MTV Video Music Awards

Tonic's Jeff Russo on Scoring 'American Gothic,' 'Fargo' & Marvel's 'Legion,' Plus the 20th Anniversary of 'Lemon Parade'

Justine Ungaro
Jeff Russo, the composer for new CBS series, “American Gothic.” 

"Gothic," the latest TV show he's scoring, premieres Wednesday night.

It’s nearly impossible to turn on the TV and not hear music by Jeff Russo. The Fargo composer, who is also a guitarist with the Grammy-nominated band Tonic, scores a staggering six television series either currently airing or in production.

His newest, American Gothic, co-produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television, debuts Wednesday on CBS. The 13-episode drama, starring Virginia Madsen, Juliet Rylance and Justin Chatwin, revolves around a prominent Boston family whose patriarch may be involved in an series of unsolved murders.

“It’s just super thrilling to have the word 'Amblin' associated with anything I’m working on,” Russo, 46, says. “I’m thrilled to be under the same fold as someone as great as Steven Spielberg and John Williams, who is probably my favorite composer of all time.”

In addition to Season 3 of FX’s Fargo, for which he earned an Emmy nod for best original dramatic score in 2014, Russo is also working on Fargo producer Noah Hawley’s new Marvel series Legion, the third season of Starz’s 50 Cent-produced drama Power, upcoming HBO limited series The Night Of, and ABC’s Kevin Williamson-helmed 2017 show Time After Time. 

Russo talked to Billboard about each series, as well as the 20th anniversary of Tonic’s debut album, 1996’s Lemon Parade, best known for the Mainstream Rock Songs chart-topper “If You Could Only See.”

American Gothic, CBS (June 22)
“We do the show with a small orchestra, about 16 strings and five woodwinds, but it is understated. The idea was we didn’t want to be heavy-handed with the music because when you do that, all of a sudden, you’re melodrama. This show is left of center -- like the grandson who’s a little weird -- and that was part of the choice to lean toward the oddity of it. We’re trying to give the show a more cinematic and cable feel. A lot of times on network television, you have wall-to-wall music and shows tend to lean on music to help build the narrative, whereas in movies and cable, we have a way of allowing the dialogue to do what it’s going to do, allowing the emotion to land and then play. We’re trying to score it less and let the score be more meaningful. We’re definitely not playing the emotion or the drama on the nose."

Power, Starz (July)
“That’s a totally different type of score. It’s way more subtle and way more vibe-oriented. It’s a lot more about creating a feeling, rather than trying to be overtly musical. It takes a totally different mind-set for me to write that type of music, which is actually really great for me because I can go from writing melodies for Fargo or Legion, or even American Gothic, and then jump into Power, which is very bubbling under the surface. 50 Cent hasn’t given me any advice. We tend to use a lot of songs in that show, and I think he’s a lot more in touch with the music supervisor with what songs we’re using rather than commenting on the score.” 

The Night Of, HBO (July 10)
“The writer/director is Steve Zaillian, the Academy Award-winning writer of Schindler’s List. In November, he gave me all eight episodes at once. I wrote the music in one shot in one six-week period. I watched it straight from the beginning to the end in a day. It was very easy for me to try to figure out how to develop the character themes because I saw the entire development of the character, as opposed to traditional television. It was like I was scoring a movie, just four times longer. The Night Of gives you a straightforward look at what it would feel like to be this character [Riz Ahmed] who gets accused of a crime and then follows his odyssey through the judicial system. It’s a really, really dark piece, so the music could have been extremely dark and you would have had dark upon dark. We didn’t need that throughout, so occasionally I’ll play a classical piano theme against something that is gruesome. I think it’s a technique that works pretty well in Fargo and here as well.”

Fargo, FX (spring 2017)
"Season 3 doesn’t start shooting until the fall, so I probably won’t start writing any music until September. In the first season, there was a need to stay within the musical vernacular [Carter Burwell created in the 1996 movie]. I used an orchestra to do these big sweeping musical passages that he employed. The idea was to create our own identity [but] to stay in that same world. With season 2, it was more of a departure. It was about this German family, so Noah had me start listening to Mahler and a more German classical style of music. I employed a little bit of that in the score and a little bit of the '70s pop sound, plus there’s the juxtaposition of beauty against the absurd violence. We tried to depart from season 1 but still stay in the same world, which I’m going to assume is going to be the same mind-set for season 3." 

Legion, FX (2017)
“I’m just finishing mixing the score for the first episode now and will get back into production in August. They’re mutants, but from what I’ve read, it’s less of a superhero show and more of a study on David Haller [played by Dan Stevens], or Legion, and his odyssey of not knowing if his powers are real or if he’s just schizophrenic, like the doctors have been telling him, and how that consumes him along with the love story between him and a character named Syd (Rachel Keller). Its like X-Men with heart. The important part is allowing the humanity of these characters to really shine through. In addition to organic instruments, there’s definitely an electronic element to it because of this otherworldly element. I have a bunch of old synthesizers that I’m using in conjunction with some orchestral stuff and a lot of interesting sound design.”

Time After Time, ABC (2017)
 
“I’ve done the pilot and written most of the character themes, so it’s just a question of working out what the series will sound like. It’s based on the movie based on the book about H.G. Wells [Freddie Stroma] building a time machine that Jack the Ripper [Josh Bowman] gets into and travels to the present -- which is the future to them -- and Wells chases him across time. Kevin [Williamson] and Marcos Siega, the director and executive producer, wanted to do a modern version of an Amblin score, so I did that with a 60-piece orchestra with horns and woodwinds. It was very '70s and '80s cinematic, but there are some synthesizers and pulses. The idea was to make it feel like you’re watching a movie every week.”

Lemon Parade’s 20th anniversary (July)
“We’re doing a 20th-anniversary show in L.A. [on July 16 at Molly Malone’s] and a couple of other shows. We’ve re-recorded the songs from Lemon Parade [via a Pledgemusic campaign] as we see them now with just acoustic instruments-- acoustic guitars, some Wurlitzer, some bass, clapping and stomping and a lot of harmonies. Those songs changed my life and are creations that we’re very proud of, so every time I get up onstage and play those songs and people are singing along, it’s such a great feeling. It’s super thrilling to know we played a part in [people’s] memories and super humbling.”