Halt and Catch Fire is about to begin its third season. The show is a strong mix of intensity and drama set against the backdrop of the microcomputer revolution that occurred in the early ’80s. The AMC series boasts a great cast, a highly engaging story, and features some of the best electronic music currently on television. We recently spoke with show’s composer, Paul Haslinger, about his work on the series and how he approaches writing the music for Halt and Catch Fire.
Fandom: How did you get approached to score the music for this series that’s about to be in its third season?
Paul Haslinger: A friend of mine is the music supervisor on the show, Thomas Golubić. Music supervisors usually get hired first. He told me about the show and said it might be a great opportunity for me to engage. I sent in some tracks, and he brought it to the attention of the producers, and the rest is history (laughs).
I think it was too interesting for them not to pick up on and look into. We had some meetings, and we all came to see it as the same opportunity, and we just went for it.
Fandom: How do you approach the show when you’re composing? You said that you sent in a few tracks, I’m sure they immediately connected with the fact that the show is set in the ’80s. What’s your process for continuing to compose music as the show continues to go on?
Paul Haslinger: Well, the ’80s connection, of course, was an obvious one. I did join Tangerine Dream in the ’80s, so it sort of was the obvious hookup, but the show is more than just a show about the ’80s, about this period and this style. It’s also about the characters and what the characters go through and ultimately I think with any show, that’s what makes a difference for the audience. Do they connect with the characters and getting interested in the story of the characters?
The ’80s thing is something you can have fun with, and it’s definitely at the moment something a lot of people like to have fun with. It’s also about what the story and trajectory of those characters and where they are heading with their sub-stories. I always thought that was very interesting. Halt and Catch Fire is very well written and also the realization in-picture is done a little bit different and against the grain of typical television shows.
It’s been enormously fun working on it, and the musical approach finally gives me a chance to come back to some of those ’80s things I’m very much familiar with, and I can sort of take a second swing at. It’s also been an upside to say, “It’s a cool show. Let’s just write some cool score for it and find a music approach that is a non-cliché approach.” It’s just interesting and unique and doesn’t overplay music. The tendency of a lot of shows I see is to over-score it, and we’re definitely not doing that on Halt and Catch Fire.
Music Style and Characters
Fandom: Your music is very defining for the characters. Going through the track listing for the album that’s coming out, one of the most standout ones for me was Gordon Steals a Cabbage Patch which is great. (Paul Haslinger laughs) Talk a little bit about going between ambient music and more rhythmic pulsating music and how that plays a part in the show. Do you prefer the smoother and subtle stuff or do you get more excitement out of the more energetic pieces?
Paul Haslinger: It never becomes purely energetic, y’know. There are no, like, full-on rhythmic driving tracks in Halt and Catch Fire. This time period does give you a little bit of life because in the ’80s things didn’t sound particularly impressive or particularly full. It was all more or less in a mid-range spectrum. So I’m taking that as license to keep the music relatively contained. Within that, you can have a lot of fun with these rhythms and these patterns.
When I started out in the 80s, I was sort of doing that stuff first time in a way. That was then, but now coming back to it, you’re a little bit more picky in what you choose and how you apply the patterns and how you make it all work together. It’s also been an interesting process to emulate some of the inaccuracies of the technology of that time. The fact is, things weren’t always lined up. They were not in tune, and they weren’t all perfectly in synch with each other.
So I am consciously using that in the writing approach here to make sure that the score is not too perfect because if it is too perfect, it becomes boring. If everything’s perfectly aligned, they wouldn’t work and I spent quite a bit of time making sure that there’s enough inaccuracies in this music to make it effective.
Fandom: Just kind of going into that, how those little imperfections make music that much more engaging, are there any pieces that are standout ones to you? Tracks that have those smaller elements like either samples or those organic crackling noises that make the listener think about the insides of a computer? Anything off the top of your head from the track list that’s a real example of that?
Paul Haslinger: I think the one you mentioned, Gordon Steals a Cabbage Patch which is, you know when Gordon falls apart for the first time in the first season, and there’s another one called Joe’s Truth. It’s a very naked track for the one moment where our character Joe actually opens up and becomes vulnerable. The music is set in a storm, so there’s a storm going on outside, and he’s sort of opening up for the first time, and the music is very delicate but just slightly off pitch in there.
It’s something I’ve been coming back to whenever Joe goes through his many trials and tribulations. You hear a hint of the Joe’s Truth music coming through which are also glassy sounds, the sounds of things going just slightly out of pitch and out of focus. I’ve used it a lot because people going through troubled times are more interesting to watch and experience storywise than people who are constantly happy.
So, the music very much plays along with these characters through those times and it introduces elements, and then repeats these elements next season. They’re going to be going through some other adventures, but it’s going to hearken back a little bit to that first moment where they first had that experience.
Fandom: Looking back at where you’re coming from as an artist; like you’ve mentioned, you’ve worked with Tangerine Dream and put out some amazing music for films including Near Dark which is one of my favorite scores. You’ve also collaborated with some incredible artists like Graeme Revell and Lustmord. How does where you came from as an artist affect you now with your experience and what you reflect on and how you continue to make music going forward. What’s your mindset thinking back on where you came from and what you’re doing now?
Paul Haslinger: I think it’s always a continuous process. You go in this, and you start out thinking you know everything, and you’re gonna show the world. Over time you discover that you don’t know everything and that large portions of the world are not that interested in what you are doing (laughs). Along the way you meet people who really influence your perspective and make you see new angles.
Since you mentioned Lustmord and Graeme Revell, Brian Williams aka Lustmord is the one who introduced me to Graeme in the first place. Both of them really were main influences in the ’90s when I first came out to L.A., and I was sort of reorienting after leaving Tangerine Dream. Major influences in discovering a whole new path of musical ends and seeing that you can explore all these new territories if you go into film which you can’t if you just run a music career, and you’re pretty much set on one style, and you’re bound by that style.
It seemed like this was just a more fun ride to take, and in hindsight, I think it was the right decision. It was a tough decision. I didn’t think about it and came to a major conclusion, I just sort of intuitively, I think, switched over into scoring for pictures. Since then I’ve been pretty much doing games, films, and television. On each of these platforms I’ve had so much fun and I’ve had a chance to again collaborate with plenty of people with projects giving me an excuse to score some styles of music I hadn’t done before. I’ve been very lucky hitching this particular ride.
What’s your Fandom?
Fandom: Very cool. To wrap up, we here at Fandom cater to fans of movies, music, books, games, and comics. What are you a fan of? What would you like to share with us today that you’re interested in right now?
Paul Haslinger: (laughs) I’m a fan of so many things. I was born curious, so my playlists are a smorgasbord of so many things that it’s hard to single out right now what I’m the biggest fan of. I can tell you there are two British TV shows called Peaky Blinders, and the other one is called Black Mirror that I’m a huge fan of. They’re just examples for me where everything’s right. The storytelling is right, and the story is engaging. The music application is great, the whole sound application is great; I would single those two out.
On the film side, I’d be harder pressed. Y’know, I think the film scene is sort of going through a transition phase right now where you have the big productions and the small indie productions and not much in between. There’s great stuff being done on the indie side, but as a whole, I think the film industry is trying to find a new footing, much like television had to find a new footing about 15 years ago. At the moment we’re in this phase where there are no real films out there that change things or have impact to change things. Right off the bat, I can’t think of a film project that I would declare my fanship of (laughs).
Fandom: Well hopefully we can look forward to more great scores coming from you. I know you’ve got Resident Evil: The Final Chapter coming up. We’re keeping an eye on what you’re putting out there. Thank you for talking with us about Halt and Catch Fire, it’s been a pleasure.
Paul Haslinger: Same here, it’s been a pleasure talking with you as well. Hopefully we’ll get another chance soon.
Halt and Catch Fire (Original Television Score Soundtrack) will be available digitally August 19th and on CD September 16, 2016. Halt and Catch Fire Season 3 will debut on AMC 23 August.