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Examining ‘Vice Principals’ Score with Composer Joseph Stephens

When you’ve watched the Danny McBride-starring Vice Principals, and to a lesser extent Eastbound & Down, you’ve probably noticed the synthesizer-heavy score cues. Your ear likely caught the moments that sound like Tangerine Dream’s or John Carpenter’s work for films in the 1980s. You’ve probably noticed the moments when the score cues carry the color and composition of the Harold Faltermeyer inspirations of classic synthwave.

The composer behind that work is Joseph Stephens, whose Vice Principals Seasons 1 & 2 Original Series Soundtrack received beautiful treatment earlier this year at the hands of the eminently capable Kevin Bergeron and his Waxwork Records.

Stephens employs a host of analog synths and other electronics, along with more acoustic methods such as a drumline, to help tell the story of vice principals Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), who are frenemies vying for the principal job at their school after the one played by Bill Murray retires and is replaced by outsider Dr. Belinda Brown, played by Kimberly Hébert Gregory. It’s a hilarious show that at only two seasons is far too short-lived. Stephens’ score plays a huge role in defining the narrative. 

Perhaps one reason Stephens’ Vice Principals score works so well is that he’s known Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals co-creators McBride and Jody Hill since they all first met in college in North Carolina years ago and has worked with them on occasion ever since, beginning with 2006’s The Foot Fist Way. David Gordon Green, who directed the new Halloween and co-wrote it in part with McBride and who directed episodes of Red Oaks, is also part of that cadre of talented people, although he had already been established when they all came together. They all have an affinity for synth-centric sounds that Stephens uses in his scores — especially McBride.

“The love for that ‘80s synth, nostalgic sound is something that Danny has always had,” Stephens told Vehlinggo on recent Skype call. “We all gravitated towards it: a strong love for that kind of score from our youth. Growing up with that kind of music and being in love with Halloween and the horror aspect of the synth scores from the ‘80s, as well as the more fun and mysterious kind of stuff like Risky Business.”

In other words, they’ve been creating a lot of joy in Vehlinggoland (and, in the case of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals and Red Oaks: Green, Hill, McBride, and their music supervisor DeVoe Yates have variously given synthwavers such as Miami Nights 1984, Arcade High, Le Matos, and Lost Years some well-deserved syncs).

In this interview, Stephens and I discuss his Vice Principals and Eastbound & Down scores, along with his life in music and his methods and philosophies for composing. He also touches a bit on a new show he’s working on with his longtime friends for HBO called The Righteous Gemstones. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Composer Joseph Stephens. Photo provided.

Joseph Stephens’ Synth Score is a Natural Fit for Vice Principals

Vehlinggo: I’ve noticed your work with McBride, Hill et al leans heavily on synth scores — a little Tangerine Dream, Jan Hammer, or Cliff Martinez at times, but also outright synthwave, which basically matches DeVoe Yates’ music supervising. How did this come about — the score choices? What was your process for creating the Vice Principals score? What did you do differently compared to previous or current projects?

Joseph Stephens: For Vice Principals, we met pretty early on before they started writing the series. I sat down with Danny and he was pretty committed to jumping full on into the ‘80s world — at least score-wise — and having Vice Principals be firmly planted in that kind of sound… I used it as a score reference and a touchstone throughout the entire season. In Eastbound, it was fun to use an ‘80s score in one scene and southern rock in another, but Vice Principals is more focused.

There weren’t any cues written to scene. I started writing music without watching any picture — stuff for them to edit with. Once I was fully immersed, I started acquiring other electronic devices and getting lost in it. I think we all pretty much knew the genre — we’ve been around it and there is the resurgence of the genre anyway, like with Drive, how it pushed it back to the forefront. It was me feeling around and the hardware leading me in directions.

There’s a freedom with synths, hardware or software — almost unlimited possibilities. For better or worse.

JS: I know, it can be really daunting. I’ll go down rabbit holes of new tech as well. Sometimes experimenting with something leads to creative results: As I’m learning how to use the controls, I’m creating sounds almost by accident, in a way, and that can lead to productivity. Match that with hardware synths that are harder to hone in. A lot of times, when I get in front of a hardware synth, I go to certain presets I’ve saved and start from there and deviate completely. With some of the software synths, they’re unlimited. It’s crazy what’s available sonically.

I’ve played around with software and hardware synths in the past, and I’m attracted to the more “human” element of hardware. It seems like the potential for error — older ones, for example, had trouble staying in tune or on time — contributes to that. But anyway, is a cue like “Epic Theme,” which is one of my favorites, more hardware or software?

JS: That’s a combo [and] one of the first things I wrote. That was in the beginning — I used more software because it was faster and I was dipping my toe in, so to speak. So that one had a combo of software I added to with some of my hardware stuff. As the show went along, and I got more familiar with everything, I tended to steer away from the software, because, if anything, it was already feeling too common — too accessible to other people.

Especially with Season 2, there was more hardware. Software had a different feel to it to me. Some software starts so full, so good off the bat. It felt too “canned,” for lack of a better word.

vice principals score vinyl
A look at the ‘Vice Principals’ Season 1 record and Robert Sammelin’s artwork for the Waxwork release. Photo by Waxwork Records.

You’re based in Charlotte, North Carolina, right? What’s your workspace look like?

JS: I have a two-room setup in Charlotte. One has a control room with synths and racks and guitars, but another room has a piano, a Wurlitzer, a drum kit, and some percussion stuff. That’s what I do for everything I can do “in the box.”

[Aaron’s Note: The Cary High School Drumline parts on Vice Principals were recorded in a studio in Durham, Stephens says. Can’t fit that formidable force in his home studio, of course.]

When you think about scoring for TV shows such as Vice Principals or even film — for example, your score for Hill’s Observe and Report or Max Winkler’s Flower — what do you think it takes to really nail a score? Is there a key strategy or philosophy that always works for you?

JS: It’s hard to say, I think. Whenever something works and it’s connecting with what’s happening on screen — story, what the actors are bringing — when the music connects with that, it enhances it. Sometimes it’s hard to find what gets there.

Sometimes it’s a matter of being minimal and staying out of the way. Other times it’s making music more upfront — a more driving, more signature kind of element to the film. For something like Flower, it’s almost totally electronic. Some of the pieces that worked the best, to my opinion, had a lot less going on: A piano running through effects, sounding kind of distant out there; other busier, more dense pieces can take away from it. Sometimes if there’s too much to listen to, it can be tough to pay attention to what’s happening on screen .

A strong, emotional, heartfelt melody can go a long way. Carter Burwell [The Big Lebowski, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Psycho III, Kalifornia, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and so many more] has all of these amazing melodic pieces. The way that he implements those in his scores just drives them home. He does them over and over again in the same movie within reason. It’s obviously not just about the melody. His ability to create an emotional hook with instruments is pretty amazing to me — and just the way he fits it in and creates variations that sound the same but also sound different.

But… it’s hard to say.

There’s no secret sauce, is what you’re saying.

JS: If there is, I don’t have it. It’s a lot of trial and error. Vice Principals, I would say, is not like that. We clicked into that pretty quickly. That’s mostly because the genre of the music was working really well for what we were trying to do: Flipping the dark synths/’80s feel on its head and turning that score into comedic music. For whatever reason, it worked for us at the time.

What is it you like about scoring and how did you get into music?

JS: I got into music not from a need or want to score. I wanted to be in a rock band. I started doing that, making weird recordings when I was a kid in junior high and high school. In college things got more and more weird, I suppose. I was in a couple bands and we made a run here and there.

Out of college, one of the bands, Pyramid, had a part in making music for The Foot Fist Way. That led to that [scoring] world. A lot of bands didn’t pan out — went different directions. I stuck with those guys [Hill and McBride] and it was something I got passionate about. I used to be a songwriter, writing and singing songs, and I still love that. But I find myself listening to a lot of film scores now — exploring different motifs and themes with the intention of learning how they work with the picture and interact with visual media — as opposed to trying to write poetic lines.

There are all kinds of scores I’d like to make: ambient things and big sounds; experimental music. I’d love to do what [Burwell] does — melodic, big strings — and also a kind of distorted guitar-based score like what Neil Young did on [Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film] Dead Man.

Danny [McBride] trusts me.”

Do you find that because you’ve worked with McBride, Hill, and Green for so long in various capacities that the whole creative process is just more natural and quick? I mean, you’re all on the same page.

JS: I think so. I’m doing a show with Danny right now [The Righteous Gemstones] — it’s another HBO show, but it’s very different from Vice Principals musically. It’s very dramatic with a lot of choirs and big organ sounds. When I worked on the pilot for this thing last year, I just got in and wrote it. Similar situation to Vice Principals: I wrote a bunch of ideas and gave it to them up front and they started to edit it and it all kind of worked.

Once we had the sound — once the ideas were put to picture and we realized they were working for us — I just kept doing more of that music. Now we’re kind of in the middle of the show, where they’re shooting it. I’m getting scenes and episodes and using the same palette to work off of. It didn’t really take long to get to it. Danny trusts me. It’s an important part of what we do, I suppose.

Thinking back on the trajectory of your career over the past 15-plus years, what are some high points for you?

JS: I would put Vice Principals up there. It was a real dream job for me in terms of being able to kind of work on my own and at least not have to really be stuck with any kind of limits in terms of how long a cue can be, or when I want to stop writing a song or what I can throw into the music — wildcard elements like using a synthesizer but putting a saw on it. There’s a lot of freedom with that. The release on Waxwork is also a highpoint.

Vice Principals soundtrack vinyl
A look at the ‘Vice Principals’ Season 2 record and Robert Sammelin’s artwork for the Waxwork release. Photo by Waxwork Records.

[Waxwork worked with McBride, Stephens, and Yates on the Vice Principals double-record vinyl release, which includes liner notes from McBride and Stephens. The packaging is an 180-gram “North Jackson Warriors Blue and White” colored vinyl for Season 1 and a 180-gram “North Jackson Tigers Orange and White” colored vinyl for Season 2, featuring stunning graphic-novel-style artwork by Robert Sammelin. There are some other gems that I’ll let you find yourself.]

The Waxwork release is pretty stunning. What’s the story behind that?

JS: I thought Kevin [at Waxwork] did a great job and am grateful to have [the score] out there. The actual vinyl pressing itself — and the artwork — is so pretty. He really knows what he’s doing and cares about this kind of stuff.

It was originally going to be a larger, four-album release. It was going to have licensed songs from the show — like The Beach Boys and The Kinks — but the costs became untenable.

‘Vice Principals’ score composer Joseph Stephens. Photo provided.

[Aaron’s Note: We touched on some more high points of Stephens’ career  in our conversation that underscored his genial and humble nature. I found what he said inspiring and so we’ll close with those remarks.]

JS: On a personal level, I’ve met people I wouldn’t have met necessarily. Outside of the working side of it, I’ve met lifetime friends. I feel like every year is better and better for me. I feel like I’m getting better and better at what I do. I have developed an ear for mixing and finding unique sounds to weave into the melodic side of things. As for the technical side of things, I’ve been making sounds that are interesting.

That’s part of my goal: I don’t want the music to be too mundane. Sometimes it needs to be, but overall… I like to do something to bring out the textures that make the music interesting by itself, even if you’re listening to it without the show. I feel like I’m getting better at that kind of thing with every job.

I feel very lucky to be able to do this with a lot of my friends and all the people I’ve met along the way.

Vice Principals Seasons 1 & 2 Original Series Soundtrack is available now on vinyl via Waxwork Records and on streaming and download platforms.

For more interviews with film and TV composers, consider learning about The Romanoffs contributions of Giona Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova; or how artists like Mocean Worker and Makeup and Vanity Set score podcasts such as Up and Vanished and Serial. Also, have you ever wondered about Colin Stetson’s motivations behind his Hereditary score?

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