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‘Scored to Death’ Goes Podcast: A Q&A with Horror Score Chronicler J. Blake Fichera

J. Blake Fichera had been a huge fan of horror film scores for years, but was never able to find a book that answered all of his questions about that particular genre of soundtrack work. So, a few years ago, the New York-based television and film editor and musician decided to write the book himself.

Scored to Death, published in 2016, went on to tell the stories behind some of your favorite horror scores with interviews with John Carpenter and collaborator Alan Howarth, Claudio Simonetti, Christopher Young, and more. This week, Fichera is preparing to launch the Scored to Death podcast, which aims expand on the foundation set in the book by interviewing more composers and tackling other subjects related to horror film scores, all while ostensibly reaching more fans of music.

“[A podcast] gives me the potential to reach more people than I could with another book,” Fichera told Vehlinggo in an email interview recently.

In this Q&A, we’ll tackle the inspiration behind Scored to Death, his favorite classic and contemporary horror film scores, and what he has planned for his franchise, among other things.

J. Blake Fichera.

Vehlinggo: You’re launching a new podcast. Why did you decide on that medium and how does it fit in with your work on Scored to Death?

J.  Blake Fichera: My book, Scored to Death: Conversations with Some of Horror’s Greatest Composers, was released in the summer of 2016 and I’ve always felt my work on the subject was incomplete. I genuinely loved interviewing and getting to know the composers and initially I planned on just jumping right into “Volume II.”

Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, that didn’t happen and since then I have gained quite a bit of podcasting experience with my movie-themed podcast Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers and guest appearances on various other film shows. So I decided that a podcast might be a great fit for the continuing adventures of Scored to Death; and it also gives me the potential to reach more people than I could with another book.

How will the podcast differ from the work you’ve done so far — for example, will you be interviewing a newer generation of horror-score composers?

Well, with the book, I did make an effort to include contemporary composers, with guys like Jeff Grace, Nathan Barr, and Joseph Bishara, but yes, the loose and ongoing nature of podcasting will allow me the freedom to interview composers that have entered the scene since the book’s release.

I’m actually very excited about the freedom the medium will give me in general. Scored to Death doesn’t only have to be one thing now. It can be anything I want it to be and it doesn’t have to be restricted by format or even subject matter.

“I’m actually very excited about the freedom [a podcast] will give me.”

I plan to have many of the episodes be very similar to what I was doing with the book — long and in-depth, career-spanning interviews with composers — but I am also going to re-interview some of the people that were featured in the book and dive much deeper into specific aspects of their work that we originally only scratched the surface of.

I’m also hoping to produce audio documentaries that will explore specific composers, specific scores, and/or film music styles in a way that can only be done on radio or with a podcast. And, eventually, I’d love to interview non-composers, like directors, for instance, and talk to them about film music from their perspective. The book was just a jumping-off point and the hope is to make the podcast a little less defined and something that is very special.

What are you most impressed with and least impressed with about modern score work today? Which films of the past five years have had scores that really stick with you?

Being a kid of the 1980s, I’m way into the rise of the new generation of synth scores. I was at one of the first U.S. screenings of the Maniac remake in 2012 and Robin Coudert’s score was one of the things that made me really enjoy that film. I also saw Drive right around that same time and appreciated Cliff Martinez’s music in that. It Follows came out while I was working on the book and I loved that.

So I find it all very exciting, but I worry about over saturation and it becoming “the norm.” Film music budgets and schedules have already become frighteningly low and short and I just hope that orchestral scores and live players don’t get completely phased out of every film that isn’t a huge Hollywood studio movie. I also miss melodic themes. That type of film scoring seems to be considered “old-fashioned” these days. Which is a shame.

As for film scores of the past five years, Disasterpeace’s score for It Follows really hit home with me when I saw it. Bishara has been incredibly prolific in the last five years, with Dark Skies and the various Insidious and Conjuring scores, etc. I love the way his stuff works within those films. It is very powerful.

I really like Joseph LoDuca’s scores for Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky. They are a completely electronic, but I love the way he blends contemporary sounds with the synthetic orchestra tones. The Stranger Things music by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is a lot of fun, as is Wojciech Golczewski’s score for Beyond the Gates. And these next few are not horror films, but I really like the scores for Creed by Ludwig Göransson and Cold in July and In a Valley of Violence by Grace.

How did you get interested in film scores, specifically horror-film scores, in the first place? And how did that lead to a book in which you interview some truly legendary figures, such as John Carpenter, Alan Howarth, and Fabio Frizzi?

My parents both loved and appreciated music, especially my dad. So I grew up listening to all types of music: pop, rock, classical, jazz, show tunes, film scores — everything.

I loved John Williams’ scores for Superman and Star Wars at a very young age and I have memories of listening to Vangelis’ score for Chariots of Fire while we ate dinner. So in a way, as a young kid, I didn’t know there were different genres of music. It was all just music to me. Film music was just one of those things that was in the mix and I liked it. So I assume that’s where my acceptance of it as listening material, outside of the films it was written for, came from.

“As a young kid, I didn’t know there were different genres of music. It was all just music to me.”

My parents were also big appreciators of cinema, so movies were a big thing for me and a huge love of mine while growing up. I’m sure that has a lot to do with it as well.

Then, in my early high school years (in the mid-1990s), I saw the [John Carpenter] film In the Mouth of Madness and I just absolutely fell in love with it and its music. I found the soundtrack at Tower Records on South Street in Philadelphia and bought it. That was the first horror score I ever purchased — though we had the Jaws soundtrack on vinyl at home.

Sam Neill (center), Gene Mack, and Kevin Rushton in 'In the Mouth of Madness' (1994). Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.
Sam Neill (center), Gene Mack, and Kevin Rushton in ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ (1994). Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

Then after researching Carpenter, I had a revelation that he made a lot of the films I loved! So I then bought the soundtrack to Halloween and a Best of John Carpenter CD, etc. That’s where the path to the book really started. Then a couple of years later, while in film school, I fell in love with many other horror filmmakers, including Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci; which led to me becoming obsessed with the music of Goblin, Claudio Simonetti, and Frizzi — as well as other scores, like Jay Chattaway’s music for the original Maniac and Riz Ortolani’s score for Cannibal Holocaust, etc.

And I remained a pretty loyal fan over the next 15 years or so, leading up to the book. I loved Carpenter’s scores for Vampires and Ghosts of Mars when they came out and I would search NYC record shops, horror conventions and internet message boards looking for horror soundtracks. I was way into Simonetti’s band Daemonia in the early 2000s, and purchased Back to the Goblin, when that was released in 2005, and also New Goblin’s Live in Rome in 2012. So when I got the chance to see the New Goblin line-up play live in 2013, I could not have been more excited and it only intensified my passion for this kind of music.

Now, I should also mention that I’m a big reader of non-fiction books about music and film — music autobiographies, film theory books as well as books about filmmaking. And after seeing the New Goblin line-up play live, I became very interested in reading more about Goblin and horror film music in general and when I couldn’t find a book with the information I was looking for, I decided to write it myself. That is how Scored to Death was born.

scored to death

There are a handful of record labels now that cater to people with a particular interest in film scores — often with horror scores being the biggest sellers. Why are scores so popular now?

This is actually something that I ask most of the composers I interview, so I have heard a several different theories about this. I personally think there are a few reasons.

First, the internet changed everything. People that are even just a few years younger than me probably have no idea what it was like to be a horror fan before, let’s say for argument’s sake, the year 2000 — before social media, when things like eBay were still a pretty new concept.

If you were to throw a rock into a crowd of random people today (which is not something I condone), there’s a pretty decent chance you’d hit somebody that has heard of Carpenter, Wes Craven or even Argento. That just wasn’t the case before the 2000s.

The advent of social media and internet shopping has made horror — along with other “geek” obsessions like sci-fi and superheroes — mainstream in a way that they never were before. A George Romero-inspired zombie soap-opera is one of the biggest shows on TV! And I think the newfound, internet-fueled, popularity of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy entertainment has helped the music become more popular as well.

“There are no rules with horror music.”

Also, nostalgia has a lot to do with it. Most of us got introduced to horror in our ‘tween years, when it was a bit taboo and it was something we weren’t supposed to be watching. Horror was exciting and it scared us, so it made a huge impact on us during our formative years and now we are nostalgic for it. And I think the music helps fuel that nostalgia and maybe even reminds us of the excitement we felt when we were watching those films for the first time.

Lastly, music in horror films is unique compared to other types of film music. There are no rules with horror music. The genre allows for music that is often a bit more experimental, exciting, and interesting. Also, music is used differently in horror films. It is more active. So it is often a little more in the foreground of a film, which may help make it more memorable.

Where do you want to take this podcast? And will there be another book?

My hope is that I can deliver a podcast that people enjoy and respect: one that satisfies film music and horror fans and maybe even helps introduce this music and these composers to future fans. There are some great film music podcasts out there already and I’m going to do my best to make Scored to Death one of the best.

As for another book, I really don’t know. Though writing and podcasting about film is a passion of mine, I actually make my living editing and producing TV shows and films. So depending on whether or not the podcast finds an audience, I think the next logical evolutionary step for Scored to Death would be a documentary or docu-series. And if I do pursue writing another book, because the podcast exists now, I may want to explore a different topic before revisiting film music. But honestly, you never know.

Update, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018: Here’s the first episode of the podcast.

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