Shaping the sound of It Follows

Pier Harrison

It Follows is the arrival of powerful new voice in cinema. Still going strong in its seventh week in theaters, David Robert Mitchell’s otherworldly take on the teen slasher genre sees a group of Detroit kids being stalked by a shape-shifting supernatural killer whose target is sexually-transmitted. As it works its way backwards in a chain of sexual partners, the only way to avoid getting killed is to pass on the target status to someone else.  As if Mitchell’s STD-as-serial-killer concept wasn’t freaky enough (in every sense of the word), the most terrifying thing about It Follows is actually the score.

Composed by Rich Vreeland, who records music as Disasterpeace and is otherwise best known for his videogame soundtracks (the score for FEZ initially caught director David Robert Mitchell’s attention), the all-synth score for It Follows is like a continuous bolt of lightning throughout the film. Completed in just three weeks in advance of the film’s premiere at Cannes last year, Vreeland worked closely with director Mitchell to craft a wholly original accompaniment, using a temp score Mitchell and his editor created as framework. It pays obvious homage to the music of John Carpenter, as well as Krzysztof Penderecki and John Cage and it might even bring to mind hints of Twin Peaks or Liquid Sky. But it was vital to Vreeland to create something that felt new.

The result is a wide range of expressive sonic textures, from jolts of spastic dissonance to softer, sublime synth arpeggios that are altogether totally arresting. Particularly for indie film audiences who have grown accustomed to moody, dissonant guitar drones (see any number of films from Sundance and SXSW from the past three years for reference) and even more familiar orchestral or piano scores, Vreeland’s electronic compositions sound unlike anything else in theaters. In a time when expect music to sound at least somewhat derivative and laud artists who wear their influences like badges of honor, there are so many more dimensions at play in film that we more readily dismiss anything that seems too familiar. We talked with Disasterpeace about making the score incongruous with its inspirations, and how to wield musical unpredictability to disorient and creep people out.

You have cited John Carpenter, Penderecki and John Cage as the dominant inspiration for the It Follows score, and you can definitely hear all three of them, but it still sounds totally original. How do you take such specific references and make the score sound new?

I think part of it is not trying to write songs note for note and sound for sound. For me it was more a matter of listening to the temp score, which David and one of his editors created, and getting a general sense of the approach, the intentions, the aesthetic, the emotions that the music is trying to convey. Getting all of that and kind of distilling it down into a feeling, and then basically forgetting about the piece and just thinking about that feeling. And then using the feeling as the seed to create something from scratch. So, I wasn’t doing an A/B type thing … I wasn’t listening to the temp cues while working on the new cues. It was more of a linear process.

How would you describe the aesthetic of the film and some of the dominant feelings you drew on when you were composing?

I think the music in the film fits in a nice gradient of feelings. I think it can be pretty melancholic, and somber, but I think that with the energy level and the emotional level, it graduates in different areas of the film and gets more and more weird and creepy and psychological, and in some of the bigger scenes the music gets really bombastic, and kind of freaky and unpredictable. I think we’ve prided ourselves on doing a score that had a lot of depth to it, and a lot of different feels to it, like emotional feels.

On your blog you wrote, “The first thing I did was sit at my piano and try to come up with a theme. I wrote a piece I am proud of, but never found a spot for it in the film that made sense.” What happened to that piece, what did you like about it but why didn’t it fit?

The film doesn’t have a lot of moments that call for that particular type of piece. I think the way that David temped the score, we only used a title piece in this one big scene, where they are walking to the pool, and then on the title cards at the ending, and I think that worked really well. So based on that, and based on the temp we used for those which was actually a piece of mine from FEZ. It felt like the thing that I had with the piano, while it really captured the vibe of the film, it didn’t match the context of that scene. It was a little too introductory. I think a lot of times a title theme is used in the beginning of the film, but in this film it’s used in the end and in that way it’s a very contextual piece of music. It kind of sums up that moment.

If there was more of an introductory theme needed, maybe it would have worked better but we ended up not having a spot for that. It has a similar vibe to some of the more melodic pieces like from some of the driving scenes, like “Detroit” and stuff it has that sort of Goblin, early-80s-inspired vibe to it. Almost Twin Peaks actually a little bit.

Was Twin Peaks another inspiration for you for this project?

I think with that scene we didn’t use I was thinking about this video of Angelo Badalamenti, who was the composer for Twin Peaks, who passed away, there’s a video on YouTube of him talking about his process with David Lynch and how they came to the themes for Twin Peaks and that video really stuck with me. That piece is really awesome. I think I was going for a similar vibe to that. I mean I don’t think I was thinking about that later on though.

“Detroit” and the songs where they are driving definitely have a common motif that is really pretty and has a twinkling quality. It’s such a relief to come to those scenes right after these terrifying, tense moments, so these songs almost sound hopeful, but still otherworldly. Were you trying to make those parts more delicate?

I wanted it to be beautiful but I also wanted it to evoke a certain despair and downtrodden quality that matched the emotional state of the characters and the state of the environment that they were in. I liked how that was in some ways almost taking some of the focus away from what was happening and putting it on [the city of] Detroit, and I thought that was pretty cool. It’s definitely a reprieve.

It makes a lot of sense that you were trying to capture despair, even though I described it as hopeful… it’s more like you’re just hoping no one is going to die in the next 35 seconds.

I guess that’s a kind of hope!

You have also mentioned in the past that there were parts where you wanted the music to have a warmer, rounder tone, but David felt that it should be brighter and more digital sounding. When you’re writing for yourself do you veer towards warmer tones whereas brighter sounds are more of a convention of the horror genre?

I think it’s just more a matter where I’m at aesthetically right now, versus where I was in 2011 when I wrote most of the pieces that David used from Fez in the temp score. David really liked those pieces, so I had to try to honor that when making something new, but I wanted it to be fresh and different at the same time. With some of those themes I felt like I was able to do that and David was happy with them, but with some of the other ones, I had to move back towards the Fez pieces, specifically the Jay scene is one that is probably the closest to the Fez soundtrack in terms of the aesthetic, which is certainly the brightest and most digital sounding track on the score. There’s actually another motif in the film that I only use once, and it’s when Jay is in the pool, looking at the squirrel or something early on, and that was Jay’s theme and it has that same kind of aesthetic which is a warmer, rounder, more analog sounding aesthetic, and David really liked the piece that I wrote for that but for him it wasn’t quite as good as the Fez piece.

it follows

Even the more digital version of the song “Jay” that is in the film is still really warm and comforting compared to some of the scarier motifs. Overall, the music itself is one of the scariest parts of this film. What is it that makes the music so terrifying?

It’s just the unpredictability of it. People have a particular relationship with dissonance in music. Dissonance isn’t really on the forefront of pop culture, musically speaking, so I think that when you hear it, especially within a film, it creates a certain feeling of uncertainty or something that’s scary. So I think it’s a combination of like, using that kind of dissonance harmonically speaking, but then also having lots of randomness almost in the sound. And I think that’s where dissonance applies to that, where there’s like a squall of different notes that are all choiring and you don’t really know where you are. You don’t feel like you’re at home. You don’t feel like you’re in a major key or something. Then the dynamics in rhythm, and the dynamics between when the music gets really quiet and then it gets really loud, and timing is really important as well for creating this tension that creeps people out.

And whenever the “its” appear there will always be a sudden change or a sudden noise.

Another thing I used is time signatures a little bit. Because those can confuse people when they don’t feel centered. And most music is in 4/4, four beats. One of the main themes in the film is this pulsing percussion that goes da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da–dadada. It’s in 13/8. So every thirteen beats, there’s this little “dadada.” You can hear that in “Old Maid” and “Father.” That’s kind of the idea.

People have a particular relationship with dissonance in music. Dissonance isn’t really on the forefront of pop culture, musically speaking, so I think that when you hear it, especially within a film, it creates a certain feeling of uncertainty or something that’s scary.

In the vein of the debate on digital versus analog sound preferences, what’s with your war on vinyl and why are you such a champion of digital production?   

Here’s the thing. I’ve had so many people ask me, “What analog gear did you use on this soundtrack? It sounds so good.” And I just grin, because I get to tell everybody that it’s not analog, it’s all digital. And I haven’t had anybody guess that. If you’re starting from scratch and you’re not doing any extra processing, by all means using analog gear you’re going to get a lot of special sort of alterations to the sound because it’s analog and there is going to be unpredictability. There is going to be a warmness around it. The only way to get that with digital is to emulate it. That wasn’t always an easy thing to do. But as the technology and the resolution that music is being made at these days just keeps getting better and better, it’s easier to capture those certain tones. On the listening side of things, I think that there is not as much of a distinction to be made between analog and digital. I think it falls within the realm of the audiophile. For me I can’t even tell the difference between high quality .MP3 and a CD or a record because like, never having been an audiophile, that particular aspect of it is not a concern for me. My concerns are more about the sustainability of physical media and the fact that digital media is here. It’s super convenient. I’m also definitely a minimalist and I like to keep physical things that I do use in my work minimal. If the vinyl has to be made, for me I feel like it could at least be made with recycled material. There are a lot of places that make vinyl now from recycled material and I think that’s great.

How important is it to you for something to sound new, when making music or even as a listener?

It’s extremely important to me that I feel like what I am doing is new in some way. I never go to great lengths to mimic something that has already been done, but we are all inspired by the work of those that came before us, whether we like it or not. Because I come from such a particular background that has nothing to do with horror films, I was able to do something a bit different while still paying homage to the stylings of the genre. If I’m working on something and it feels too derivative, I know it. I feel that way about one or two cues in the film that are emulating cues from a previous project of mine, the FEZ soundtrack. It’s not really anyone’s fault that we ended up in that position, but it was a byproduct of using a temp score and I still struggle with that aspect. Retreading old ground can feel like a waste. It’s my intention to try and avoid those situations.

A second pressing of the It Follows soundtrack will be available via Milan Records in May . Screening times can be found at itfollowsfilm.com.

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