Nathan Barr is the evocative composer and multi-instrumentalist behind a dynamic array of suspenseful, dramatic films and television series including The Americans, True Blood, Cabin Fever, Grindhouse, Sneaky Pete, Hemlock Grove, Hostel, and Flatliners. Raised in Tokyo, Japan in a musical family with eclectic tastes, Nathan developed a fascination with rare musical devices from far flung corners of the world. These early discoveries influenced an elaborate signature approach to composing, embroidering his scores with exotic, unconventional instruments including 200 year old Tibetan bone flute, deagan shaker chimes from the 1900's, gourd cellos, Glass Armonica, and more. Nathan's impeccable musicianship and deft innovations led to two Emmy nominations for his respective work on The Americans and Hemlock Grove. In advance of the release of The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Nathan discusses how he has brought obscure sounds to the mainstream and what inspired him to build Bandrika Studios, the facility of his dreams.
I understand that you began studying music at the age of four in Japan, starting with Suzuki method violin training, then taking up cello, guitar, and so on. Can you tell us about your introduction to music and how you came to be such a dynamic multi-instrumentalist?
I started violin in Japan. I came back to the states when I was around six or seven years old and picked up the cello. My parents had some unusual instruments around the house, things you wouldn’t typically find in American homes.
My dad had a Shakuhachi. He played banjo, guitar, and also sang. We had a Koto from Japan, which was particularly fun to play with. It’s about eight feet long and it has ivory bridges with strings that go over. You pluck the strings with plectrums and then push down the other side of the bridge to get a bit of a bend. It’s one of the oldest, most traditional instruments of Japan. It’s incredibly cool and a great instrument to experiment with.
We also had an old washboard mandolin and wooden back mandolin. Having a bunch of cool unusual instruments around the house drove me to explore them at an early age. By having access to them, it gave me the opportunity to think beyond the traditional western instruments that we all know. I think that kicked it all off.
At the start of your exploration of music, which artists did you look up to?
The two biggest influences were Yo-Yo Ma, as a cellist, and Jimmy Page, as a guitarist. I grew up learning all the Led Zeppelin riffs and also playing cello in the orchestra. Those were the artists I was really infatuated with. I was totally inspired by both. I still think about how Led Zeppelin was only together from ’68 to ’78, just about 10 years. Slightly longer than The Beatles and they had such a profound, indelible impact.
What was the motivation behind your move to Los Angeles? You worked for Hans Zimmer for a little under a year before taking on your first film. What lessons from that time are still relevant in your career today and why was it important for you to create your own separate and distinct path?
I moved out here in January of ’96. I wanted to get into the film and TV business somehow. I was always a huge film junkie, so that was always my wish. When I first got out here, I wasn’t particularly aimed at film music, but I was always passionate about it. Working as Hans Zimmer's assistant for eight months was obviously my big break in. Pretty quickly after that, I got an agent. He was the fiancé of one of Hans' other assistants at the time and was working for Richard Kraft, the agent. He shopped me around as Hans' assistant, which probably got the first door to open in my career. It was just a small, crappy, straight to video film that I did. When I got that film, I left Hans and went out on my own. That was around 1998.
Working with Hans, I got to see through the eyes of a very big film composer and understand what that meant. I saw what life looked like from the very top level of what I wanted to do. He's an incredibly ambitious, successful guy. I didn't know it at the time, but I learned exactly how I didn't want to work. In terms of writing, Hans is a guy that starts in the box. The computer is at the core of his approach to composing. He's a really wonderful programmer.
While I was working for him, he generously allowed me to use his studio when he wasn't there. I was scoring a short film at the time and needed to plug in an acoustic guitar. It ended up being a huge deal because it just wasn't the way the space was set up. There were so many samplers and things going on that if you plugged a mic in and turned it on, you just heard a "whoooooosh". So, I'd say one of the big lessons I learned was that I needed to find my own way of working.
Congratulations on wrapping the sixth and final season of The Americans. Your score used everything from rich cello work to prepared piano to bring us into a Russian tinged world of intrigue and espionage. Can you tell us how you initially selected the various components of the show's musical palette and how it evolved over time?
Early on, it was clear that we didn't want the score to be overtly Russian. In fact, that was the first discussion I had with Joe and Joel, the creators and showrunners of The Americans. Two composers, in particular, were very influential. I liked Dave Grusin's score to The Firm and I liked David Shire's scores to the original version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and The Conversation, the Francis Ford Coppola film.
Those were all scores that I thought about when I knew it was going be a spy espionage series in the 80's. Some of the selections for the palette came from the fact that The Conversation and The Firm both heavily relied on piano and prepared piano. Inspired by that, I found that playing inside of the piano strings with little hammers, like one would with a dulcimer, evokes something that felt Russian without being Russian to a lot of people. When I hit on that during the demo writing process, it was a good direction to follow.
What was your experience of collaborating with a living legend, Peter Townshend of The Who for The Americans back in season 2?
Pete and I wrote a song called "It Must Be Done" for one of the seminal sequences in episode ten. It was an amazing experience. The music supervisors, Amanda Krieg-Thomas and P.J. Bloom reached out to a bunch of different high-profile musicians, seeking out a collaboration for season two. Pete Townshend responded that he loved the show and loved my work. We ended up talking and I sent him two instrumental tracks to work with. One of them really resonated with him and he sent back lyrics, guitar parts, and vocals. It was pretty incredible. His words and melody fit so perfectly with the scene.
Let's talk about Sneaky Pete. The show focuses on the dramatic saga of a con man, who assumes the identity of his cellmate after he is released from prison. What were the initial conversations surrounding the musical direction of this project?
This was a project where I knew that they had contacted at least one or two other composers to write a demo as well. It ended up being a co-score with my former assistant, Stephen Lukach. He and I have scored season one and two together. It's been a collaboration from the start and something that I wanted to do for Stephen to thank him for five years of super loyal service. I had been looking for the right project and Sneaky Pete was it. There were no real notes. They literally gave us a six-minute sequence from the pilot episode and what we wrote ended up being the one for them. We knew it was going to be a very dense, song-heavy show. In this case, the producers wanted the score to contribute to a unified sound for the show. It has a very contemporary feel with a dominant rhythm section vibe to it, which seems to really work well in many places.
You had a fantastic run with HBO's True Blood, which was on air for the better part of a decade. Can you share some of your personal musical highlights from the series?
One of the first ones that come to mind was a song that my writing partner, Lisbeth Scott and I, wrote for season one called "Take Me Home". It's in episode six of season one where Sookie is eating her gran's pie following her funeral service. That song actually gave birth to the idea that there could be a musical. Now, we're actually doing a Broadway musical version of True Blood, so it certainly has to be one of the stand-out moments.
Another highlight is called "Hair Clip", which is the scene where Sookie and Bill kiss for the first time in the second episode of season one. That was a big musical moment for me. Of course, there are a whole bunch. As you say, the series went on for the better part of a decade. It was a wild ride.
What is your role in translating this beloved series into a musical for Broadway?
It's been about five years since I brought the idea to Alan Ball at HBO. Almost two years ago, Lisbeth Scott and I wrote a version of the first act and showed it to the team. Based on that, we were given the green light to move forward. Musical theater is a slow-moving world to develop things, so we're still a couple years off from having the production officially hit the stage. We are excitedly at work on this.
Your work on Hemlock Grove captures the sublime sophistication of the Godfrey family and the nuances of the supernatural in great detail. What was your artistic process in creating thematic material for the show? Were there any specific musical experiments you tried that paid off tremendously?
I think that show was another instance where I wrote a demo to get on board. As you know, I've worked with Eli Roth quite a bit. I ended up meeting with the team and pitched the idea of using strange musical instruments from the early 1900's. They really responded to the idea, so I went off and developed some themes on these old pianos I have. I played the concepts for them and they really liked them. In terms of the ideas I explored that didn't work, I originally envisioned those pianos at the center of the score. They became one of the many textures we used throughout the show, but they didn't end up being as significant as I originally thought.
I will say that Hemlock Grove was the catalyst behind the creation of Bandrika Studios. Working on this show sparked a memory in my mind of these musical instruments I'd seen as a kid. I went to visit some collections and those experiences practically shot me out of a cannon. I bought a giant Wurlitzer theater organ that was originally from Fox Studios. It was built for them in 1928 and it has 1,500 pipes. It occupies six rooms. Bernard Hermann actually used it on both Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Day The Earth Stood Still. It's the organ you hear when Julie Andrews gets married in "The Sound of Music". It's the organ you hear in Jerry Goldsmith's scores to Patton and Star Trek.
It's really cool to have this instrument in my possession. It had been forgotten about, so I recruited one of the top organ restorers in the world to fix it with a team for the past five years. What people don't understand about organs is that purchasing the instrument itself is super reasonable. The cost is in the restoration process and constructing an entire building to house it. I liken it to buying a piano and only receiving the keys and some strings. Those pieces by themselves are completely non-functional. They are nothing and it's exactly the same thing with an organ. You get all these materials in crates. It occupied a warehouse. It was literally five tractor trailers worth of stuff. All of it had to be fixed and assembled, then the space had to be correctly designed and built for it. I hired an acoustician and then this organ builder, who is the one who restored it. He was the one who used to go and take care of it at Fox Studios when he was a kid. Before him, his father was the one to look after it for half a century. The organ has a very rich in history and I am so excited to have it out in the world.
The new space is 8,000 square feet and equipped with an enormous scoring stage that can house about 50-60 players. This facility will continue to change the way I work because there's a big beautiful space for all my instruments and the room sounds absolutely gorgeous. It's a game changer for me and it doesn't hurt that it's only 20 minutes away by car. This studio is the ultimate arrival of the way I've always wanted to work. It's perfect.
What is your DAW of choice? Have the advents in technology altered your approach to composing?
I've used Logic for probably 15 years now. I started on Cubase because that's what Hans taught me on. As things developed, I moved in a new direction. I wanted to find something that wasn't Pro Tools that worked really well as a recording station. Logic was that platform at the time and I've stuck with it.
I still play everything. When listening to the scores of Hemlock Grove, The Americans, and True Blood, about 75% of anything you hear is performed live and I'm the one playing it. Cellos, guitars, pianos, everything. It keeps the process very organic for me. Being the musician keeps the compositional process exciting for me. I love to improvise, record, then do another track and another track until it's done.
You seem to have an interest in ethnomusicology. How does your study of world music inform your artistry? What are the most obscure musical instruments you have collected?
I guess I just like collecting unusual instruments. Of course, there's an ethnomusicological component to that, but it's really just about collecting cool, old instruments. I've spent years of my life searching for tons of things that are really hard to come by. One of the ones is called a kangling. It's a human bone trumpet from Tibet about 200 years ago. Some of the monks there had their bones made into ceremonial trumpets. In Carnival Row, one of the shows I'm working on for next year, you'll hear a bit of kangling in the opening of the series.
I recently found a pair of deagan shaker chimes, which are incredibly rare. I came across a set that is completely playable from the early 1900's. I poke around online and stumble upon peculiar instruments, then use them in various ways. I also like to go visit collections and sometimes, they happen to have something for sale like my euphonicon. It's an upright piano from England and dates back to the 1830's. They take the bass strings and put them up in a harp. It hasn't be restored yet but nonetheless, it is a very unique atypical instrument. It's usable, not as a straight piano, but as a way to create sounds. Playing around with those strings has been really fun.
As a composer who often references the significance of artful storytelling, what are some of your favorite works of fiction? Is there any book in particular that you aspire to score the film/television adaption for?
One of the projects I would like to score is Devil in the White City, which Martin Scorsese is making with Leonardo DiCaprio right now. It's written by Erik Larsen and revolves around the first World's Fair in the early 1900's. It's about the incredible human achievement that went into putting that up, which parallels with the story of a serial killer who is working there at the same time. It's a true story and such a fascinating one at that. When I read it, I was like, "God, this would make a great movie" and consequently, it would be a fantastic project to score.
The film I'm working on right now with Eli Roth called The House with a Clock in its Walls is something I was excited to be a part of from the start. Steven Spielberg is producing it at Amblin and it stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett. It's based on a very beloved book from the '70's. It's a truly great movie, something along the lines of Goosebumps or Fantastic Beasts.
What can we expect your score from the upcoming fantasy thriller, The House with a Clock in its Walls? What inspirations did you draw from the original novel and how did that influence your musical point of departure?
I've never written a score like this and that's why it's been such an exciting process. It sort of falls in the territory of John Williams. You know, a big orchestral score that's very thematic. It's been really exciting to explore that. When I read the book, it gave me some flavors for the score before I even saw anything. It's an honor for a big film at Amblin to be the first project at my new studio with this incredible organ. The idea is to create history in this place, so I believe this film is a really positive start in that direction.
To date, what has been your most challenging composing job and how did you grow from the experience?
I'll answer this more generally. The most challenging composing jobs are the ones where nothing is easy. It goes beyond your first couple of ideas not working. I'm lucky that I've only experienced that two or three times in my career. It's always very tough when you come onboard, you have an idea for what it should be, you head out in that direction, and then it's not right for them. What's worse is when they don't know what they want or they can't decide. It's difficult when you can never seem to get a thumbs up as you're working. Everything is constantly in flux until the last minute and that creates an environment of panic. I try to avoid those scenarios at all costs.
What I learned from those experiences is to be very careful about which projects you pick and the people you work with. Sometimes, you find yourself in situations with decent people but you just don't creatively gel with them. When you go for that first meeting with a group of people, you have to suss out who is in charge, what they want, and figure out if they are good communicators. If they're not, that could become very challenging the further you get into the project.
What are the greatest joys in your life outside of music?
One of the greatest joys is spending time with my niece, who was born two years ago. In our family, she's the first grandchild for my parents, so that's been really wonderful. I'd say that travel is huge for me. I love to travel all over the world. I was out of the country a lot last year. I think I traveled 93 days last year. A lot of that time was spent in Brazil, Germany, or Mexico. I really try and get out to see the world. It's important to remember that there is a whole planet full of people out there. It's exciting to be a part of that. Whenever I get a break from the studio, I make a point to get on a plane and fly somewhere. Aside from that, I'm a big food and wine guy, which plays a lot into my travels.
When you're hard at work in Los Angeles, what are your favorite places to enjoy a luxurious meal?
My favorite one is called Locanda Portofino. It's an Italian restaurant with a super cozy atmosphere. They serve delicious Italian comfort food. It's in Santa Monica. I have a whole bunch of go-to restaurants here, which I really enjoy. Rustic Canyon is excellent. Bestia in Downtown L.A. is really good. Craft, Tom Colicchio's place in Century City is absolutely delicious.
On a final note, what can we look forward to hearing from you next?
Aside from The House with a Clock in Its Walls, the other thing I want to mention is an upcoming show on Amazon called Carnival Row. It's going to be their brand new, big show in 2019. It stars Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne. Guillermo Del Toro was involved in developing it. It's a really amazing project and I can't wait for people to see this incredible world that's been created. We will be working on it for the rest of the year. People can look forward to that. It's going to be really special.
Catch The House with a Clock in Its Walls in theaters on September 21st, 2018.