Song Exploder

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[music plays]

Hrishikesh Hirway has a podcast called “Song Exploder.” The concept is simple but brilliant.

Hrishikesh Hirway: I ask musicians to take apart one of their songs and go through it piece by piece and let listeners hear, what’s going on inside some of the tracks and reveal the secrets of what went into making the song. Whether it’s some of the sounds inside of it, or just the memories of what they were going through when they were creating the song.

[music track plays]

Roman: I don’t think Hrishi would mind me saying, but it’s kind of a design show about music. A 99% Invisible for songs.

[music track plays]

On the very first episode of Song Exploder, Hrishi interviewed Jimmy Tamborello of the band The Postal Service and invited him to take a deep dive into each individual element of the song, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” It’s the song that’s playing behind me now. If you don’t already own the lone Postal Service album, you’ve made some poor choices in life. I’m serious. Anyway, this is Jimmy Tamborello isolating the backing vocal track, sung by Jenny Lewis.

Jimmy Tamborello: So here’s some of Jenny’s background vocals soloed out.

Jenny Lewis: I am a visitor here. I am not permanent. Where I am.

Roman: So Tamborello was looking to add more texture to the final mix of the song and he had these beautiful backing vocals.

Jimmy: It might have been just an accident with a delay pedal but I looped a little bit of Jenny’s vocals and made it into texture in the song. That was one of the last things that we put into “District.” I can play that part by itself. [vocal plays]

Jimmy: This vocal loop comes in after the second verse when it’s kind of going into the more dancy outro part. [vocal plays]

Roman: Here’s Hrishikesh Hirway from Song Exploder again.

Hrishikesh: I’d heard that song, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” I mean, so many times since it came out in 2003 and I knew that part and I knew that sound. I had no idea that that was a human voice making that sound until he took everything away. And that was the first episode. That was sort of the pilot before the show was called, “Song Exploder” when I was still sort of figuring it out. When Jimmy played that part I was like, “Oh. This is it. This is the reason why I want to do this show.”

Roman: And a radio show was born. Or podcast….whatever.

Hrishikesh: As opposed to like a magic trick, where the intention is to fool the audience into thinking that they’re experiencing something that they aren’t. If you’re learning all the secrets of a song, the idea is still to just create a musical experience for you that you enjoy and I feel like once you know more about it then you can have a richer enjoyment of it, or at least that’s how it is for me.

Roman: So say we all. Today we’re going to feature a recent episode of Song Exploder, all about the theme song to the Netflix original series, “House of Cards.” This is one of my favorite episodes because it reveals so much about all the thought that goes into making a theme song to a TV show. Hrishi spoke to the composer, Jeff Beal, in his home in Los Angeles and he described his collaboration with the series’ executive producers, David Fincher and Beau Willimon. How they established the tone and musical palette of the show and how the music theme changed from season one to season two, which I didn’t even notice! But sure enough, go back, it’s totally different. You’re currently hearing the season one version. By the way, there’s House of Cards season one spoilers ahead, so you’ve been warned. Here is composer Jeff Beal talking to Hrishikesh Hirway on Song Exploder.

Jeff Beal: I’m Jeff Beal, composer. I do the music for House of Cards. I had worked with David Fincher on a commercial probably about six or seven years ago and this was around the time I had been working on Rome, a series for HBO. So I saw in the trades, you know this show is happening with David’s name attached and I kept in touch. We never worked together since and I thought this might be a good match for us, you know? I had watched a little bit of the British show and that was something that was part of my pitch to David, because I sort of used the Rome thing. I said, “Well, even though Rome was a period drama it was very much about politics and sort of operatic scale, cast, and storytelling.” After I first met with David to sort of talk about the project and got his initial thoughts about music and we sort of put our heads together, based on his sort of way of thinking about music and how much music informs his choices, he actually asked me to write some sketches before he started shooting. And of course, before we had the meeting and before I wrote these sketches, they shared with me I think about four or five scripts. Early drafts of what became season one.

So it was very much Beau’s sense of language and the way he sort of created this world that inspired some of the early work. The thing I liked about the British show is this sort of dark humor to it and I said, “Yes, the music’s definitely going to have to find a way to sort of give the audience permission to sort of laugh the sardonic darkness.” Of course, once he called me in, he gave me some of his thoughts on it which were interesting and some of them surprising to me. There was one song he really liked, the Supertramp Crime of the Century.
[music track plays]

Just a great song and a section of that song towards the end where it just becomes sort of driving piece.

[music instrument plays]

It had the sense of sort of operatic sort of classicism and sort of gravitas, but it also had a very gritty, earthy, and almost jazzy or bluesy, kind of some change into rock n’ roll.

[music instrument plays]

We dissected that together and sort of thought about why that spoke to him. That’s the show. The show is, it’s all about the underbelly of Washington, the dark corners, what you don’t see and what really happens as opposed to sort of the West Wing, you know, heroic, more aspirational, the sort of “Hail to the chief,” you know, Washington that your typical film score gestures about the capital and politics.

I wrote about four sketches for David. One of the things we talked about in our first meeting was he said that “We kind of need a call to arms.” And when you listen to it, it has a lot of the elements that became the main title theme. It’s got that bass line. It’s got that sort of cloud of dark electronics and sort of precede it like a fog or something. The tune is there although in this case it was just played by the piano, very simple orchestration, and the second time it goes around the snare drum comes in.

Very simple but there’s a tune in there, there’s a little sequence of chords and melody. Part of the reason sketching is useful is because it’s like the bones of something. If the structure of the skeleton has integrity, it should be able to stand without an abundance of sort of instrumental embellishment. And so by sketching and by doing simple versions of themes, you’re able to sort of make sure that you have an idea. [chuckles]

I always thought of this as sort of the puppet master theme. The idea that like, Kevin Spacey’s character was just this sort of manipulator who’s a virtuoso at pulling the strings on people and getting them to do what he wants them to do. But the reason I’m sharing this one in the context of the main title is, when we got around to finally doing the arrangement, David said it would be cool if the main title felt like this sort of stew of a lot of different elements from the score which would then be deconstructed into its individual parts. So you’ll hear this sort of descending chromatic line in the high piano that became one of the signatures of the main title sequence. As the sketch grows, the electric bass comes in. [music instrument plays]

So it’s this sort of minimalist piano motif but by putting that bass under, it sort of gave it a tension of something that’s pushing against it. David and I talked about the piano a little bit because that was in the Supertramp queue and it’s an instrument I like a lot and it felt like a good instrument for Kevin’s character because it can be very precise and very sort of mechanical in a way, which I love about it.

The sort of call to arms thing, that was dropped into the main title sequence and it never left. Once it was in there, that was what we’re going to do, and I started a few passes through, I started to work on the arrangement. The story of the main title sequence is visually lyrical and flowing but then, I remember this came straight from Beau’s original scripting of the main title. It’s basically the whole idea of the sun going down on Washington. You start in really broad daylight and as the sequence progresses, you end up at night. So, there was a way in which you went from something very open, and airy and light, just like the darkness falling. [chuckles] So that was a little of a visual storytelling thing I try to play off of. The first thing we hear is the fog, the fog and the cloud of doom. It’s just this sort of low synth drone.

Shortly after that comes the bass line. Which I know David affectionately referred to as the riptide. I always liked that description, kind of like the idea of something that pulls you under. [laughs] Basically, it’s a combination of several things. It’s analog-y-modeled synth things that I’ve designed, some of them I’ve had for a long time. There’s a couple different of those bass samples mixed together but I also recorded a live bass player playing the part. It’s actually my son, Henry, who is a wonderful young musician. He’s actually now studying jazz bass. The bassline was so important and the orchestration was getting big enough. I actually recorded the bass an octave above. It gives it enough mid-rate content so that when all these other stuff is happening, that bass is still driving. One of the fun things about the composition for me was that the harmony changes a lot over that bassline. In fact, the bass is always playing in A minor but the harmony sometimes goes to A major. And it creates this very strange dissonance and this sense of collision. It’s basically a wrong note. It’s like the bass player is playing the wrong the note but it doesn’t sound like a wrong note because it’s ingrained, it’s got its own logic to it. It’s almost like Frank will push through anything. He doesn’t care. He’s not going to stop playing those notes.

My original sort of call to arms sketch, Two Times Through, which is kind of the original demo was almost long enough to cover the main title sequence but we needed some more time. I also had this direction from David to sort of work in another theme. So what I did was, I kind of extended the intro. I added a lot of percussion but I also added the little puppet master riff that [hums] you know, that thing. It has a slightly different cadence because this is in four-four and the puppet master theme was always in three.

Phrases are broken up a little bit but it sort of, it still got that descending chromatic line. Another layer that was sort of one of the last things I came up with but was really useful was the trumpet. [trumpet plays] I’m a trumpet player and again, it’s the most expected cliché thing you’d hear in a show about Washington would be that sort of military trumpet kind of thing. [trumpet plays]

Because we’re seeing these sort of iconic shots of Washington, it just felt right to have something that references that icon because obviously the rest of the composition is telling you that this isn’t the heroic version of the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. There’s a way in which it’s sort of lonely to me, too. I like this sort of loneliness of it. [trumpet plays]

One of the things David visually did was to pull out a lot of the people in some of the time-lapse shot he has. It was much creepier seeing some of those shots with no people in them. It just made it feel like it was a ghost town or it had this sort of surreal quality to it. [trumpet plays]

So basically in talking to David Fincher about the second season, it was just sort of surprising to me but I think we were spotting the first couple episodes, he sort of try to give me notes on the main title about what he wanted different. David saw the second season as even more operatic and darker, too, which was shocking to me [laughs] because the first season was pretty dark. But you know who everybody is. You’ve seen who Frank is and what he can do. He’s killed somebody in the first season, I mean it’s obviously very– nothing’s going to get in the way of what this guy wants to do. In general, for main titles, people get attached especially when they like something. So, I was very careful to steer the ship enough but not so far as to make it feel like your old friend was not your old friend anymore so, I added some voices, some voice samples to a lot of it.

I also added some low strings to the intro. The high string line that used to be [hums] you know, sort of puppet master theme, we just to that in the cello. So again, it’s lower. Everything is sort of skewing down, skewing darker so that it feels like this cloud is sort of come over the whole thing. This sort of lightness and sense of that type of energy is dissipated. He’s no longer the puppet master. He’s already the vice president in season two. We know he’s very much in command. So there’s less of a game going on and much more of, it’s like the ascent to the throne. You know, I think so many networks or even filmmakers are afraid of a real main title sequence. It’s sort of an old-fashioned idea but the whole idea of a little mini-film that settles you into a world and get you ready to experience something is a wonderful storytelling device. It sort of frames a moment for you and gets you settled into what you’re about to take in.

Hrishikesh: And now here’s the season two version of the main title theme to House of Cards.

[House of Cards Season Two theme plays.]

Roman: That was Song Exploder on 99% Invisible. It was produced by Hrishikesh Hirway who was also the driving force behind the band, The One AM Radio, who is playing behind me right now. Song Exploder is part of the Maximum Fun Network whose shows like, The Memory Palace, Bulls-eye with Jesse Thorn, Judge John Hodgman, My Brother, My Brother, and Me; all kinds of good stuff. I’ve been a listener and monthly donor for years. You will find a show you love at maximumfun.org.

99% Invisible is Sam Greenspan, Katie Mingle, Avery Trufelman, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced out of the Offices of Arcsine, a collaboration minded Architecture Firm in collaboration minded Oakland, California.

Comments (11)

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  1. Mark

    “If you don’t already own the lone Postal Service album, you’ve made some poor choices in life. I’m serious.”

    Wow. Breathtakingly presumptuous.

    1. RJP

      We will all of us at some point confuse personal taste with good judgement. (Such Great Heights is a nice track. I found the rest of it a bit neither here nor there.)

    2. Snowy

      If you think about it, it is a safe assumption not presumptuous at all. I think everyone has at some point has made some poor choices. Making the occasional poor choice is part of the human condition. Roman is highlighting this with the intention of humor and sharing a song that he values.

    3. That’s one of the reasons why I like 99% Percent Invisible. And I’d say the 118 episodes of the show have pretty much established Roman’s authority on matters of taste.

  2. I recently found out Jenny Lewis (from postal service) was the girl from 80s video game movie “The Wizard”, co-starring Fred Savage. This blew my mind.

  3. Ian

    I thought this episode was really fascinating – found myself in complete agreement with Jeff all the way throughout and I enjoyed hearing the reasoning behind each element.

    I don’t know if anyone else has noticed the similarity, but have a listen to Hybrid’s 2003 track, ‘Lights Go Down, Knives Come Out’ at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MS_ev8kyDs4

    It’s certainly not identical, but I do find the same elements very interesting – the repeating bassline ‘call to arms’, strings and trumpet. No piano though.

    It was actually a hidden track on the CD album (you had to rewind the CD from the beginning of track 1 to hear it – really cool!). Every time I heard the House of Cards theme, it ended up reminding me of Hybrid.

    1. Paul Gray

      Ian, I totally agree that the theme song sounds like Hybrid. I just started watching House of Cards and as soon as I heard the theme I knew it sounded like Lights Go Down, Knives come out. I wonder if the composer intentionally wanted it to sound similar. On a side note album five is in progress.

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