POST-SMASHING Pumpkins, founding member James Iha has been playing regularly with Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan’s other band: alt-metal outfit A Perfect Circle. Combine that gig with session and solo projects, a lot of writing, and a little bit of indie film scoring, and you have an overfull career. However, a recent move from New York to L.A. has amplified Iha’s interest in music for picture, and he recently completed his first TV series score—for season one of Hulu’s original series Deadbeat.
The central character of Deadbeat, Kevin Pacalioglu (played by Tyler Labine), is a medium in present-day New York City; he has the ability to see and speak with ghosts, which allows him to rid mortals of unwanted supernatural guests. He just has to find out what the ghost’s unfinished business is on earth, and then help finish it.
However, the job is always complicated and Kevin’s not too bright. So, he’s always broke and and in some mess, and he expends too much energy bumming recreational drugs off of his dealer and best pal, Roofie (Brandon T. Jackson). Meanwhile, there’s a beautiful but unscrupulous fake medium in town, Chamomile White, who will stop at nothing to protect her reputation as an authentic ghost whisperer.
The show is more funny than spooky, and lots of the humor comes from contrasts. It’s often the juxtaposition of scary music with visual/verbal jokes, or the undercutting of spooky scenes with comic audio cues, that gives the show its edge. The theme for the show, also composed by Iha, sets the musical stage, with driving Stooges-esque electric guitar, ghostly growls, and choral-synth howls, and twinkling distant chimes.
Now that season one is complete, Iha has a little time to talk about what he enjoys about scoring vs. playing with a band, and the elements that went into the spooky, funny, guitar-centered score he developed for Deadbeat.
How did you get involved with the Deadbeat show?
I had scored three very little known indie films before. One’s called Luck (2003); it’s a Canadian film and Sarah Polley is in it. The two others were Japanese films: one called Linda Linda Linda and the other was called Kakera. But now that I’ve moved to L.A. I’ve been looking to get into scoring more. I had to audition for the director [Troy Miller] and the people from Lion’s Gate, and I got it.
Did the theme for the show come first?
Yeah, the title theme was one of the first things I did. I sent them a couple different ideas for that before I got too deep into the first episode. I think the theme had a couple of elements they liked: They liked that it was a little bit retro rock but also fun at the same time, and there’s a little bit of spookiness in it. Those parts became a reference for the themes that we would come up with in the show for the characters and moments that happen a lot in the episodes.
Where do you write and record the music?
I have a room locked out in Clear Lake Recording [in North Hollywood]. Actually, I share the space with another guitarist, and I used all of his amps on this project.
How do you approach creating the cues for each episode—what’s your process like?
I drink a lot of Mountain Dew. [Laughs] I take a lot of direction from the director and from what the writers are intending. There’s a little bit of trial and error in terms of matching the right scene with the right instruments, and referencing some supernatural scores that have come before but also playing against them at the same time. I think that, because it’s a comedy with a very contemporary character, we always want it to have a somewhat fresh, indie-rock feel but also have a supernatural, spooky, funny thing going on, too.
For the episodes, I see a script, and I’d get an edit of the episode that is close to being done. They put in temp music, and they’ll say what they like about the temp music, what they don’t like about it, and where they want to see it going. But a lot of it is like, there’s direction, but in the end, just do what you think is cool.
Walk us through the instruments that create the different effects of the score. How do you make things sound spooky, or funny, for example?
First, to keep it fresh and upbeat, I use the guitar as the main instrument: a Gretsch 6-string electric, an acoustic, and a Jerry baritone guitar. The baritone was one of the key instruments; when you play certain guitar lines, it can be a spaghetti western kind of thing, it can be ominous and heavy, or it can be really comedic, too. We also used a Thunder bass and a Hofner, stand-up bass, piano, certain kinds of strings, and drums, too. Drums give a scene a little bit of energy, if there’s a beat going on, but also not too much of a beat to overpower the dialog.
So, some of the specific sounds would be, we used a lot of tremolo, reverbed-out guitar using the Gretsch and a minibar on it, and the whammy bar helped also in that kind of retro spaghetti western-sounding way. We used the baritone a lot for the character Chamomile White, to give her this ominous, scheming sound we came up with.
There’s also a lot of funny, light, playful stuff, which tended to lend itself to a standup bass and piano and pizzicato strings. Or there’s funny percussion; we used a lot of Latin percussion. It turns out, bongos work really well for supernatural comedy. In the first episode, it didn’t really occur to us to use bongos, but I realized it provides percussion without being loud like a kick drum or snare drum, because you’re always trying to stay out of the way of the dialog.
Do you play everything yourself, or do you bring in other players?
I thought about bringing people in, but there’s just not enough time to schedule outside session people. You’re right there doing the cue, and you have to get it done. You only have seven or eight days—ten days at the most—to do, on average, about 50 cues that vary in length from four or five seconds to a sequence or montage that goes on for a minute-and-a-half.
How do you balance this work with a career as a performing musician?
When I’m doing this [scoring work], I don’t have time to do anything else. It’s all in for three months, and then it’s done. It’s kind of like making an album. That’s all you know. I would go home at night and have all these cues popping up in my head: bongos, baritone guitar. It was kind of funny. If I watched TV or a movie, I would just notice the cues. It’s not a great way to watch a movie.
What do you love about this scoring work vs. playing in a band?
I’ve spent my whole life making songs in bands and as a solo artist, and writing songs with other people, and producing other people. There’s a vocal, and a verse, and a chorus and a bridge. Scoring for picture is fun because it’s different and it’s exciting when you hit the picture just the right way that fits the edits and the character’s mood. I feel like the picture is the lyrics or the vocal that’s not there in scoring, and it’s great to see how music can totally change the feel of the show.
Barbara Schultz is a frequent contributor to Electronic Musician and Mix.
James Iha’s Studio Gear
Thanks to Clear Lake Recording and engineer Brian Blake for the specs on James Iha’s Deadbeat music and recording equipment:
Recording/Studio: API DSM console, KRK V8 monitors, Mac Pro, Pro Tools 11
Guitar Recording Chain: Neumann U87 and M49B mics, Focusrite ISA 215 mic pre/EQ, Focusrite Red 2-channel compressor, Neve 1073 mic pre/EQ
(Borrowed) Guitar Amps: Matchless DC30, Swart AST, Ampeg B15, Fender Deluxe
Other Essential Recording Pieces: API 2500 compressor, API Channel Strip, Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor, Radial DIs