American Gods — the latest hit from veteran showrunner Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Hannibal), which debuted April 30 on Starz and is based on the 2001 novel by Neil Gaiman — tells a story as sprawling as human history itself, with the addition of classic mythology and the supernatural.
As the man who puts music to the madness, composer Brian Reitzell has one of the most challenging roles in bringing the modern cult classic to life. Billboard was able to catch up with him one week before the official soundtrack’s release to discuss his role as the composer and music supervisor on the show, the endless array of cultural and musical influences, and the similarities between composing and cooking.
Check out the exclusive premiere of the collaborative track “I Put a Spell on You” with Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) below, and read on to see what exactly to expect from the complete soundtrack, out June 16 via Milan Records.
So first, how familiar were you with the source material?
I hadn’t read the book until I was working on the project. I actually read the first script first, and then started reading the book. I went through the book with a fine-tooth comb to write down every musical reference that was in the book. I felt it was my duty to really understand Neil [Gaiman] and all the music that was in the book so that I could either use it or not use it, but also to thoroughly understand what he was putting in there. And there’s some stuff in there that I wouldn’t necessarily touch, but I still wanted to understand it all. I think I was also able to pull out some things that Neil mentioned in the book that weren’t even musical references directly. Like, he quotes the lyrics to [the traditional folk song] “Midnight Special” but not as a musical reference, more as a lyrical reference. So yeah, I brushed up on it for sure.
Building off of that, you talked about how you noticed all of those musical references, so how did you decide on the musical motifs to capture the many different characters and time periods that are involved?
That came a little more from looking at the picture, like looking at Ian McShane playing Mr. Wednesday and just feeling like jazz music seemed to suit him well. The first time we see him, it’s quite comedic actually. Jazz is an American music. The obvious thing with American Gods is to use Americana or folk music, and since I’m not only a composer but a music supervisor, every record company and library company was trying to send me folk music assuming that was what I was going to do. Luckily for me, I had about a year that I spent working on this thing so I had a lot of time to mess around and find it. I discovered that each of the different characters could have something that was unique to them.
I also did want it to be American at its core, but when you have a character like Matt Sweeney who is, you know, a leprechaun, or you have Bilquis, who is this African goddess, it gives me a lot of room to play around with things. I could go into detail about each one, but really I was looking at the character, getting a sense of their style, their place, their ancestry, what have you, and trying to draw from there.
And in the end I did use a bit of folk music, just kind of at the core and mostly just at the beginning of the show. And then I thought once people got into the show I could bend their ear a little bit more and take them to places they didn’t necessarily expect to go.
I noticed the folk music especially during the road trip scenes which is pretty fitting.
You mentioned all the different characters and their origins and the cultures they come from. How did you find a cohesive theme that could run throughout?
I think the soundtrack is a good window into that because the soundtrack is kind of all over the place. I mean, the first episode we start with vikings and I chose to draw from Norwegian black metal. So, episode one goes from Norwegian black metal and ends with Techno Boy with a futurist-type of computer music. So it really runs the gamut from jazz to folk to rock. I mean everything is in that first episode.
And to make it cohesive, I think that’s mostly because it all essentially came from me and I have my sensibilities and my ways of playing music. I don’t consider myself a jazz musician. I don’t consider myself a folk musician. Before I was a professional musician, I was a professional chef, and there’s something to be said about the parallels between cooking and music. As a chef, I can tell you, one of my favorite kinds of foods to cook is Cajun and Creole food. And that food is the ultimate fusion of ethnicities. Kind of like Jazz music, I guess in a way, where you can bring the Indian influence, the French influence, the Italian influence, the Spanish influence, et cetera, et cetera, and yet using the ingredients you have at your disposal to make those kinds of foods is probably why there is a cohesion.
It’s weird, but in making the soundtrack and listening to it how it goes from this Egyptian orgy into a Giorgio Moroder/Debbie Harry-influenced disco track then into jazz and then Vivaldi classical. I don’t know, somehow it all seems to work. [Laughs]
It does, yes, very well! And you said you don’t have a jazz background but you pull it off very well.
Well, jazz is probably my first real love of music and I have been playing it a long time, but I also bring in different musicians to play with me who are incredibly talented. That’s legit saxophone and legit trumpet and bass, but you know, I’m fortunate to have these guys around me that can play what I throw in front of them.
So speaking of other artists you’ve worked with, I wanted to ask about the collaborations you did with Shirley Manson and Debbie Harry and the other featured artists on the soundtrack. What can you tell us about working with them and how that came about?
Well because again, I was the music supervisor and the composer, I tend to think a little more broadly. There was a Garbage song that had been temp’ed into one of the episodes and it just so happens that Butch Vig is a friend of mine and a neighbor. I asked Butch about getting the song because everyone loves the song. I personally didn’t like the song because it didn’t feel like our show, it felt like every other show. It’s probably their most popular song, the lyrics were really on the nose, and so I asked Butch ‘Maybe I could do something with Shirley’… who also happens to live in the neighborhood. So Shirley came over, I talked to her about it, I showed her the scene, and then she went away. Then myself and Roger Manning, who was working with me on some of these tracks — Roger plays keyboards with Beck and is a dear, old friend of mine… last time we worked together was probably on Lost In Translation –wrote a song based primarily on the fact that in the scene [main character] Shadow is punching a punching bag. So I built a rhythm around a punching bag. You know the [mimics repetitive thudding sound] rhythm, and then we wrote a song and gave it to Shirley. Shirley had written lyrics based on the scene that she saw, and lo, two days later we had a song.
I liked the idea of Shirley and Debbie and Mark Lanegan because they’re all kind of like musical gods to me. They’re not these new, young acts. They’re these god-like musical creatures. I thought that that was very appropriate for the show so I tried to incorporate both Mark and Shirley throughout the show. Mark, I think, appears four times over the course of this season and Shirley appears twice, and both Mark and Shirley also appear in the main title sequence.
With Debbie, that’s because I had to make a disco scene for a nightclub in Tehran in 1979 and I thought ‘oh my god, let’s ask Debbie!’ And the crazy thing is, we didn’t know this at the time, but Blondie and Garbage are going on tour together next month. And Shirley knew Debbie but we didn’t even do it through Shirley, we just got in touch with Debbie. Debbie was on tour in Australia — I’ve never met Debbie — but of course, I’m a huge Blondie fan. So the fact that she agreed to do it was so great for us. I had made the song and sent it to her and she went into a studio in Australia where she was on tour, sent me back the files and then we put them in and then Shirley sang as well.
I kind of wanted to have my own version of ABBA with Shirley and Debbie as the singers. And it worked!
And it makes one heck of a block party as well.
You mentioned before when you were cooking stuff up how it was like putting ingredients together. What was your approach for the more abstract characters like Media or Technical Boy whose ingredients aren’t quite as clear?
Well, Media is kind of all things. So I had to do that scene-by-scene. When you look at the first scene where she’s Lucille Ball playing on the tv sets in a Walmart or whatever, I decided to make a piece of music that was kind of digital and yet analog at the same time. I used an old PPG 2.2 synthesizer and I incorporated what I could from I Love Lucy, which essentially ended up being a laugh track and a gliss on a celeste [keyboard], which is used all over in I Love Lucy. And then I used a bunch of Cuban percussion — not a lot but enough to give you that flare of Lucy and Ricky. And then when we see her dressed up as David Bowie, I wanted to make something that felt like a 70’s German era, Eno-Bowie track to lay underneath it.
I had my friend Jim James from My Morning Jacket, who was in doing another cue with me, the “Nunnyunnini” cue, which is this weird animated sequence that we did. So Jim sang on the Bowie track and that worked out pretty well too. So yeah with [Media], it was more about taking a look at what her character was in the given scene. Later in the show, she’s dressed as Judy Garland. With that one, she’s at this Easter party so we decided to do something that was old school Hollywood, maybe a bit Vivaldi with a string quartet.
You’ve worked on some of the most affective scores this century, including Lost in Translation and more recently Hannibal, but nothing quite as surreal as American Gods. What was your process with something that wasn’t as grounded in reality?
You know, they’re all the same for me. I work on everything whether it’s a film or TV show — I wouldn’t even consider American Gods a TV Show. I don’t even know what it is.
I don’t think any of us do.
I know! We’ve entered a whole new era. I’ve been doing this now since — my first film was The Virgin Suicides, and that was, I believe, ‘98 or ‘99, and it’s changed so much. Back then it was VHS tapes, I didn’t have a computer, it was a 4-track… Now it’s just a whole other process. But I approach them all the same. I essentially look at what they give me and some little voice tells me what to do. And Bryan Fuller continues to give me things that are super challenging and super far-out. He gives me the freedom to really push things and experiment, just as he’s doing with the story and the visuals. I look at these pieces and the first thing I do is just say, ‘holy shit!’ I know what to do but this is going to take a really long time and it’s going to use so many of my resources and so much of the instruments that I have. I’m constantly buying instruments so that I have a full pantry. Again, this all goes back to cooking. [Laughs] Building that menu of what I need in order to fulfill the storytelling of what he’s putting in front of me. It’s his fault, or it’s Sofia [Coppola]’s fault or whoever’s throwing this stuff in front of me that makes me go where I go.
Shows like American Gods and Westworld have brought television scores into the zeitgeist for the way they recontextualize contemporary music, and in your case, contemporary icons. How do you put your spin on something so established? Is it daunting or is it just something you see that needs to be done?
Both! The thing about me is that I’m a total music freak. I love Bowie, and I can go very deep. I have all of those instruments at my studio, I have all the old stuff, and I’m such a fan of the different production techniques of people like Giorgio Moroder or Rudy Van Gelder or whoever it is to create that. I think a lot of that in my case has to do with the fact that I came at this from being a music supervisor. When I started music supervising, there were only a few people that were doing this: you had Quentin [Tarantino], you had Paul Thomas Anderson, you had Wes Anderson, and Sofia. There weren’t many people that were drawing from a record collection to score their movies. Nowadays, everybody is… We have iTunes, you can type in a keyword, all these songs will show up. That art form is very different now than it used to be. So I decided early on to start creating stuff and bringing in different artists.
I mean, if you look at my track record, I’ve now collaborated with so many different people and that’s because maybe I want a Blondie song that is special to our show, or maybe I want an Aphex Twin song that’s special to my show rather than just take from their catalogue. It just seems that this process works.
I was delighted to see that David Lynch on Twin Peaks is now ending each episode, or most of his episodes, having a band play a song that goes into the end credits. When I did the show Boss, that’s what we did. For season 2 of Boss, every show ended with a song that we created for the show. It started in the last scene and played out through the end credits. I think that this television medium, or whatever we call it now, is a really great frontier to turn people onto music — to new music, or old music. It’s a great platform where you’ve got people’s ears and you can throw something at them. I like to use it to the fullest that I can. [Laughs]
Luckily because the music business is what it is, I don’t think anybody has ever said no when I’ve asked them to be involved in something like this. I’ve been very fortunate in that respect.
I want to ask about the official soundtrack which is dropping next week. What do you hope people will take away from the music on its own merits besides how it’s presented on the show?
Well, it’s tricky because everything was made to be in the show. It’s all score, even the songs I did were built to be in the show. I did do some expanded mixes like I did with the Bowie track, and you’ll get longer versions. I always make these pieces so that they can stand on their own, but really they’re meant to be a souvenir for the show. For people that watch the show, this is their souvenir. I really want the fans of the show and fans of the book to appreciate it. That’s the most important thing. And I also really want fans of mine or Mark’s or Shirley’s or Debbie’s to appreciate it. But really, it’s for people who like the show. Because it’s weird! I mean, you’ve got some musical pieces that are pretty weird. You know, the gay Muslim sex scene, I mean, that is a pretty far-out piece of music and I needed it to be on there because, I don’t know, some people may want to get down to the piece of music. [Laughs] So I wanted to get it to them.
The interesting thing about this soundtrack — I’ve done quite a few soundtracks in my day — was when the record company said ‘Brian, we need you to put together the sequence, the tracklisting.’ I do so much music for these shows because Bryan Fuller wants music to be pretty constant on these shows, and that’s more his decision than mine. So there’s upwards of, I don’t know, seven hours of music. I whittled it down to my fantasy and it just so happens that it was about 79 and a half minutes of music. And you can have 80 minutes. I wasn’t even trying. I was just putting together pieces, one or two from each episode, the songs, etc, and I had roughly 80 minutes of music. So it worked out beautifully without really trying and I think it fits together nicely as a record. You’ll have to tell me. It does go from full-on bebop, free jazz to 70’s Bowie to American folk music — I mean it goes all over the place. But somehow it does seem to play down.
To use your cooking metaphor, it’s got a little of everything that by the end of it, I was pleasantly full.
And finally, do you put yourself in the school of the old gods or the new?
Both, unfortunately. And that’s the thing about both music and cooking is that I can appreciate it. You know, “Nunnyunnini” is one of my favorite pieces on the record, and “Nunnyunnini” was made with only — there’s no actual instruments in that track. There’s shells, there’s tree branches, there’s animal skins, there’s wood, there’s stones, there’s human voice, and like, a conch shell. I didn’t use any digital effects at all. So that piece of music actually could really exist in prehistoric times. So that’s pretty old. In fact, that’s as old as I can get as a composer. But then you have very modern music like the shopping cues or any of the Techno Boy cues, just more electronic aspects to it. I love futurist music. I like [Venezuelan electronic producer] Arca, who influenced me in the more modern pieces, but I also borrowed from Vivaldi and [Richard] Wagner and Miles Davis and Leadbelly and Giorgio Moroder. You name it. It’s a trip around the world. And I think that’s what it needed to be because that’s sort of what America is.