'Westworld' Composer Talks Season 2's Musical Progress: 'The Hosts Are in Control and The Jukebox is Over'

John P. Johnson/HBO
Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld season 2 episode 2.

If you've watched Game of Thrones, Prison Break or the first Iron Man film, then you’re most likely familiar with German-Iranian composer Ramin Djawadi's work. Currently, he’s also responsible for the music behind HBO’s other juggernaut: Westworld

We're just two episodes into the second season, but it's clear that the science fiction/western thriller series is already going even more off the rails than we could have hoped for, with the introduction of new worlds and the hosts going totally out of their loops (or are they?). 

Djawadi’s job is an important one, as he decides how to weave contemporary rock songs and classic piano rags alike into the complicated tapestry that is Westworld. The two-time Grammy nominee spoke to Billboard about scoring this season. 

First, you had Kanye West's "Runaway" in the trailer for the second season. How did that come about?

The songs really come together with Jonathan [Nolan]. He picks the songs, and he'll come to me and say "Hey, Ramin, can you do an arrangement of a Kanye song, we're doing this trailer for the Super Bowl?” I always say, it happens to be actually that we have the same taste, because every song he comes to me with, I always go, "Oh, awesome, I would love to do a version of this -- like an instrumental breakdown, piano orchestral version..." So all of these have been so much fun to do.

Do you ever get a pat on the back from any of the artists whose songs you’ve taken on?

I have not heard from any of them, no. But sometimes we actually have to send out the arrangements ahead of time, because they want to hear it for approval. Clearly, we have always come through with it, so, they must have liked something about it!

When you’re approaching an artist that way, are you like, "Hey, is it okay if we use your song in this giant murder scene?”

[Laughs] Well again, I'm not part of that whole process, but I think they are probably excited about it, because it's a great show and having us use the arrangements -- I would dig it if somebody did that with one of my pieces. 

What goes into re-imagining a song?

I just listen to it and break it down! It's something -- and this makes it even more fun for me -- it's something that I did as a teenager, that when I played the organ and the guitar, I would always take my favorite songs and learn them by ear and break them down and then arrange them myself. Even back then, I would do these orchestral arrangements, so it's kind of ironic that I'm now doing this actually for this big show. I look at what the elements are, and then I figure out my arrangement for it is, what instruments I should assign to it. 

Possibly more so than in any of your other projects, music has almost a physical role in this series -- it’s like a character.

Oh, absolutely. The song, the score, the scope of the score is just so wide because I really can do everything from purely traditional orchestral to super abstract, borderline sound design stuff. You can just be so creative in this show. It feels like anything goes.

I love the type of anachronistic effect that comes about when we're in Westworld -- you hear Amy Winehouse and it’s an almost-colonial setting.

Absolutely. It just works so well, because you really can look at it like, “Oh, here are the people controlling this part.” It’s like this is their jukebox in this same world. [The humans] are making up all the stories and we're doing all this, so let's just play out all the songs that we like and we just program them to play there and it's fine. It works really well.

You’ve also got the classics; we heard “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin on the self-playing piano piano in the premiere. What’s the story behind that one?

Funny enough, there, we went the other way. This is actually this original piece historically, and it was performed on the player piano once it was written, so we were actually really going with the time and kind of going the opposite way.

You can kind of interpret it as, the tables have turned now, the hosts are in control and so the whole jukebox and the people picking their songs, now that's over with. And now it's like the other side, there could be one way of interpreting it.

Can you reveal any artists that will be covered this season?

Unfortunately, I can't! But it being Westworld, there are definitely a few surprises coming. It's just really great to see where the season is pushing, obviously there's Shogun World; musically, that was really fun to explore. It's an incredible season. 

I’ve heard people say they listen to the music without even having watched the show. Did you think, going into this, that your arrangements would have that effect?

Not really. I never try to think about it too much! I always just try to put my best foot forward and do what I believe in, all that's right for the show. It’s been really wonderful to see how positive the reaction is from the audience.

You’re also about to kick off the European dates of the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience tour. What can we expect from that experience?

We've been working on it for several years, but on this next leg, we've modified the show a little bit. Now that we have season seven behind us, I was able to update the show and include that. It's just the perfect setup for people getting excited about the final season. So if you come to a show, it'll really get you pumped for the final season. It's a great summary.

There’s got to be a little pressure now that we're coming into the final act.

Absolutely. And we've worked really hard to capture all of the biggest moments and all the scenes and all the characters. It's really cool. People actually have said to me after seeing the show that they are excited to go back to season one, because we go pretty chronologically. It's been on since 2011, so you forget, like, “Oh yeah, that's where that character came from and look how far he or she has developed.” So this tour really summarizes it nicely.

You're one of the lucky ones because even though Game of Thrones is ending, you've still got Westworld to work on for the years ahead. 

Right. I feel very lucky to be working on these two amazing shows and they couldn't be any more different, which is great for me creatively and musically.

Westworld airs Sundays at 9:00 PM on HBO.