You had no idea, dear reader. You had no idea that an early synthwaver, with a release on Rosso Corsa Records, has been contributing score cues to some of your favorite films of the past few years.
We all know the big names behind the film scores we admire. For example, there’s the supremely talented and prolific Christophe Beck, who’s composed the (sometimes synthy, sometimes not) scores for major films like Marvel’s Ant-Man, Frozen, The Hangover trilogy, and Edge of Tomorrow, which Mondo just re-issued in the label’s typically beautiful way.
However, we don’t often think about the team who supports the composers. Enter Zach Robinson, who worked with Beck on all of the aforementioned films and who has been offering his musical talent to the music departments of films for several years. He also happens to be synthwaver D/A/D, known for 2009’s Super Motive EP and 2013’s Rosso Corsa-released full-length The Construct.
I was curious about what it’s like for Robinson to work on composing teams for films, and I also have been wondering if he’ll ever do another D/A/D record. So I reached out to him. The result is below. This interview has only been edited for clarity and house style.
Vehlinggo: Tell me about your musical background. How did you and why did you get into music in general, and, specifically, how did you get into films and synthwave?
ZR: I started playing piano when I was quite young, but really started taking music seriously when I picked up the guitar during middle school. I went through the pre-requisite classic rock phase, which obviously included all the judgmental presumptions about anyone wearing Led Zeppelin tees.
At the same time I was getting pretty into filmdom. I watched all the [Sergio] Leone westerns and, of course, fell in love with the [Ennio] Morricone sound. All of that inspiration guided me towards writing music for visuals and feeling inspired by all the different cinematic worlds that exist.
That naturally led me to synthwave, which is strongly symbiotic with cinema. I started D/A/D in my college dorm as a freshman after cruising MySpace and obsessing over the Master of the Universe and Valerie and Friends compilations.
I released an EP [Super Motive] on Bandcamp and was contacted shortly after that by Rosso Corsa Records. This was late 2009, I believe. [Editor’s Note: The Construct would follow in 2013.]
You have extensive film credits under the titles “additional music” and “score coordinator” for films like Edge of Tomorrow, Ab Fab, Ant-Man, Frozen, Hangover III, Get Hard, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, and more. What do those job titles mean? What was your level of involvement and what do you get out of it?
“Additional music” is a credit given to people generally on the composer’s team who contribute to significant parts of the score. Given the amount of music required for a film, plus the amount of rewrites and revisions, most composers have teams helping them out.
The credit “score coordinator” is a bit of an umbrella term covering everything from technical assisting (dealing with computers, sequencers, sampling and building libraries or Kontakt instruments, etc.), producing sessions with musicians, and writing.
Movie credits are surprisingly political so sometimes the labels are broad. I was essentially an apprentice and collaborator, and I gained a ton of incredibly valuable experience working on large-scale studio films.
I’m going to zero in on Edge of Tomorrow. That’s one of my favorite films of all time, and Mondo also just reissued it on vinyl a few weeks ago. Can you share some cool anecdotes about what that experience was like? Have you seen/heard the reissue yet?
Edge of Tomorrow was very, uh, intense, haha: lots of versions, lots of thrown-away themes, tons upon tons of music being written everyday.
I remember working on one scene for a very long time. It kept getting notes on this one specific section and I was beginning to tear my hair out. It finally got approved and when I saw it in theaters, the whole scene was clouded with the loudest helicopter sound effect I’ve ever heard, and you couldn’t hear the score anyways. I screamed silently in my head.
Sci-fi is probably my favorite genre, tied with horror, so working on EoT was very special from a fan and audience-member perspective. We all knew it was a good movie and we’re proud to have been a part of it. I haven’t seen the vinyl yet, but the cover is incredible!
How do you approach composing for a scene? I know that composers get access to the visuals sans score — I’m sure there’s a more specific, technical term for that — in order to get an idea of what’s expected. But beyond that, I’m always curious how each composer tackles the sacred art of crafting something that just works for a scene.
I always start by watching the scene and asking myself how it makes me feel. The craziest part about writing music for film is how many different ways there are to score a scene. It’s all interpretation.
I recently worked on a film where they temped — used placeholder music not written specifically for the film — a scene as scary and uncomfortable, but I always thought the scene was more tragic and emotional, so I scored it that way. The director had never even thought about approaching the scene as tragic, and it ended up really working. It doesn’t always work well, but part of your job as a composer is to explore these options.
Then the actual writing: I think the last five themes for projects I’ve come up with have been in the shower, so I guess I start the composing process there. I’ll sit down at my computer and keyboard and just play along to the scene and naturally see what works and what doesn’t. It’s the old school way of doing it, but it seems to work the best for me.
I have trouble writing without a visual, so it’s rare I have a full piece of music written before I get the visuals. Scripts help too, because I can still build a world from that material.
The hardest part for me is finding the right sounds. I’m not one of those composers who brags about spending three hours EQing a snare drum; I just get picky with timbres and get the most frustrated when I have no idea how to get a hold of the sound I want.
It can be overwhelming with the sheer amount of synths, samples, loops, libraries, etc., that composers have access to. Nevertheless, material starts to stick and I develop it, shape it, and fine-tune it near the end of the process. When I finish something, I generally wait until the next morning before I move on from it entirely. Sleep helps with perspective. Hopefully when all is said and done I’m proud of the piece!
What’s your favorite setting in which to write music?
Physical setting: morning hours, sunny room, coffee, my dog, Gus, sleeping next to me. I randomly have a life goal to set up a studio in a mountain cabin.
Emotional setting: Ideally, I’m inspired! I make sure to take lots of breaks to walk the dog or grab a bite to eat. Space away from the music is crucial. I treat myself to some Overwatch [a Blizzard Entertainment video game] after a productive day. I’m mainly Zenyatta, but I’ve been a true Winston recently [those are game characters]. I can go on about this for a bit, do you want me to?
What’s in store for you in the next few years — for both composing and D/A/D?
Unfortunately, D/A/D has taken a backseat to the pursuit of my composing career. I haven’t had much time to work on new material, though I do have some random songs floating around. I’ve always wanted to write a score as D/A/D, or at least in that style, but I haven’t had the opportunity yet. I’d love my next D/A/D album to be an OST. I want to take it to the next level. D/A/D with an orchestra would be the goal.
“Synthwave… has brought me a lot of happiness and led me to friendships with people from all over the world, so I’m happy to see it thriving.”
And what about the landscape, in general? Trends come and go, and I’m wondering if at some point synth scores and synth-heavy pop will give way to acoustic elements again soon? How do we prepare for that?
I have many thoughts on this. I am by no means an economics expert, but indulge me here. In this post-Stranger Things musical economy, synthwave is probably at the top of the market, right? You can expect there to be a lot of capitalization on that musical aesthetic in the coming years, but it’s for sure only a matter of time, like all trends, before the bubble bursts.
You saw the over saturation of synthwave post-Drive and it’s only gonna keep going in that direction. You’re already seeing the retreat of the super dense synth-scores. You just wrote about the Wizard of Lies score, which is a great example of that. Simple, sparse, electronic with totally acoustic sensibilities.
I do think though the ‘80s retroverse will live on for a long time, though, especially because it seems like more people are discovering it every day. I know the genre has brought me a lot of happiness and led me to friendships with people from all over the world, so I’m happy to see it thriving.
Feature Photo by Mikey Riva.