How Did 'Serial' Find Its Music? Thank Nick Thorburn

Laura Crapo
 Nick & Alden of The Unicorns

As fans of the runaway hit podcast Serial knowthe notes of the now all-too-familiar jingle that opens each episode can provoke a Pavlovian response from listeners eager to get their latest hit of the addictive story.

For the uninitiated: Serial, a This American Life spin-off that is told in weekly installments and has inspired the kind of fervor normally reserved for Sunday night prime-time cable shows, is the true story that follows journalist Sarah Koenig as she investigates the 1999 murder of teenager Hae Min Lee. Lee's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, is in prison for her death, but some believe he's innocent. The compelling story has taken over the zeitgeist: There are now podcasts about the podcast analyzing every detail of new information, obsessed fans playing detective on Reddit, parody installments on YouTube and even mash-ups of the show’s music with everything from freestyle raps to Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball."

The Unicorns Return: How Arcade Fire Brought The Cult Pop Group Back Together

Not exactly the reaction you might expect when you agreed to provide the music for a then-still-unknown podcast, as Nick Thorburn (of the Unicorns and Islands) found out. Thorburn originally agreed to help out a friend with the music for a comedy podcast; that project never got off the ground, but the other show shared a producer with This American Life. "So this time when [Serial co-executive producer] Julie Snyder was making Serial, she was looking for someone to do the music and she recommended me," Thorburn explained. "And that was kind of it. It came real quick and they asked me if I would do it. My old band the Unicorns was getting back together, and we were rehearsing for shows with Arcade Fire, so I thought I would be kind of busy. I wanted to do it, but I didn't think I'd have the time -- I'm quite glad I did make the time."

Thorburn received the script for the first episode as well as rough narration of the pilot in August but didn't get much direction from the team about what exactly they were envisioning. "I think I knew there was an ominous sort of theme; an ominous and ambiguous tone," he explained about what he was trying to channel from the podcast in the music. "It's a murder mystery; true crime. So I think I was playing off of that. I wasn't trying to make any direct reference to any popular score or anything. I was operating how I always work: I work in a bubble, see what feels good, let my taste and intuition guide me, and if people like it, great. And it just so happened that they liked the version that I sent them."

Thorburn pounded out about 12 songs over a long weekend in August that went on to become the music for the first two episodes of the show (Mark Phillips composed the rest of the music for the show), and while Thorburn was proud of the work, he had no idea what the end result would be. "I eat, sleep and breathe music. It's my entire existence," he said. "And I usually operate in a vacuum with Islands, especially, my main band, I'm kind of just writing by myself, no real external pressure or voice guiding me, telling me what to do. I'm just kind of being guided by intuition and taste. And with this kind of stuff, it's an interesting format for me, to have a 'work for hire' type project where I'm a client and I have to do something that satisfies. I'm not used to operating within that structure, so that's been cool. And I'm trying to do more scoring and composition stuff and get into film and television. As I get older, I have less desire to be on the road. It's good for me to diversify."

Those Hollywood dream projects may be closer to reality thanks to the success of Serial. He cites working with Nicolas Cage or David Lynch as ultimate goals, but he's also thinking of work in his current orbit as well. Thorburn says a second season of Serial  -- focusing on a new story -- is "an inevitability," and he's hopeful his involvement with the program can continue. "I'm, of course, happy to be a part of it again," he said. "I'd hope they'd want something from me."

Regardless of whether he's creating more mood music for a new mystery (pressed for details about the plot this season beyond what's on air, Thorburn joked, "They're going to reveal it at the last episode that they did a very convincing job making it seem real but it's actually all fiction"), he's proud to be part of something that's making an impact. Relating his catchy music on Serial to theme songs from '80s television shows, he says if he's doing his job correctly, listeners will feel like the music is activating an emotional response within them. "It's powerful, and it's kind of magic."

Listen to all of Thorburn’s Serial music below.

Fans can download the Serial podcast on iTunes or on SerialPodcast.org.