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Composer Bear McCreary on 'The Walking Dead,' 'Outlander,' 'Black Sails' & more

Television music is once again exciting. Having spent decades as predictable, simple, and even cheesy novelty material, the music for television programs is as diverse and vibrant as its cinematic cousins. A composer on the frontlines of this revolution is LA’s Bear McCreary, who first achieved acclaim with his rousing score work for SyFy space drama, “Battlestar Galactica.”

Bear McCreary
Thomas Mikusz

Currently, he is known for the sonic backdrop to such popular programming as “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Da Vinci’s Demons,” “Defiance,” “Black Sails” (the theme song for which he received a 2014 Prime Time Emmy nomination) and “The Walking Dead.” Recently, McCreary announced his involvement with two more upcoming shows, “Outlander” (a STARZ adaptation of the Diana Gabaldon fantasy/romance novels) and “Constantine” (an NBC adaptation of the DC Comics series “Hellblazer”), the latter confirmed at San Diego Comic-Con less than twenty-four hours ago via Facebook.

With so much high-profile work on his plate, free time is a commodity, so Examiner was pleasantly surprised when McCreary offered a bit of it for a chat.

Included within working six television series simultaneously, you also have had to deal with some seriously big moments - like S.H.I.E.L.D.’s demise & Ward’s turning, Irisa becoming weaponized, the Tarr family’s power-struggle, Herschel’s death…

Yeah, that’s a good question. But those are the moments that keep me going! Those are the things that I build toward in a series. Actually having that stuff on the horizon is how I am creatively able to stay focused. It also gives me a narrative road map; it lets me know where the series is going, in terms of bigger moments. It’s true those are the most challenging, I can tell you. Like the episode when Hydra came online just as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” came out; that was a lot of work! But, in many ways, it gave me focus in the episodes leading up to it and the episodes coming afterwards. Not having those moments would actually make the job a lot harder.

How much free reign do you have with creating the musical narrative of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” when the show is so closely linked to the Marvel films. I don’t think there has ever been a show so closely tied to the film world as this one.

That’s true. I’ve worked very closely with the Whedons (Joss and Jed), Maurissa Tancharoen, Jeph Loeb, Jeff Bell, and everyone has been very helpful in helping me find the sound for “S.H.I.E.L.D.” The interesting thing about the Marvel Universe, unlike the “Star Wars” franchise or other franchises, is that there isn’t a primary musical theme associated with it. So, in many ways, it actually left me quite free to write my own theme for “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” for Coulson and create a sound that is only beholden to the Marvel cinematic sound in its production quality. It has to sound like a big feature film – we record with a full orchestra every week!

But beyond that, I’m under no pressure from anyone to quote anything. Someday, if there ever was an excuse to, I’m open to it, but the show stands on its own two legs. And we’ve all felt from the beginning that that’s the important goal. We don’t want it to be viewed as a spin-off; we want it to be a show that you watch for the twists and turns and the narrative. And my job has been to help it stand apart.

Does it ever surprise you how huge “The Walking Dead” is and continues to become?

It certainly has surprised me in the past. And it continues to surprise me for this reason: coming from “Battlestar Galactica,” I had the expectation that really dark genre shows are critical darlings, have passionate fan bases, but don’t click with the mainstream audience. That has just been my experience. And I think, to a smaller degree, “Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles” fell in that category. So I was expecting that, going into “The Walking Dead.” I had no expectation that it would click with a wider audience.

And yet, the timing was really just right – it was the right show at the right time, and it’s a topic that a lot of people can relate to…not zombies necessarily, but that feeling of paranoia and what happens if society falls apart. These are questions that people are asking themselves, so, in many ways, I am also not surprised, looking back on it. But yeah, the show definitely defies the laws of ratings gravity – which is what goes up eventually comes down – but this thing is just taking off. It’s been truly a fantastic experience.

When you started on “The Walking Dead,” it was a small group of people, and your music reflected that, minimally with almost anti-music as a sort of white noise. Since the series progressed, the show has obviously grown beyond that group, with complex stories and a bunch of new characters. Is it ever a challenge for you to keep the show musically balanced without getting in the way of it?

The show continues to evolve both in front of and behind the camera. I’ve worked with three show-runners in five seasons, each of whom had a very different take on the material. So, for me, I’ve been keeping up and learning what each show-runner wants to do and evolving with the new characters. And the true challenge is that the show is evolving so much that there are character themes I developed early on that I have to be prepared to let go of. The show is so much bigger, in terms of its storytelling, and we’re looking at a new aesthetic. I like things that change; I like being challenged and keeping up with a complex narrative. This is the dream job for me.

So, regarding “Defiance,” how does one create a sound for a show that is futuristic, post-apocalyptic, tribal, primitive, alien, and Western at once?

Oh man, I don’t know. You hire me, I guess. [Laughs] That was a really hard one to come up with, and a lot of that sound was developed in the pilot. I essentially used electronics to represent alien influences, and I think the reason is fairly obvious – it has an unnatural sound. But to counteract that, because the show is post-apocalyptic and about very relatable and flawed characters, I used a lot of acoustic instruments. So, yes, you also hear rustic guitars and fiddle, orchestra and woodwinds to counteract the heaviness of the percussion. I also use a lot of junk percussion, like buckets and pots, and created a junky, post-apocalyptic sound and ran with it. And I had a lot of support from Kevin Murphy, the show-runner, who encouraged me to go hog-wild on it.

The theme that crawls beneath my skin is that spiritual, ethereal three-note Castithan theme. It’s so simple, but hauntingly melodic.

Yeah, it’s spooky and it’s weird! My biggest influence for the Castithans was actually “The Godfather.” I loved how, in “The Godfather,” whenever they were playing their cultural music, it felt really Old World. Yes, these guys are gangsters and they’re dangerous, but they have a mandolin tune that comes from Sicily. And I wanted that feeling for the Castithans – these people are dangerous and they’re criminals and unpredictable, but they are very ritualistic and have their own customs. So I thought I could create something that feels like Castithan ritual music. The fact that you even pick up on it makes me smile, man. That made my day.

That’s what I wanted to discuss. The Tarr family is very rooted in its spirituality, but they are currently going through a familial power struggle, so how do you balance tradition with the wild violence?

The interesting thing about their story this season is that Stahma takes command, and this leads to a very interesting turn in that a female is taking over a very patriarchal organization. So I decided that the very light gamelan bells and ethnic woodwinds that represented Datak and the Castithans in general should have a subtle variation for Stahma. It’s still the same theme, but I needed something lighter, more feminine. So, instead of using a duduk, which has a very deep resonance, I used an Indian woodwind, called a bansuri, which is more like a flute and has more high-frequency content. It sounded to me like the female version of the duduk. So, it’s little things like that, but I hope audiences pick up on that it’s the same theme. There’s a little power struggle going on between these two instruments.

And out of everyone on the show, Stahma scares me the most.

She’s fantastic. That’s my favorite interplay to watch on the show. And I love their son, poor Alak. I just love watching him get his ass kicked every week. [Laughs]

Getting to the elephant in the room, out of everything, “Black Sails” gets you the Emmy nomination for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music; third time at the plate! Tell about this.

Yeah! I’m very excited that the community has decided to recognize a heavy metal, hurdy-gurdy sea shanty. I was not expecting that.

How did the theme song come together? The show itself has a very interesting, off-kilter sound palette.

It all comes from the hurdy-gurdy, which is an ancient instrument. I’ve even used it in “Da Vinci’s Demons” a few times, because it does link back to The Renaissance and Middle Ages. It was in prominent use during the time period that the show takes place, say around 1715. The producer and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how this show was going to sound. We knew we didn’t want it to sound like the old swashbuckling, Errol Flynn-era. That’s the well where Hans Zimmer and his crew drew from for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films and updated it in a really kick-ass way. Because of that, we took that approach off the table right away.

So I just started with historical accuracy. I took instruments that were around at that time…every instrument in the score could be picked up and carried onto a boat. So, there’s hurdy-gurdy, accordion, guitars and lutes, fiddle and viola. And everything is a little jangly, a little loose and kind of rusty-sounding. And that’s basically how we discovered this oddball sound. It really worked, and it’s a very delicate balancing act. Even as we’re beginning to score the second season, we’ll get all the same musicians together, I’ll get all my music, and we realize that if the strings are too in-tune, if it sounds too good, or if the groove is so perfect that it sounds like it’s performed by professional musicians (which it is), then it doesn’t sound like “Black Sails.” We actually have to consciously roughen-up the edges, don’t use a perfect take, and that’s how we find the soul of the show.

And it’s got to be doubly difficult to do theming for the show, because ever character on “Black Sails” is a really strong, developed character.

Oh, totally. It’s a fully ensemble show, and it is challenging, but it also sometimes simplifies things, unlike shows like “Battlestar Galactica” or “Da Vinci’s Demons” which are highly thematic shows. I mean, every character has a theme, and I’m juggling dozens of them at any given time. But with “Black Sails,” I thought that approach was a little too classical. Again, it would have made the score too organized, clean, neat and pretty.

So there are a couple character themes – there’s one for Flint, one for Vane – but there are a lot of characters that don’t have themes, because I didn’t want to make it that easy on the audience. If a character has a theme, then you know right away whether he is a good guy or bad guy. And even with Flint and Vane, their themes are so amorphous – you really don’t know who you want to side with. They’re such dark, conflicted characters, I wanted to make sure the audience had the freedom to interpret them in any way they wanted.

And lastly, “Outlander” is just around the bend. I’ve read that the show was in development for a really long time. How long were you attached to it?

I’ve been attached to the show for the better part of a year. I’ve worked with Ron Moore for a long time; I worked with him on “Battlestar Galactica” and “Caprica,” and he’s the guy who developed “Outlander” for television. He called me, we started talking, and it just felt like a dream collaboration for me, because I was obsessed with the music of the Jacobite Uprising in Scotland when I was in high school. I knew all these songs, I went to the Highland Games every year for ten years when I was growing up, and I’ve been trying to use bagpipes in every damned score I’ve ever written, and producers keep looking at me weird, like “Why are there bagpipes in there???” So this is the perfect score for me to get involved with.

Has [“Outlander” author] Diana Gabaldon had a hand in directing the theming?

No, I haven’t actually worked with Diana yet, but I’m probably going to meet her when we’re down at Comic-Con together. I do know that she’s a fan of my work, and I’m a fan of hers. She commented on Twitter about hearing the big Scottish drums and bagpipes when she first saw the final mix of the first episode.

Are you scoring this one with a female audience in mind?

Not at all; I’m writing just to serve the story that I have. There is definitely a component to this show that is going to appeal to a female audience directly, and musically, there are a lot of cues that support that. I wrote what I hope is a great love theme for Jamie and Claire. When I first got the gig, I knew I had to write a theme for them that fans will recognize. And I’m hoping, after a few episodes, it’s stuck in your head and you’re singing it in the shower or whatever. So that’s very exciting.

But at the same time, I have complete faith in Ron and his team that they will deliver something that will appeal to a pretty wide audience. So, I’m just trying to support their vision and help them tell the story they want to tell. My fingers are crossed, but I’m hoping that men and women are going to find this show appealing equally. There’s really something for everybody…well, don’t let little kids watch the show. If you think “The Walking Dead” is harsh... Let me put it this way, I’ve been scoring “The Walking Dead” for five years, and only with “Outlander” have I gotten to scenes that I’m scoring that I have to turn the video off. I can’t watch it; it’s THAT gruesome. They are not pulling any punches with this show.

Keep up with Bear McCreary on Facebook, Twitter, and at his official website.

  • “Defiance” is currently airing on SyFy.
  • “Outlander” premieres on STARZ on August 9, 2014.
  • “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” returns to ABC on September 23, 2014.
  • “The Walking Dead” returns to AMC on October 12, 2014.
  • “Constantine” will premiere on NBC on October 24, 2014.
  • “Black Sails” and “Da Vinci’s Demons” will return in 2015.
  • The “Outlander” main title theme is currently available for pre-order at iTunes.
  • The "Constantine" main title theme can be heard here!
  • The “Black Sails” soundtrack is currently available at iTunes, Amazon and Amazon Digital.
  • The “Da Vinci’s Demons: Season Two” soundtrack is currently available at iTunes and Amazon Digital.
  • The “Defiance” soundtrack is currently available at iTunes, Amazon and Amazon Digital.
  • “The Walking Dead: AMC Original Soundtrack Vol. 2” is currently available at iTunes, Amazon and Amazon Digital.
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