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Hooked on Sonics: David Fincher, Composer Jason Hill Bend Sound and Time on 'Mindhunter'

Mindhunter
Courtesy of Netflix

A still from Mindhunter.

The year is 1972. On May 7, Tony Orlando & Dawn is in the middle of a four-week ride atop the Billboard Hot 100 with “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree,” and Edmund Kemper is indicted on eight counts of murder in Santa Cruz, Calif. Welcome to the world of David Fincher’s Mindhunter, a circa 1970s crime drama that debuts on Netflix this weekend.

“I just hire people that are great and get out of their way,” says the man who was the enfant terrible of ’80s music video.
 
The muted, subterranean Mindhunter soundtrack is composed by erstwhile alt pop comet Jason Hill -- he soared, he shined, he fell short of being a star with bands Louis XIV and Vicky Cryer. But the 42-year-old rose to the occasion for Fincher, who asked him to craft a score that wouldn’t sound, literally, like music.

“I wanted this to reach deep down in your brain pan as opposed to something that could be happening in the next room,” Fincher, 55, told Billboard as season one’s 10 hour-long episodes came to market, including four he directed.
 
To accomplish that, Hill came up with a novel conceit: he “played” wine glasses filled with liquid to varying degrees. “They were regular, crystal wine glasses, and I taped them to a board, stretched out like a piano,” says Hill, who recently opened his own 3,000 square-foot commercial studio, the Department of Recording & Power, in Burbank. “I’d run my finger on the outside rim, and rock the board to bend the sound.”

He used the technique on the summer Mindhunter trailer, covering Gordon Lightfoot’s 1970 hit “If You Could Read My Mind” (Fincher’s idea) and employed it extensively in the main title sequence and throughout the series underscore, creating a signature sound.

“When you’re talking about the inhumanity of people at service of their psycho-sexual sadism, it couldn’t be Burt Bacharach,” Fincher says. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Burt Bacharach, but I didn’t want this to sound like it was played with an instrument. It needed to be something you couldn’t quite touch.”

In 2014, when Fincher decided the trailer for Gone Girl needed the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler doing a dark take on Charles Aznavour’s “She,” he asked Hill to produce. That rolled into an HBO show called Videosyncrasy set in the music video industry of the go-go ’80s (“the worst aspects of the film world combined with all that’s wrong in the music industry in its own little microcosm”). It got canceled before the pilot even aired. Hill had thrown himself into the project, and Fincher wanted to reward him, “so I said, ‘Well, I am making a serial killer show if you’re interested.’”
 
The two began riffing on the great chiller music they loved, like Bernard Herrmann’s classic score to Alfred Hitchock’s 1960 shocker Psycho, with its shrill chorus of violins.

“We talked about what scary music should be, and whether it’s salacious if there’s too much ‘leading the witness’ kind of stuff,” Fincher recalls. The 1971 murder mystery Klute, with music by Michael Small, was another touchpoint. “David loves that movie, but he didn’t want to copy it, so he said no xylophones though I snuck some in,” Hill laughs. “There was so much great music in 1973, Serge Gainsbourg, Nicky Hopkins. We were referencing Marathon Man, The Conversation, Last Tango in Paris.”
 
The collaboration, Fincher says, was “borne of a very adult conversation about what we were trying to achieve in the darkest recesses of the viewer’s mind. Whatever I threw in front of him I felt he would react in a way I couldn’t predict. That’s an important thing a composer can bring -- a new look at what you’ve already over-thought.” By the time the show is handed off, Fincher says, “you’ve kind of leached that last drop of creativity. You want someone that is going to come back with something that blows your mind and sears your eyelashes off.”
 
The goal was to evoke the period while avoiding the clichés of the crime genre, strategically positioning a few choice pop tunes without falling into synch licensing’s well-worn grooves.

“We were going to use the Electric Light Orchestra song ‘Mr. Blue Sky,’ which worked perfectly, and then we went to license it and learned it is the most licensed song in ELO’s catalog, so I said ‘No! We can’t do that.’ We were constantly having these moments of, ‘I didn’t realize a Volkswagen commercial used this!’ And we’d change stuff because the usage changed the context of the song,” Fincher explains.
 
Among the tunes that made it in are Don McLean’s “Crying” (1978), David Bowie’s “Right” (1975), Charlie Rich’s “Almost Persuaded” (1974) and the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” (1977). “I didn’t feel the songs should be about one’s taste in music as much as one’s experience of time,” says Fincher, who did not use a music supervisor on the film, relying instead on input from his editors, his fellow producers, and Hill.
 
“The temptation is to pick songs that you love and think would be fun to hear. Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’ is a great song. It reminds me, specifically, of when I was in high school, working as a dishwasher at the Oak Tree restaurant in Ashland, Ore., and what it was like to be there at 2 o’clock in the morning washing the grease off the floor. The sax solo in that song is synonymous with 1978 to me. The songs had to have a rigorous and unbendable connection to time.”
 
Mindhunter was renewed by Netflix for season two before season one premiered. “Next year we’re looking at the Atlanta child murders, so we’ll have a lot more African-American music which will be nice. The music will evolve. It’s intended to support what’s happening with the show and for the show to evolve radically between seasons.”
 
Hill’s original soundtrack album will be available digitally on Oct. 27 from Milan Records, which will release it on CD in December.