Talking Devil In Ohio With Composer Will Bates

Recently I spoke with Composer Will Bates about his career and the Netflix Limited Series “Devil in Ohio”.



How did you get into composing?

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, ever since I was a little kid. I sang the entire score of Star Wars to my parents when I was 5 or 6 years old. They bought me a violin immediately. Which I then tortured them with for a few years until they bought me a saxophone which I was much better at! I’ve been in lots of bands, playing sax, lead singer of an indie band, produced dance music for a while. But the only way I’ve ever been able to support myself financially is writing music. Started off scoring commercials as I naively thought it would get me into scoring movies. It didn’t. But it did pay the bills and helped me cut my teeth until I started scoring indie films and finally found my way into the TV world and larger movies.

Where do you find your inspiration when composing?

Every project is different. But I find myself always needing to find a sound which is new and exciting to me. Melodies tend to be born out of those sonic choices for me. Sometimes that means going out and finding some weird new esoteric instrument. Sometimes it’s researching a new style of music and trying to figure it out in my own way.

For the Devil In Ohio, the producers wanted me to write the hymn of the cult so that they could have the actors sing it onset for one of the scenes towards the end of the series. The backstory of the cult is derived from 19th century Ireland. So I dug into some Irish instrumentation initially. Some Gaelic modality. That informed some of what I ended up doing in the rest of the score.

What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a project?

I’m not sure that I specifically listen to other people’s music when preparing for a new job. But I am constantly listening to stuff. All the time. We have a nice turntable setup in our house which gets switched on every morning while I’m making breakfast for the kids. It’s normally jazz in the morning to be honest. Then something more modern and a bit random later on, after work. There’s something about vinyl that forces the listener to be more engaged with the music which I really like. Even just the act of flipping the record to side B. Particularly in a world where we can conjure anything almost instantly with an Alexa or whatever. And I have kids, so I think introducing them to the idea of the “album” is important to us. My music taste is all over the place. But I did catch my 7 year old son singing along to a Wayne Shorter solo from Speak No Evil while he was eating his Cheerios the other day. I consider that a small victory of parenting.

What would you say is your favorite part of your score and why?

For every project I do there’s always a kind of “eureka” moment when I find that melody or sound that is intrinsically connecting with a character. Where one couldn’t live without the other. For Devil In Ohio that moment was what the producers and I ended up calling the “trauma” theme for Suzanne. It’s in episode one, in the hospital. A short intimate moment where Mae rests her head on Suzanne’s shoulder and we see them connecting for the first time. That one weirdly was written on a Hurdy-Gurdy with some extra modular synth stuff, and some strings. It’s simple. But it was a cue early on in a process with new collaborators. I think the producers, Daria and Rachel were like, oh he’s got this. We’re gonna be a okay with this guy! Ha.

Were there particular areas of the score that were more difficult to compose for than others?

There are moments in the show that are creepy, scary but also emotional. I think that’s what makes the show so interesting. These characters are damaged, they’re all trying to change something about themselves but not always succeeding. There’s some pretty disturbing stuff about Suzanne’s past. Those flashback scenes were tricky. It’s scary and upsetting but sometimes it’s not as simple as just making big scary music. That’s what I love so much about what I do. Music is so complex, guiding those emotions on a knife edge. I feel like I learn something new each time I’m in those more challenging spots.

What were some of the biggest challenges you have faced and what have been your greatest triumphs?

I think the hardest thing about being a composer is the time management. Especially with a family. It’s time consuming work and that balance can be a little tough. Cutting a vacation short, late nights in the studio. But I’m fortunate to be married to someone who absolutely gets it. And is always there to guide me, be supportive. Especially if a job gets bumpy, which it sometimes does. So yeah, meeting her is probably my biggest triumph.

And in the end I think if I told my 15 year old self where I’ve ended up and that I’ve been able to raise a family by making weird noises for 20 years I think the 15 year old me would be pretty psyched.

Can you explain a bit of your creative process when composing?

I think every project starts with its own set of challenges. There’s never any complacency when I start a new job. I get so excited at the beginning, then it’s quickly followed by a kind of weird panic. Like, “that’s it, there are no more melodies left in the universe” But then I get my head down and I always somehow find it. Sometimes it happens instantly. Sometimes it takes a while. But I treat it like anyone with any job would. My wife is a painter. And a great admirer of the artist Francis Bacon. His approach was that there is no such thing as the lightning bolt of inspiration. It comes from doing the work. I believe that. I wake up early. Get the kids to school, I’m in front my rig by 830am. And I power through. I setup goals for the day and I don’t quit until those goals are achieved. If they’re not, I pickup the kids from school, we do dinner together, and maybe if I’ve had a bad day I skip storytime and have my wife do it, and I go back to work and get the thing done.

Maintaining suspense and enhancing scares is a vital part of the horror soundtrack. How have you tackled this and what horror soundtracks influenced you over the years?

Obviously there’s a nuts and bolts jump scare thing that a lot of horror requires. But one of the first horror movies I ever scored was for Larry Fessenden. I adore Larry. We’ve done a few things together now but he taught me something early on about the tragedy of horror that really stuck with me. There can be a sadness, or an unconscious connection that if you pull it off can be somehow more disturbing to an audience. When something is more elegiac than just straight up creepy.

And I love counterpoint. Didn’t Wes Craven walk out of the Sundance screening of Reservoir Dogs during the ear cutting scene? Even though you don’t actually see the ear coming off, there’s something so disturbing about Madsen bopping along to Steeler’s Wheel. We’re almost participating in what he’s doing, it’s disturbing and powerful. Brilliant stuff. Also, kinda says a lot about Freddie Kruger’s dad.

Can you compare/contrast composing for a movie vs a tv show and do you have a preference?

The early creative part of the process tends to be the same with both for me. Again, it’s coming up with that “eureka” moment. But then with a show it’s obviously a much longer process and requires more planning and frankly more stamina! Honestly I love them both. And feel very fortunate that in my career I’ve been able to go backwards and forwards a lot between TV and film.

What do you like to do when you’re not composing?

Complain about the fact that I’m not composing and generally drive everyone around me insane.

What else do you have coming up that the readers can look forward to?

I just finished a movie called The Estate, directed by Dean Craig. It’s a dark comedy starring Toni Collette, Kathleen Turner, David Duchovny and Anna Faris. About a group of estranged nieces and nephews fighting over their dying millionaire aunt’s fortune. It’s hilarious. And the score couldn’t be further away from Devil In Ohio. I was able to dig into my jazz roots on this one, put together a little jazz combo; the wonderful Spencer Cohen on drums and a fantastic double bass player named Gary Wicks. We had so much fun. It’s heading to the London Film Festival. I’ve not been back to the motherland in a while so I’m excited to visit merry old England. But not for very long. Back to work!