Tonight, the Season Eight premiere of The Walking Dead airs on AMC, marking my 100th score for the series’ 100th episode. This season promises “all out war,” as Rick and his armies battle to free themselves from the iron-fisted rule of Negan and his Saviors. These upcoming episodes will live up to this promise, and more, as they deliver all the intense action, drama and revelations that fans have come to expect from this juggernaut worldwide hit series.
This weekend also marks an important personal milestone: the long-awaited release of my original score soundtrack album, thanks to a joint partnership from Lakeshore Records and Sparks & Shadows. The album is available digitally, on CD, and also on vinyl, with a limited run of signed CDs available from La-La Land Records (UPDATE: by the time I finished this blog entry, the signed copies sold out!). And for those of you in Los Angeles, I will be appearing at a signing at Dark Delicacies in Burbank on Saturday, October 28th. If you’ve been waiting for this album to come out for a while, there are, at last, plenty of ways to get your hands on it!
With the release of my album coinciding with the staggering milestone of 100 episodes, I have reflected lately on what this show means to me, and what scoring it has brought to my life. Seven years ago, I met with Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd in North Hollywood, to discuss the score for their new series, The Walking Dead. I already knew Frank quite well at this point, after he and I connected because he loved my work on Battlestar Galactica. I was a little star-struck meeting Gale, whose films had been a huge influence on me growing up, and was thrilled at the prospect of collaborating with them to bring Robert Kirkman’s revered graphic novel to the screen. This was the early days of what would eventually become a global phenomenon. Frank had not yet shot a frame of footage, nor had a single actor been cast, but we were already delving into crafting a unique musical tone. Little did I know back then how quickly and powerfully The Walking Dead would impact the television landscape!
There have been many well-told zombie apocalypse tales over the years, and I felt this one would require music stripped down to its basic elements to be effective. Frank and I agreed that drama, action, and horror would be felt more intimately if the score were used only in pivotal scenes, and were composed with clear narrative purpose. The first episode and its score demonstrate this idea perfectly. Nearly seventy minutes of story are scored with less than twenty minutes of music, resulting in long stretches of virtual silence. The impact of each musical cue is undeniably heightened as a result.
This approach allowed me to create big emotional impacts with relatively sparse musical gestures. Perhaps the best example of this concept is the series Main Title Theme. The inherently simple piece is built around a single repeating tremolo string arpeggio that relentlessly burrows into the listener’s brain. On the first episode, I experimented with the idea of having those strings start at the tail end of a scene, after Rick shoots the little undead girl, foreshadowing the entrance of the title sequence. Implementing this simple idea in the first episode, starting the Main Title music before the Main Title visuals, unwittingly set a precedent that still applies, a hundred episodes later.
Scoring the first season, I had the opportunity to collaborate with some of my favorite instrumentalists. Steve Bartek’s creepy electric banjo became the voice of the walker threat (listen to “Glenn’s Wheels”). Ira Ingber’s slippery slide guitar slithers upward across the Main Title Theme, creating that distinct siren-like wail. Paul Cartwright’s electric fiddle adds a disturbing layer of improvisation above the discordant clusters from the string sextet (check out “Lord of the Vatos”). Autoharps, banjos, dulcimers and guitars were detuned, broken, thrashed and trashed in order to make this score possible. This soundtrack album commemorates their sacrifice!
This record also features a vocal performance, from Raya Yarbrough, who would later sing the Outlander Main Title. For the mid-season finale of Season Three, she performed a beautiful rendition of the traditional lullaby “Bye, Baby Bunting,” the beauty of her performance set against truly disturbing imagery.
The Walking Dead gave me the chance to collaborate with different showrunners, each of whom brought their distinct voice to the narrative, and influenced my score. I worked with Glen Mazzara in the second and third seasons, using acoustic guitars and drums to connect with the rural farmhouse setting (check out “Message to Morgan”). These newly added acoustic instruments blend with a chamber orchestra for the crushing mid-season finale, in “Sophia.” For the end of the second season, I took all the instruments I’d been working with, and blended them together in the fierce action cue, “Farm Invasion,” a piece that also utilized the largest orchestra for the series to date.
In the third season, I moved the score in the opposite direction, introducing distorted, pulsing synthesizers to represent the Governor, and the threat he presented to our protagonists. Unlike much of season two and three, the track “The Governor” is predominantly built from synthesizers, and boldly features one very simple musical idea that evolves gradually. It felt, at the time, as if I were finding a new voice for the series. Looking back now, I realize that “The Governor” actually represented a return to my musical roots, back to the first season where I employed simple ideas to elicit big emotional responses. Viewed through that lens, my approach to this track is surprisingly similar to that of the Main Title Theme, and would serve me well moving forward.
For the fourth season, and beyond, I collaborated closely with showrunner Scott M. Gimple, whose narrative vision encouraged me to push the extremes of my score outward in all directions. Synths and electronic textures became even more analog, with distortion and feedback blurring their tonalities to the breaking point. At other times, intimate acoustic instruments, such as guitars, piano and violin, were moved even more to the forefront, with evocative solo performances that heightened their emotional impact.
The plaintive and melancholy cello solo from “Three Questions” feels both familiar and exotic. If anything could create more dread than the Governor’s synth pulse, it might be Negan’s creepy ambient electric guitar gestures, heard in his title track on the record. The album concludes with “The Day Will Come,” a cue written for the heart-breaking loss of two of our favorite characters, from the controversial seventh season premiere.
Making this record was a community effort. I would like to thank all of my creative partners on this series, individuals whose artistry inspires me on every episode. Special thanks are due to Frank Darabont for bringing me into the family. I also must thank Gale Anne Hurd, Glen Mazzara, David Alpert, Greg Nicotero, Robert Kirkman, Thomas Golubic, Jerry Ross, all the brilliant directors and editors I get to work with, all of my friends at AMC, and Brian McNelis at Lakeshore Records. I could never have survived the musical apocalypse without the unending support of my friends, family, and my miraculous team at Sparks & Shadows, especially Joe Augustine, who has been working on this record with me for years. This album would not be possible without the endless enthusiasm and support from my producer, and friend, Scott M. Gimple.
Narrowing down the highlights of seven years of work to fit on a single soundtrack album was a tremendous challenge, and I strove to pick tracks that were both fan favorites and my personal favorites. Going through that process made me realize how much my music, and my life, have changed over the past seven years. I am proud of these cues, and thrilled that there is finally a way for fans to experience them in an album format. Most of all, I am excited because my experience on The Walking Dead is not over. As of this writing, I am buried deep in the action and madness of the eighth season, and I look forward to many more years of musical exploration.