After establishing himself as an in-demand composer for horror films, Nathan Barr segued into episodic dramatic television. His three shows bear no stylistic resemblance to one another: “Hemlock Grove” taps his horror thriller roots; “The Americans” is set in the ‘80s; and “True Blood” is as much a collection of love stories as it is about vampires.
“The original demos I did for (“The Americans”) before I got the job were influenced by those great scores from the ‘70s and ‘80s – ‘Taking of Pelham One Two Three’ by David Shire, prepared piano stuff in things like Lalo Schifrin’s score for ‘Dirty Harry’,” Barr says. “That was exciting music for me to explore. The bass and prepared piano stuff in those movies is a real jumping off point for me in ‘The Americans.’”
The April 30 episode of “The Americans” will feature a collaboration between Barr and Pete Townshend, "It Must Be Done," the first song the Who guitarist has ever written for television. Barr discussed the track, getting back into film and composing on cello.
Billboard: How do you balance two or three shows at the same time?
Nathan Barr: Season two is generally easier than any season one because the style and overall vibe has been established and approved by everyone. It becomes much more manageable. I would say last year was much more difficult because you’re always encountering thematic moments for which nothing has been composed before; you’re sort of wandering around the dark trying to find the light switch. Now we can see and hear everything that works. I have developed a shorthand that is quick in terms of the instrumentation that I use on these show -- it’s not like I’m writing for a 100-piece orchestra.
Cello plays a key role on “The Americans.” Is that always your preferred instrument to compose on?
Cellos and guitar are all central to a lot of work I am doing now so I compose a lot on cello, guitar and bowed guitar. They’re instruments people love as well and the scope and style of shows lends itself to them.
Townshend said your cello work was a key reason he wanted to do the show.
It was the central instrument in the track I sent to Pete, a theme for the character Philip. It began with that.
Where did the conversation start with Pete?
(Music supervisor) PJ Bloom, and (show runners) Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields were looking to do something new with different collaborations across the show for season two. Music was certainly one of them. We came up with a list of people who could fit that mold and I would say it was just a couple of weeks or a month from the first mention to the time we got a response back that Pete was interested.
How quickly did the piece take shape?
I sent him a couple of tracks to experiment on and he really responded to one of them right away. Within a couple weeks he sent back sets of guitar and vocals -- I had no idea he was doing vocals or lyrics so I was blown away. The next step was sitting down with the producers and sussing out the season to determine where a song could drive a scene. We picked out a moment in episode 10 for that. When they had shot that, I took an early cut and started editing and finessing it to the scene. The brilliant thing is that the lyrics Pete wrote really play up the irony of the scene.
Does that open the door to more collaborations? Since this went so well, will you attempt to do others?
There’s no conversation about it or whether that would see a return visit for season three, but I’m open to it. I worked with (ZZ Top’s) Billy Gibbons on ‘Dukes of Hazard’ and he and I have messed around with a couple of ideas since then. I certainly hope that could be the case with Pete. A collaboration like that would have been impossible 10 or 15 years ago. One of the cool things about this track is that it features some lead playing from him When I uploaded the stems and sat and listen to Pete play guitar on this dry track it felt so personal. It’s like you’re looking into the soul of this person from 6,000 miles away. To take that that and work with it the way he worked with my stuff – its one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.
With so much TV work how do you find time for the occasional film? Or are you more content to be working in TV?
The most brilliant storytelling is going on in TV, not in film. It’s become an unexpected transition. Of course I’ll keep doing films. I really just love writing music for picture.
The next film?
“The Boy Next Door.” It stars Jennifer Lopez. It’s a thriller. It’s also a collaboration. Randy Edelman and I are co-writing it together. We met at a film festival in Spain in 2010 and have been really good friends ever since then. We’ve been looking for a fun project to do together and Rob came to Randy with this one and Randy said let’s me and Nate do it together.