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A Google Employee Made a Musical About Burning Man and Silicon Valley

We spoke with the composer of 'Burning Man: The Musical' about their musical satire of EDM and Silicon Valley.

Burning Man: The Musical is coming to a stage near you—and this video is your first look at what that project will look like if it manages to raise enough funds on its IndieGogo campaign. The musical is the brainchild of Matt Werner, a New York City-based writer who decided that Silicon Valley's douchey invasion of Burning Man—which has spawned both Burner Air private helicopters and "Fuck Burning Man" protest parties—was ripe for satire. Ironically, Werner works at Google.


Creator Matt Werner and his 'Burning Man: The Musical' cast

The spectacle that unfolds in this five-minute video revolves around a young app developer named Joe, who is thrust into a world of decorative goggles and celebrity DJ art cars. The scenes were filmed over a weekend in Long Island City, Queens, and stems from the musical's opening track are available on their SoundCloud so that DJs can create their own remixes. We spoke with the musical's composer Gene Back about what it was like to compose the soundtrack and which specific EDM techniques he was satirizing.

THUMP: What's your background as a musical composer?
Gene Back: I was studying classically on the violin and teaching myself guitar as a teen. From there I started writing songs and taught myself digital music production. But it was only after I did several years of touring with The Books and Zammuto that I started composing on a very commercial level. For the past couple years, my full-time gig has been composing across genres for creative ad agencies and major music production houses, doing everything from ambient electro to full-blown Hollywood orchestral scoring.

Were you into EDM before working on this project?
I was always into some form of EDM before the term really became as official as it is today. During the 90s, film soundtracks were a big source of finding music for me, and that's where I'd come across groups like Crystal Method, Underworld, and the Chemical Brothers. When I spent a brief time in the UK, friends introduced me to drum and bass, and some really hard psy trance stuff like Infected Mushroom—which caught my ear because of its strangely classical arp lines.


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In terms of mainstream EDM as it exists today, I pretty much listen to it to catch on to current production and engineering techniques. I love DJs like Boys Noize, who I've seen three times in the past couple years, and guys like The Presets—amazing what an impact live drums paired with electronic drums can have on a live set.

A scene called "What would Steve Jobs do" in the musical

Were there specific challenges to composing songs for a Burning Man-themed musical?
Mainly, it was figuring out a way to seamlessly transition between musical cues in a way that might feel like a DJ set, except in musical format. We knew we had to start off rather anthemic with the main theme: "What have you heard about Burning Man?" Then, we had to find a way to incorporate a rap over an acid bassline, leading into a straight-up folk ballad, followed by a drum circle. But the most challenging thing was achieving all of these references and ideas while maintaining a musical "feel," such as incorporating choral parts, classical vocal part writing, and leaving enough breathing space in the music to support strong musical-style melodies. On top of that, maintaining authenticity between these fairly conflicting genres during producing and mixing was a whole other thing.

What musical techniques used in EDM were you satirizing?
Some of the EDM techniques that were referenced were things like heavy 80s throwback synths, the wobbly acid bassline, and chopped up and processed vocals, which you hear during the rap and the final musical cue "What would Steve Jobs do." Then there's the epic subdivided snare drum build up, the classic 808 snare motifs, and the sliding glitchy filtered mono synth lines. It's definitely tongue-in-cheek but we tried to keep it serious enough for the average listener to relate in a convincing way.

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Can you explain how you incorporated the idea of a "DJ remix" into the soundtrack?
The DJ remix really comes into full effect during the last piece, "What would Steve Jobs do." This had to really feel like a traditional musical number at first, but then go into a kind of remix mode. It starts off with a ballad like feel, just piano accompanying voice with a contemplative melody. Halfway through the chorus, the kick drum comes in out of nowhere. Soon after, all the elements of a ballad remix start coming into play, including another electro piano phrase, a heavily distorted synth that slowly builds through low pass filtering and EQ, the female characters vocals getting chopped up as rhythmic notes then being synced with the piano, and finally, a nice big sweep going into the climax where the bass begins to "drop."

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