A girl runs in terror out the front door of a placid suburban home. That we’ve seen before. But what’s curious are the distinct subversions, the direction and chill of the scene. It’s sunset in a sleepy Detroit suburb. The girl is running in heels and short shorts. There’s this growing sense of fear, and even more so, helplessness. Eventually, the girl, giving the viewer no clue yet as to what’s freaking her out, makes a dash back into her house, grabs keys to a small gray Sedan, and books it on out of there.
While this is happening, the music is unbelievably present: rumbling, intensifying, closing in. What differentiates the music from standard horror fare is the style and intensity. Digital, distorted pings set the pace, while fuzzy knock noises punctuate the scene. The score speeds up as the girl panics, until shrieks and clicks fill the scene while she drives away. Actually, imagine, if you will, the music from your favorite Nintendo games, filtered through the ominously sonic punch of those old THX movie theater brand identification videos, extended with the compositional repetition, digital feel, and allure of say, John Carpenter.
That’s a starting point for considering the vast, eerie, and nostalgic sound of Disasterpeace, aka Rich Vreeland, and his electrifying score for It Follows, the breakout thriller of 2015. For David Robert Mitchell’s second feature, the writer-director enlisted Vreeland, a 29-year-old composer, chiptune artist, programmer, and the score-maker behind the popular cult game Fez, and the finished compositions are nothing short of mad genius. In an era when studios are cutting back on music budgets, reducing the size of orchestras on scores, and relying on electronic instrumentation for economical purposes, Vreeland went big and bold from within the confines of his own computer (his arsenal?)
It Follows boasts the most distinct and memorable score of 2015. That’s why Consequence of Sound is very pleased to declare Vreeland Composer of the Year in recognition of his frightening and fuzzed-up compositions. In celebration, we spoke with the artist to discuss his work on the film, his experience in gaming, synthesizer music, and that scary old THX sound.
Coming from indie music and compositional work on the platformer Fez, just how did you come to It Follows? I saw something somewhere that It Follows’ director is a fan of Fez?
Yeah, that’s how we got connected! Yeah, David played Fez and liked the game, liked the score. I guess he heard something in the score that he liked and thought that we could work together. Make a good team, so he reached out to me and that’s how we got started!
What was your direction? Was this something Mitchell was looking for, or did you pitch on your signature electronic sound? Were you making a style, or was the film looking for your style?
Yeah, David was looking for my style specifically.
When we started talking, he was already experimenting with using my music from Fez. You know, to the picture. It was actually sort of an interesting project, process to be part of, because, he, I had to sort of… The sound vision was inspired by my work on Fez, as well as music from various composers: the music of John Carpenter, Penderecki, John Cage, Johnny Greenwood. So it was kinda like this amalgam of something I had done a couple years earlier and those things and trying to take that pool of inspiration and build something new from it.
The score throbs, pulsating like a generator, with ominous electric growling, then almost Bernard Herman-esque ree-rees and clattering percussion. It’s a super tense score. And yet, it’s like the most epic Zelda soundtrack ever made, the best Nintendo music you’ll ever hear. You made a score unlike anything in theaters this year: distinct, and frankly, audible too! Tell me how you achieved these sounds? What’s in your arsenal of sound?
Yeah! I mean it’s sorta interesting that people bring up the video game sound as part of it!
Because when I scored the film, I wasn’t really thinking about that.
I think it’s maybe just something that comes out in my work because that’s my background. Having written music for a lot of video games, there’s something there that rubbed off on my style. You know as far as like, sonically, the soundtrack is largely just comprised of synth patches that I made. Software synth patches. And lots of post effects, to kinda make them sound dirty, or more of an analog sort of vibe. And you know there are sorta the occasional 8-bit effects … there’s very sparse use of that but David did want me to get some of that in there, so in some of the tracks like “Jay”… that track has a little bit of bitcrusher on it for example, but for the most part the soundtrack is comprised of synthesizer patches and a little bit of percussion here and there.
What was your working process like for this? Did Mitchell just send you off and say, “Come back with 45 minutes of music”? Or were you very collaborative? Just how long did it take to make the score?
It’s a funny thing because we’d been in contact for a couple years before the project, and we’d talked about … I’d expressed interest. We’d decided to reconvene when the project was further along, and suddenly it was time to get to it, or, you know, it wasn’t gonna happen. I had a lot of other stuff going on. I didn’t feel like schedule-wise I could make it work for me. I actually said no to David a couple times. But I really did want to work on the project. For me, it was trying to be disciplined about not taking on more work than I could chew. But in the end, he convinced me to work on it. And I wanted to! I guess it was an easy decision to overturn.
But then on top of that, on top of taking on this project when I felt like there wasn’t a lot of time to try things that weren’t gonna work, that was with the expectation that I would have about six months to score the film. Then the film got into the Cannes Film Festival. And so as a result of that, I only had three weeks to score the film. That really changed the dynamic! [Laughs] And I had to work really quickly. Initially, I had wanted to score a more hybrid sound, with more live instruments and stuff, but there wasn’t really time for me as a single person – I was doing the whole score by myself. So I just went with my strengths.
I did like a screen test. And David was like, “YES. This is it. This is awesome.” And I felt really good about it too. And that was the first scene of the film. With the girl who’s running around in a circle in the street.
I love, love, love your theme for the opening titles. The way the bass rumbles and turns into this starry-eyed, yet deeply ominous theme. This sort of downbeat, worrisome tune, yet child-like and innocent as well. Tell me what it was like to come up with these themes and sounds and setting the tone for the film.
I had an initial theme I had written that I didn’t end up using because I thought it captured the essence of the film well, but there wasn’t a place for it in the film. Like a scene or something that made sense. So we ended up not using it. It was more of a Twin Peaks kinda vibe. But in the temp scoring that David had done, he had really latched on to this piece from Fez called “Death”.
And it’s a pretty simple piece: It’s a couple of chords; it’s got this minor/major kinda vibe. Kinda like spooky? And it has these long, drawn-out tones, and that was kinda the starting point for the scene. David really wanted this long, ominous, drone-y sort of aspect to it. So that’s where I started kinda creating a new theme and channeling something like a stability point. Like a starting point.
Ostensibly when I’m writing scenes, there are composers whose music has had an influence on me. And I think when writing this theme in particular, there’s definitely a little bit of Morricone inspiration.
I’m gonna ask this, and you can call me crazy: Were you trying to make this sound like the Muppet Babies Casio keyboard my sister and I used to play with as a kid?
[Laughs] No! I mean, I’m really curious now. I did watch the cartoon, but I don’t remember … I didn’t know they had a piano!
It felt like an intentional nod!
You know what’s so cool about this? Part of the reason that people associate it with video games is that I like to use a lot of simple wave forms.
It’s actually getting more popular to use more simple wave forms in synthesized music. But for my stuff, there’s a lot that’s sparsely altered… sawtooth waves and pulse waves… the sounds have been around for years. There’s a lot of things from the late ‘70s and ‘80s that had these sorts of wave forms in them. What’s nice is that, using those sounds, it brings back memories that people have and all kinds of different memories. It’s interesting the relationship people have with these sounds.
This leads me to my next question. Do you remember the THX logo from the late ‘80s and ‘90s with the long droning, the scary wobble of intense growing noise? Do you think there was any subconscious allusion to that as well? Like this sound, as you mention, is rooted in time and place and…
It’s interesting you mention the THX sound.
There’s a track on Fez’s soundtrack that has an intro that was inspired by the THX sound, and I wanted to do something similar where I wanted to do a bunch of voices and have them converge and diverge, and that’s something that carried over to It Follows.
A lot of the temp score for It Follows … there was a piece by Johnny Greenwood, maybe Penderecki, I’m not sure, but you know there are pieces where there are string players that are playing, that sustain, that are sliding. Their pitches are sliding all over the place. And it makes for some really interesting textures, and so I went about trying to create this effect, this sort of string effect with synthesizers.
What are the benefits to doing a movie like It Follows with electronic sounds? What do you think you were able to do here that you couldn’t with, say, a 50-piece orchestra?
Some of the benefits I think are pretty clear. The overhead for doing a synth score is much smaller.
With a synth score, you can really do a lot with sound design. You can really get crazy with it. It’s a really great possibility space. It allows you to create sounds that people are not going to understand. They’re not going to be able to tie it to anything, so in a way it becomes more abstract because it’s less firmly rooted in something people understand, like piano or violin or whatever.
It’s just like, “Man, what is that sound? I don’t know!” There’s just no reference point, and you can use that to your benefit to kinda play with people’s expectations, toy with their emotions, their understanding. So I think there’s a lot of potential to do pretty gnarly things with synthesizers.
What did you think was your strongest bit of composition on It Follows? What are you most proud of as a composer on this? The initial scared run in heels? The dreamy music of a gray pool day? The first appearance and shocking noises of the tall man?
I’m not sure. There are couple things I’m pretty happy with. I think the heels? The first track that I wrote for the film? I was really happy with how that came together. I forget what I called it in the soundtrack. The piece when the old lady shows up in the school? That was a pretty challenging piece to write.
Do you dig horror? Are you attracted to horror as a genre?
I mean, not really? [Laughs]
How does it feel to know you contributed to one of the most commercially successful and critically respected horror films of the last decade? Hell, a new classic in the making.
Yeah, it’s awesome! I feel really lucky. I don’t know. Yeah, it’s just kinda crazy because I’d never worked on a film before, and here comes this opportunity, and I always thought there was something about it that was unique.