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How El-P Helped Get Nick Thorburn the Gig to Create the Theme Music for 'Serial'

Who knew a rooftop BBQ at El-P's would lead to Nick Thorburn making the theme for the most popular podcast of 2014?

When it comes to great storytelling in film and television, directors and producers and writers still get most of the credit. And yet, at the core of every masterwork is a carefully crafted piece of music: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is buoyed up by the terrifying theme by John Williams, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks gets its chilly atmosphere from Angelo Badalamenti’s score, and the emotional punch of Pixar’s Ratatouille comes straight from the hands of composer Michael Giacchino.


Sarah Koenig’s hit podcast Serial is a documentary about the murder of eighteen-year-old high school student Hae Min Lee, which was committed in Baltimore in 1999; it’s about the possibility that Adnan Musud Syed, who was convicted of the crime, might in fact be innocent—but that then again he might not—and it is compelling stuff. Serial is remarkable for Koenig’s obsessive attention to detail and for her introspective narration, not to mention the fascinating voices she’s weaved together; the program is an addictive whodunit, a document of teenage life in the United States at a particular time and place, and a deep study of memory, truth, and judgment. But, without a doubt, the delicious theme music of Nick Thorburn is also propelling this phenomenon. Taut and punchy, unsettling and catchy, “Bad Dream” is the moody engine of Serial’s dark investigations.

Thorburn got into recording for radio by happenstance, but seems ideally suited for this kind of work, as his catalogue to date has showcased an artful shape-shifter: from The Unicorns, to Reefer, to Human Highway, to Islands, he’s bent myriad genres and styles to his musical mad-scientific purposes. It seems that he’s capable of making anything he wants—and that that’s what he does.

Noisey: How did your work on Serial come about?
Nick Thorburn: Rappers and comedians. It started like this. I was at a BBQ on El-P’s roof in Brooklyn, and he introduced me to his friend, Jane Marie, a supervising producer at This American Life. Gabe Delahaye, a mutual friend of Jane’s and mine was starting his own podcast, which is a very cutting edge thing to do in Los Angeles (love you Gabe!). I’d done an excellent job composing a theme for fellow comedian Kurt Braunohler, so Gabe and Jane asked me to do the theme for theirs. The podcast never got off the ground, but when Serial was starting, Jane, who had a working relationship with the Serial producers, recommended me and bingo bango, I got the job.


Did they play you any of what they had before you started working on the theme? It’s such a huge part of the show—just curious about the creative/collaborative process for something like this.
As far as I can recall, they had nothing. Not even temp music. They played me the pilot episode in a rough version, which consisted of narration and phone calls between the “players” and told me to run wild with it. I let intuition and good taste be the guide. The theme was the first thing I wrote for the show and I knew pretty quickly that it had a thematic quality. As a recording artist who writes and produces his own stuff, it makes logical sense for me to get into scoring. But I don’t want to be a milquetoast “background noise” composer, making a serviceable score that leaves your brain as soon as it enters. I want to be John fuckin’ Williams. I want everyone who hears my score to drool when it starts playing. I want people to email me about sheet music, and I want people to be able to hum along. I trade heavily in melody, so I’m not interested in the generic stuff that goes on with most scores these days.

One of the treats of listening to a great soundtrack is that you get to hear multiple variations of the theme: sparse versions, bombastic versions, etc. But I was wondering if it was fun to do that kind of work, as a songwriter, or if it can get tedious—the repetition I mean? Is it just a matter of flexing different muscles?
It was really fun, actually. This whole process has been completely new for me, and I take it as a very inviting challenge. If I had to do any more than three variations, it might become a chore, but it was fun to try different styles and arrangements of the theme.


What makes a good theme song, in general? Any favourites?
A good theme song should tell you what to think, when to think, and how to think it. A good theme etches itself into the experience and is one of the first things you think of when a movie is mentioned. The Superman theme is hand in hand with the movie. Anything John Carpenter makes does the trick. The entire movie for Drive kinda felt like a theme song. That whole movie felt like I was listening to an album. Not a music video, but like the movie was in service of the music. Superman is obviously a great theme.

Did you guys have any idea the program, and the music, would resonate as it has? I even saw a mash-up of the Serial music and a Miley Cyrus song over at Funny or Die, which is not a common fate for radio themes.
I didn’t. I didn’t tell my manager when I got the job. I just did it, in my apartment, over a weekend and handed it in. When something becomes as big as Serial is, though, everything about it comes under scrutiny and discussion, so the music was no exception. I do think I nailed it with the theme, though.

Are you invested in the story at all? I guess you probably know how it ends (no spoilers!), but do you have any favourite characters or moments?
I listen to the show, but I don’t go very much beyond that. I do think it’s funny the language you’re using—“spoilers,” “favorite characters.” These are real people, you jerk-off! On that note, I’m very excited to announce that I’m doing the first season of the ISIS sitcom for NBC next year. You’re going to love the characters! Spoiler alert: they kill everybody!!!!

Ha, touché. I guess it’s a testament to the dramatic power of the program. Will you be busting this out at Islands shows?
Fuck no.

You’re a performer, lyricist, musician, composer, and a cartoonist, and probably other things too…. Any plans to make like a movie or something? Or to do more soundtrack work?
Fuck yes. Here’s hoping Steve Coogan, Sofia Coppola, Mike White, Charlie Brooker, Sebastian Silva, Lars Von Trier, Claire Denis, Todd Solondz, Roy Andersson, Rick Alverson, Nicole Holofcener, Sophie Huber, Kelly Reichardt, David Lynch and Spike Jonze have Google Alerts for their names.

As for the other stuff, I have all kinds of plans, but I’m a little superstitious about talking about work before it’s a done deal. But let’s just say that I live in L.A., and I’ve caught the Hollywood Fever.

Henry Svec did it and he is on Twitter.