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Saying Goodbye to ‘The Americans’: An Interview with Composer Nathan Barr

The Americans, which starts Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Russian spies deeply embedded in American suburban life in the 1980s, is moving toward its finale this month. Over the course of six seasons, the show has captivated viewers and critics with its rich and nuanced storytelling and performances.

One big contributor to its success has been Nathan Barr’s score, some of which was recently released in curated fashion as The Americans: Music from the TV Series. It’s a fantastic release that does a great job of representing Barr’s work over six seasons.  

Composer Nathan Barr. Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

If you’ve seen the show, you can’t forget the haunting and kinetic main title theme that captures a Cold War-era tension, and the anxiety inherent in a family built on that dynamic, while staying away from the tropes of cartoony interpretations of Russian music. It seems that Barr and the show’s producers, including creator Joe Weisberg, in general aren’t interested in bombast.

“We agreed right up front that we didn’t want to do a ‘Red Army choir’ approach,” Barr told Vehlinggo in a phone interview recently. “I wanted to make it about the emotional journey of family.”

Interestingly, for the show’s Emmy-nominated title theme, Barr played a dulcimer and mallets on piano strings for the main title, which “gives it a vague Russian sound without being overt.”

Creating a compelling score without being overt is key for an often-restrained show like FX’s The Americans. The entire existence of the show’s main characters is centered on blending in and being covert in their execution of orders from the KGB. The main characters, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, played by Russell and Rhys, are Russian spies trained to seem inherently American — even with American accents and affectations — and live in the United States as a supposedly married couple with two American-born kids. By day they run a travel agency and by night they’re working to tip the scales of global power to the Russians. Being overt is not in the cards. It can mean prison or death.

About the Soundtrack

The Americans: Music from the TV Series does a great job of capturing some of Barr’s most compelling score cues for the show. There are tracks covering characters like Martha, whom Philip uses in increasingly deep and convoluted ways in order to get information, and Paige, Philip’s and Elizabeth’s perceptive daughter.

The soundtrack has 20 tracks, which can’t begin to cover about 75 episodes worth of music. So Barr had to be particular in his curative approach.

“Part of it is just cues that I’m most proud of,” he says. 

There are some favorite cues of his you hear throughout a season or show.

There is also the rare cue, “Museum” — one “I really like, but it’s used just once in six seasons,” he says. 

Stan Beeman, the Jennings’ neighbor and friend, who also is an FBI agent investigating Russian activity, is meeting someone in a museum. The cue is a cascade of thumb piano notes, an on-camera source never meant to stray beyond the confines of that particular scene.

In general, Barr’s musical palette draws from a vast source of acoustic instruments from around the globe, part of a lifelong quest to collect musical apparatuses of all kinds. It was an interest and hunger built into him at a young age.

An International Upbringing

Barr grew up in New York City, but early on in his life he lived in Japan, where he began playing violin at a really young age. His parents were musical — his mother a koto and piano player and his dad a practitioner of the banjo, guitar, and the shakuhachi.

It was a home that quite clearly fostered a sense of music appreciation. Eventually, Barr would go on to play cello (and by the time he was a professional composer, he’d have collected a world’s worth of instruments from global travels).

Barr attended Skidmore College in the early 1990s, after which he toured Italy and Switzerland with the Juilliard Cello Ensemble in the summer of 1993. He also briefly played guitar and electric cello with industrial rock group V.A.S.T. before moving to LA to begin a life as a film composer.

A Scoring Career Begins with Hans Zimmer 

Barr moved to LA in 1996, getting a few credits under his belt, assisting quintessential film composer Hans Zimmer on As Good As It Gets and The Prince of Egypt.

Barr would score several films in subsequent years, and perhaps the most notable from this period is his work with horror director (and sometimes actor) Eli Roth.

The first was Cabin Fever, in 2002, which was essentially Roth’s first major film, and one in which longtime David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti contributed some themes — although Barr did the bulk of the score.

Roth and Barr met through a Cabin Fever producer’s introduction.

Roth “walked into my studio and saw my DVD collection,” which is made up of tons of horror films, and the rest is history, Barr says.   

Barr would follow that up with scores for Roth’s breakthrough film, Hostel (2005), and its first sequel, Hostel: Part II (2007). That same year Roth directed “Thanksgiving,” a segment in Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse film, and Barr was there to contribute his compositional skill. They worked together again in subsequent years.

“The mantra [on ‘The Americans’] is simple, simple, simple. Eli’s mantra is let’s throw in the kitchen sink.”

The composing style that Roth’s films require differs greatly from what’s needed for The Americans, Barr says. In fact, it’s “totally different.” The “big difference is the palette,” he says.

For The Americans, Barr says, “the mantra of those guys is simple, simple, simple. Eli’s mantra is let’s throw in the kitchen sink.”

“Musically, [Roth’s films] really allow me to blow the doors off my sound,” Barr continued. “It’s straight orchestral writing in a fun way.”

Roth and Barr still work together. When I caught up with Barr on the phone, he was preparing for scoring dates for The House with a Clock in Its Walls, which stars Cate Blanchett, Kyle MacLachlan, and Jack Black and which releases in September.

'The Americans' actors Matthew Rhys (left) and Keri Russell (right) pose with composer Nathan Barr at the Season 6 premiere. Photo by Impact24 PR.
‘The Americans’ actors Matthew Rhys (left) and Keri Russell (right) pose with composer Nathan Barr at the Season 6 premiere. Photo by Impact24 PR.

The Americans Was ‘Meant to Be’

Barr was creating music for Alan Ball’s show True Blood, when he was in talks to score The Americans, which premiered in January 2013. To give the producers a sense of what he had in mind for the Cold War drama, Barr was asked to make a demo. Barr wrote a seven-minute suite that they loved and he got the job, he said. 

“Right away we were working together on what the sound would be — 90 percent of the sort of instrumentation in the demo has been used throughout the show,” Barr says, noting in retrospect how his scoring The Americans felt like it was “meant to be.” 

Over the course of six seasons, the characters have gone through some noticeable changes, adapting to the quick-moving machinations of the Perestroika-era USSR and the interpersonal developments among family, friends, and colleagues. (Although in the face of great change, people have a tendency to double-down on what they know, as critic Sean T. Collins so expertly details in his review of crucial Season 6 episode, “The Great Patriotic War.”)

Barr was there to help provide the sense of tension that goes along with that often reluctant metamorphosis and overall complex dynamic.

Barr, Weisberg, and co-executive producer Joel Fields were mindful that having a good, recognizable theme for a specific character is potent for a show, but it’s not always wise to keep it over the course of several seasons. Sometimes you need reassess your approach.

“By the second or third season, we were thinking about how to mix it up a bit,” Barr says. So, he moved toward music that would encompass the Jennings family as a whole. “The Elizabeth theme in Season 1 became the family theme,” Barr said.

I was really happy when I came up with that melody and it became the main title of the whole show.”

And, of course, the memorable main title theme would show up in limited form in a brief melodic phrases in other cues.

“I was really happy when I came up with that melody and it became the main title of the whole show, and had a real role throughout,” Barr says.

Scoring a show with this much emotional and psychological heft can have its challenges, though.

“Every season there’s one scene that’s the bane of my existence,” Barr said. “Often times it’s a particularly powerful or pivotal moment, [and] everyone wants it to be something a little different.”

One challenging passage Barr recalls is a Season 4 scene in which Elizabeth and Paige are walking and then sit on a park bench and are talking. It sounds benign, but dear reader, that it is not. (Without giving anything away, Season 4 represented a shift in the relationship between Paige and her parents — especially her mother — and signaled a rather dramatic shift in what was at stake for the entire family. Needless to say, the music had to be just right to make it work.)

“I went through 10 versions of the cue before I found the right one that worked,” Barr says.

In general, over the course of the six seasons of The Americans, Barr had a fair amount of lead time to write to the episodes. He usually had at least a week to score, although, he says, “the shortest I’ve ever had is five days.”

“I went through 10 versions of the cue before I found the right one that worked.”

Barr says he’s enjoyed working on music for all of the characters, but when I pressed him he said he enjoyed composing for Nina, the nuanced Russian whose questionable motives for both her side and the Americans would factor in heavily in the story arc of the show’s earlier seasons.

“There’s something about her — her story is so sad,” Barr said, adding that “her theme was fun to work with.”

‘The Americans’ composer Nathan Barr with Margo Martindale, who plays KGB handler Clauda.

One thing you’ll notice when you watch the show is that Barr doesn’t approach his score-writing with the idea of trying to make ‘80s-style or otherwise synth-heavy cues. Instead, he says, the idea for
The Americans was the same as True Blood: let the source music (and the music supervisors choosing it) set the time and place.

An episode might have a timely and relevant ‘80s pop or rock song, but the score will always have Barr’s arsenal of nuanced and diverse orchestrations — he says he finds using his big collection of instruments more rewarding and effective than sitting behind a keyboard.

During the show’s run, as Barr was working hard to help make The Americans one of the best TV shows ever made, he was also working on other projects. He is, after all, a man driven by a powerful creative spark. He also worked on the Netflix series Hemlock Grove, which long-time collaborator Roth produced; he scored 2015 Jennifer Lopez vehicle The Boy Next Door; did last year’s remake of Flatliners; and composed for Amazon’s popular con-man drama Sneaky Pete, which stars Giovanni Ribisi.

He also has been setting the stage for future projects, which I’ll get to shortly.

Fulfilling a 20-Year Dream

When I caught up with Barr in late April, the Topanga Canyon-based musician was working on a new recording studio that will be jam-packed with his global finds and a large pipe organ.  

Right now his converted garage serves as a nice studio, but we’re talking about a guy who has traveled the world collecting instruments like a sort-of Indiana Jones. He needs a certain type of space to accommodate his discoveries.

“One thing I enjoy is I do have a really big collection of instruments,” he says.

An example of some of the treasures in his collection: a human bone trumpet from Tibet; dismantled pianos; a rare Glass Armonica; gourd cellos; and the gem of his collection, the three-manual, 19-rank Wurlitzer Theater Organ that lived on the scoring stage at 20th Century Fox from 1928-1994, and which you can hear in countless films from The Sound Of Music to Patton to Star Trek.

“I had a vision 20 years ago for what this [new] space would look like,” Barr says. He’s been building it out for six years and it’ll be finished not longer after this story hits Vehlinggo.

BArr’s Future and the End of The Americans

Going forward, as mentioned earlier, Barr has been working with Roth again on the upcoming film The House with a Clock in Its Walls. In a few months he’ll be gearing up to work on the fantasy, period drama, Carnival Row, starring Orlando Bloom and produced by Guillermo del Toro. In the long-term, he’s working on creating a True Blood musical.

But weighing heavily right now is The Americans. Barr says that show’s pilot is still one of the best he’s ever seen in his life and commends the showrunners, cast, and crew for keeping the show consistently great to the finale. There are still a few episodes left for those of us who watch the show religiously, but for Barr the end has already passed. He filed away his last score a while ago.

“… Every single episode we’re living with these characters and filling in their emotional lives.”

“It’s always sad” when a show ends, Barr says. “As a composer, like picture editors — but especially as a composer — every single episode we’re living with these characters and filling in their emotional lives. It’s just sad, even though it feels like it’s time to move on.”

The Americans features “such powerfully realized characters — from editing and acting come kindred spirits in some way, even though they’re evil.”

You can find The Americans: Music from the TV Series and Barr’s other work on digital streaming and download platforms.

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