Brendan Angelides, best known as ESKMO, is a transcendent, critically acclaimed electronic musician, globally recognized for his signature experimental and ethereal sound. As an artist, he has released a range of compelling and distinctive works on record labels, such as Interscope, Ninja Tune, Warp Records, Planet Mu, and his very own imprint, Ancestor. Eskmo serves as the lead composer for Showtime's psychological war of wealth and power, Billions and Netflix's controversial teen drama, 13 Reasons Why. He is a founding member of The Echo Society, a Los Angeles based collective of composers, visual artists, and engineers, and launched FeelHarmonic, a non-profit initiative to introduce and explore both sound and music with the deaf. In our insightful discussion, Brendan dives into the spiritual shift that inspired his pursuit of film composing and unveils the arsenal of technical tools he uses to make magic.
How did you enter the world of electronic music production? Who were some of your early musical influences that inspired you to create your own artistic identity?
If I really think about it, Michael Jackson’s older songs were some of the first things that got me interested in electronic production. Back in high school, I played in bands and around that time, I started getting more and more into the possibilities of electronic music. The first album by The Prodigy called “Experience” made something really click for me. It came out in 1992, but I came across it in 1994 and I was drawn to the sense of the power in the bass. That same year, I was introduced to Primus and Les Claypool. There was a merging of those worlds for me, which prompted me to think outside of traditional musical structures and apply it to my own work.
At the end of high school, my final project was to create something and lead a presentation. A lot of students were writing papers, but I decided to make an album. I had this old Roland JX-305. It was this big and blue ugly thing that made awesome noises. At the time, I was a huge fan of this avant-garde band called The Residents and they had put out a sociopolitical album called “Eskimo”. It was essentially a sonic representation of life up in the ice. It shined a light on the way the government would take these people out of their traditional lives, rich with story and tradition and place them in apartments complexes, leaving magic behind and watching re-runs on TV. I loved what they had created and it happened to coincide at the very same time I was working on this album.
For some reason, I was inspired to create a character based on one of the stories from the album, which was about a shaman from the tribe using sound healing to save a child that had been stolen from the spirits. They essentially used the music to go under the ice and rescue the child, returning him to his family. I really responded to that idea as a metaphor, as an archetype. That was my starting point in music and I basically haven’t stopped ever since.
What events led you to start self-releasing your work and later, attracting the likes of Ninja Tune? How did you gain early supporters and generate excitement around your music in the very beginning?
I was living on the East Coast in the same town in Connecticut that I went to high school. I didn’t go to college right after that, so I was hanging out and getting into a lot of trouble. I was holding down a regular job at a restaurant and focusing on my music the rest of the time. I ended up becoming friends with a guy in a town nearby. He approached me when he was starting up his own record label called Downbeat, which was geared towards 12-inch dance breaks of a particular aesthetic. He thought I might be interested in having one of my tracks be the first release. That was the first time my music was pressed onto vinyl. None of us had any idea what the hell we were doing, but I managed to meet a couple people in the UK and that led to me putting out a couple more singles on these two labels, Vertical Sound and Cyber Funk. My subsequent releases were mainly with labels out of the UK and other parts of Europe and it happened pretty naturally. Europe has a long history of appreciating particularly adventurous electronic music, so the audience was there. I had found Ninja Tune because I’d fallen in love with Amon Tobin’s work early on and found Warp because I was a huge fan of Aphex Twin.
Fast forward into the future, I had another release out on Planet Mu and I met Amon when we played a show called Yuri’s Night in a NASA space hangar out in Northern California. It’s a funny story because I gave him a completely blank CD, which was supposed to have my music on it. In my opinion, it’s already tough when someone hands you their music while you’re on the road. If you’re on tour, it’s more than likely going to end up getting lost. That ended up being embarrassingly hilarious, but we ended up staying in touch after I found a way to contact him after that. We became friends and released a track together on my own imprint, Ancestor.
It’s been 10 years since then and I can’t say how much it meant for me to have that experience. Sometimes, when you’re growing up and you idolize certain musicians or performers, you get the idea that they’re untouchable and forget that they’re just people doing their thing. It was cool to experience that connection with someone I held in high regard for a long time and have a chance collaborate creatively. After Amon and I put out the track, Ninja Tune took notice and I ended up releasing an album with them a couple years later. If we’re looking for a common thread, all the releases resulted from building genuine friendships. That’s what brought me here.
As an artist, your work seamlessly melds organic sounds from everyday life with the finest of what digital music production has to offer. It has been described as cinematic, ethereal, spiritually moving, and genre-bending. How did you develop your own unique musical perspectives and what is your creative process like?
The uniqueness…Honestly, I think my process has been just like anybody else’s who kept at it. My history and experience have been in electronic music. Ideally, your own voice comes naturally through the work you’re doing, whether it’s songwriting or production. When you do something for a number of years in a focused way, you hope for a particular aesthetic to come out of that. In my mind, your longevity comes from what you do to set yourself apart. I feel like I’ve always allowed new ideas to transpire inside of a signature feeling that I didn’t want to lose.
Now that I’ve gotten more into composing, I’ve learned more about how different people can play different roles in any single piece of music, production, or presentation. For the longest time in my work as an artist, I didn’t realize there was another way to accomplish something other than writing it yourself. I had to learn how to produce things and mix them myself, then hand it off to someone else to master.
My creative process is dependent on the project. Under Eskmo, I essentially put out albums and various releases. I also toured as that character for a long time and still plan to again. I do what any other group does. I create something and then go on the road with it. You know, the set up was a live PA and then I’d use Ableton and a handful of different MIDI controllers on stage, so I’d be able to do live looping. There is a lot of live tweaking on my sets, so the music tended to evolve as I continued to tour. I would also sing, adding another layer of live vocals. Before any given show, whether I was playing at a festival, a club, a theater, or anything in between, I would essentially run around backstage and rummage through janitor closets and even garbage bins to find random objects to incorporate into my act on stage. I would add in PVC pipe, empty plastic water bottles, the sounds of crumpling paper, metal scraps, literally anything I could find. You can’t tour with those kinds of things. They wouldn’t let you on the airplane. So, after I’d land, I’d start collecting things and turning them into instruments. That creative process was constantly changing and taught me so much.
When I started working on Billions about two and a half years ago, that put a stop to my life on the road. I did some gigs right at the beginning of season one and it was scary to be diving into my first scoring job while I was still on tour. I was over in Europe and had other things to do at the same time. When I started composing for the show, it was about hunkering down in the studio and creating something. One of the biggest things I’ve learned from working as a composer is to get out of your way. You can’t spend six hours on a hi hat. There’s no time for that. It’s about trusting yourself and following a thread. If that thread doesn’t work out, it’s all good. Find another thread and let the creativity flow out. That’s what works for me.
This spring, I’ll be returning to create my first full-length album since I started scoring. I can already imagine how the things I’ve picked up in this medium will influence the work I intend to do next. At the most basic level, my routine is waking up in the morning, eating cereal, and beginning the work. Depending on how crazy it is, I’ll be able to take a break before the evening, but most often, I’ll only stop for dinner and then get right back to it.
When did it first occur to you to break into the television composing lane? Is that what sparked your move from San Francisco to Los Angeles? How were you brought into the fold as the composer for Showtime's Billions?
To be completely honest, I never even thought about scoring for TV. Coming from my background, working on films seemed like a cool thing to do in the future, but I knew there were so many layers to get involved. I moved to California about 12 years ago, living in San Francisco for five years. At that time, I was signed with Ninja Tune, completely immersed in touring and focusing on making albums. After a while, I just felt the calling to move to Los Angeles for better weather and opportunities.
In 2013, I became friends with a group of people and we created The Echo Society. We are a Los Angeles based collective of composers. Soon after, we put our first show together, which was a live presentation of orchestral music merged with electronic instrumentation. There were maybe eight or nine players and we performed for about 150 people at Mack Sennett, which is an old sound stage where Charlie Chaplin used to do his thing. The following year, we put on another one and it’s continued. We’ve done six so far. Our focus is to transform the space at each show. We’ve used a warehouse, a church, the Vibiana Downtown, and the ACE Theater, which was the largest one with 40 musicians and a 16 piece choir. Our most recent event “Family” was at a mansion on the hilltop of Silverlake, where guests were encouraged to walk through the house over the course of three days. There were 21 composers over the course of three nights, 50+ musicians, presenting in seven different rooms, who wrote original music for the occasion. It was an experience to be able to travel from room to room and hear all of these perspectives. We are so grateful to have had a number of guest composers at each event like Reggie Watts, Mica Levi, Jonsi from Sigur Rós, Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear, Chelsea Wolfe, Clark, Amon Tobin, and others.
Being surrounded by a community of composers, I was exposed to that world and learned so much about what it entailed. As an artist, it got to a point where I was having an inner struggle with touring. I’d say that I started properly touring when I was 26 or so. If I had been touring earlier in life, I could see how it might have gone completely different, but it was tough for me as it went on. I did it for a number of years and it was lonely being really far away from home and I wasn’t interested in partying anymore. Even when you are home, your friends think you’re touring, so no one hits you up and you have to go out of your way to connect with people. When everyone assumes you’re never around, it’s difficult to establish any consistent relationships. All the aspects of normal life that felt healthy to me were pretty absent from life on the road, so that feeling absolutely influenced me to put some effort into making something else happen that would be more stable.
I had put out an album called “Sol” on this record label called R&S. In support of that, I did a Tiny Desk concert for NPR. The show runner of Billions saw that video online, checked out my album, and got in touch, asking if I’d be interested in scoring anything. The Echo Society was a catalyst for me, shifting my mind into thinking more cinematically and opening me up to feeling confident about releasing music in that vein. Making the conscious decision to follow this path was exciting, but it was also terrifying for me to take myself off the track I was used to and that people were essentially expecting me to continue. In the end, I’m really glad I took that leap of faith, but it was scary for me to step that far outside of what myself and others were anticipating. Even though I’ve been involved in the process for some years now, I still feel like I’m at the very beginning.
What do we have to look forward to from The Echo Society within this calendar year?
We just had a meeting to plan what we’re going to do this year. We’re looking at the idea of recording some of the best pieces from our core collective. At this time, we have 42 tracks that have only been played live by the core group alone, not including the guest pieces as well. At each show, we’ve forced each other to write brand new songs and that’s part of the intention of The Echo Society. We have been collecting these songs over time, so our next move is to figure how to properly record them in the studio and share them with the world because we’d all be stoked to see that happen.
Billions focuses on the dramatic cat and mouse game between an astute U.S. Attorney General and a charismatic billionaire hedge fund manager. Your score is predominantly comprised of electronic instrumentation and creates this dense, rippling soundscape with a thick undercurrent of suspense. Can you tell us about your most used gear and the distinctive sounds that defined the sonic palette for the first two seasons of Billions? What should we anticipate musically for season 3?
For my scoring work, I’m mainly in the box. On Billions, it’s more tone oriented than overtly thematic. There’s definitely a lot of stuff put out to busses and I like having various levels of saturation happening simultaneously. That is one of the main things that creates the mood for the show. I use Razor, Serum, Imposcar. I use a bunch of Kontakt instruments. For effects, I like to use tons of things from UAD, Soundtoys, Trash from iZotope, and FabFilter. I don’t use any outboard synths stuff at all for scoring. On the sound design side, it’s really about messing with feedback in the sense of pushing certain frequencies really hard through compressors to make them sound like they are fighting. A big commitment in all of this was crafting the focused churning sounds.
I have loved Paul Giamatti for some time. I went into this wanting to create an atmosphere for him with a brooding cello. To complete his vibe, I piece together loose, almost messy agitated sounds with very little structure. His character is so emotionally scattered, so that’s how I pictured him sounding. For Damian Lewis’ character, I opt for a short, clean, and precise approach that can shift towards darkness and heaviness when necessary. It has a more calculated energy and feels more musically collected. These were the initial little seeds of inspiration that brought me into so many different musical places for the show.
For season three, I’ve been writing a lot more new material than I originally expected to, which has been on a very case-by-case basis and a lot of fun. I'm genuinely stoked on this season. There have been a number of times where I haven’t been able to read through the scripts in time to deliver the music, so my work process has changed to watching the cut sent and letting the music come to me. It’s become easier for me to see the visuals and draft ideas from looking at particular types of shots. I’m a very visual person, so that plays a big part. I have been stoked on every episode and felt so inspired by the writing and how intelligently it’s been shot.
13 Reasons Why centers around the tragic suicide of a high school student, who leaves behind 13 cassette tapes implicating people in her life as the reasons she chose to end her life. The show explores highly sensitive subject matter in the realms of bullying, depression, and sexual abuse. What were your initial thoughts surrounding the creation of the show's overarching musical statement?
13 Reasons Why is very thematic on the other hand. Going into the project, I knew they were wanting something that felt nostalgic in a sense. I was also considerate of the fact that Netflix had just put out Stranger Things and it had blown up around that time frame, so I didn’t want to piggyback on that particular sonic aesthetic. It had to be different. After seeing the pilot, I came up with a few themes around the character of Hannah Baker and I was inspired by the concept of the tapes she left behind. I wanted to create mystery and add in elements that had an ethereal quality. I knew there would be so many dark stories being tied together throughout the series, so I wanted to create little motifs to segue in and out of once we arrived at those moments. My intention was to create an enveloping sweet natured feeling that had a sense of childlike innocence to provide contrast with the dark.
There was a lot of thought that went into providing a unique character for each tape she made. In particular, I wanted to emphasize the arc of Clay’s experience and Hannah’s experience, how they essentially overlapped. In a strange way, I aimed to create a common musical thread between all of the moments that touched on heavier topics like abuse and rape. I felt like a strategic use of strings could make the score sound timeless and possess a vulnerability where some synth stuff might not be able to. The sound of a violin bending is relatable to most everyone. Overall, the tapes were the anchor of the season and I wanted everything else to swirl around them.
Creatively speaking, what have been the greatest challenges of adapting your artistry to the confines of composing for scripted series? Are there any lessons you've learned that have informed the writing process for your own projects?
I’m on the third season of Billions and the second season of 13 Reasons Why, but challenges still come up. Luckily, they feel less unexpected than they used to because I have gotten through various scenarios before. Starting off in the first season of Billions, I was struck by how dialogue-heavy the show was. It was challenging to learn and adapt to it because you have to find creative ways to weave in and out of conversations in a smooth way. Billions features a lot of different personalities, but mainly focuses on this tense dynamic between two men. Most notably, Paul Giamatti’s voice is gruff and low a lot of the time on the show, so even frequency wise, it was tricky to create a menacing churning sensation without competing or interfering with the dialogue. That was something so simple that I hadn’t dealt with to this extent in creating my own music.
What I was doing before was much more selfish. As a producer, I could do whatever I wanted, be as messy or clean as I wanted to be. For television, you have to help the story along and get out of the habit of expressing freely with no limitations. You have to leave your pride off to the side and take care of what needs to happen. I also had to learn that sometimes what makes sense for a scene is not necessarily something I would just write on my own. It became a cool little practice to put my ego on the shelf and just have fun supporting this project instead of getting caught up in what would make it onto the soundtrack. I had to get comfortable with the idea that particular cues I’d created could fit various scenes very well, but not be something I wanted to include in the final presentation of the score that would be accessible to everybody.
Right before I started working on the first season of Billions, I imagined creating big themes for all these different characters, but the show runners had other intentions. At that point, I kind of assumed that every show followed that model, but I learned that it isn’t necessarily the case. We ended up having a theme for Chuck and a theme for Bobby Axelrod. There are a couple motifs that correlate closely to specific things that happen in the show, but other than that, I created a lot of textural flavors, which act as responses to each scenario. So, I’d produce something that has a certain kind of saturation, a certain world to it by melding sounds together. Those atmospheres become a thread that carries through a scene. It isn’t pointing to specific chord progressions or melodies, it is more sound design driven. 13 Reasons Why is a whole different process in that its very overtly musical and theme driven. This presented its own work process in a super satisfying and different way.
What is your DAW of choice? Are you in the habit of mixing your own music?
I just fell into Logic a number of years ago and have kept on using it. I love how much you can do with MIDI and automation. It’s really good in that department. I use Ableton for live performances.
For the television work, there is always someone to mix on the stage, but I generally mix anyways. I can’t help it. If I don’t, there’s just too much in the background. I need to do the very basics to make sure it sounds right to my ears before someone comes in to finesse it with the dialogue and make it proper overall. For all other projects, I mix everything on my own. I only send things off for mastering because it can only benefit from running through someone’s super expensive outboard gear. Ideally, they’ll get it to a place where it doesn’t sound too different from what you give them, just a bit louder while keeping the dynamics intact. The worst is when someone squashes it or shoots it back in a completely different way.
Do you have a secret plug-in weapon that you use on your master buss?
For my composing work, I don’t because I am aware that the edited cuts I’m working with aren’t the final ones. Someone else will be taking what I come up with and mixing it in with everything else that’s happening. I work in Logic, so I’ll have however many channels up and I’ll be writing something out, then my assistant will go on and bounce the stems. He’ll group some strings together, some pads and drums, whatever it is and sends them out. Let’s say, out of a track with 15 channels, he’ll send five stems. If it’s a matter of dynamics, you remember you’re sending a bunch of things through one compressor, so it will sound sonically different than if you send all of those individually. I always want to know what it’s going to sound like in the end, so the best way to do that is to not put anything on the master if I’m sending specific stems out.
Honestly, I know there’s a way around this. I have a feeling I will have a different answer for this in the next few years because this has been something I have addressed in the past month. Sometimes, the score will be presented like a source jack. It’ll be upfront, really loud and prominent. In those moments, I actually do want to make some slight tweaks on the bus, maybe some EQing, some compression, maybe a little bit of limiting. Of course, I want to make specific things stick out a bit in my stems, but it’s more difficult when you know someone else will be taking it and trying to mash it together with other things. You also want to make sure there is continuity because if you send something that sounds bright, full, and limited and the rest of the score doesn’t have that same impact, it means they are going to go back to my score and start making changes on the mix stage that I won’t be there for. That’s not necessarily an ideal situation.
For my own music, it completely depends on the track. Whenever I’m working on music, I mix low volume wise in the room. Even in Logic, I keep the faders down for the most part, so I can keep a lot of headroom. Basically, I will produce it and make it sound as good as possible before I get to mixing and the final master bus. I might put something fairly gentle to give it some warmth of body or some type of limiter. I usually turn to UAD for a little extra this or that, but it doesn’t do anything overly drastic. I only put a bunch of stuff on the master if I’m trying to make it louder to listen in the car or at a friends house. But for released stuff now.
Parallel compression or FX is another thing though is something I definitely do. For this type of master buss work, I like to use different things depending on the need. I use all UAD stuff for this right now. I love the SSL for gentle, almost invisible stuff, I love the LA2A for more colored smashed stuff, the Manley EQs, the Brainworks stuff as well.
What activities do you engage in to hit the reset button and replenish your creative energies?
Recently, climbing has become a huge thing for me. I normally indoor rock climb two or three times a week, which is awesome. I’d say any kind of physical exercise is helpful because, in this line of work, you can be sitting in a chair so much. Even with a standing desk, it can be hard on your body, so it’s good to get outside. Anything nature-oriented is a massive reset for me. I love hiking, going camping, visiting the ocean, any of that kind of stuff. It’s probably the best medicine for this crazy work life. The Redwood trees are what brought me to California.
I recently built my own studio, it’s my first real one. Before this, I’ve always been in a room where I just put up sound panels and made it as good as possible. Now, I’ve got a view right behind my monitors there. For me, natural light and trees are important.
In 2015, I created a project called FeelHarmonic.org, where I did a handful of events focusing on working with the deaf and hard of hearing community to tap into ways to explore music. I created a sonic story using a Subpac, a tactile vibrating pack you can plug into any audio source. I worked with a friend to create an animation to the piece I wrote. I worked with Subpac to bring 30 of these packs to a deaf / hard of hearing elementary school. We had them feel the bass through the packs while watching this animation and then play a small midi keyboard as well. This was massively replenishing for me and have done it three times. I’m planning to do more of these events with various pieces of technology this year and in 2019.
I understand you have a rescue squirrel as a house pet. Can you tell us about how you acquired Albert?
My lady and I were taking a hike and we came across this baby squirrel, all messed up in the woods, covered in sap and unable to use his hands. She picked him up and we tracked down a ranger in the forest. She asked him, “Is there any way you can take care of this guy?” and he went, “It’s nature. It’s just what happens”. I turned to her and said, “See, that’s what I told you”. We got back in the car and with tears in her eyes, she said: “If you make me leave him, I’m going to resent you for the rest of our lives.” So, I said, "He's coming with us."
We were camping, so we took care of him for a couple of days with nothing but little coffee creamers. A couple of days later, we found a pet store and bought a dropper to feed him kitten formula. He actually started to get stronger and we ended up bringing him back to our home in L.A. If we left him outside, we knew he would die. Fast forward a bit, he gets super strong and then started running around our house, so we got a cage for him. We tied a rope from our balcony to a tree out back for him to run outside. He ended up making a nest out of the tree, but then he went missing for a couple of days, actually while we were setting up our last Echo Society event. I later found him paralyzed from the neck down on the street below us. He was on his way to becoming completely paralyzed, but now, he has one working arm and one working leg. He’s a strong squirrel and he’s pushing through and super happy in the house now, hobbling along. He ate through my power cable the other day though.
What are your spiritual practices? Do you engage in meditation?
In a more traditional sense, I'm very drawn to Buddhism. I don't consider myself a Buddhist, but I have rarely heard Buddhist teachings that I disagree with. There are elements of other religions that I respond to, but Thich Nhat Hanh is a monk that I really, really respect and love. He's awesome. I've gone a handful of times to Deer Park Monastery, which is in Escondido, down here in Southern California. It is an offshoot of Plum Village in the South of France, which is the monastery that he opened up back there in the '70s after he was exiled from Vietnam. After doing a festival in Europe a couple years ago, I stayed there with all my gear for a week. At that time, I felt so different being at a monastery, surrounded by people focusing on mindfulness and silence, comparing that to tour life. I have always been intrigued by silence. It’s interesting to be a musician and be so drawn to silence, but I think it influences the music I write and the sounds in nature that I’m drawn to. I was very grateful to be able to explore that.
The following weekend, I played for this giant electronic event in a castle somewhere in the Romania and Transylvania area. It was incredibly loud, super late at night, and packed with people partying. It was one of the last shows I did. It was like the opposite sides of a coin. These two experiences were right around the time of the turning point in my career. The feelings I had at the time made me ask myself, “What am I valuing the most right now in my life? What is sustainable for me to keep on doing?”.
I used to be hardcore into conspiracy-oriented internet stuff in my 20's and then all of that merged into reading tons of self-help books. That’s all stopped these days and for the past few years, I’ve been immersed in anything from the mindfulness world. Anything that focuses on breath and meditation is inspiring to me. Admittedly, it’s become an important thing for me to engage in more often since November of last year because the social climate in the U.S. is so noisy. I needed an anchor because that kind of toxic energy can influence you in ways that may not be the most beneficial.
I want to be informed and like to have a sense of what is happening in the world, so finding balance is a daily challenge I face. Everyone seems to be experiencing the state of the world in different ways. Either they are flat out ignoring it or way too into it and feeling pissed. I have trying for a middle road to take, where I can be conscious without losing sight of what I am doing in my own life. I think it’s key for younger people to know that they don’t have to succumb to this darkness and behave in radical ways, regurgitating negativity. You can still stand up for yourself, speak your mind, and let your feelings be known without being destructive to yourself or others.
Music saved my life. 100%. I don’t have any doubt that I would have made decisions that would have been detrimental to my health and well-being if music wasn’t there to guide me out of that. No matter what is happening out there, I think you have to continue to create. Music is just a medium. People can create waves through books, through visual art, through architecture, through anything really. I've spoken to other artist friends of mine about it and some of them experience a sense of guilt about continuing their work while everything is so crazy, but I believe, as creative folks, we have a responsibility. Just keep creating.
Tune into season 3 of Billions on Showtime every Sunday at 10 pm.