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Fans of Hulu’s original series Deadbeat might have found themselves hooked to the show thanks to its clever genre-blending of klutz comedy and supernatural spoof while occasionally dipping into noir detective drama. Musically conducting viewers through those onscreen styles is James Iha, known best as a founding member of Smashing Pumpkins, a part of A Perfect Circle, a solo performer and producer. His fourth foray into score work — following a Canadian and two Japanese independent films — Iha’s musical accompaniment to Deadbeat hits the familiar genre touchstones with a fresh perspective, keeping viewers reeled in as director Troy Miller (Arrested Development, Flight of the Conchords) explores some pretty exotic storylines.
Since moving to L.A. last summer, Iha told THR he hopes to keep up doing this sort of score work for both film and television. As drastically different as they may be, this process is not without its similarities to the creative process he’s more accustomed to, explaining, “It was like making a record where you go in for a couple months and do a lot of intense recording.”
As he prepares to play LA’s Greek Theatre next month with A Perfect Circle and the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan this summer as a solo artist, THR spoke with Iha about his work on Deadbeat and how it fits in with the rest of his career.
You’re obviously well acquainted with song writing, but what are the immediate differences to that in score work?
It’s 100 percent different from being in a rock band and jamming and writing songs. You serve the picture, mood and character — what the director is trying to get across. So if you’re in a rock band and it’s guitar, bass and drums, going into a picture can be a totally different set of instruments, whatever kind of fits the feel of the TV or the film. One similarity is you try to create a mood and consistency that sort of keeps you both inside the album or the film and what’s happening on the screen.
What types of musical queues or references did you get heading in to work on Deadbeat?
The director, Troy Miller, had a idea of what it should feel like, and he wanted to score to picture. But he also wanted to work against typical score music with a bit of energy, an indie-rock feel combined with a spooky supernatural comedy. Over a couple of the episodes, we worked out themes that he liked.
How did you establish the musical themes in Deadbeat?
We had general themes for the main characters and for certain moods that kept coming up in the show. The main character, Pac Man, is sort of a lovable loser. So we had quirky-sounding music that would sort of emphasize that quality; he’s kind of a bumbling fool, but he has a good heart and he’s sort of a supernatural detective. Depending on what kind of scene he’s in, it’s either more quirky or supernatural. He’s on the case as a detective, and you want to just sort of back that up. When he’s on the case, it’s kind of this retro noir, ’60s thing going on. We used certain kinds of instruments: a baritone or tremolo guitar, stand-up bass. … When he’s more of a bumbling fool, a lovable guy, we used pizzicato strings, stand-up bass and jazzy piano.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for this?
Because it’s supernatural, there is an element of spooky music, but we wanted to play against that, to make it feel more energetic and younger. So there was an indie-rock influence. Sometimes the drums are more KROQ-style, and the instruments — acoustic guitar, ukulele — are a little more indie rock. I looked at some noir ’60s music as well. I YouTubed a bunch of things to try to get a feeling, just get a sound in my head.
Is there any sort of similar collaborative element to being in a band when creating a score like this?
We get a great deal of input from the director and his production company, and we got some suggestions from Hulu, but other than that, it’s just you inside the bubble, watching episodes over and over and over.
Do you play all the instruments?
I worked with just another engineer; we didn’t have string players or anything like that. I’m not the greatest piano player, so I was toying with the idea of getting outside people, but it just takes too long. I realized that everything with TV has got to be fast, make it happen.
Where does film and TV composing fit into the larger picture of your career?
I always want to do good work, whether it’s a band or scoring, so I’m open to whatever. But I definitely don’t see myself touring for the rest of my life. Moving to L.A., scoring, is something I’ve been interested in for a while, but it was harder to do in New York. It’s something I’m looking into now to just kind of see where it takes me. But I really like the idea. I’ve been in bands my whole life, so it’s fun for me to do a different kind of project.
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