Will Bates is the captivating and experimental composer behind a compelling roster of television shows and films including The Looming Tower, Rise, The Path, The Magicians, I Origins, Sweetbitter, Dirty Money, Hot Summer Nights, Imperium, and George R.R. Martin’s upcoming space voyage series, Nightflyers. He is the founder of award-winning music production, scoring, and audio post company, Fall On Your Sword, which rose to prominence after the unveiling of viral sensation, Shatner of the Mount. Hailing from the UK, Will spent his early years immersed in jazz before transitioning into electronic music production and touring across America with his band, The Rinse. These eclectic musical experiences served as a foundation for what would grow into an enviably diverse career in multimedia composing. In our reflective discussion, Will speaks on his chameleon-like approach to the art of composing and the satisfaction that comes from amplifying an unpredictable sequence of gripping narratives.
I read that you were inspired to pursue music after hearing John Williams theme for Star Wars, which resulted in you taking up the violin and the saxophone. Can you tell us a bit about your musical background in the UK?
Star Wars was a bit of a revelation for me at a very young age. It was like, “Hang on. Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. This is all one man?”. It blew my mind that one composer could be responsible for all of that music. It was more than just Star Wars. It was coming to the realization that it is possible to reach artistic perfection. When I was about six years old, I sang the whole score of Star Wars to my parents, and they reacted to this by buying me a violin, which I then tortured them with for about ten years. I was dreadful. I loved that instrument, but I could not get my head around it. After that, I picked up the saxophone, and that was my focus from the age of 9 to about 18. My goal in life was to become Cannonball Adderley. Around the age of 16, I started to discover electronic music. In my early 20’s, I released a bunch of techno records, a couple of house records, some drum and bass on these small labels in England. I slowly started to detach from the jazz dream.
I moved to the States and ended up starting a band called The Rinse, performing as a lead singer. The band was around for a number of years. It was sort of like Queen meets Daft Punk, that would be a really generous description of it. I loved that band, and of course, it played a huge role in my growth as a musician. Stylistically, we were all over the place, and I think that was part of the problem. In order to thrive as a band, it can be important to have a sound. We shared studios with our peers, bands like Longwave and We Are Scientists, who obviously ended up moving on to bigger, better things. We were sort of the other band on the periphery that never quite hit the New York City zeitgeist, but we had a lot of fun doing it.
We were at it for seven or eight years, touring all over and dodging success like ninjas. I got to see the country from the back of a van, which was great for a Brit coming to America. Then we released a record in Japan and everything sort of slowly fell apart after that. There comes a time in your 30’s where you feel a bit too old for that lifestyle and you know it’s time to do something else. Throughout this whole period, even back in London, I was scoring things like commercials and short films. It was and continues to be the only way I know how to make a living.
I’ve always jumped from one different style to the next. Jazz was my main thing; it has always been the foundation of my background in music. In some ways, I believe it’s the best education you can get as a composer. It allows you to have a great understanding of theory and musicianship, and I think it was a great springboard for me to do other things. That’s been my journey.
How did you initially break into scoring and what motivated you to move to relocate in the first place? Initially, what were the most apparent differences in your life in America vs. Europe?
I was very fortunate to be given an introduction to that world by a band guy who happened to be starting a music for media company back in England. Early on, I naively thought that scoring commercials would be a direct route into scoring movies. I scored a Del Monte orange juice advert for him and then ended up working in the studio for a while. Then I met a girl from Michigan, and we lived together in London for a couple of years. During that time, I was scoring ads, still playing jazz, and putting out records. Then she and I decided to move to New York together. Now, we’re married with two kids. We’ve been together a long time.
When I got to New York, I continued to work on commercials and ended up becoming an in-house composer at a different music house. During the day, I would do the rent paying grunt work, scoring tons and tons of ads, which taught me a lot. At night, I would work on Sundance films and projects. I eventually left and started my own company, Fall on Your Sword. That leads us to a whole other story of how I continued to work for myself while being able to exist and pay bills.
In terms of the differences between England and America, it sounds like a real cliché, but I think it just comes down to opportunity and access. There's just more stuff happening here. In America, it was pretty instant for me. The volume of work was so much greater. Moving to LA from New York was inevitable once I started doing more television. There were a few times where it seemed like I got a gig, and then they were like, "Oh wait, you're on the East Coast. That's not going to work." It was like, “Really? Even in this day and age, it matters?”. Now that I’ve been in this world and worked on all these shows, it makes more sense to me. People want to know that you’re nearby, that it’s possible for you to go to a spotting session, then a mix. Proximity makes the process easier.
A couple of my shows, The Looming Tower and Sweetbitter, are based in New York, so we still keep a little studio in Brooklyn to make it easy for me to jump backward and forwards. Inevitably, it's just sod's law that you find yourself in the opposite scenario. I moved to L.A. and then got all these shows in New York. It's like, “Come on, man.”
Can you elaborate on how Fall On Your Sword has evolved?
Fall on Your Sword basically began as a video art project. That Shatner of the Mount video was the beginning of it all. Then it turned into a band. When the band became kind of a drag, we started doing a lot of art installations. I’m obviously preoccupied with the power of music set to images. I feel like Fall on Your Sword is now an art collective. All of our pieces are to do with that relationship. A couple of times a year, we’ll put on these quite elaborate interactive music pieces on display in different galleries in New York.
We are eagerly anticipating the debut of Syfy’s Nightflyers, which is a science fiction horror series based on George R.R. Martin’s novella and short stories. Is there anything you can share about the musical palette you assembled to take the audience on a space odyssey?
Probably shouldn’t say too much about it at this point! Suffice to say that it is really, really scary. I’ve been working on it at the new Fall On Your Sword studios in North Hollywood, so I have this big, new space, which is so fun. It gets a bit spooky at night, so I try and work on it during the day.
Lots of wild strings on it, some crazy new synths I just got, including a very esoteric Russian drone synth. My buddy, Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin lended a hand with the violins and violas. I bring him in on projects quite a bit. He’s an amazing musician. I had a guy make me a souped up Hurdy Gurdy. To call it that is perhaps doing it a disservice, it’s more of a 23-string hand crank-able terror machine.
The Looming Tower recounts the events leading up to the 9/11 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks. Your score has a suspenseful textural feel and incorporates distinctive Middle Eastern instrumentation. What inspirations did you draw from Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning work of non-fiction? What were the challenges of musically conveying the weight of this monumental American tragedy?
The book instantly draws you into this world. I think it was important for the show, and also for Lawrence’s book, not to present this as a goodies and baddies situation. This was something we talked about pretty early on. We wanted there to be a Middle Eastern influence that didn’t fall into that stereotypical dark evildoer's sound with brooding scales. I think it was important to convey that sense of geography while allowing you to connect with these characters and begin to understand the events that led up to 9/11.
The first part of my process was to find those colors and choose the right instruments. I tend to start a lot of projects by selecting specific instrumentation. For The Looming Tower, the most obvious way to approach it was to track down Middle Eastern instruments and get my head around playing a few of them. I have a guy, this really grumpy dude with a store in the West Village in New York. I often go there and say, "I'm about to start a project that's in this geographical location. What have you got?”. He'll go into the back of his shop and bring out a dulcimer or something. For this project, the first things I went for was the Turkish ney and then the oud.
I’ve made a career of being able to pick up instruments and figure out a very rudimentary understanding of them to get inspired melodically. I wouldn’t be able to pick up one of these things and do a concert. In some case, I probably wouldn’t be able to play the same melody twice, so I’m always recording. I feel like this experimentation process automatically made for a contrasting mixture of western and eastern sounds, which was something we needed to convey. That was the starting point.
I did a lot of research into different Middle Eastern modes. There’s a control I use when I’m working with modular synths that allows me to slip between the scales. It’s similar to the Ondes Martenot. It allowed me to do the quarter turn shifting in between notes, which I think was a very evocative device for the show. It almost doesn’t sound like a synth. You get these unusual flute-like tones. Often, it was about creating this soup of electronica and then adding Middle Eastern flavors on top to provide geographical context.
I brought in a friend of mine called Spencer Cohen, who is an amazing percussionist, to play on a lot of the cues. He is a master of a lot of very specific rhythms unique to different regions. There is a lot of him playing this Moroccan instrument called the riqq. Sometimes, I would give him a click and let him dictate the grid. Other times, we would have no grid or click, everything was totally loose. He would be playing then I would add in instruments as I saw fit. I was looking to create a percussive feel without it obviously sounding looped or sampled. It was important to me to have it come across as real.
Rise focuses on the journey of an impassioned teacher who takes on the job of revitalizing the theater program at the school he works at. How did you become involved with the show?
It started with Jason Katims. We worked on a show called The Path, and after that, another show called Pure Genius. He brought me on board. This is the third thing we've done together. He's an incredible showrunner. At this point, he’s almost godlike after Friday Night Lights. Working with him is great because he is very trusting and a musical guy. He is a guitarist, so our conversations about score are very specific. He really knows what he wants and has a real understanding of the emotional power of music. The pilot was directed by Mike Cahill, who is someone I’ve worked with quite a lot on I Origins, Another Earth, and The Magicians. It’s kind of like a family.
The Path is an emotionally rattling drama that revolves around a fictional religion called Meyerism, which combines elements from various schools of thought and cult mentalities. Can you tell us about the initial conversations surrounding the electronic and traditional hybrid palette you created for the show? How would you describe your process of writing thematic material for The Path and how has it evolved over three seasons?
When I first met with the creator of the show, Jessica Goldberg along with Jason [Katims] and Michelle Lee, the producers, I had just finished a movie called Going Clear about Scientology. They had actually taken a few of my cues to use as temp.
We talked about the inevitable comparison of Scientology with Meyerism, and how they wanted to be sure that there was a distinction between the two. As the season progressed, you got more into understanding what Meyerism is. It's really nothing like Scientology, but of course, in those first few episodes, we knew every article was going to make that connection. We talked a lot about what I had done for Going Clear and how we could make different for The Path.
One of the big decisions was to focus on the setting of the movement in the countryside. The environment is almost rustic, and it’s conveyed in the way the show was shot. I wanted that to be present in the score. When I used electronic instruments, they have a very gritty and earthy quality. I was attempting to make it sound like dusty air. It’s hard for me to describe, but I didn’t want the pristine quality of traditional electronics.
Everything was going through big amps and made to sound really distorted, mic’ed from across the room. To be honest, it made things a little complicated, especially when you needed to recall a session for a new episode, because everything was printed. I tried using Soundtoys Decapitator and Saturator, but it would still sound a tiny bit digital. They work great for all sorts of other things, but The Path needed to have its signature sound. I was going for that blown out speaker feeling. I got crazy with the reverb.
I ended up using a lot of mellotrons, slowed down tapes, sliding Ondes Martenot and a string quartet on the show. There were tons of very trippy sequences in the show, a lot of ayahuasca ceremonies, so it called for a different approach. Overall, there’s also a very emotional subtext that needed to be emphasized. It was really fun. I was sad to see the show end. It was a good run.
When crafting the musical identity for a show, what are the first steps you take? Which instruments do you associate with specific projects you've completed?
For me, every project starts differently. I think there has to be some sound that gets me excited and inspired. It has to be something new, something that's specific to a project. Sometimes that involves sourcing instruments, getting my hands on a new synth, or finding a weird way of playing something I already have. I find that I tend to decide on a sound or a way of doing things, play for an hour or two until I come up with tons of material. I tend to go forward with those ideas as inspiration for melody and harmony. There’s something in me that just knows when that moment has come. There’s a sense of achievement when I come across a melody that I feel is intrinsically connected to a character or a situation. You just know when one couldn’t live without the other. I personally can’t feel satisfied until that moment happens. After that, the score seems to write itself. I tend just to keep going and going.
My sessions are massive. I’ll start a pilot, and I’ll have the whole episode in one session, bombarding it and throwing tons of stuff at it. I will have takes that go on for 45 minutes, playing a synth, mellotrons, whatever it is. What’s useful about this approach is that I can refer to those takes when scoring future episodes. I can go back and pull something that hasn’t been used from a past comp. This was very useful when I was working on The Path because most of the score was made by me literally performing while I was watching the scenes for the first time. Having a bunch of material in the quiver from those first early writing sessions is helpful when you’re writing for television. I tend to do that to some extent on every show.
I guess this approach goes back to my jazz background. Of course, the music itself is rarely influenced by jazz, but there is a fundamental discipline of discovering melody through improvisation. I’m not the kind of composer who can just notate. I have to hear it and see how it interacts with the picture. Sometimes, there are even happy accidents.
Have you ever made a "musical mistake" that resulted in something particularly unique or special?
Every day. I think I’ve made a career out of making musical mistakes. Thinking back to high school, I remember studying four-part harmony and then I went on to get a degree and was taught all these very specific rules. Sometimes, my professor at college would hear things I’d done and just be like, “That’s not right.” I think that’s just who I am now. It’s like, “That sounds right to me, so I'm just going to do it that way." I feel like I’ve almost set up my studio to allow for error constantly. There is a comfort in being on this constant journey of experimentation and stumbling on mistakes. That's how magic gets created.
Can you tell us more about the contrasting musical worlds within your work on The Magicians? Are there any specific cues that you are most proud of from the series so far?
There is a simple melody that appears in the pilot, it’s something I really love, and it developed over time. It really began as Quentin and Julia's theme and evolved into the theme of friendship for the show. It’s something really easy, just Juno 6 and a bit of delay, but I’m really drawn to it. In this most recent season, there’s a sequence where Penny’s body is being burned. That cue was a bit of a winner.
Hot Summer Nights revolves around a young outcast spending the summer in Cape Cod, who falls into a drug-dealing operation by chance and ends up romantically entangled with his business partner’s sister. From what we’ve seen, Daniel’s journey is nothing short of a rollercoaster of emotions. What was the guiding inspiration behind your score?
Throughout the movie there’s this storm brewing, that serves as a bit of a metaphor of Daniel’s journey. There’s this looming threat on the horizon. I liked the idea of using sounds that resembled those ascending storm warning sirens. Rising synths, lots of sliding ascending sounds. I brought in my friend, Rich Hinman to play some pedal steel. He came up with some great sounds. One of the first cues in the movie has this rising sound that turns into a chord and evolves into Daniel’s theme. After two years in the shop, I’d just had my CS80 repaired, so there’s quite a few of those lush Bladerunner synth sounds in there as well!
What is your DAW of choice? Is there any new gear you have your eye on?
For me, it's Logic. I’ve been using it since the mid 90’s. Back then, the MIDI in Pro Tools was so bad. I actually started out using Cubase on an Atari ST with an AKAI sampler. Every time Apple does an update, and they kill something, I’m like, “That’s it. I’m moving on”, but I don’t. I really should be using Pro Tools, but I’m kind of useless with it. Logic has always been my thing, and I have so many old sessions going back 20 odd years. It would be a drama to move. They’ve got me by the throat.
There’s a company in Massachusetts that builds huge plate reverbs called Pluto Plate. I have my eye on those. Dangerous.
What is a less than desirable chore that comes along with being a composer that people may not know about?
I think, for me, it’s when a scene isn’t working. For example, if a scene is meant to be funny and it’s not funny, but they want the music to help make it funny. That’s something I really, really resist having to engage in. I call that banana skin music. It’s like, “Seriously? You want to put in pizzicato strings and a slide whistle?”. That's the moment when I start wanting to do nothing. I had to do a few things like that very early in my career, but fortunately, I don’t seem to have that problem these days.
In your opinion, what is the most enjoyable aspect of storytelling through the medium of film and television scoring?
As I was saying earlier, I think every composer chases the buzz of landing on those melodies or sounds that fit a character perfectly. I won’t rest until I uncover it. It’s almost like finding out a secret or solving a mystery. That’s my favorite thing in the world.
In any creative endeavor, it’s wonderful to feel not entirely in control. I generally don’t believe in inspiration. I believe in work. I think that if I work every day, the ideas always come about in the end. Sometimes, it takes a long time, and sometimes, it’s instantaneous, but capturing that feeling is a real motivator for me.
There are also those moments where you write something and then hear someone else perform it. It’s almost an out of body experience when your work is subject to someone else’s interpretation. It can bring forth new emotions.
Lastly, what types of stories inspire you the most?
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to have worked on an incredibly broad selection of projects. I gravitate towards anything engaging with a great story. It could be a documentary, a TV show, even a video game. Anything that allows me to get under the hood and amplify what's there. Music can't change what's on the screen, but it can certainly help to draw things out. That's my favorite kind of scoring - when the performances and the story are so strong, and I am there to enhance rather than improve. Of course, you hope people will come away from the experience humming your melodies, but there is also beauty in every aspect working well together, supporting the same universe equally.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Editing | Ruby Gartenberg, Alex Sicular
Extending gratitude to Will Bates and White Bear PR.