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

Set within the FBI’s elite Behavioral Sciences Unit, the show delves into the psyche of high-profile serial killers because, “How do we get ahead of crazy, if we don’t know how crazy thinks?” In other words, as sophisticated a study in depravity as audiences are likely to see outside of a theater showing a Fincher film, and he wanted the music to match.

Fincher’s facility with score has been validated with an Oscar, a Grammy and two noms for his past four films, which include Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. House of Cards, another show Fincher executive produces for Netflix, has accumulated five Emmy nominations for composer Jeff Beal (who won this year). And he famously convinced Trent Reznor to score 2010’s The Social Network, resulting in Oscars for the Nine Inch Nails principal and collaborator Atticus Ross. But Fincher is surprisingly modest about accruing any of that acclaim.

“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.”

Hill did, however, use a wide array of instruments -- piano, violin, Glockenspiel -- played live, recorded and processed using echoes and delays. He began designing the score in December 2013, compiling a huge library of custom sounds.
 
A self-taught guitar-player, pianist and producer, Hill grew up in San Diego. In 2003 he founded Louis XIV while living in Paris. The group toured internationally with the Killers, got signed to Atlantic Records and released two albums. In 2005 The Best Little Secrets are Kept made it to No. 159 on the Billboard Hot 200, spawning punkish pop hit “Finding Out True Love Is Blind” (which peaked at No. 28 on the Alternative Songs chart). Hill says the group was hand-picked by David Bowie to play at the Black Ball charity event in New York in 2007.

When Louis XIV broke up in 2009, Hill began working with David Johansen’s comeback edition of the New York Dolls, producing and playing bass on the 2011 album, Dancing Backwards In High Heels. In June he launched the pop collective Vicky Cryer as frontman and guitarist, with the Killers’ Marc Stoermer on bass and Julian Casablancas of the Strokes on keyboard. The band’s sole album, The Synthetic Love of Emotional Engineering, released in 2013, has become something of a cult hit, admired largely for beats fueled by dueling drummers Alex Carapetis of Nine Inch Nails and Muse’s Dominic Howard.
 
Hill hit Fincher’s radar as the result of a mixtape the director’s wife and production partner, Ceán Chaffin, brought on vacation. “I love Jason’s music,” Fincher says. “He has such an eclectic sensibility. The Vicky Cryer stuff is very different than Louis XIV and the material he produces.”

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.