The Music of “The Walking Dead”: Interview with Composer Sam Ewing

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On this week’s “The Walking Dead”, viewers saw a few major plot points begin to unravel. Eugene (Josh McDermitt) making contact with a new person on the radio and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) joining up with the Whisperers.  Fans of the show have learned to never be too comfortable with where the story is going, hence why the show has had 10 seasons and been so successful. Just this year, there have been a few major announcements within The Walking Dead universe, two being that longtime cast member, Danai Gurira, is leaving the show and a second spinoff series focusing on a younger generation who never experienced a zombie-free existence is being created.  It was also announced that composer Sam Ewing would be scoring the show alongside Bear McCreary.  The music has always been a very important aspect of the show, so we spoke with Ewing about what fans can expect, musically, from this season.

-The beginning of episode 4 starts with a song with vocals. Whenever there is a song placement like this by the music supervisors how much notice do you get for this? How closely do you work with the music supervisors?

Bear McCreary and I will show up to a spotting session together usually knowing very little what’s in store for us. We meet with show runner Angela Kang, the picture editor of the episode, our music editors Mike Baber and Alex Heller, and our music supervisors Season Kent and Henry van Roden. Lots of people! In the case of 1004, I believe Angela knew she wanted a song here, so Henry and Season found that track early on during the cutting process, dropped it in and it somehow just worked. I also know that Angela had turned up the whispering “1, 2, 3’s” in that song and turned down the main vocal, so that it married picture a little better. And perhaps to make it feel more Whisperers-themed!

-Is there one instrument in particular that you use to create suspense for the show?

I think high strings are such a classic and solid go-to for creating suspense. However, it’s been done millions of times, and one of the twists we like to play with on the show is instead of a string section, it might be a solo violin or a couple of violins together, so that the sound is much more rustic and close-up, and gritty. Also, intimate strings have been in the show’s DNA since the beginning. i.e. the main title.

-You are scoring Season 10 alongside Bear McCreary. What are each of your strengths?

Yes I am, I’m so honored! Bear has many strengths, and I’d say his strongest musical trait is understanding of and writing of orchestral music. It’s one reason I think we pair well together as musicians – I also love the orchestra. However, I think one area I cover on the other end of the Venn diagram is sound design and recording. A large chunk of the music I write is from performing, whether that be playing the violin, the guitar, bass, some exotic percussion and woodwinds, or one of my analog synths. I’m still finding my voice and how all of this fits together, but I think the result of us working together is a high quality sounding score that has a stamp of personality and style in it, and just sounds good whether or not there is a big orchestra.

-In episode 4, the scene with Ezekiel and Michonne, the score was very minimal with what only sounded like a violin, until they kissed. After they kissed it went back to just a violin. Why did you choose to score that scene like this?

Well speaking of recording and playing instruments, this is a perfect example! I felt inspired by this scene and wanted to record a really lonely, desperate and damaged sounding violin solo. I was sort of going for that Warren Ellis tone, everything feeling fragile and damaged. So I actually sampled my voice and, using my array of guitar pedals, made some weird ambient loop that basically spans and evolves throughout the whole scene. Then I played this violin solo to picture. Sometimes I will tune my violin down by as much as a 4th, so that it sounds thin, fragile, and the more bow pressure I apply, the more the note detunes. The result is basically the music from this scene.

-You were a fan of the show from the beginning. What has surprised you the most, now that you are working on it?

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s been great discovering how lovely everyone is who works on the show. I’ve made some friends and have sparked up a few collaborations, and otherwise just love the folks at postproduction. Maybe I secretly wondered if it took a bunch of sadistic people to make a violent zombie show, but it seems the opposite. In fact, I often find the people making dark stuff are often some of the warmest people I’ve ever met! Adam Green, creator and director of Victor Crowley, comes to mind.

-Whenever there is a scene with zombies attacking, do you have a “go to” sound or instrument you use?

The score has evolved a little over ten seasons, as you can imagine. But one sound that never really fails is the autoharp. Bear came up with this in season 1. It’s this tiny, broken, detuned little “player” harp or guitar thing meant to be beautiful and accompanying a singer, but we abuse it and strum and scrape the hell out of it. We sampled a million of these. You can mute the strings to get almost a muted guitar strumming attack, which is great for pace and action. You can also open them and get this horribly dissonant roar of tightly wound strings to pair up with bass drums and hits and stingers. The sound is frail, wiry and clangorous and somehow reminds me of an ensemble of zombie teeth clacking.

-Out of the episodes that have aired so far this season, do you have a favorite, musically?

I think 1003 was my favorite because we got to explore some really great, classic horror sounds. It was generally a little more stylized than what we usually do. The opening sequence comes to mind with the “passage of time” cards hitting us as our guys slay endless zombies, and the strange psychedelic episodes with Carol. I also am fond of 1007 and 1008, because we recall some season 9 material. I won’t say any more than that!

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