A little while ago, I was able to chat with The Walking Dead and Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McCreary about his approach to composing, what we can expect from season 2 of The Walking Dead, his work with the Angry Video Game Nerd, and his love of Oingo Boingo. Check after the jump for the exclusive interview!
Doing great! It’s a dark, stormy day so I’m enjoying every moment of it.
[laughs] A perfect day for Bloody-Disgusting then!
Absolutely! So, I was looking through your credits on your site and was struck by the diversity of the genres. There’s sci-fi, horror, dramas, and video games. It makes me curious to know how you approach composing for a project and how you get into the proper mind-set?
Umm, it can be a challenge when you’re jumping from genre to genre. However, I find that genre hopping is actually very inspiring! It’s easy to get stuck in a rut when you’re writing in one genre for too long. So, when you’ve been writing for science fiction for a long time and a horror project comes along, it’s really exciting and rejuvenating!
But also, all of the genres that you listed are the things that I grew up with. I grew up watching sci-fi and horror and dramas and playing video games. These are all things I enjoy doing. So it’s not like I have to go back to the drawing board. I just have to go to a different part of my interests in order to write something different.
Although I’m going to guess that the answer to this next question will be “Not really”, is there a particular genre that you enjoying composing to the most?
Uhh, not really. [laughs]
Here’s the thing: when you’re scoring the picture or to a video game or to narrative I should say, it’s the story that inspires you. So, for me, it doesn’t really matter what the genre is. I challenge anyone to listen to my score for Battlestar Galactica and tell me what makes it a science fiction score. Likewise, there are many aspects of my score for The Walking Dead that are dramatic! They are commenting on psychological or emotional arcs within the story. It is not necessarily horror music by definition. So, really, genre is something I don’t really think about. I don’t ever really think about the genre I’m writing in, I just look at the project that I’m going to be contributing to and I’m almost immediately inspired by the story and the characters and the visuals and I translate that into sound. What genre the audience ends up putting it in isn’t really something I think about.
So, I wanted to talk about The Walking Dead because I’m such a fan of the series and I’m so excited about season 2! What can you tell me about the composing process for The Walking Dead?
Season 2 is going to expand the world of the series in just about every way. Geographically, obviously we are on a journey and we are travelling and they are reaching new locations and, perhaps, new people. Also, as the relationships broaden and as we get to know our characters better, I think the emotional connection we have with those characters is going to deepen as well. I think that will translate into a deeper score and I think the score will start commenting in a more emotional way. I’m really looking forward to that. The six episodes we did in season 1 were a real thrill. I mean, just a joy to work on. But it went by so fast! In many ways, I felt like we were just scratching the surface on what we could accomplish on a series of The Walking Dead.
With such a wealth of zombie films that came before the series, did you take inspiration from any of the musical scores of those films?
Frankly, I did not. I did not let the music of previous zombie films influence me. Not because I didn’t love those films or I haven’t seen them, but simply because The Walking Dead is a little different in terms of its tone. And if anything, I think the bigger influence on me, for better or for worse, was my knowledge of the comic books. So, having read the comic and keeping current with it, I feel like I know these characters so well. In a weird way, that was influencing me because when we meet a character for the first time, I already have these opinions and feelings for this character. That could be both a good thing and a bad thing. In many instances, I had to make a conscious effort to stop thinking about what I know from the comic and just score the footage in front of me.
That brings up the point that the comic book series is so far ahead of the show that you know the fates many of the characters. And obviously, some of them don’t have the best of endings. [laughs]
So, I’m curious, does that knowledge affect your compositions or the tone you used for some of the characters?
Absolutely! The influence it had was something I needed to contain on a conscious level because I found myself writing the music and thinking about the character arc that Laurie and Shane and Rick are going through in the comics. Ultimately, it created this pressure. I needed to write music that defined their entire character arc that would lead up to these huge things. Then I realized that, ultimately, I’m not scoring the comic. As a fan of the comic, Frank and the writers are keeping us all on our toes. They’re not following the comic verbatim. So I realized that I needed to kind of distance myself from the comic and just score the show and the scenes in front of me. When I approached it this way, that’s when I was able to start moving really writing a lot of music. It was tricky but I think it was the right decision because the show will blossom into its own narrative. We’ve only had six episodes and this coming second season will expand a lot.
With Robert Kirkman involved, I know it will stay true to the tone and the overall plot but I’m looking forward to the surprises they are going to throw our way and, certainly, the shifts in music will have to reflect that.
Are you going to be composing for The Walking Dead video game?
No, I will not be doing that.
Speaking of video games, I’m a big fan of the Angry Video Game Nerd and I was really excited when I saw that you composed the Christmas 2010 special! What can you tell me about that process and working with the Nerd?
I should say, first off, that I’ve been a fan of the Nerd pretty much since he first hit the web. I always kept up with his newest reviews. I thought that here was this guy that was able to articulate why so many of those games were maddening. In many ways, I don’t think that the younger gamer generation understands us in the 8-bit era and the frustration and difficulty of some of these games. In comparison, gaming is a much more accessible experience now. So, I hadn’t really thought about it but then when I saw his review of Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles, it was an eye opener! It was like yes! That is exactly how I feel about this and here is someone else who feels the same way!
So I was a big fan of his and then last year I reached out to him and said if you need any music for any of your videos, let me know! I did it because I felt that I got so many hours of enjoyment out of his reviews, it was the least I could do.
So he and I started talking about possible collaborations and then his Christmas review came up and he sent me a script and a rough cut and I thought it would be the right one to work on. I had just finished up The Walking Dead season 1 and my schedule opened up. So I tackled it and we had this score that kinda sounds like Christmas music meets 8 and 16-bit video game music with some Loony Tunes thrown in. It was a really neat score! We had live instruments and I sampled sounds directly from Nintendo and Sega Genesis hardware to create some of the video game sounds. It was really a passion project for me. And it turned out great! The fans really responded to it and I put the entire soundtrack up as a free download on my blog.
I think this is a perfect example of what we were discussing earlier regarding how genre jumping is very rejuvenating.
Absolutely! There is probably no bigger difference then the one between The Walking Dead and The Angry Video Game Nerd! [laughs]
Bear McCreary’s fanfare for the final Atlantis Shuttle Launch
Couple of tangent questions for you: What is your favorite beverage when composing or in the studio?
Wow! Very rarely do I say that someone has asked me a question that I’ve never heard before, but you just did it! [laughs]
My favorite beverage? God, I don’t know! You know, it’s kinda plain jane, but, if I’m not drinking, I’ll have a lemonade or sometimes I have that when I’m composing.
What are some of your favorite bands?
Aha! Well, my favorite anything is a difficult list to narrow down, so I can give you a handful and they are not in priority order. The bands that mean the most to me are Queen, Oingo Boingo, Pink Floyd, Guns N Roses, Sepultura, Dethklok, and Supertramp.
It’s such a joy to hear you say Oingo Boingo.
Well, you know about me and Oingo Boingo, right?
No, I don’t think I do!
Oingo Boingo was my favorite band growing up and I was as huge a fan of Oingo Boingo as ever existed. When I got to LA, I got in touch with some of the guys and over the past 16 years, I’ve worked with the rhythm section of Oingo on almost every project I ever do. Steve Bartek, the lead guitarist, played on Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead. John Avila and Johnny Vatos Hernandez play in the Battlestar Galactica orchestra. They played on SOCOM, Dark Void, Eureka, everything!
And when Johnny Vatos put together a reunion band to do some tours in 2005 through 2009, I conducted for them and sang some of the songs and my brother was the lead vocalist. The Oingo guys and I work together all the time. So, for me, as somebody who grew up listening to them, working with them on a nearly daily basis is pretty awesome!
Do you remember the first concert you went to?
Funny enough, the first major concert I ever went to was Oingo Boing!
Bear, thank you so much for your time and I look forward to hearing more of your work!