'The Americans' Composer on Incorporating '80s, Russian Sounds Into Music for Spy Drama

Nathan Barr also reveals how he illuminates aspects of various scenes through the score.
Alexis Korycinski
Nathan Barr

Every scene in FX's spy drama The Americans is layered with various lies and truths. So it's only fitting that the music for the critically acclaimed series be equally complex, drawing on diverse influences that are central to the show, including scores from the early '80s and Russian music.

Composer Nathan Barr tells THR that he draws on those sounds to subtly reference the show's environment and uses themes for individual characters to highlight the subtext of various scenes. Barr reteamed with former colleague Joel Fields on the series about undercover Russian spies pretending to be a married couple in America in the early '80s.

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The show's retro setting is apparent in everything from the storylines, which draw on real historic events, to the clothes worn by stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. But Barr takes a less obvious route in referencing the '80s in his original compositions for the show.

Instead of drawing on popular songs of that time, he's influenced by scores from the late '70s and early '80s, he says, including the original Taking of Pelham 123 and espionage thriller shows.

"Prepared piano, the percussion and the sort of heavy, moving bass lines -- those were all specific nods to those shows," Barr says of elements from scores he incorporates into his work on The Americans. "Those scores sort of inform what I'm doing, but I'm trying to make it more current so it feels like it belongs on TV today."

Barr went for the same sort of subtlety with the show's Russian elements, he says, leaning toward more of a familiar sound than an over-the-top composition.

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"[We] definitely wanted a Russian flavor without going as over the top as writing a Red Army Russian choir," Barr explains. "I use a hammer dulcimer. And for one reason or another, that sound -- when a theme is played on that or played with mallets inside a piano like a prepared piano -- that's a sound that sounds Russian to people. … I think it gives a flavor of that part of the world."

"When we're in Russia, like we have been a little in the second season, we're trying to avoid being too on the nose with [the music] for fear that it will start to become campy or trite," Barr adds.

But while the show's '80s and Russian settings are less explicitly referenced, Barr explains that each of the main characters in The Americans has his or her own theme.

"Philip['s theme] is sort of a deep, low cello part. Elizabeth has a hammer dulcimer theme and [Noah Emmerich's] Stan has a driving bass [FBI] theme," Barr says. "Those instruments in addition to the actual notes being played I think help with the identity of those characters in whatever situations they find themselves in."

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By highlighting the musical elements of specific characters' themes, Barr can play up how a particular person is affected by the events unfolding onscreen.

For instance, he was working with the showrunners on scoring the recent scene in which Philip is manipulating his fake wife, Martha, by playing a tape that has been doctored to make it sound like her bosses think poorly of her. They talked a lot about whether to play Philip's side of the scene with the score or to play Martha's side of the scene.

"It's a really delicate balance to walk, and it's one of the fun challenges of the show, too, is it's rarely just about keeping rhythm through a scene," Barr says. "We're always wanting to be saying something about subtext. And that was an example where we probably played more Martha instead of being too on the nose with Philip being deceitful, so that sort of became about her sadness."

Philip's relationship with Martha was also central to another scene that Barr said he found difficult to score: the one where Elizabeth asks Philip to have sex with her in the same aggressive way that Martha says he does.

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"We went through a couple different variations of possible score pieces there, because it was so hard to know the exact tone to strike," Barr explains. "I mean, it's this incredibly dark moment, and she's asking for an incredibly dark thing. He's giving it to her, and then it sort of overpowers her, and he feels horrible about it. It was just a sort of difficult and nuanced stretch of story that the score had to tread lightly around even though it was such an intense scene."

Barr, who's based in L.A. even though the show films in New York, says he goes over which scenes should get original music with the showrunners via conference call before composing the music and sending it back to New York.

Barr was nominated for an Emmy for the show's main title last season and recently made headlines for writing an original song for the show with Pete Townshend.

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But another '80s-themed collaboration could still occur.

Barr, who previously worked with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, says there's a possibility that he could work with Gibbons on The Americans.

"We've had a couple of possible opportunities that have fallen through … for various scheduling reasons," Barr comments. "I haven't pitched that to these guys yet, but I do think further collaborations might be a possibility on the show."

Regardless, any more collaborations will have to wait until season three, as The Americans' second season wraps up Wednesday night at 10 p.m. on FX.