Saunder Jurriaans & Danny Bensi

Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi are the impactful award-winning composing duo, who have contributed their talents to over 100 celebrated films and television series including Ozark, Fear The Walking Dead, Chef’s Table, Siberia, The OA, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, The Gift, Amanda Knox, The Discovery, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Barry, and Joel Edgerton’s heart wrenching coming of age story, Boy Erased. For the last 20 years and counting, Saunder and Danny have sustained a fruitful, impenetrable partnership, melding innovative orchestral arrangements, elements of contemporary classical music, and entrancing electronic instrumentation to great effect. In our thought provoking discussion, Saunder and Danny speak on their pivot from fearless prog rockers to distinguished composers and the individual strengths they bring to bear on their thriving musical union.

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

I understand that you met each other in 1997 and bonded over a love of Iron Maiden while Saunder was at Rhode Island School of Design and Danny attended Northwestern University. Can you tell us about the early days of your musical collaboration and how you have grown together over the years?

Saunder: I was in Providence at the Rhode Island School of Design. I was a freshman, and my roommate happened to be Danny's best friend from middle school back in Frankfurt, Germany. Danny would come down to visit, hang out, and party with us. We were both musicians and liked very similar music. At the time, I had joined a band in Providence, so every time Danny came down from Boston, I invited him to come and sit in with us. After that, he started sitting in on shows here and there, and we continued to bond over music. We were both big Iron Maiden fans.

Danny: Then we all moved to New York in 2001 and started our own band.

What was that band called?

Saunder: It was called Priestbird. It started out as Tarantula, and then Tarantula A.D., but then it was changed to Priestbird because we had this huge trademark fiasco. I mean, every cool name you come up with, there's like a 99.9% chance somebody already came up with it, or they own the trademark.

Danny: Priestbird was the name of one of our songs. It’s about a bird spirit who guides dead birds to the afterlife. We were like, "Nobody has that name.” Because of the legal situation, we only had two weeks to find a new name. It was extremely hard because we were on the road, you know? I mean, we had our phones back then to check when we had wireless, but it wasn’t like you could just Google things to find out if it already existed. We were struggling so hard. We were like, "We can either keep the name that we have, Tarantula A.D., and possibly suffer some serious consequences if we ever blow up one day and owe this guy a ton of money, or just change the name." So, we did it.

Saunder: After that, we put out three or four albums that came out of Kemado Records, toured and did the whole artist thing for about seven, eight years.

Can you describe the musical identity of Tarantula A.D. and Priestbird?

Danny: We were all sort of jumping around. My main instrument was the cello. Saunder was on guitar, and then we had a drummer who was on the kit, but also into lots of percussion. We all played other things too, so there was a piano on stage that we all played, there was a violin, there was all the percussion, Saunder played bass too. We'd pick things up and move them around.

Saunder: We were a true prog rock power trio. We were playing things with our feet while we played stuff with our hands. I had a double neck bass and guitar, so there's a bass up top and a guitar on the bottom. Our drummer was all over the place on percussion, on samplers, and would beat on the piano. Danny would be on the piano — he played bass back and then and a lot of cello. So, it was like all over the place on stage and a lot of fun.

Ozark follows a financial planner compromised by his money laundering ties to the Mexican drug cartel. In an attempt to survive, he relocates his family to Osage Beach, Missouri to set up an even larger operation and locks horns with the locals. How did you initially acclimate yourselves with this gripping project and what stood out most to you? Have you ever visited the Ozarks or conducted research on the region’s history?

Danny: I wish we had seen the Ozarks, but we didn’t. We had met Jason Bateman a few times before we started on Ozark. The first time we met him was after we scored a movie called The One I Love, which was directed by Charlie McDowell. He is good friends with Jason, so Jason saw the film, heard the score, and asked Charlie about us. We met him at a premiere pretty soon after that. Then we ended up doing The Gift, and Jason Bateman was one of the lead actors. At the premiere party, we were talking to him, and he was like, "I've got the perfect project for you guys."

Saunder: He already knew that this show would be great for us in terms of vibe, so we were on board right from the inception of the project. That was great because we were communicating with him right as he was preparing to shoot the first season. He sent us images, gave us some adjectives, and helped us understand the vibe about it.

What would you say are the core components of the dynamic sound world you both fashioned for Ozark? What new musical elements did you introduce into the second season that diverged from or expanded upon the approach you established in season one?

Saunder: Early on with Jason, there was a lot of talk about rusty old boats, cars, trashy RV parks, these kinds of things, but also about a majestic natural environment. One of the backbones of the score was junk percussion. We went out and recorded these big metal drums, pipes, glass bottles, cans, and tons of other stuff. We’ve kept using it, and it has a very rhythmic vibe — dry and dirty. We wanted this stark, propelling foundation to the scores and that’s how it started. On top of these layers, there are both organic instruments like cello. This season, we started adding more woodwinds, bass clarinets, weird processed trumpets. They’re all kind of messed with and crunched out in the score. We sampled a lot of them, and we played a lot of them. It was a mix of the two. We created our own kind of virtual instruments out of these pieces of junk, and we both have tons of percussive instruments in our studios to knock on, even things like the piano or the mic stand. Those layers started to build on top of these rhythmic layers, and that’s basically how we built it.

The score of Ozark creates an unrelenting feeling of unease and suspense that chugs along like a riverboat. What are your methods for defining such a strong sense of propulsion and intrigue?

Saunder: Those percussive elements are so key, and it's not just the fact that there's percussion — it's the way we use it. All of these rhythms are super simple. Most of them are just four on four and nothing much is happening, but the sounds are very striking because they are really distorted and blown out with very little reverb used on any of them. The percussion is really in your face, which I think is very different from anything else. It’s unique to the show, and we really wanted for it to be this messed up heartbeat through the whole thing.

Danny: There’s also a kind of comedic aspect to the percussion. It’s slightly tongue in cheek. We always have these weird little dialogues within the rhythms. You’re like, “Wow, that’s so childish,” but when you’re doing it on big metal boxes and playing with conviction, it changes how they come across. They are like these kids rhythms played so starkly. It’s a little absurd, right?

Saunder: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There are definitely moments that can be a little more humorous like when we introduce the guy who runs real estate in the first season [Kevin L. Johnson portraying Sam Dermody in Ozark]. He’s kind of a quirky weirdo, so the theme reflects that, and we had a chance to go all over the place with these types of instruments, which was a lot of fun.

Danny: I’ve always felt like humor was a big, big element. It's not obvious humor, but we had it in mind while we were writing the whole time. As we go into season two, sometimes, we’ve really had to go very serious with the music. One side is the ticking time bomb that’s been constant since episode one. Things are getting worse and worse and worse. The music just continues, but for a lot of it, it felt kind of humorous.

Saunder: Well, I think you can’t get away from that. Jason is such an amazing dramatic actor, but he’s got a smirk. A humorous edge to him, this sort of boyish vibe to him, you know? So, we wanted to bring out this very dark humor in Ozark.

Danny: Then there are moments like when Marty [Jason Bateman’s character in Ozark] is looking over the cliff, and he’s considering his death so that he can claim the family life insurance. That contemplation — that’s a very, very deep and serious cue. There was no humor in that. Or when a bunch of people are getting shot, we’ll have serious low tones, but when we move on to the next scene, we’ll quickly bring that percussion back to make that the transition.

Are there any specific plug-ins you use to achieve those signature saturated, distorted sounds on Ozark?

Saunder: We use everything. I mean, we use quite a lot of the Soundtoys. We love the Devil-Loc. We’ll also run a lot of these sounds through tape machines and up board distortions too. We have a lot of synths, so we’ll run things into these filters. We’ve also done some stuff through guitar pedals. We also have these old tape players that we dump things into and then you can slow it down from there. We mess it up and then put it back into Pro Tools. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. We do a lot of that.

How is your music affected by the constant conflicting agendas that play out between Marty and the Byrde family, the cartel, the local criminals, the labor union, politicos, and law enforcement?

Saunder: I think we approached the score for Ozark with a more omniscient general view rather than a theme for every situation. That’s because the characters are basically fucked all the time. It’s more about that than us trying to lay out and bolster the story in that respect. We’re trying to come at it with a constant sense of dread and unease regardless of who is there. Of course, there are some little things here and there for bigger relationships. You know, we have some themes for the kids, the Snells have their own dark double bass sound going on. We specifically didn’t go too obvious with that stuff.

How do you highlight the contrast between the serene natural beauty of the Ozarks and the twisted, not infrequently homicidal behaviors of the humans inhabiting this narrative?

Saunder: I think that organic instruments portray the natural beauty. We use a lot of strings. There are a few moments of piano that come in here and there, but it’s rare. There’s always some kind of organic sound to offset the junk percussion and the dark synth drones. There’s usually some cello or bass, double bass, clarinet, or something like that to accompany everything. That, to us, signifies the natural world.

Boy Erased is a coming of age tale built around social stigma, homophobia, and strident evangelical Christian responses to same-sex relations. How did you set out to musically reflect the journey of Jared Eamons? What would people be surprised to know about the process of creating this score?

Danny: Well, even in that description you just gave of the film, you can tell there are so many things going on emotionally. Although, this is about Jared's character, going through so much — all the social commentary, his own journey, this camp that he is forced to go to, his mom and his dad, and religion  — we didn’t just come up with a sound for Jared. We started by thinking about what sort of sound we should be dealing with. It was like, “Do we go back into the early 90’s? Where do you even begin?”. When we looked at the footage, the casting, the editing, and the performances, it was about finding what was going to work for us. Is it going to be electronic, is it going to be orchestral? How big is this movie in terms of potentially needing a massive orchestral score? Is it Focus Features? Is it going to be an international hit?

We started very simply, trying a bunch of ideas and seeing what stuck. At that time, it was this period of working with Joel [Edgerton, Boy Erased director and actor]. Before we got to the music, we got the movie, put it in our computers, watched it, and started to understand what was going on. Having read the script, we were able to look at the scenes and ask, “Are we watching the film from Jared’s perspective, an audience’s perspective, from his mother’s perspective, from the camp’s perspective?”. Both Saunder and I wanted to make sure we understood exactly what was happening and when and started to have this dialogue as we digested the movie. That was a month or two long process of trying out sounds and being like, “Whoa, that’s way too big for this scene. Wait, that’s way too small.”

Then we got into the sound like there's a slow motion part of Jared walking down the college corridor while people look at him. This is probably going to be music heavy, not a lot of sound from the film; it could even be quiet. From there, what can we do to write music about whatever’s happening in his head? At this point in the film, in this particular scene, he’s experiencing total chaos. He’s lost. He doesn’t have any friends. He doesn’t know what’s happening to him sexually. His parents are sending him off to this camp. We had to find the sound of introspection and inner turmoil  — a feeling of all these thoughts. On one side, it’s like, “Let’s create something driving underneath”. We used a chamber ensemble, where there are lots of instruments coming in at different times, offering new ideas. Maybe that could sound like a ping pong ball in somebody’s head that just cannot settle down. Maybe that’s how we should approach it musically, like a baroque piece where different instrumentalists layer on top of each other. Then it was like, “What happens if we turn introspection to the other side and make it sound very simple like a dialogue between two violins. Just two thoughts. Is that enough to communicate confusion and a sense of not knowing what to do, where to go? The feeling of having your feet stuck in the mud figuratively?”. Saunder and I try lots of stuff and learn what fits, but we generally gravitate towards less is more.

In another scene, Jared is going for a jog on his own to try and clear his head. That was a moment where we could create a cue that could be in a regular film, a nice orchestral moment where the piano is playing this searching melody. Then we thought to try something really weird, having an organ pedal from the church laying down a simple tone with two violins dialoguing in the same key. The violins and the performances tell you everything. By trying ideas that work musically or almost theatrically, you start to see how they can fit. You have to make bold decisions and try to stick with them. Then you pass them by the director, see if they respond to the ideas, and take it from there. It’s up to you to put it in a little pot, let it cook there for a while, and come back to it to see if it’s still a good idea, maybe the next day or a week later. You just keep revisiting these cues. Maybe it’s not working, and maybe you’re not feeling it. You could be bored of a cue, so you exchange it with another, try big moves, switch things around, get crazy, and be unafraid to try new things.

Saunder: All these things Danny is talking about are in your head when you’re writing music. That can be really helpful, but it can also hold you back. I have to get myself into a flow state where I’m not being pushed around by outside sources and I just go for it. We have to feel free to take chances and want to take chances because that’s what excites us about the process of making music. We never want to keep rehashing the same score over and over again. Boy Erased was particularly hard because it’s a drama. Of course, any film can be scored in a million different ways, and it works, but this film could have had a very vanilla score that you barely even heard and it could have done its job perfectly. Danny and I aren’t super talented in creating music like that, so we wanted it to be unique and pop without sacrificing anything or demanding too much attention away from everything that’s going on in the film. It was challenging to find that balance. Some films are easier. For example, if you have a really weird movie, it’s easier to go weird because it’s instinctively weird. If you have a horror film, it’s easier to go big because it has to be scary. This film was a tough and long writing process for that reason.

Considering that you both live on opposite sides of the country, can you describe the nuts and bolts of your collaboration?

Saunder: We bought a massive Dropbox account, and we run all of our sessions on there. They just update as we record and we’ll just pass them back and forth. We developed a coding system, color coding and tagging everything in our library system, so we know if it’s in the session, it’s marked in gray. If it needs revisions, it’s marked in purple. We’ve got a marker system down, and it has worked so far. Knock on wood.  

We both like to have our alone time to work on stuff. Usually one of us will start a cue and then pass it on to the other one. We just keep going back and forth, chipping away. That’s pretty much our workflow.

Danny: We didn't start out like that. It’s been dawning on me lately that it might seem like we’ve always gone off and done our separate things, but it wasn’t always like that. For the first few years, we were together in a room, making choices. What’s a cool sound? What’s not a cool sound? I have an idea, and you have an idea, let’s try this out. The other person would wait or help out while the other person tries out a concept. For the first few years, we were just learning how to do it, and now, one of us can go get lunch, and the other one can finish up. We keep checking in on each other, but we can get a lot more work done this way.

As we’ve grown and created a name for ourselves, we said yes to pretty much every project — commercials, fashion videos, films, documentaries. It felt like too much to do with both of us sitting in the same room, so we set up another computer, and it just grew from there. Now, we have a language of music that gets things done so fast. We just get ideas out. It’s like, "Yo. I put in a new texture to that cue you were working on. Check it out, see if you like it, mute it if you don't want it, whatever." Everything is boom, boom, boom, hashing out the work quickly.

Would you say that working together in the same room during your early years was the key to establishing such a unified approach to composing?

Saunder: Yeah, yeah. Back when we were in the band together and wrote our songs in the same room, we developed a style, and that was helpful for the first films we did. I was more of a technical head, working Pro Tools and all these things. I wasn’t that great, but Danny wasn’t as well versed in it. He would come in with cello, violin, and then we’d have one mic set up. I would hit record and then create a new track. He’d layer ten cellos on top of each other. That’s kind of how we got started. After that, we would go through our recordings, mute stuff, bring new things in. That time was actually really formative for us.

What are the individual strengths you each bring to your projects? As musicians and people, how are you different and how are you alike? How does this affect your creative output?

Saunder: That's interesting. Nobody's asked us that.

Danny: It’s changed over the years. As Saunder has said before, I would always do recording all the strings, and he was sitting at the computer, but now it's the kind of the other way around. I'm certainly not Mr. Technical Guy, but Saunder was like, "You know what, I'm going to learn the goddamn piano." He started taking lessons, and that was a few years ago. Now he’s an excellent pianist and can write any of the parts. He has also learned how to play the cello so that he could do those pieces as well. The violin is a bit harder, so I still do the violin stuff and then both of us play all the percussion. Saunder is much better at applying cool effects, mixing, panning, and getting the tape machines working. I’m terrible with that stuff. I’m just really lazy, and I’m just terrible.

I still don’t understand a lot of stuff inside a computer. I’ve just never been able to understand how to download things, figure out where they go, and how you get them into sound banks. My brain just cannot handle that, but I can handle a lot of other things symphonically. Over the years, we’ve had to both write on all the instruments because of whatever might be happening at the time. One of us is too busy, so the other one has to write. I’ve come up with my own way of dealing with electronic samples.

There’s always crisscrossing between us. We just sort of tweak and fix each other’s work all day long. It’s not like, “Oh, we need a piano cue. Saunder, you need to write it.” We both just write all the time. Sometimes, I’ll write a piano piece, then Saunder goes in and takes some notes out of it and changes a chord. Then it’s like, “Cool. I like this better”, or “Do you mind if we do it the other way?”. But there’s no time to get stuck. That’s what’s so great about having a partnership. We go ten times faster together, and there are very few times where we both hit a red light. Sometimes, we have to sleep on it, but the next day, one of us is like, “Oh, I came up with something” and then it’s done. I know a lot of other composers, and when we meet up with them, they are like, "Fuck. Sometimes it takes me a whole week to figure out what the answer to cue is. I don't know what to do." We rarely have that problem. Thank God.

Saunder: We go about it like we're one brain. We really try to tackle everything together. Sometimes, there’s a situation where something needs to be really classical, and Danny definitely has more of a traditional classical background than I do, so he'll spearhead it. I'll get in there and mess with it, and it’ll get less classical.

Danny:  Exactly, but it’s on purpose.

Saunder: It’s not a formulaic thing. It's not like we come from entirely different worlds musically aside from the training. We both have a passion for every kind of music, and we both have dabbled in a lot of it. We try to be one unit when it comes to our work. We feel very blessed to do what do. Our relationship is unique, especially the fact that we've worked together for 20 years like this and we stayed friends. We’re more like brothers. Actually, it’s better than being brothers because we don’t fight like brothers. We’re fortunate. It’s not an easy thing to encounter in your life. Sometimes, it feels like work, like we’re reporting to the office in the morning, but it takes a little awareness to remember that we’re going to the studio to make music. You can be like, “Argh, I’ve got to do this, but then you’re like, “Wait, I get to make music all day.”

Danny: Yeah, exactly. I just remember, back in the day, we recorded the Martha Marcy May Marlene score with one $300 mic and a laptop in Saunders’ bedroom, which didn’t even have any soundproofing for God’s sake. It was snowing outside, so the sound of slush under the cars driving by is in the recording. We used to wait for it to quiet down, but it got to a point where I was like, “I’m just going to go. I don’t care about the fucking car.

That’s really where we started, and we were just like, “Oh my god. Wow, we’ll probably make some money if we stick with this.” It wasn’t that we only wanted money. We were just wondering what the hell we were going to do with our careers. We were starting some other bands and doing other projects, but everything was month to month, and as it goes, that’s New York living. We were working on photo shoots, trying to pay our rent, coming home late at night, opening a beer and trying to write an avant-garde score. We were absolutely exhausted. We were turning 32, not 22 anymore.

Our energy was like, “Okay, time to take it easy.” I was so tired of getting up at five in the morning to go and move a cube truck to pick up sofas to bring to a photo shoot. We were getting treated like shit on set, and it just felt like, “We are musicians and aspiring composers. You’re going to be sorry one day for treating us like shit."That's the grind. It's the grind of all artists, right? You got to pay your rent, and you got to do your hobby and then hopefully, one day, it'll germinate into something more, into a career.

For us, it just never ended from the day that it started. We spent the first four or five years wondering if our phones would stop ringing. I've educated myself to understand all the different genres of film and all the different paths that composers can take. Even if you think you're on a certain path, you're not. You're going somewhere else. Why are you looking for the boundaries of a path anyways? To feel more comfortable? Well, it's not going to work as a composer. You got to be fluid and ready for anything. Just keep going, being positive, writing, creating, and keeping yourself interested. Buy new instruments. Experiment. Try different kinds of films and try not to get pigeonholed. Those are the things that we brought to the table, and we're still going. We just cannot believe it.

Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg

Extending gratitude to Saunder Jurriaans, Danny Bensi, and White Bear PR.