The Walking Dead returns to AMC tonight, for the premiere of its sixth season! I am incredibly excited for fans to see and hear what’s coming, because I think this is probably our strongest season yet.
The creative model for this series has been to reinvent itself every eight episodes, with each run taking on a unique tone, and following our characters on a specific arc. Of course there are larger macro narrative arcs that span the entire series as well. This richly layered drama creates a unique challenge for me as a composer. With each season I strive to integrate elements from my previous seasons’ work into new themes, sounds and styles. My task is always to tell the immediate story at hand, but to also help thread the entire series together, to remind viewers they are taking part in a story that goes all the way back to the first episode.
Because the series makes incremental shifts in narrative and tone every eight episodes, so too has my score. Those incremental steps add up over time. Looking back on my own personal journey on The Walking Dead, I am struck by how far my work has evolved.
My score for the first season was organic and earthy, drawing from classic orchestral horror scoring (particularly in my string writing), bluegrass instrumentation, and modern ambient synthesis. Series creator and executive producer Frank Darabont pushed my boundaries into new territory. In those early days, I not only defined the sound of the series, but I also wrote The Walking Dead Main Title, a piece that has remained iconic and unchanged since its inception.
Last year, I had the privilege of conducting my theme at the official Emmy Television Music concert in Los Angeles. The performance went well, until some unexpected visitors stormed the stage and attacked me!
At the offset of the second season, my score evolved quickly. Showrunner Glen Mazzara encouraged me to push the horror in the score. I brought in more percussion, more broken instruments, more slashed strings. Under Glen’s watch, I also developed a warmer sense of emotion with my string writing. The frantic tremolo passages like the main title began to give way to more lush harmonies and calmer performances. The season culminated in my largest full-on action cue for the series, composed for the zombie herd attacking the farmhouse. That episode features, to date, the largest orchestra I have ever assembled for the series.
Moving into the third and fourth season is where my score began to shift into wild new directions. With the introduction of the Governor, I was inspired to write a snarling synth pulse that was far more electronic than anything I’d ever used in the series yet. My original intention was to have a sound that would be unique to the Governor and then disappear after his demise. Instead, I unknowingly opened up an entire new universe of musical possibilities. The third season finale featured lush compositions for strings and piano, one final thread tying back to my scores for the first and second season, before I would venture off into completely new realms.
The beginning of Season 4 was my first collaboration with new showrunner Scott M. Gimple, and would lay the groundwork for my score for the next three seasons. Scott’s vision of the series required a stripped-down approach to my score, with a more purely electronic soul. Fortunately, electronics had been a foundation of my score since the very first episode, most notably in the memorable “Mercy of the Living” montage cue. The Governor Pulse too had set a precedent for a more distorted, grinding electronic tone. So, it was a matter of rebalancing elements that had been there since the very beginning.
(Oddly, I’d never met Andy in person until Comic Con 2015!)
For the fourth and majority of the fifth season, my score lived in this prominently electronic realm. Strings, guitars and other acoustic instruments were still a vital part of my process, but they resided in the background, as my electronics had in the early days. By swapping the prominence of acoustic instruments against electronic ones, through a series of incremental steps, my score had become the inverse image of where it began!
This was a journey I reflected on as I set out to score Season 6. First of all, the very fact that I’m scoring a “Season 6” of anything is a record-breaker for me. After a decade working in television, I’ve never worked on a series that has lasted this long, for a variety of reasons. So, I knew from the beginning, I would need to reinvent my sound once again to keep it exciting and interesting. The narrative structure this season is unique and Scott’s guidance would prove essential to help me provide a narrative thread to guide the audience through it. The audience will be jumping back and forth across the timeline in the coming weeks, and consistency in the score will be a helpful “bread crumb” to guide them on their journey.
And what of the tone of my score? Where does it go from here? I actually think that Season 6 features some of my strongest writing on The Walking Dead in years. You will hear a reinvention of my electronic approach. There are grinding distorted synths that make the Governor Pulse sound downright pleasant in comparison, and ambient waves of musical tones that blend into the sound design seamlessly. However, I also found opportunities to bring back the kind of emotional and lyrical instrumental writing I developed in earlier seasons. The intimate string orchestra, acoustic and electric guitars, and gentle soloists will come to the forefront this season in genuinely moving sequences. I have also used this opportunity to hark back to the musical past. Listen for thematic call-backs to previous themes and sounds, especially as we learn more about some of our most beloved characters.
After five years, The Walking Dead remains one of the most daring, innovative, exciting and ultimately rewarding series on television. I am tremendously honored to be a part of the TWD family, and immensely proud of the work that we all have done this season. I am grateful to the fans for being so passionate, for watching, and of course, for listening. It’s going to be a hell of a ride this season. Enjoy!