Transcendent electronic musician and ASCAP Award-winning television composer, Brendan Angelides, widely known as Eskmo, returns to discuss the connective musical threads in the penultimate season of Netflix’s traumatic young adult series, 13 Reasons Why. In the field of scoring for media, Eskmo additionally serves as the musical architect of Showtime’s treachery soaked power drama, Billions. An active artist since 1999, his immersive soundscapes transport listeners to an uncharted realm where intimacy and abstraction co-exist within a mystical framework. Outside of his heterogeneous musical output, Brendan is a staunch advocate for music education in underserved communities, working in tandem with ETMLA, The Echo Society, and FeelHarmonic. In our focused conversation, Brendan discusses the societal value of shining a light on the dark side of contemporary American life and how he sampled his domesticated rescue squirrel for his latest Ancestor release, Motions Like These.
In the latest installment of 13 Reasons Why, the series has shifted into a crime drama modality, examining the aftermath of the crisis averted at Liberty High’s Spring Fling and the mysterious murder of notorious villain, Bryce Walker. What were your initial thoughts on this narrative focus for season three, and how did the restructuring of the show alter your score?
Well, it was interesting. We got together and watched the first episode. Brian Yorkey, the showrunner, gave us the lowdown on the angle of how the overall season would go. It’s funny because each season, I ask him not to spoil it too much for me. I don’t really want to know things that happen later, so I can be surprised as episodes come in — to a degree. This season worked the same way. The emphasis was obviously put on Bryce. There was a tremendous amount of tension in the viewers wanting this kid to have some type of justice.
I think they really play with that concept this season in a number of different ways. We’ve watched this character, who’s just a kid, do horrendous thing after horrendous thing and then essentially get away with it, which is unfortunately pretty close to the truth. There are a lot of different stories about these types of things happening — some kid being involved in a sexual assault or rape but ends up walking away with a slap on the wrist. I think they really wanted to show the conflicting thoughts, feelings, and opinions of how this would feel. They really played with the tension between the characters, wanting this kid to feel pain or to disappear.
Throughout the season, they show that the kid was fucked up, but he’s also a human. The general gist was that it was supposed to feel like a thriller and have a sense of heightened tension. This show is particularly theme-oriented, so there are a lot of strong themes I continually come back to. What’s been really cool is, with each season, it’s evolved into a different type of mindset and a different mood. This one was a really cool challenge. It’s like, “Okay, how can I take some of these themes that I developed and turn them into a thriller aesthetic and vibe?” Some themes actually shifted into more of a heartfelt place because there are really strong, gentle moments in this season that are super beautiful.
There’s a moment between Clay and Tyler that had me crying. Actually, there were a couple of scenes that made me tear up. Tyler was raped by another boy at school last season, which was a huge thing to tackle on television. I don’t think I’d ever seen that before. So, there were some very strong healing moments surrounding that, and show how he was affected by it. I think they wanted to emphasize that people can be there for you when you want to talk and never to forget the significance of that, but it’s also okay to do it at your own pace, and no one should be forced into it. They dive into that narrative too. All of these things were thrown into the mix, but generally, it was meant to feel like a thriller with a bunch of different layers underneath it.
A lot has been said about the creative decision to replace Hannah Baker’s narration with newcomer, Ani — the daughter of the caretaker for the Walker family’s ailing patriarch. As the season progresses, Ani befriends the students, taking a distinct interest in Clay, while becoming romantically entangled with Bryce. Were there any musical elements that you felt the need to retire in Hannah’s absence? Did you craft new themes to highlight Ani’s immersion at Liberty High?
Absolutely. Hannah’s general motif and her whole sound, for the most part, was absent from the season. I was able to bring back her theme for a couple of different moments when her mom returned, but it took on more of a darker tone. That was one of the things, as I mentioned before, that shifted under the lens of a thriller. It was like, “How can this motif from before shift in a different way?”. That was one in particular.
With Ani, it was about developing her own kind of aesthetic. It was usually combined with Clay and then had some other things going on. She’s also lying through the whole season, so I was playing with that as well.
In the past, Bryce Walker has been the catalyst behind myriad traumas, depicted as a callous bully and sexual abuser protected from consequence by his privileged family and athlete brotherhood. As season three unfolds, we learn about his dysfunctional upbringing and see glimmers of the person he could have become in the months leading up to his death. What were the challenges of creating a sonic landscape that mirrored the complexities of a serial rapist attempting to rehabilitate his life?
Yeah, that’s a good question. It was a challenge because you don’t want to like this kid, and you also don’t want to force the audience to all of a sudden be like, “Hey, now you should feel bad for him.” You can’t force that on anybody, and you have to be very gentle and mindful. A lot of it was trying to be very delicate with him.
Aside from the super intense moments and the various shifts in the narrative, Bryce is still a threat. There are moments where you see this side of him come out where he’s trying to be better, but then he’s still got this destructive side that’s just inherently in him. In general, the main rule I had was to be subtle and conscious not to push anybody towards particular feelings. I played with a certain ambiguousness and a certain level of holding tension with him without revealing too much about how things would go.
There’s a big scene with him towards the end of the season, and I think it’s about a four-minute-long piece. I felt really proud of it because it holds a certain delicate, subtle, tense space for him trying to ride the middle ground, just like a bicycle. On the one hand, there are some feelings of empathy for this character, but on the other side, you know he’s not safe.
Can you tell us about how you envisioned and fulfilled the score for the sequence in which Bryce’s body is discovered at the pier?
I actually went through a couple of different versions, speaking with Brian Yorkey and trying to find the exact right tone for that scene. You do want it to feel like a surprise even though you know, at some point, that you’re going to be learning who this is. At first, I actually put more of Bryce’s tones leading up to that moment, and I stripped them back. When I was working on the show, I had no idea about the advertising or marketing direction Netflix would be taking before they premiered the show. I didn’t even know that ‘Who Killed Bryce Walker?’ was going to be the main tagline.
To be honest, I had no idea it was Bryce until I watched the episodes because I asked Brian not to spoil it for me. He’ll tell me certain important things, so I can build an arc or create a connective thread, but for something like that, I’m happy to be surprised. Then when I go back home and start working on stuff in the studio, I’m able to figure out the best direction.
That one, in particular, was essentially a gradual tension-type of scenario while not giving any clues or indication to what we might see. In the show, they make you consider if it could be Tyler they’re about to show, or maybe another kid in the water instead of Bryce.
What did you set out to achieve with the musical atmosphere of Bryce’s interrupted funeral service?
For the funeral, I intentionally took some of the actual instruments from Justin’s central theme from season one because I’ve always seen them as having an ongoing parallel. They’ve known each other since they were kids, and they’re both living these different parallel lives in a certain way, so I thought it would be really interesting to make their worlds crossover musically.
If you listen to the organ sounds and synths on the track, “Funeral,” they are from a similar palette to the ones in Justin’s. For me, [Bryce’s] funeral sat around that tone and aesthetic until his dad creates a scene. At that moment, I wanted it to have a dropping out kind of feeling — just a sudden thing you’re not really expecting — playing into the dysfunction of the family.
Overall, I wanted to make sure it didn’t feel too happy. I didn’t want his funeral music to feel like Darth Vader either. There had to be a sense of loss there, so the way I was able to tap into that was through his mom. The sadness of his mom was always the through-line for me.
This season of 13 Reasons Why continues its tradition of representing many dark realities of modern American life. Examples include Tony’s family being deported by ICE, Monty’s abusive father and his closeted homosexuality, Chloe’s traumatic abortion of Bryce’s unborn child, and the contrasting substance abuse struggles of Justin and Alex. In your opinion, what is the value of bringing greater attention to these topics in a show predominantly speaking to a young adult audience? Because your music offers emotional guidance to the viewer, what do you look for in these storylines to inform your compositional approach?
I think that was Brian Yorkey’s vision all along, and I think that’s why Selena Gomez was interested in the script, which originally came from the book that inspired the first season. As far as I understand it, Brian’s main intention with this was to get the kids talking amongst themselves, and the parents talking amongst themselves. I think he wanted to hit on enough of these strong issues in ways that make the kids and parents communicate with each other, which honestly really ended up happening. It’s pretty amazing, you know?
However perfect or imperfect the show is in tackling certain issues, I think it’s really achieved something awesome. There have been moments when teachers have had to speak to kids, and the show even has a warning at the beginning of each episode. From what we saw, when the show first came out, there was a huge wave of support from young people, and then once a bunch of them were talking about it, then the parents were like, “Oh, I’ve got to learn about this. Why are my kids talking about this? It sounds kind of crazy.”
Then the adults watched it, and then a handful of them got very concerned about it — that started this really big dialogue. For me, I feel like it’s tremendously valuable to shine a light on any of this stuff. Immigration is obviously a big topic right now, and the show explains what happens and discusses the ramifications. For them to address something like male rape, this is actually something different. All these main topics are things Brian Yorkey and the writing team actively researched and they came to Netflix being like, “Look, this is why this is in the show. This is a really important topic for us to discuss.” These are all things that are actually happening.
As an example, male rape on college campuses is a widespread issue, particularly in the sports arena, and it’s just something that’s not really spoken about. Even sexual assault in general, and racism, I feel like poking at them and having them intertwined into a narrative is the stuff that keeps people engaged and keeps people rooting for the characters. I feel like it’s a different way to open up discussions, and I think that’s a valuable thing.
To me, it’s actually been amazing and bewildering, but not that surprising to see the serious concerns that have been raised about the show. There’s a tremendous amount of violence across different genres of film and TV, but this show is actually addressing these things through the lens of what’s happening in our schools every day. It’s really interesting to me that people could say the show could glorify any of these things.
This isn’t just standing up for the show, but from my perspective, I genuinely feel like the first season was in no way whatsoever glorifying suicide — it was showing the ugly brutalities of this. No one had a sense that this kid who appeared to be fairly normal was experiencing all this intense stuff. Showing her experience was one of the main points they wanted to make. They didn’t want to show a character that was obviously depressed. They wanted to show a kid that everyone, on the outside, thought was fine. It’s not presenting overly exaggerated scenarios. There are a lot of people around us that are experiencing really tough things, and it takes having a conversation, however imperfect, to tap into it and get people to connect with it. That’s why I feel like all that stuff is important to have in there.
Across these episodes, we witness several radical transformations in core characters. Following his brutal attack by Monty that nearly set a school massacre into motion, Tyler is able to heal and speak his truth with the support of his friends. Jessica reclaims her sexuality and uses her platform as student body president to oppose rape culture. At the outset of this series, you had established delineated musical concepts for each person implicated in Hannah’s suicide. As these characters have grown together since then, as friends and allies, how has this impacted and expanded the musical identity of 13 Reasons Why?
Let’s see. I think this goes back to one of the first things I mentioned — taking some thematic elements and shifting them according to the general landscape of each season. That’s been a continual thing that’s transpired. I would say the most important thing is sticking to a general palette, and making sure that I’m staying within certain guidelines for the universe of the show.
From the first season, I feel like I intentionally wanted there to be a number of different flavors in there. It’s not just a very synth-heavy score. It’s not just strings. It’s not just piano. It’s grabbing elements from a handful of different places. For me, it’s been a lot about staying within those guidelines, allowing this certain kind of flexibility, and coming back to some of those narratives. It’s also work-wise because the other show that I’m doing is Billions, which is not an overtly thematic show. That’s more based on texture and moods, so it’s a cool balance to have those two different things happening.
When you mentioned staying within a specific palette, it really reinforces the idea of composers serving as world creators.
Yeah, yeah. It’s just trying to amplify, and then saving really special moments for special moments that are happening onscreen. Like before, we were talking about Tyler telling Clay about his whole experience. I had written something for that, and it’s such a powerful, powerful moment, but we ended up just playing that scene dry because it was so striking there. That thing I wrote for that scene ended up shifting into some of Tyler’s scenes later on. It also appears when Jessica’s in the auditorium speaking to everybody and all the kids who were also survivors of sexual assault start standing up. Linking those themes felt really nice to me. In my mind, it made perfect sense to merge those worlds.
The season comes to a close with your cover of Duran Duran’s Ordinary World. What sparked the idea to re-imagine this particular song?
You know, Brian Yorkey had the idea to use the song, and at some point, I had sketched out an idea. It might have been the last season, but in general, the lyrics just feel very applicable to the kids, and the story, and what’s happening. It also feels like a strong tie-in to his dream of wanting this to be a continuation of a dark Breakfast Club scenario from back in the day and connecting it with My So-Called Life. There’s always been a certain thread there that he wanted to build on. The original is a ballad type of song — slower, long, methodical type of tune. For season one, I did a cover of “Only You” with Selena Gomez, and that was an upbeat tune originally, but then we ended up making something much slower, like half tempo — more drawn out and open.
For this, I wanted to do the opposite, and essentially make this version almost double the speed. The main source of inspiration that it tied into was my love of Peter Gabriel. When I originally got hired for the job for 13 Reasons Why, that was one of the things that Brian Yorkey and I really connected about — Peter Gabriel, some of his percussion work, and some of his interesting, outside of the box, left field phrasing. For me, it made sense to be like, “Alright, what if we took this thing that had the applicable lyrics, but made it into something that felt more uptempo?”, and I went into my Peter Gabriel mindset with my own sound design.
How did you come to collaborate with Morgan Kibby?
Morgan and I have been friends through The Echo Society, which is the non-profit that I’m a part of down here in Los Angeles. I sent her over the track, and she sang some stuff on it. It sounded perfect, so we just went into it deeper. It was a really fluid process where we just shared files back and forth because I loved her previous work with M83 and the stuff she’s doing now as White Sea. It was really important to have a woman singing the song to have the tie-in to Hannah [Baker] and just the characters in general. Then I ended up singing a little bit of funky backup vocals towards the end of the song which was just for fun.
You recently released an experimental body of work, Motions Like These with Icelandic composer and artist, Kira Kira through your imprint, Ancestor. Can you tell us what initiated this creative partnership? Where did you conduct the field recordings woven into the music?
We met back in 2014 for our second Echo Society show. She was a guest that performed. We met at the show and worked on a little bit of a collaboration around that show. We just got to know each other better, and she invited me to come out and play in Iceland Airwaves that November. We went out there, and I believe we did an eighteen-hour recording session one day. We had a studio out there and just accumulated a big chunk of audio. Then over the course of four years, we basically just tapped the files back and forth.
It’s really just a fun, collaborative thing. We worked on it for a number of years and released it pretty quietly, so whoever got to check it out and connect with it, that’s awesome. I’d say half the album is intense, maybe a little bit darker, and then the other half is some really beautiful stuff. The last track, in particular, I love it so much. I think it’s about eleven minutes long, and it’s just a really long, gentle, and ambient enveloping track — it feels like a comforter.
We did some field recordings out here in Los Angeles. As an example, in the sixth track on the album, it has some recordings from us being at a playground that’s right next to my house, playing stuff out there. There are recordings of different musicians and a choir group that we worked with, and there’s even a field recording of our squirrel. My wife and I have a little handicapped squirrel that lives with us inside of our house, so he makes a little debut on the last track of the album.
I remember the first time we talked you told the whole story of how you rescued your squirrel and nursed it back to health, so it sounds like it’s doing well.
Yeah, yeah. He has two limbs — one of them had to get amputated around January, but overall, he’s doing great. His name is Albert, and he has an Instagram account called Albert The Wonder Squirrel. He’s friends with our cats. He hangs out. He stumbles. He’s completely a member of the family, and since he only has two working limbs, we just take care of him, and he stays inside. If he went outside, he would get eaten within five minutes.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Copy, Editing, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to ESKMO and White Bear PR.