Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon) and Ian McShane (Mr. Wednesday)

American Gods composer Brian Reitzell on the feel and movement of sound

Contributed by
May 10, 2018

This month, SYFY WIRE is interviewing some of the best composers in TV and film, to get insight on the theme songs and scores that stick in our heads long after the credits roll.

The stories within stories of American Gods cross continents and timelines. The STARZ series based on Neil Gaiman's novel of the same name follows the paths of leprechauns and the walking dead, as well as an ongoing battle between new-age gods and those as old as time itself. Due to its out-of-this-world characters and wild style, American Gods doesn’t look like anything else currently on television. With its unusual mix of Irish doo-wop, folk music, disco, and a haunting theme song, American Gods doesn’t sound like anything else currently on television, either.

To create the sounds of the old gods and the new, composer and music supervisor Brian Reitzell uses a variety of instruments from all over the world, combining old-world sounds with new-world technology.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Reitzell about how he scores the TV shows American Gods and Hannibal, his creative partnerships with director Sofia Coppola and showrunner Bryan Fuller, and if he’s coming back for Season 2 of American Gods.

Theme song of American Gods

Can you walk me through the process of how you created a theme song for shows like Hannibal and American Gods — do you do that the same way you score the rest of the show?

They're very different, yet they're totally connected. You have to establish the sort of sonic universe of the show. And this is in my work, I can't speak for other TV themes, but I like to create a sound world for each show so it’s unique, and then use that as my paint box or my prep cooking — all my ingredients out in front of me. But it's a really different process because in both of those shows the theme song came as I was about a third of the way into scoring the show.

American Gods had a lot of revisions coming from Bryan Fuller. I mean Bryan really got in there with all the visuals and wanted everything to speak to what was on the screen. So it was a huge job, that undertaking of American Gods. And then I had [musicians] Shirley Manson and Mark Lanegan's voices in the fabric of it because they were going to be two of the voices that I wanted to use in the show. So that all happened to get in there, luckily.

Now, Hannibal was just four days of experimenting really hard. You know the visuals — again, I'm really into immersing the audience and making them feel like the visuals and the music are attached to each other, like a wave of the ocean. It doesn't just have movement, it's got sound and the sound is so physical with that movement.

Your process sounds pretty old school.

It's totally old school. Well, just about everything is played. I'm a musician, and I really believe in feel — not just sound, [but] the way things feel [and] the way the rhythms [and] beats land... There's something about it being human rather than on a computer grid.

Now saying that, with one of the characters in American Gods, the Techno Boy character, I used only a computer to score him. But for the most part, I just like it to be played. I like to bring musicians in. With Hannibal, I ended up playing most of it myself because it became so uniquely one sound world that I was creating. But with American Gods, it would depend on each episode because each episode was so varied. I had to do Irish doo-wop for one episode; I had to make prehistoric music for one episode; I had to make all these different styles, [like] Persian disco from the '70s.

Credit: STARZ

You’ve worked with Sofia Coppola a lot and you’ve worked with Bryan Fuller a lot, so it seems like these creative partnerships work really well for you. Would you say that’s the case?

Yeah. Well, I think both Sofia and Bryan do have very different styles, [but] they both have style. I'm trying to help them best pull their style out. I think that with both of those directors, especially, it's really helped. It's really worked.

But like all artists, I think once you get so used to working with someone, you want to change your style.

I didn't work on Sofia’s last movie [The Beguiled (2017)], and it was very much a Sofia movie. Yet there's no music in it, which is awesome. A lot of my favorite movies have very little music. I'm a big fan of the composer Tōru Takemitsu and all those wonderful Japanese ghost story movies and such. The music is so powerful in those movies, but it's also incredibly minimal. And I think with TV, once I started working in TV and knowing that people are going to be watching these things on tablets or headphones or whatever it is, it gives me more of an opportunity to really color the entire thing.

A show like Hannibal — the music doesn't ever stop, but it's often so atonal it falls into the surroundings of the room that you're in. It disappears. And that's kind of my favorite thing. So if you can do that using sound — which you can, [using] birds, or the refrigerator, the airplane, whatever. I mean, our lives are being scored 24 hours a day.

It sounds like you have so many different instruments from all over the world and you play with different things to create sounds. What leads you to do that?

Well, first and foremost I’m a percussionist. The percussion family is the largest instrument family there is. Pretty much anything can be a percussion instrument, anything that you strike with your hands or with a mallet. A piano is a percussion instrument. And I love to travel, and I love new sounds.

I don't necessarily ever like to make ethnic music — like I don't want to try to sound like I'm from Morocco or I'm from Japan or China or the Philippines, or whatever. But I like to use those instruments because I think the sound of it gives you that unique cultural thing that you need without it being a Hollywood ethnic reproduction. Now saying that, I have done my fair share of on the nose [work], [like the] Mexican music I did in American Gods.

Before I let you go, I wanted to ask if you’re coming back to Season 2 of American Gods because I know there’s been some shifts and some people moving around.

Well, yeah, I mean that's the hundred-thousand-dollar question. I don't know. Everybody worked so damn hard on that show... You can tell. A lot went into making that show. It was brutal. And without Bryan [Fuller], it could be a different gig. I don't know. If it was to continue on with what we've started and what we've worked so hard to create, then I would be interested in doing it.