right answer as it’s so unique for everyone. So much of it comes down to relationships with people. The traditional path for a TV/Film composer is to become an apprentice. That works for many, but it wasn’t my path. I fell into it because of my friends. Jeremy and I were offered an amazing opportunity and we ran with it. That was it.
At this point, I’m directing my career towards projects that allow me to do my own style of electronic music. I’m trying to merge the worlds of composition with my artistic output. Having both sides of what I do exist in that same sound world is my goal.
Congratulations on your score for the YouTube Red series, Impulse. It is based on Steven Gould's novel which follows a defiant teenaged girl who discovers her ability to teleport while being sexually attacked by the most popular guy at her school. How did you originally become involved and what were the initial conversations surrounding what musical direction to take for the show?
Thank you. Lauren LeFranc, the showrunner, told me during our first meeting about the show that she had been writing to my album, 1979, which was incredible. That gave me the confidence to know that I could trust my instincts. Everyone involved was very trusting of my take on things. Their support meant that I could follow my gut and write my first score under the Deru name.
In my early conversations with the producers and the music supervisors, I described a very subtle sound world with acoustic elements that would be tweaked to become dark and alternative. In some of the same parallels, I imagined what the main character is going through as she figures out that she can teleport. What is this mechanism of teleporting, and what is the natural phenomenon that is occurring? What can you do to sounds to give them that same idea? When you bend, tweak, and alter acoustic sounds, it’s almost an analogy for teleportation.
Early on, I talked about how to blend the two prominent storylines in the show aesthetically. I would say that the majority of the show really follows the main character and her world, discovering what happened to her emotionally through this trauma and learning about her powers. Then there’s the secondary storyline about the other people in the world with the same capabilities and the forces upon them that don’t like that they can do this. How do we merge Henrietta’s world, a very subdued and realistic localized existence, with the fast paced, action packed aspects of the show? A lot of thought went into making sure the more typical drum heavy Hollywood action music wouldn’t contrast too dramatically from the rest of the score.
From your perspective, what are the key instruments that shape the sound of the Impulse?
The heart of the score is the bohemian cristal instrument, which is an aprés Baschet sculpture. It originates from the French instrument that was invented by the Baschet brothers in the 50’s. You wet your fingers and vibrate a series of glass rods, which are connected to metal tines of varying lengths that make different pitches. Then those vibrate two beautiful looking cone-shaped metal radiators. It has a huge range of dynamics and can go from very gentle and quiet to massive and mean sounding. You can create so much emotion from one single note.
I’ve been intrigued by this instrument for years and wanted to get my hands on one for so long, but they're quite rare and hard to find. A friend of a friend, Lenka Morávková, happened to be traveling through L.A. with one. I ended up coming up with the main theme for the show the first evening that we were together. The instrument just felt like the show to me. After playing around on it, I went home and wrote a few pieces for her to play. One of those became Henrietta’s theme and the foundation of the mystical transportation element of the show. These pieces grew into little suites and larger pieces of music that I could then pull for specific uses. I was looking to take a minimal approach, setting a continuous mood that would allow for the dialogue to unfold around it and contrast with the high-intensity moments.
I also did a spectral analysis on one of the notes and picked out the exact frequencies that made up the sound. Then I re-synthesized them using complex synthesizer waves (i.e. not pure sine waves), which ended up sounding like an orchestra. Those became the orchestral sounding swells in the main titles and in a few of the action cues. The bohemian cristal instrument worked itself into the score subtler ways as well. I tapped on the resonators and created an impulse response that I sent synthesizers through it to make them sound as if they were coming out of the instrument.
For the past couple of years, I've been working on a Max/MSP patch that does this analysis and resynthesis as well. Max is an object-oriented graphical programming language for sound where you build patches out of elemental objects. I’ve been building an instrument that listens to the audio coming in and does an analysis to pick out the 15 loudest partials, then it assigns those to MIDI notes with pitch-bend offsets for each partial, and sends those out to synthesizers. This is a way to create microtonal music but with the frequencies based on natural acoustic sounds that have a defined structure and a sense of being. By exploring this, I’ve opened up a range of unique sound worlds that only seem to exist using this technique. The harmonies can be very consonant or intensely dissonant, so I can make things incredibly dark or beautiful, and morph in-between them.
You have released four albums of expansive and melodic original electronic music. What are the most rewarding aspects of your work as an artist? Can you tell us about how your artistic approach varies when you are creating for yourself versus a project with more guidelines and constraints?
On the one hand, scoring is great because it's a large collaborative project that I get to be a part of. On the other, being an artist is important because the source of the music comes from me alone. I enjoy figuring out what I want I want to say and making music that is uncompromisingly me.
What is your DAW of choice?
For the last decade, I’ve been using Nuendo and Cubase. All of the DAWs are somewhat similar, but I will say that doing microtonal music in Cubase is great because they have a feature called note-expression, which allows you to draw individual automation on each note. I think the most interesting software out there tends to be the more esoteric stuff like Max/MSP, Supercollider, C-Sound, etc.
In your opinion, what is the greatest misconception about electronic music producers?
It’s changed a lot over the years. When I first started releasing electronic music, I think a lot of people didn’t have much reference for it and therefore, either called everything ‘techno’ or didn’t take it very seriously. Just like any other form of art, the medium itself isn’t as important as what the artist has to say while using it, and in that regard, I’ve never had any doubts about the power of electronic music.
The computer is an incredibly powerful tool. It has the ability to become any instrument you want it to be. The issue then becomes, what instrument do I want to make and how can I control it? The power of electronic music comes down to the amount of control any individual can figure out how to enforce upon it. You can get it to facilitate almost whatever you want, depending on your knowledge and the amount of energy you're willing to put into it.
What are your duties serving as the creative director of the Echo Society? Do you have a personal anecdote you'd like to share from the early days of the organization?
The Echo Society has been an amazing thing to be a part of over the last six years. It started with a group of friends going to concerts together. Inevitably, we started talking about events that we could throw ourselves. We decided that we wanted to try blending acoustic ensembles with electronics and processing and present them with visuals in interesting spaces. We imagined events where people could go and have drinks, see their friends, and hear new music being performed live.
For the first show, we decided upon 14 players, we found a venue and just went for it. The response was amazing. From that 300 seat theater, we did four other shows and eventually did our fifth at The Ace Theatre, which was 1,600 people.
Each year, we get together and decide what we want to do as an organization. We discuss what kind of presence we want to have, and what kind of events we want to throw. As a part of the group, my role is just like the others, to push things along and help figure out how to make the things we want to accomplish happen. The Echo Society has opened me up to a greater community of people in Los Angeles. Musicians, composers, producers, artists, lighting designers, choreographers, conductors. I remember sitting in the audience during the Ace show and being amazed that I knew all of the people that could come together to make a show like that happen. It was powerful.
As we know, composers spend most of their time in isolation. What activities do you enjoy that help break that cycle?
I go mountain biking from time to time, which I’ve loved since I was about 14. My other passion is photography, which aside from music and biking are the three that I’ve carried with me my whole life.
One of the joys of living in Southern California is the weather. While I spend the majority of my time in the studio, if I just open the door, it’s beautiful outside. Taking a moment to enjoy that is great.
Stream season one of Impulse on YouTube Red now.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Editing | Ruby Gartenberg, Alex Sicular
Research, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Deru and White Bear PR.