An Interview with Bear McCreary: TV’s Most Popular Music Geek

Bear McCreary is one of television’s most versatile and critically-acclaimed composers. Scoring shows like Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Human Target, and now The Walking Dead, as well as keeping an amazing, detailed music blog in which he enthuses about his process also makes him one of the country’s most popular music geeks. Here, McCreary reveals his unabashed love of film and television scoring as he talks about his latest release, the soundtrack to Season One of Human Target, as well as his upcoming projects and how his brother ended up with the rock n’ roll gene.

*Note: This interview was conducted before it was announced that Caprica would be cancelled.*

How did you get involved with Human Target?

Bear McCreary: I met with the producer [John Steinberg] before the pilot was even shot. He was still writing it. And I knew right away at that meeting that obviously this is a guy who takes music very seriously, because normally in a TV pilot you wouldn’t even hire a composer at all. Normally, you’d wait until the show is picked up to spend the money.

Remember, a TV pilot is like an experiment. You try it out, and if it works, then they make it a series. So, the cheaper you can make the pilot the better. Steinberg really wanted to spend the time and money and energy to get a composer early on and do a live orchestral score on the pilot before it was even picked up. So, I knew he took music seriously. We started talking, and he’d found me mostly through my work on BSG and he was aware of it and he met with me even though, he admitted later, he didn’t think I would be the guy to do Human Target because BSG does not sound like the music that I wrote for Human Target! I mean, it’s almost like a complete backlash against that. We immediately started nerding out about our favorite film score composers and our favorite movies and we really got along.

I sealed the deal by sending him some tracks from a video game that I had scored called Dark Void. And Dark Void was a big orchestral score, but it was also combined with a lot of tribal and ethnic instrumentation. I mean, if anything Dark Void is the bridge between Battlestar and Human Target.

And when he heard that stuff, I think he was convinced that I would be the guy to tackle Human Target. It was a great experience. I absolutely adored working with John. Of all the producers I’ve worked with I’ve never met one who’s so keenly aware of music and what it can do. I mean, he’s not a musician, but he really kind of is a musician at heart. He’s really amazing.

It sounds like you had a wonderful collaboration.

Bear McCreary: We did! You can even hear that in the soundtrack album. The cues in the soundtrack album are not in chronological order, because I put them in the order that I like to listen to them in. But if you listen to them and start with the pilot and start moving through the episodes as they aired, you can actually hear that the score becomes much more sophisticated as it goes along, as I’m experimenting and trying different things.

I’m also working with John trying to push the envelope to see: how orchestral can we get? How far can we push this sound and still have it function and still have it feel contemporary? And we found that we could push it pretty damn far! I mean, by the last episode it is so shamelessly romantic, and it’s so shamelessly orchestral. It’s the kind of thing where, if I would’ve tried to do this kind of sound of Battlestar Galactica, I would’ve been fired, and with good reason! But this was something that really took the collaboration of the two of us to find the balance where we could get that tone, and I think we did it.

I’m immensely proud of the work I did on Human Target, and I’m so grateful that Warner Brothers let me put out this soundtrack album so that people can experience this music on its own.

The score that I was able to write for the show was nothing like contemporary scoring at all. It feels like Alan Silvestri, John Williams, Gary Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, or any of the guys I grew up listening to. This is the kind of score that Steinberg wanted to have for the show, and the result is—I think it’s one of the best albums I ever made! It’s the album that I would’ve listened to when I was a kid ‘til the CD wore out.

Why won’t you be joining Human Target for the second season? And do you know what the direction of the music will be as the show goes on?

Bear McCreary: I just don’t know either way. All I know is that I was not asked back, and they have a new showrunner to take the reins, so John Steinberg is not involved in running the show anymore as far as I know. So, there’s clearly a new creative direction. What will the music sound like in Season Two? I don’t know. I’ll wait to hear it with everyone else!

I think there was a big creative shift, and I would’ve loved to have stuck around and continued to explore this sound. However if what they want now is something different than this sound, then I’m happy that they didn’t ask me back. Because this, to me, is the sound of Human Target. I’m just so proud of what we did on Season One, and I’m happy that this can stand on the soundtrack album. And I wish the best of luck to whoever takes it over!

Having never watched the show or read the comic, the music on its own actually made me interested in the source material!

Bear McCreary: That’s what’s so cool about it! The soundtrack album is a love letter to soundtrack fans, and I’m really hoping that fans of orchestral scores will pick up this CD even if they’ve never seen the show. I mean, the show is fun and great, and I encourage people to check out Season One on DVD, but even if you don’t want to watch the show, I think anyone that grew up listening to the soundtrack scores that I grew up listening to, when they hear the Human Target score, they’ll just get a huge smile on their face! That was my goal, and I really feel like we got there.

You were recently nominated for an Emmy for your Human Target theme, which assembled the largest orchestra in the history of television. What does it feel like to have that kind of pull?

Bear McCreary: Well, I would love to take all the credit! But actually this credit is due to John Steinberg. He is the one that knew he wanted to do this, and found the budget to do it, and made it a priority for him; made it a creative priority of Human Target to have a large orchestra. I think as a composer, you need to have enough of a reputation so that people know if they give you the budget you’re not going to screw it up. But really, as a composer you can say you want a big orchestra until you’re blue in the face. Without a producer willing to step up and really convince the studio why this is needed, it will never happen. So, as I said, Steinberg appreciates orchestral music in a way that very few producers do, and he understands the power it can bring to films and TV. So, he made it happen. I don’t know if anyone else could’ve pulled that off.

Describe your process for Human Target. How is it similar to or different from your other television work?

Bear McCreary: Well, all of my shows are done with live instruments. The only thing that made Human Target different was the sheer scale. Generally I have between five and maybe eight to ten live musicians on a typical episode. On Human Target the average orchestra was sixty players and the last one was ninety-five. So, this was actually more different for my orchestrators than for me, because I’m still writing the music as quickly as I can, but the orchestrators are turning over huge orchestral scores every week. The thing that made Human Target the most challenging was just preparing for the amount of work that was going to happen for each episode.

Typically I would start writing on a Tuesday morning. By Saturday or usually Sunday, I’d have about 32 minutes of orchestral music written. Then Monday night, we’d record with a full orchestra, and that was an exhausting process! And yet, by the following Tuesday morning, I’d start the next episode. And we did that 10 episodes in a row. It was like marathon training for the creative mind. After a while, it was like a runner’s high. I was so tired, I almost didn’t feel it anymore. Let’s do another episode! Why take a break? And then of course, once Human Target was done I was like “Aw, man! I could keep going!” but then I slept for a week, you know?

Your blog really puts what you do into layman’s terms. Why did you start the blog, and what is so important to you about sharing your process in that way?

Bear McCreary: The blog is like a lot of things in my life. It started off without any intentions, really. It was just something I did. Another thing that falls in that category are the live BSG concerts I do, which I never thought would take off in the way that they have! But the blog in particular…if you go back far enough, if you go back to the earliest entries about BSG Season 3, which is when I started it, you’ll see that it’s pretty general. I talk about what I did, and have a few pictures up from the sessions. Somewhere toward the end of Season 3 I started putting in more detail, and then really in Season 4 I said “Okay, I’ll try this.” And I really broke down every cue in every episode, I broke down the scenes, I put up notations, and I counted maybe six or seven people who would be interested in reading this. But I found it was quite the opposite. The more detail I put up, and the more I really went into how I do it, the more people were responding and the more people were reading it. And that was exciting! I really didn’t think that there would be an audience out there for something so detail-oriented in terms of scoring.

And with the Human Target entries, I took it one step further and started putting up audio clips. So that as I talk about a cue and show the notation of it, you click on the icon and can actually hear what I did. I can imagine that for someone who doesn’t understand how this works, it probably does lift the curtain back in a certain sense, because I’m describing the process from the very beginning—from how I get my ideas, all the way through scoring the episodes, to how it’s orchestrated, how it’s recorded to how it’s mixed. For me, it’s fun. It’s fun to find a way to share what I do with people who love soundtrack music.

Bear McRearyYour brother [Brendan McCreary] is in a band. Have you ever felt the pull of doing more pop/rock stuff as opposed to orchestral scoring?

Bear McCreary: That’s hard to say. I mean, yes, pop and rock music has been a part of me and my musical personality for a long time, and I’ve done shows with the Oingo Boingo guys—the Halloween concerts with them that have been really exciting—and I’ve played with my brother’s band and helped him record stuff, and I’ve done a lot of tracks for my film and TV projects—“Watchtower” for Battlestar, for example. But I’ve always known, if you look at the DNA, the genetic pool of my family, my brother got the rock n’ roll gene. That guy is an incredible singer, an incredible front man, he’s an incredible record producer…he’s got instincts that I don’t have. I understand rock on an intellectual level, and I can do it, but he feels it. It’s inside his DNA. And likewise, I think he, if he spent the time, he could probably become an awesome orchestral writer. That’s kind of where my passion has always led.

My brother grew up listening to rock n’ roll and then he started to discover film music. I was the exact opposite. I grew up listening to nothing but film music. I didn’t listen to anything with electric bass, guitars, or drums until I was fifteen! So, the first 10 years of our lives we grew up listening to certain kinds of music and that’s the kind of music we’re both finding ourselves in now. So, it’s kind of interesting. Nature vs. nurture—who knows?

Is your whole family musically inclined? Are your parents musical?

Bear McCreary: Yes, there have been musicians on both sides of my family going back several generations. However, you gotta go back an extra generation—our grandparents on my dad’s side were professional music teachers. But since then, my brother and I were the first to pursue it professionally. There’s always been a lot of musical talent in our family.

But aside from the pure genetics of it, I think my parents were both very nurturing of musicians and musical passion when we were growing up. We really grew up in this environment where if you wanted to grow up and write orchestral music or be a rock star, nobody ever told us that that was a risky thing to do. Nobody ever told us to get a day job, or plan ahead for a rainy day. It was just like “That’s what you want to do? Then you can do it.”

Will there be themes from Battlestar Galactica incorporated into upcoming episodes of Caprica? Will there be a connection musically as the show progresses?

Bear McCreary: Connection musically, yes. Themes, no. I will say this: starting very soon, the episodes of Caprica take a noticeable shift and the writing and the acting and editing and music is going to get tighter and more focused, and it begins a story arc that takes us to the end of the season. And you’re going to see that the music is going to shift and there is going to be a familiarity in that shift. That’s probably all I’ll say right now, but there are some cool musical surprises on the horizon for Caprica.

Will there be a Caprica soundtrack released that features the opening theme?

Bear McCreary: I suspect that yes, there will. I can say that the guys at La La Land Records and I are talking about this, and the more that we sell Human Target CDs, the more we can make the case to the higher-ups that we wanna release a Caprica Season One. So we hope that Human Target does as well as we think it’s gonna do.

And your BSG piano book is officially a go, right?

Bear McCreary: Almost officially a go. Things are looking very positive, and I have done over 20 arrangements of Battlestar tracks. And I’ve done them personally, which I think is exciting. Most of the time, when you buy a piano book of film music, someone else has arranged it for piano, but these are arrangements I have done myself. I am very eager to see videos on YouTube of people playing this stuff. That’s what I want to see happen!

Will there be any Caprica music in the BSG book, or will a Caprica book be the next step?

Bear McCreary: I don’t have any Caprica music in the BSG book. And I’m hoping that if we sell the BSG book, then making the case to release a Caprica book will be very easy. So that would be the next step. In fact, the reason why there are no Caprica things in the book is that there are enough great piano pieces in Caprica to do a Caprica book on its own, so I’m really hping we’ll be able to get there. But one step at a time! Let’s get the Battlestar book out there, first!

What can we expect from your work on The Walking Dead?

Bear McCreary: The Walking Dead is going to be very interesting. What you’re going to hear is a combo of kind of old school screen writing a la Bernard Hermann, or Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, meets distorted, messed-up, bluegrass banjo music. That’s probably the best way I can explain it.

What it’s going to sound like is like there’s a zombie playing a banjo! That was the direction I gave my banjo player, I told him to picture that he’s an actual zombie: what would a zombie playing the banjo sound like? So when you hear that spooky sound, that’s where it comes from.

Zombies playing banjos?! I love this guy!

The Human Target Season One soundtrack is now available as a CD from La La Land Records, or digitally from Water Tower Music. Human Target returns for a second season November 17th on FOX. The Walking Dead has already been given a second season and airs Sunday nights at 10PM ET on AMC.

Teresa Jusino was born the same day Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is a freelance writer in New York City who is a regular contributor to websites like ChinaShop Magazine, Pink Raygun, and Newsarama. In addition to her geeky online scribblings, she also writes prose fiction and screenplays. Her short story “December” was recently published in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres. Teresa is the author of a chapbook of short stories called On the Ground Floor, and she is working on a webseries called The Pack, coming in 2011. She is also the last member of WilPower: The Official Wil Wheaton Fan Club. Get Twitterpated with Teresa or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.


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