Visitors to my Music page know I’ve produced many tracks for multimedia. Theme songs, spot cues, drops/bumpers, etc. However, the closest to a complete score that I’d recorded was for my 2006 short film Featurette, clocking in at a mere 19 minutes. Then came an opportunity to compose for a new serialized horror podcast called LARKSPUR UNDERGROUND. We’ll get down and nerdy in a bit, but first the story.
In late January of 2014, the Colorado Sheriff’s Department investigated a call of a strange odor coming from a remote ranching compound outside of the tiny town of Larkspur, Colorado. Upon investigating, they uncovered a fallout shelter that had been converted into a brutal torture and murder facility. Over a dozen victims were found at the scene in various states of decay. While finishing the first day of investigations, one of the deputies was cataloging evidence near a body that was chained to a radiator. To his shock, the woman was still alive.
She became known as Jane Doe, the Larkspur Lady, the only survivor of what had been a two-year spree of murder and carnage by a man known only as The Scientist. After recovering in the hospital, she began to work with authorities to help them uncover as much about these crimes as possible in the hopes of bringing The Scientist to justice. Things took a strange turn when it was revealed that she had not only been his victim, but also an accomplice in several of the murders. She was quickly tried and convicted of manslaughter for her role in the crime.
Since that day, the Colorado Innocence Coalition has been working to free her. Podcast host Tara Bay has been with the Coalition since they took on the case. She is a tireless advocate for Jane Doe, seeing her as a woman who was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, an unwitting pawn in the hands of a madman. After months of work from a dedicated team of attorneys, Jane Doe won a new day in court. Her conviction will be overturned soon.
In conjunction with Plainview Public Radio, Tara Bay has created the show Larkspur Underground to present the life of Jane Doe. The media has had plenty to say about the presumed guilt or innocence of Jane Doe. Tara Bay has been there almost since the beginning, and is using her exclusive access to bring you the full story so that you can decide for yourself.
So … you’re saying it’s my job to creep out listeners? Please and thank you! Doing a horror project was on my bucket list (the imaginary one conjured for this post), so I signed an NDA, devoured the scripts, and got to work. First I went through and “spotted” all of the sequences I thought could benefit from an underscore. The nature of the material demands tension and discord, but there were a few opportunities for lighter moments, station imaging, and some diegetic music (that which is heard by the characters).
Three guiding decisions I made up front:
• I wanted it to be entirely electronic, in-the-box MIDI, with vintage-inspired synths and effects. Minimal use of drum set.
• It still needed a strong rhythmic pulse, however, achieved through extensive arpeggiators, echoes, and sweeps.
• I would deliver the songs like a stock-music album, with tracks designed and named for specific scenes, but left up to the producer to implement.
One cue introduced in the first episode is “The Scientist.”
Villains as sinister as our guy deserve their own motif. It’s a neutral, dull-attack riff, but that unsettling element you can’t … quite … place … is the 5/4 time signature. Sure, on one hand we’ve got the pursuit of our fugitive, but he’s really the predator, and that’s what I was thinking about: this car-as-shark roaming the desert highway at night, world visible only in its hi-beams. A little CHRISTINE-ish in hindsight, but at the time I was feeling a MIAMI VICE groove. Maybe the shark became a dolphin, who knows, but blessed restraint prevented me from embarrassing myself with a screaming Jan Hammer solo. Then listeners would be picturing cocaine and Testarossas instead of injections and cargo vans. So, I kept this one simple; I think it’s only three or four tracks. The second half builds with some choral “scream” swells that respond to each “stab” I’d previously established. This motif is reprised in a more developed form in later episodes.
Some have said the music reminds them of DRIVE by Cliff Martinez, or even STRANGER THINGS, and I won’t deny either influence. More about the score in a bit.
Michael Gonzalez created and produces the podcast. I first got to know Mike on the forums at Chuck Palahniuk’s fan site, from which several new online writing communities blossomed. We’ve long supported each other’s creative efforts, through workshopping and promoting books, even crewing an abandoned short film together. After last week’s premiere, I asked him a few questions to shed some light on the process.
Gordon Highland: You should be really proud of this. I’m already getting glowing messages from people, and I’m just the piano player! With that in mind … what do I tell folks who ask whether this is true-crime or fiction?
Michael Gonzalez: Thanks for the kind words, piano monkey! I tell anyone who asks that it’s fiction. I would never personally present the show as something that actually happened. That said, I’m treating it like an Augmented Reality Experience, so people who approach the show’s Facebook or Twitter page with questions will effectively be in the world of the show. I hope it feels real enough that people are dying to google the events portrayed.
I’ve been thinking about creating a podcast for a long time, and was deeply inspired by shows like LIMETOWN and THE MESSAGE, which present themselves as reality while accurately being categorized under Performing Arts in podcast directories. I do like to blur the lines: None of the actors will be revealed until the end credits of season one, and none of the show staff listed in each episode actually exist … except one guy: the music man. So there’s an anchor in the real world to help keep that line blurry.
Coming from a radio background, I’m a fan of that sonic “theater of the mind,” really taking advantage of the medium. And yet, despite podcasts’ popularity … it seems to be kind of a lost art. So I especially dig those sequences where you go “on location” and put listeners in the moment.
I think it’s really important. There are a lot of podcast dramas that present themselves as taking place in real time, but characters sound the same whether they’re outdoors, in a car, or in a restaurant. Other podcasts pay close attention to ambience. HOMECOMING is a pretty cool podcast that recorded both in and out of studio to get the sound they needed. LIFE/AFTER used boom mics and had actors moving around actual spaces to get the ambience of a busy office or military war room. BRONZEVILLE is a sonic marvel, but it’s all done in-studio, I think. I’m trying to make my editing work easier by actually recording that ambience instead of adding it later. It’s a huge pain, but my goal is to record as close to “on location” as possible, which is why I’ve created my own murder bunker in Colorado and am busy kill—
I’ve said too much.
How much initial thought went into the musical element, as far as how it could enhance things? We discussed the themes, and you sent me some theatrical cues you liked. Most of the music was delivered before the voices were recorded. Was it a challenge to integrate it and mix it that way?
The music has been an absolute trip, and your work has really taken the show to another level. When I approached you, I was hoping for, at best, a theme song and a couple of drum loops I could layer in under the vocals. What you delivered was amazing … and we haven’t even gotten to all of the pieces yet! One great thing about music beds is they can cover up little imperfections in the audio. We were still kind of figuring out how to set up a room for recording in the first and second episodes. There was a lot of work to get traffic noises out of the “studio” portions of the show, which I’ve since learned to mitigate further with my magic DIY sound booth. The “real world” parts of the show—Jane Doe in her hospital or therapy rooms, accidental noises—weren’t as big of a deal. But having your music beds under Tara Bay and Jessica Laughton just amplifies the tension. My favorite thing is that I rarely had to tweak the position of the music. I’d find a good spot to start it, and it somehow thematically rolls with whatever the characters are talking about. It’s nice when I don’t have keep trying to “hit the post” with music.
Without the benefit of hearing the voice performances first, I could only estimate lengths required based on the script (which I actually did do in spots, providing notes accordingly), so they needed to be easily loopable for the editor. Most of the songs feature two or three sections that repeat with variations in the instrumentation: either more sparse or more dense, inverted chords, double/half-time-feels, etc. That way, they can either let the song play and use its own development to punctuate dramatic transitions, or cut and save those other variations for a later cue. Again, that’s something you’d find in stock-music libraries, except they’ll provide several different mixes and edits of each song, while I created a single dynamic track.
Here’s the main theme that bookends each episode:
The melody came first—no surprise—but it was originally written as straight quarter notes, as heard during the end reprise, which is a bit like a march. If not quite the major-key victorious variety, it at least sounds like some sort of order has been restored, closure achieved. To infer a story arc, I needed the beginning to contrast it. So at first that same melody instead swings—almost hopelessly—with a dragging feel aided by a snare pattern resembling shuffling feet. (Symbolism alert.)
When the main theme recedes and gives way to piano, that’s the host’s cue to duck the music and start talking. It gets pretty minimalist for a while, making for an easy fade. The next movement brings in the piano more aggressively with some plaintive woodwind lines and breakbeat teases, blah blah blah—I’m not gonna chart the whole damn song. That solo cello, though. I just loved the way it sounded, and marooning it in one speaker like that … then, one moment before your brain can signal that something bad is about to happen, that TOM SAWYER crash punches you in the face, only to retreat and tumble into the big finish. It made the fur stand up on my arm the first time I heard playback.
As with “The Scientist,” this melody reappears in other forms, played by other instruments, different accents, yadda. A number of cues share similar chord progressions by design, so I had to make sure my track naming was on-point. For some sonic glue, I used the same recording session file for large batches of cues. Coloring with the same little box of crayons, so to speak, by limiting myself to a couple dozen sounds. For a while, anyway. And then another session file would feature all the burnt siennas and periwinkles and whathaveyous.
Composing music to complement another medium (like the spoken word), especially when it’s someone else’s vision, is a great excuse to explore some psychology. For example, I wanted to create my own news sounder. Besides the obvious brass urgency, there’s something else those all seem have in common melodically that just boasts impartiality. What’s the most “objective” chord? I asked myself. Well, one that abstains from any major- or minor-third emotional giveaways, right? Fourths, mostly. (Ritchie Blackmore would agree.) Pound that tympani, keep those harmonies close, dodge the third, and you’ve got insta-news. Other psychosomatic manipulations included things like what being drugged might sound like, or ritarding the tempo when the character’s out of breath from being chased.
Earlier, I mentioned conceiving this as an album. The length is certainly worthy. Sure, there’s lots of repetition, but all soundtracks have that. We’d like to make this available to you sometime in the future—whether as a perk or a purchase—under the podcast’s name or my own FLASH moniker, I don’t yet know. Depends on the demand. Would you be interested in hearing that? Might make for some good “writing” music for you creatives.
I’ll leave you with more of my conversation with Michael Gonzalez.
You’re an Angeleno. You’ve even published an anthology of L.A. stories. Hell, the first time we met in person was on the Sunset Strip, where I was promptly defeated by a stack of pancakes bigger than my head. What influence or effect has that had—your city, I mean (pancakes optional)—on this production, whether that’s finding voice talent, or even the material itself?
It certainly makes access to actors a lot easier. I think in broader America, people view Hollywood as this cesspool where everyone comes to chase fame and money … and they’re sort of right! But, it’s also where a lot of artists come looking to create things. There’s a deep well of people out here who just want to be involved in something creative, to have a chance to express their art and get out there and work. That’s been nice. I also have easier access to rent equipment or try out microphones, things like that. It’s a producer’s paradise out here: a lot of showrooms with people ready to walk you through every piece of equipment. But mostly I’ve tried to stick to a network of people I know. You’ve been an invaluable source for technical tricks and questions.
Are you going to be posting supplemental media on larkspurunderground.com? What kind of listener interactivity are you hoping for?
Host Tara Bay is active on Twitter @tarabtalks, and I encourage people to reach out to her with story questions. We’ll be putting up photos of the crime scene and some evidence photos as the season rolls on. I’m hoping the audience clicks into that, because there’s a section later in the season where it would be great to have a Twitter following, and it’s going to be a one-shot deal. People bingeing the show a year from now wouldn’t be able to follow along on Twitter like current listeners, so it’ll be a cool “gotta be there” thing if it happens the way I hope it does.
When you first contacted me about this, I assumed it was for a voice role, and I’ve been promised a larger one if we get a second season. Really, I just wanted to get that down here in print … but what’s gotta happen to ensure it continues? Give me your best pitch; pimp away.
You weren’t supposed to reveal that. You’re fired! Or maybe not. The tricky thing here is I can’t talk about anything that might happen in season two or three without letting details of season one slip. So I suppose the reveal there is … I’m trying to tell a full story across three seasons. Jane Doe’s journey is just beginning, and Tara Bay is chasing a madman. It could go anywhere, right? Some of my favorite reactions to Episode 1 have been people telling me how dark they thought it got. It’s just the tip of the iceberg compared to some of the stuff coming down in the next three episodes! The show goes to a really brutal, hopeless place, but does chase after redemption and a light at the end of the tunnel. Each season will tell a complete, satisfying story: no real cliffhangers, no major loose ends.
My goal right now is to get those download numbers up so that I can run a Kickstarter or something around mid-season to fund the rest of the show. I want to move this beyond a passion project into a recurring gig. I’ve dubbed my studio Radio Lost Angeles, and the hope is that I can launch a few more podcast dramas (and a comedy) over the next year or two. That’ll be easier if everyone reading this subscribes to Larkspur Underground on their favorite podcatcher and leaves us a nice 5-star review!
Thanks, Mike! Subscription buttons are below.
Also be sure to visit my updated Podcasts page for all kinds of aural goodies.