The Walking Dead: Tell it to the Frogs

Some of the most unique and characteristic sounds in “The Walking Dead” score come from bluegrass instrumentation, including electric banjo, dulcimer, autoharp, dobro and guitars.  This week’s video blog focuses on these unusual instruments and how I use them in the score:

Ever since my first meeting with producers Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd, I knew that southern blues instrumentation would be a big part of “The Walking Dead” sound.  I wanted to represent the geographic location of the story, without overtly calling attention to the score.  So, I worked closely with my musicians to create timbres that are reminiscent of country music, but ultimately unique to the series.

(Yes, Steve.  That’s very spooky.)

Probably the most prominent and important instrument in my bluegrass ensemble is the twelve-string electric banjo, performed by Oingo Boingo / “Battlestar Galactica” alumnus Steve Bartek.  We ran the banjo through a number of digital and analog processors to find cool sounds.  Steve is excellent is playing solos that sound “outside the box,” so to speak, and his performances on this instrument are essential to giving my score its unique tone.  (Watch the video to hear how I inspired him to find the perfect zombie banjo sound!)

Another instrument I wanted to incorporate was the dulcimer.  Bartek went to the local guitar store around the corner and picked up a “build-it-yourself” kit for a cardboard dulcimer (yes, it’s really just a cardboard box with a piece of wood and strings attached).  Ironically, this gave us exactly the creaking, homemade sound we were looking for.

(Jonathan Ortega and Steve Bartek playing the dulcimer.  All session photos by Andrew Craig)

Sometimes it’s not enough to just change the instrument or the pedals.  Sometimes you need to change the way you play the instrument.  This is exactly how we approached the dulcimer.  We set up the dulcimer to be played by two players instead of one.  Percussionist Jonathan Ortega played the strings with sticks or metal beaters, while guitarist Steve Bartek created melodies and chords using his fingers on the frets.  The sticks bounced off the strings in ways that a guitar pick or human fingers could not.  The result was a sound that is too blisteringly fast to possibly be played by a single person strumming.  Having an excellent percussionist and an excellent guitarist team up on the same stringed instrument really paid off.

Bartek has an excellent collection of vintage autoharps in his studio.  Most of them are so old, and in such disrepair, that they no longer hold tuning.  Fortunately for me, this was exactly the sound I was looking for.  We de-tuned each autoharp to dissonant pitches, and Ortega played them like percussion instruments, striking them with mallets, sticks or metal beaters.  Again, my philosophy was to find “usual” instruments and play them in an unusual way.  I strove to have the musical world of “The Walking Dead” feel vaguely familiar, but also somehow wrong… or “dead.”

SPOILERS AHEAD: While these instruments are present in the series Main Title, they had a minimal presence in the premiere episode.  In fact, the first time the electric banjo is featured as a soloist is in the second episode, Guts, appearing first after Glenn rescues Rick from the tank and they escape the horde of hungry zombies:

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The arrangement of this piece is a good example of how I typically write for them in this series.  The autoharps are strummed almost as a percussion instrument, creating that steady background pattern.  The electric banjo plays a solo inspired by bluegrass licks, although altered and diminished.  Then, the dulcimer offers contrapuntal answers between the banjo phrases.

These sounds will go through many variations throughout the season, but I generally found they were a useful musical representation for the zombies and the danger they pose to our heroes.

Later in that same scene, Rick and Glenn are trapped by a few zombies before being rescued.  For this short little action cue, I used the same instrumentation as before, but amped it up.  I added electric bass, some simple percussion and aggressive, snap pizzicatos from the string orchestra:

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Here, the banjo is playing so aggressively that it actually begins to sound like bluegrass music for a few beats, although still in a very weird tonal language.  Still, it makes me smile hearing an “evil banjo bluegrass action cue.”  (For more fun music in this genre, check out my scores for Wrong Turn 2 and the Rest Stop films.)

The evil bluegrass instruments return this week, in Tell it to the Frogs.  The first scene in the episode shows Merle’s sanity deteriorating as he roasts, handcuffed, in the summer heat on the rooftop.  As he talks to himself, Steve Bartek’s electric banjo offers a creepy, accompanimental backdrop:

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In this episode, Rick is finally reunited with his family, and joins their camp.  However, it isn’t long before a solitary zombie strolls into their area and causes trouble.

The chugging autoharps and distorted banjo return and underscore the short, yet frantic, battle that ensues:

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My favorite cue in the episode is from the scene when Rick and his friends are searching through the store for Merle.  I let Mike Valerio’s electric bass performance be the centerpiece of the cue, creating a hypnotic, strumming ostinato reminiscent of some of my electric bass writing on “Battlestar Galactica:”

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(I think that’s a little out of tune, Jonathan!)

Above the bass line, ambient de-tuned autoharps and an angular, dissonant banjo solo create a murky cloud of suspense.  I even asked Jonathan to bow the de-tuned autoharp with a violin bow, which created a hideous, “nails on a chalkboard” harmonic scrape.

The most aggressive cue in the episode (and in the entire series thus far) comes at the end of Tell it to the Frogs.  It underscores the two final scenes.  My hope was to connect Shane’s fracturing self-control and sanity with the mounting tension of our heroes ascent to the rooftop to find Merle.

(L-R: Ira Ingber, Steve Bartek & Brendan McCreary)

I got to bust out some rock and roll here.  I brought in “Galactica” drummer Nate Wood, and let bassist Mike Valerio and guitarist Steve Bartek cut loose.  Guitarists Brendan McCreary, Ira Ingber and Ed Trybek also contributed to the cue’s epic guitar sound. The cue builds intensity gradually, but my favorite part was Bartek’s solo at the end.  Due to the constraints of broadcast credits, it’s doubtful you heard much of the solo in the on-air version, so here it is in its entirety:

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Next week, the evil banjo returns!  And another “Battlestar Galactica” musician joins the soundtrack (I wonder who it could be!?)  And the string orchestra is a little unusual as well, as you’ll see in the next video.

-Bear

PS: Check out this rare “10/10 A+” review from ScoreNotes, for my Human Target CD.  “It’s hard to fathom that this great music hails from a modern television series and not some Spielberg blockbuster. That’s how good it is.  Believe the hype on this one…and then some.”