Scoring the "Ultimate Darkness" of 'Samurai Jack'

We spoke with series creator Genndy Tartakovsky and musical director Tyler Bates about the cult show's new season and the challenge of creating something truly unique.

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Mar 13 2017, 1:43pm

After a thirteen-year hiatus, the mind-blowing animated series Samurai Jack made its return Saturday night on Adult Swim—so long to the kids' show veneer it had to wear during its days on Cartoon Network—and unlike so many reboots, this new version feels like an improvement upon its predecessor. The beautifully animated action sequences that helped Jack win four Emmys back in the early 2000s are still here in full force, but whereas the Jack of old was a more or less unperturbed ronin, this new and final season takes us down a dark road into its hero's tortured psyche. From the outset, we're told that Jack has wandered for fifty years without aging, his temporal stasis a side effect of the time travel that kicked off the original series. And with all the time portals to the past supposedly destroyed, Jack believes there's no longer a way for him to defeat the evil Aku, whose reign over the world remains unabated and complete.

Now, the cartoonish fun hasn't been totally sapped from the show. Saturday night's premiere featured a delightful battle between Jack and Scaramouch, a jazz-loving robo-assassin who uses a magical flute to command a rock monster. But on the whole, this final stretch of the Samurai Jack story is set to motor down a forbidding, lonesome path toward Jack's ultimate salvation, whether that be victory over Aku or the sweet escape of death.

We spoke with series creator Genndy Tartakovsky and musical director Tyler Bates—who has also composed the scores for Guardians of the Galaxy, John Wick, and every Zack Snyder film from Dawn of the Dead through Sucker Punch—about how they created a fresh sonic aesthetic to fit the new season of Samurai Jack.

Noisey: James Venable did the music for Samurai Jack's first four seasons, but things clearly went in a different direction all these years later. How did you two come together for this final season?
Genndy Tartakovsky: I think we first met probably like 15 years ago or so, I think. Our kids were in the same school, and so I started seeing him at functions, and we started chatting, I started to be familiar with his work. And then I realized that he saw Jack before, way back years ago, and we kinda hit it off. We're very like-minded, Tyler's super artistic, very creative. We're driven by similar things.
Tyler Bates: Genndy and I have been friends for many years, and when he finished Hotel Transylvania 2, he talked to me about coming back and finishing the story of Samurai Jack, just in conversation. And then he asked if I would be interested in being involved with that, and I'm happy to do anything that Genndy's working on.
GT: I loved [Venable's] music, but I felt like we're going into a darker time for Jack and things are a bit different...Tyler does mood and darkness really well, as well as other stuff. I wanted to take it to that next level. And Tyler has such a great community of musicians to reach out to, to my own advantage, I thought maybe we could get some live players on more of the pieces. So I went with Tyler.
TB: We kind of do it as a collective over here in my studio. There's a few of us that work together on it. It's really quite fun, actually.

How does the process work when you're all together?
TB: It's a pretty large undertaking, especially given the narrow time parameters we have to work with, and Genndy's always looking for a unique sound, which takes some experimentation. This way, we have the bandwidth to preserve a music culture as opposed to just getting it out the door by having us work together on it. One thing that's really fun and great about working with Genndy is the spotting session process. That's where you would watch for the first time, you'll watch the episode together, and then we'd discuss music. He's the first one to ever do this in my career, and maybe because I have limited experience with animation, but what he does is he'll basically give us the live sound design and music as we watch it. He'll beatbox it from his mouth. And it's so awesome because it's the most organic process of going through visual storytelling and relating that to music.
GT: I'm not as articulate as I'd wanna be. You can say sad or happy or fast tempo, but we never do temp for TV stuff. Basically we're watching this raw thing, and Jack sometimes has 2 or 3 minutes of dialogue through a whole episode. So I would sometimes hum out a really bad tempo feel [he demonstrates over the phone]. And we'd watch the whole episode like that, and that's how we would spot it, and sure enough, they started taping me doing it, and they would do some of the stuff. It was fantastic. From writing and storyboarding these episodes, I already start to have a sense of what the music should be. I can't score a lick of it myself, but I definitely know the mood that I'm after, for the storytelling, for the jokes, for the emotions, for all of it, whether it be a pulse or something with long notes.
TB: Being able to work with a show with no temp music in it is fantastic. It really inspires your imagination to see what the possibilities are. It's rare, if nearly extinct, the idea of film composer seeing a movie nowadays for the first time without there being a temp score plugged in there. [A temp score] limits my imagination of what's possible.

One of the most striking aspects of Samurai Jack, now as always, is its juxtaposition of presence and absence, of silence and sound. How did you guys calibrate that balance?
TB: That's really Genndy's sensibility. He never is the type to want to wallpaper a scene with music because it makes it feel more potent or more interesting. And in film, that's very oftentimes the case. I do think there are some filmmakers and editors who lean on music to make a scene work and with Genndy, he's making the entire show work before he really addresses it with sound and music.
GT: It's about feel. First of all, there's the production of it, where we can't afford wall to wall music for an episode, which actually helps you creatively. I have a lot of very strong opinions about score, I feel like everything's over-scored nowadays...so if I can create the mood by silence or just by the sound of the forest, or the sound of the river, then I will. Or if it feels naked without it and the storytelling isn't clear, then I'll go ahead and say we need some music here to strengthen the emotion, the storytelling. It's always story first, and then, because I am a fan of '70s cinema, they used silence and sound design a lot more so than nowadays, where now pretty much it's wall-to-wall score, especially for the bigger movies.

On the other hand, a major change from the original series to the new one is the opening credits music, which is super eerie. We only get the spunky old theme song in the end credits. What motivated that switch?
GT: I just felt like the beginning, if we kept it the same, it feels like it's the same show. It feels like nothing has changed. Like, here's the main title, here you go. I wanted to do a little bit more storytelling, and then I realized the "gotta get back, back to the past" feels too light-hearted for where we are emotionally. So we did this new one, Tyler did this breaking down of Jack's life, with this slight bit at the very end of hope.
TB: There's more than a battle with Aku, let's say. I think there's a little bit more of this that addresses Jack's psyche. And that's something, that duality lives within every piece of music. This season, as far as what we've seen, is really about that with him. And let's say the ethnic influence on the music is only what's necessary to contextualize some of the characters and maybe some of the folklore or mythology behind Jack. But so much of this score is about his psyche. He does have some pretty intense issues that he's experiencing. So I think that's kind of where our conversation began on this series, and so the titles are much more a reflection of that than the song that still plays at the end credits.

The Scaramouch flute battle from last night's episode, though, abounds with joy. It was brilliant. How did you guys come up with that?
GT: That character started to develop, we knew we wanted to do a Pied Piper-type of character. And there's always a level of, that whole episode was so serious up to that point, we wanted to let out the tension a little bit. And then I had this idea of him controlling it with the music, to do some jazz flute [laughs] would be great. And another advantage for Tyler is he knew a guy who could play flute, the guy came in and did this amazing live flute that makes the sequence very special. It's not just another fight with another bad guy. He's got more personality, even though Jack is still in his dark place throughout it.
TB: Joanne Higginbottom, who works with me, she is the composer of that piece of music. My friend Frank Macchia came in and played flute for that, and then Gil Sharone, who plays drums with Marilyn Manson, he came in and did the percussion for that piece of music. His brother Ronnie works with us on the show. That sequence is just so crazy and so bold...it was just really fun to discuss with Genndy and to see it come to life. It is a lot of fun to have people come into the studio and record very colorful performances for something that bold and abstract.
GT: I think probably that's one of the influences from Anchorman that probably seeped in. Jazz flute's funny. And I'm a big Latin music fan, Tito Puente, Tina Cruz, all that stuff. I loved all that stuff and it's super flute-heavy, Machito and that stuff. That's always been an inspiration, even in Dial M for Monkey [a segment from Dexter's Laboratory, Tartakovsky's first hit show] we used Latin music for that. I thought it would be great.

The new series gives off a vibe similar to the myth of Sisyphus, battling tedium and also cursed immortality. What musical themes will we see stem from that, the ideas of tedium, the inescapability?
GT: For Jack, it's the ultimate darkness. You're stuck in this point of life where you have failed, it's like depression. And how do you break out of depression? Anything you do, you can't change the status quo, and how do you deal with that? As you go into further episodes, we really start to unfold where Jack is, as things get worse and worse for him. So that has a lack of theme, it's really the evolution of the music, so we do something that's more with sound sculpture, with weird sounds to get into the psychosis of it all. And if things get better for Jack, it'll be more melody and harmony. Again, it's a lot of really subliminal-type stuff, but if it's done right, you really feel it.
TB: [Jack's] perspective is different, and we wanted the music to feel like it's not steeped in the former show so much. There's nothing wrong with anything in that show, there's a lot of love for that. But because there is this timelapse, Genndy wanted to take a different approach. And the story is a different part of Jack's psyche that has developed over that period of time. So the music is a little more reflective of that. But we're really sitting right on his shoulder throughout the show.

Samurai Jack airs on Saturdays at 11pm on Adult Swim.

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