Composer Paul Haslinger made electronic music when it was cool, when it wasn’t, and is still making electronic music – now that it’s cool again.
An industry veteran — responsible for a variety of scores from films like Underworld, Crank, and Death Race — Haslinger was also a member of the seminal, long-running electronic band Tangerine Dream from 1985 to 1990. After heavy synths and pulsating beats fell out of favor, the style is getting a second wind, with monster hits like Stranger Things and its period-appropriate score.
Haslinger is also involved in the genre’s revival, as he is currently the composer for the synth-heavy score for AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire – which has its Season 3 premiere on August 23 – and zombie spinoff Fear the Walking Dead.
Inverse chatted with Haslinger about the process of creating electronic music, and why the genre is having a moment.
Are you surprised there has been a resurgence of ‘80s-inspired scores?
If you’re around long enough you see waves come and go. It’s amusing to see how hyped it is at the moment. When I first got to LA in the ‘90s you’d get kicked out of town with this style. Tangerine Dream was considered horrible electronic music that nobody wanted at that time. I had to build my career here outside of my connection to Tangerine Dream and now to see it come back in a major way is amusing. It’ll probably then go away and everybody will hate it in ten years, but for now we’ll have some fun with it.
Does that kind of cyclical thinking urge you to be more versatile as you got more experience?
You shouldn’t be a slave to the times or changes in taste. The audience shouldn’t dictate what they want to hear next, which is part of the problem right now. The advantage to scoring something in different forms like television, films, or games is that it allows you to explore different musical landscapes. It’s a more varied musical life than if you’re an artist known for a particular style who has to continue producing that same style. I’m glad I veered off the musical path.
What did you mean about the audience dictating musical styles?
Let’s call it the American idealization of the entertainment industry. It starts with test screenings where they let a bunch of people tell them what’s wrong with the movie. People would say something and the next thing you know that comment would be implemented in the movie. It’s a dead end if you let the audience decide to see the same thing over and over again. It’s partially to blame, along with the industry, for why we’re seeing all the same thing out there right now. People don’t take as many chances as they did 20 years ago. There’s a lot of really good music out there, it’s getting lost, but the audience is king.
When you’re creating music meant to mirror the music of that era like in Halt and Catch Fire, what do you do to ensure you stay fresh with your musical ideas?
The trick is to feel free to pick from your previous best but also not feeling bound by it. You have fun with it rather than feel like you have to do certain things. There’s definitely inspiration in coming back to something and doing a second round. There’s plenty of Tangerine Dream albums that I hate, but you go back into the style and try to have a little fun. It’s whatever the show requires or whatever we think within the context of the show makes the biggest impact.
What is the process like producing music for TV?
It’s relentless delivering shows in a one or two-week schedule, and before you’re done with one you’re already working on the next two ones. It’s enjoyably insane. I’ve always approached it like I was going to make an album. You just go in, start the process and give it time before the actual project starts. Once it starts the TV schedule demands are so strict that you can’t experiment.
With Halt and Catch Fire and Fear the Walking Dead we’re on the second or third seasons, so it’s established teams. I start much earlier by getting overview drafts and story arc developments. We have pre-season meetings with the showrunners where we discuss the musical language for the season. Then I get scripts before they start shooting, and sometimes I pre-record certain parts. I’m fully involved throughout the process as the show takes shape.
When you’re scoring multiple seasons, do you intentionally try to mix things up with new themes and motifs?
It’s completely driven by what the storylines are doing. The first season of Fear the Walking Dead was about the destruction of Los Angeles and the second season is about traveling south of the border, so that’s a whole different landscape that has an influence on the music.
Likewise in Halt and Catch Fire, there was a one-year time jump from Season 1 to Season 2. Now in Season 3 there’s another jump, and that informs the musical shift.
What is the setup like in the studio when you’re producing an electronic score? Is it just you surrounded by a bunch of synths?
I’ve always been a studio rat and that hasn’t changed even when I’m doing orchestral stuff. For Fear the Walking Dead I do bring in a lot of people to play on orchestral parts. But Halt and Catch Fire is the most personal score because it’s just me and no other musicians. That allows for a tighter focus. I can do a lot with just me and four walls.
With this new season, more than the previous two, it was all about reducing music by trimming away the fat. We had more fun with non-‘80s influences, particularly Giorgio Moroder. We wanted to bring the established style to its essence. We’d start a track with 15 elements, but tried to bring it to five. With electronic stuff it’s so easy to pile on more sequences, and we wanted the opposite. It’s stronger because we’re doing more with less.