When the first episode of The X-Files premiered September 10, 1993, no one knew what to expect. But the sci-fi show about a pair of FBI agents investigating aliens and paranormal events became a massive success, and turned its stars Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny into household names.
The series' theme, an eerie, instrumental created by composer Mark Snow (who previously worked on shows including Starsky and Hutch, Pee-wee's Playhouse, and TJ Hooker), also became a part of the cultural zeitgeist. The full-length version went to #2 on the UK Singles Chart in 1996, there were countless remixes, and Stone received three consecutive Emmy Award nominations for the show's score.
With The X-Files returning this year for a six episode miniseries, we recently spoke to the composer about his career and the unlikeliest place he's heard his most well-known piece.
THUMP: Tell me about how you met Chris Carter and got involved with The X-Files.
Mark Snow: A really good friend of mine, R.W. Goodwin, was an executive producer on the show and he suggested me as one of the potential composers. There were maybe four or five other composers up for the gig. Luckily for me, Chris Carter had no real experience dealing with composers in the past on other projects, so he didn't have a dog in the hunt. He was just going down the list and it turned out I lived the closest to him.
He came over to my garage studio and I played him music for about half an hour, he thanked me and said he'd be in touch. And then the same thing happens two weeks later. The week after that, I get a call and they say you got the show. I thought it was just another pilot; there was no real indication this show would be big.
So how did you come up with the theme song?
Chris sent me a bunch of CDs with different indie bands that he liked. "I like the drums on this," "I like the bass guitar here," etc., etc. The first one I did was kind of fast and loud.
He came over and said, "That's good, I like that, but I want it to be simpler than that, not as produced or slick."
I tried a few more unsuccessfully, and eventually said, "Okay, why don't I start from scratch and see how that goes?" I put my forearm on the keyboard I was using and by accident I heard this echo delay sound like "cha cha cha cha cha." So I thought what else does it need?
For the melody, I tried synthesized violin, flute, and piano, but they didn't work. I found this whistle sound called "Old Joe" on an old Proteus sampler. My wife was walking around and the door was open, and she comes in and says, "That's kind of fun, it might just work." Chris comes to listen, and doesn't say much, except "I like this, it's simple, a little bit eerie."
Where's the most memorable place you've ever heard the theme song outside of the show?
On The Simpsons? Some commercials—one for Listerine with somebody going into a cave trying to kill the bad breath monsters.
How did you compose the soundtrack for the series and what challenges did you face updating it for today?
At the beginning, they took fragments and pieces of film scores that were ambient, really atmospheric stuff. After awhile, I wanted to create melodies, so I started doing that. No one in nine years said we don't like this, and doing these six episodes, it's basically the same thing.
Why do you think the timing was right to bring back The X-Files?
I know Chris was trying to bring it back for quite a few years and the actors were committed to other things. I don't know, FOX must have a serious research department where they figured if this comes back, it's going to be great business and give us a real nice boost.
Hopefully there's a bunch of people who watched it on Netflix who were too young to watch it during its TV run in the past. For me, it was great, it felt so comfortable.
The final episode of The X-Files airs Feb. 25 on CTV (Canada) and FOX (US).
Max is on Twitter.