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Paul Haslinger, composer for AMC’s new show about 1980s tech revolutionaries, Halt and Catch Fire, isn’t trying to revive that era of scary hairdos. “The ‘80s hair was horrible, the clothes worse, and anywhere you went you’d hear the same music,” says Haslinger, “which started with Duran Duran and worked its way down to Kajagoogoo and Level 42 — really horrible!”
But Haslinger’s former band, Kraftwerk’s rival German electronica band Tangerine Dream, wasn’t half bad, and on the show, he evokes its heyday.
“What I liked about the ‘80s was a certain moodiness — it was an adrenaline-fueled decade,” says Haslinger, who joined Tangerine Dream in 1986, when it had just conquered Hollywood with hypnotic soundtracks like those for the Tom Cruise films Risky Business and Legend. “The show is a character study of people caught up in this time and trying to make something new. The ‘80s setting gives us an excuse to dive into those styles and colors, to use them shamelessly. But if it was just an ‘80s revival exercise, it wouldn’t be exciting to watch. The ambition is not just to revive Tangerine Dream, but to pick out the cool stuff and present it in a different way. About half the score is inspired by ‘80s memories and vibe, and half is new.” Music supervisor Thomas Golubic is behind the choices of the ‘80s songs on the soundtrack.
Haslinger sees a striking parallel between the young Steve Jobs/Bill Gates types in Halt and Catch Fire, who challenged IBM’s cumbersome conventions to create the personal computer, and TV’s current revolutionaries.
“You can find a lot of analogies there, all valid,” he says. “AMC and HBO have benefited because network TV’s cliches are overbearing — there’s always a big ramp before a commercial break so people will come back, sometimes ridiculously big. People are sick of it, and they want something different, an alternative to network TV. Composers are the first in line to say, ‘It sucks and it’s just not cool!’ “
Haslinger thought Halt and Catch Fire was so cool, he composed its crucial cue before he’d seen any footage. “Like Morricone on Once Upon a Time in America, it was written on the basis of the idea of the show,” says Haslinger. “Though I’m not comparing myself to Morricone!” The cue is heard at the end of the third episode, the last episode and many in between.
Haslinger, 51, made a 1996 album called World Without Rules, and he’s been breaking rules ever since he left Vienna’s Academy of Music. “When you talked to classical musicians about what compression or distortion sounds good on a guitar, they’d give you a blank stare.”
Tangerine Dream got what Haslinger was talking about, and gave him a chance to break lots of traditional rules, along with getting Hollywood composing experience. On his own since 1991, he scored Blow, Blue Crush, the Emmy-nominated Sleeper Cell and Underworld, for which he sampled and electronified sounds from the Vienna Symphonic Library.
“When I got to Hollywood, Tangerine Dream was passé,” he recalls. “TV was dead, and film music dominated by people wanting to write nice melodies for traditional orchestras. I ran into huge obstacles with producers just not getting it. Many times I was forced to use cliches.”
But now, the suits are all ears to new sounds. “We’ve been worn out by ‘big sound’ in film music, and people want smaller ensembles, different ideas,” says Haslinger. “You saw that in the last awards season.”
He cites Arcade Fire leader Will Butler’s best score Oscar nomination for Spike Jonze’s Her, and agrees with Butler’s idea that production is to the new generation what melody was to the Beatles generation. He also hails Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for David Fincher’s The Social Network — a job Haslinger tried to get. “Fincher has a great musical sensibility, but he told my agent he had one condition: The composer could never have done a film before.”
Haslinger works constantly in TV, film and videogames, and he recently teamed up with an old Vienna colleague for a possible recording project.
“I can’t announce anything yet, but I can’t rule out going on tour again,” he says. “I’m not a guy who likes to be bored.”
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