These Rooms Are Floating: How Brian Reitzell Creates TV’s Creepiest SoundtrackNBC
Glendale, California, on a hot Wednesday. It’s been about a week since composer Brian Reitzell delivered the music for the last two second-season episodes of NBC’s Hannibal. What’s the best thing about that?
“I stopped having nightmares,” he says cheerfully.
Reitzell produces around 45 minutes of music for every episode. The process always starts with him here in his studio, his hands on an old keyboard or a drum or something else that makes noise, watching the show on a big projection screen. He doesn’t read scripts, doesn’t come up with anything ahead of time. He doesn’t want to know what’s going to happen. He sits in the dark and reacts.
“I approach horror music differently than anything else. The very first time I watch an episode, I want to be playing an instrument to it, so I can get that shock into the show.”
Reitzell’s a young-looking late-fortysomething, with chunky black glasses and long hair. Blue shirt, blue khakis, gray-black Vans, like a cool mailman. Not visibly a sicko. The horror gigs always mess with him. 30 Days of Night gave him four months of nightmares, every single night. Part of the job, and it goes away when the job does. But even under the most casual of circumstances, Hannibal is one of the creepiest, most immersive shows on TV. It gets in your head.
“The episode that’s on this week? Holy shit,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said this, working on this show, but I can’t believe this is on television. My engineer, who’s this big guy — he can’t watch it. Especially this season. Eddie Izzard eating his own leg was pretty hard — but [Episodes] 12 and 13, they are heavy-duty.”
When Reitzell was working on 12 and 13, Mads Mikkelsen’s Dr. Lecter and Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham actually showed up in his dreams. That was a first. He doesn’t remember what they were doing. But it was, again, heavy.
“I don’t think nightmares are necessarily bad for you,” he says. “I remember a line from a Tears for Fears song, which they lifted from Arthur Janov — y’know, the guy who wrote Primal Scream, right? Because that was their whole trip. It was, ‘The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.’ But I do think I should get some kind of compensation from NBC for the fact that I’m waking up in a pool of sweat all the time.”
Making music for TV was never part of Reitzell’s plan. He grew up in Santa Rosa, played drums every day, usually in cover bands with people older than he was, wound up moving to San Francisco, worked as a chef while playing in a jazz band and a punk band and a goth outfit called the Brethren. (“They worshiped the Misfits, and they wore all leather, and I played an electronic drum pad, sort of Sisters of Mercy style.”) There were drugs around. Things got dark. Reitzell started to feel the need to get out of town before they got darker.
Someone told him the L.A. pop-punk band Redd Kross was looking to replace its drummer, so Reitzell drove south, got the gig, toured with the band behind 1990’s Third Eye, saw a bit of the world, and played on their next two albums, thereby logging enough time in a major-label rock band — “Seven years of being Bun E. Carlos or whatever” — to figure out that what he really wanted to do was hole up in a studio making weird instrumental music.
The last show he played with Redd Kross was in Hawaii, where they were opening for Social Distortion. From the wings, Reitzell clocked the misery on the face of the drummer of Social D. He’d already decided to quit, but this helped strengthen his resolve. “It was great,” he says, “because it was a really depressing show. I was looking at those guys going, ‘I don’t want to end up like that.’”
After that he weighed a few offers to join other bands he didn’t want to be in, jammed here and there, turned 30, and spent some time being nervously unemployed, until Sofia Coppola came along and asked him to help her put together a ’70s and ’70s-inspired soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides. Reitzell had drummed on the first Air album, Moon Safari, which Coppola had played incessantly while adapting Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel; they knew each other through a mutual friend.
He went on to work on all but one of her films since then, among numerous other projects, bridging the gap between score and ambience and mixtape-style soundtrack, whatever the picture seems to call for. The Google Translated copy of his Japanese label bio pinned to his bulletin board notes, “He only composer who has demonstrated the multi-talented ideal a lot of film music,” which is more or less correct.
David Slade, who directed 30 Days of Night, also directed the Hannibal pilot. Slade cut some scenes with Reitzell’s 30 Days score — slow-motion shrieks for a cold-weather vampire siege — as temp music. Slade convinced Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller that Reitzell was the guy. “They trust me to do it, I do what feels good, I turn it in, and it’s on network television every week. It’s mind-boggling to me,” Reitzell says.
He swivels to the computer, clicks a purple box in Pro Tools, and a buzzing tone-cloud fills the room. “This is me trying to do bees,” he says. “We’re flying inside a human being who’s got a honeycomb inside him.” Carl Dreyer’s 1932 silent horror classic Vampyr flickers on the projection screen. A shot of an old man recoiling; a subtitle that says “Quiet!” It syncs up pretty well. The clamor builds. Reitzell has to shout this last part: “I love Penderecki, I love avant-garde classical music — but this is NBC, man!”
Reitzell’s Hannibal music — slithering synthesizers, death-rattle percussion — is easily the most distinctive TV score since Angelo Badalamenti’s work on Twin Peaks. A soundtrack album is in the works.
As are many other things. Watch Dogs, a video game about hackers in a sprawlingly explorable near-future Chicago, drops in a few weeks. Reitzell did the music for that, too. It’s his third video-game score. He’s getting better at it, he says. He used to run restaurant kitchens, way back when, and that’s what writing game music is like. You get a ticket, fill an order. A minute of ambience. Two minutes of action-y music for gameplay. Everything modular.
Then, in June, he’s got a solo album coming out. It’s called Auto Music. He’s been working on it for 10 years, on and off. Some of it is film-inspired, an imaginary soundtrack. He’d put something up on the screen, try to write to it. Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice’s 1973 Spanish art film about Frankenstein and Franco, or Hiroshi Teshigahara’s documentary about Antoni Gaudí’s architecture.
Reitzell lives on the other side of Griffith Park, about six miles away. He’d record something, listen to it on the drive, and gradually the drive itself started to shape the sound. “When you’re driving, you’re not repeating things,” he says. “Something comes into view, it goes away. I wanted to make music that was kind of like that.” It draws on Krautrock, the so-called motorik rhythm of bands like Neu! and Kraftwerk.
It taps into the existential paradox of driving. You’re in a soundproof bubble, at peace, with quality jams up loud. You are also, maybe, in danger, some of the time. One time, driving to work on the 5 freeway, Reitzell saw a guy in a little Mazda spin out and die. “His car went up and wrapped around a metal pole, and he was facing me and everyone else, and he was fucking dead and it was horrific.” After that, Reitzell started driving through the park and stopped taking the freeway.
Things took shape very gradually. “Last Summer” started out as an experiment; Reitzell was trying to reproduce on organ the multitracked guitar sounds from My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. That was about 10 years ago. Five years later, as another experiment, he recorded two separate drum tracks in two separate rooms and put one in each speaker. His studio has a “jazz room” where sounds will ring off the walls, and another one that gives you something more contained, a “dead, ’70s sound.” He demonstrates, whacking a snare in one room and then the other.
“This place was built in the ’70s,” he says, “when they knew how to build studios. These rooms are floating.” This means there’s space between the walls, to stop frequencies from bleeding through.
He likes old stuff. He’s got a room full of old drums. A 100-year-old piano. Chimes from 1905. Cymbals from the ’40s. He swears it makes a difference in the sound — the way they made things back then, and what they made them from, especially things made of metal. These days, they make vibraphones out of aluminum. But he’s more interested in bronze. “Bronze,” he says, “makes the most complex waveforms of any substance known to man. It creates these vibrations that will just crack your skull.”
Even his electronic keyboards have their histories, their idiosyncrasies. A drum machine that drifts a few BPMs if you let it play long enough. A giant old wood-paneled Yamaha like the one Vangelis played on the Blade Runner soundtrack. “They never sold these in stores,” he says. “It was too big. The one Vangelis got, they actually drove from Japan to London.” Something called a Swarmatron, good for bee noises — this one’s hooked up to another keyboard that lets you play by pulling a string back and forth, the better to get at the odd notes between the notes, which always helps if you’re trying to make scary music.
Sometimes, on Hannibal, you’re hearing regular musicians playing regular instruments. Reitzell’s got a cellist and a violinist he likes to work with, a guy who can play anything with keys and a guy who can play anything with strings, a Norwegian dude who plays woodwinds. But he’s figured out there’s something uniquely discomfiting about sounds you can’t peg as a guitar or a saxophone. (Where’s that noise coming from?)
Out in the front room of the studio, Reitzell opens drawers in a big metal chest, the kind you find in a garage. Pulls out finger cymbals, triangles, then finds what he’s looking for, a length of accordioned green plastic tubing. “Did you see the scene in Hannibal where [spoiler] sticks the tube down [spoiler]’s throat?” he asks. “I played this thing!”
He crinkles the tubing; it makes an unsettling sticking-a-tube-down-a-guy’s-throat noise. “This, to me, is a legitimate instrument,” he says.
The Hannibal finale features Reitzell playing a bullroarer, which he produces from the drawer. It’s just a length of string and a little piece of wood. “This is an aboriginal instrument,” he says. “Every continent on Earth has a form of bullroarer — it’s the oldest instrument known to man. This one I got on eBay for $5, made by a guy in Stockton. It’s the best-sounding one I’ve found.”
He starts spinning it above his head. It whirls past the shelves of books and CDs in the front office, filling the room with an unearthly hum. For Hannibal, he spun it around a capsule microphone and recorded it in surround sound. “So when you listen to it in there” — he points to the studio — “it’s fucking spinning around your head, and it’s really powerful.”
There are presumably some lunatic viewers out there who watch Hannibal with a surround system cranked up high, so as to savor Reitzell’s disturbing clusters of tones, his sounds of unknown origin. It’s probably a trip. But Reitzell is not one of those people.
“I have an 8-year-old daughter,” he says. “When I watch Hannibal at home, I watch it with headphones on.”