The Themes and Textures of ’13 Reasons Why’ Composer Eskmo

Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and Showtime’s Billions are potently distinct TV shows — one focuses on the aftermath of a high school student’s suicide and the other a U.S. Attorney’s complicated battle against (and tenuous alliances with) the ruthless billionaire hedge fund titans of New York. Nevertheless, there is a major component that connects them.

What ties them together is score composer Eskmo (AKA Brendan Angelides), a Los Angeles-based electronic artist who released on noteworthy labels such as Ninja Tune (his 2010 self-titled debut album) and Warp Records before he landed scoring gigs on Brian Koppelman’s, David Levien’s, and Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Billions and later Brian Yorkey’s 13 Reasons Why

The different personalities of those two shows are naturally present in the scores the Connecticut-born Angelides crafts for them. He’s able to bring out both the heart- and mind-centered elements of each show’s deep-dive into human motivation in a way that’s singular to each show, while nevertheless retaining a richly nuanced electronic palette that is so obviously Eskmo. This involves a deep understanding of what best complements the distinctions.

“[13 Reasons Why] is a very thematic show, whereas my other show, Billions, is more based around textures and emotions,” Angelides told Vehlinggo in a recent Skype chat. He noted that with 13 Reasons Why, as the show’s narrative has changed, he’s had to change with it. “It’s been a cool process of: How do I take those same themes, [and] not just repeat them but have them grow?”

Indeed, over time Angelides has deftly navigated those shows’ richly engaging worlds, all the while helping lead the LA-based musicians collective The Echo Society, a non-profit organization he co-founded in 2013 with fellow film and TV score composers Rob Simonsen, Joseph Trapanese, Deru, Jeremy Zuckerman, Nathan Johnson, and Judson Crane. 

The third season of 13 Reasons Why just premiered on Netflix last week, coinciding with the release of both Angelides’ score and a separate soundtrack, which features modern pop songs and a powerful cover of Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” that Angelides did with Morgan Kibby (AKA White Sea and formerly of M83). Just around that premiere, Vehlinggo connected with Angelides to discuss his scores, creative methodology, Duran Duran cover with White Sea, community outreach, and more. [Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and size.]

eskmo headshot
Eskmo (AKA Brendan Angelides). Photo by Trevor Traynor.

Vehlinggo: From what I’ve read, you’ve been asked quite a bit about what it’s like to score for a controversial show like 13 Reasons Why, so we’ll avoid retreading here. [Editor’s Note: Check out this Score It Magazine interview for more on that.] So, going beyond that: As you worked on season three, how were you adapting to how this heavy narrative has been unfolding over each season?

Eskmo: A lot of it comes from the communication with the showrunner, [Yorkey]. We basically always sit down together at the beginning of each season, and as we dive into the first episode he lays out where the general mood will be heading. 

There are a lot of creative freedoms and liberties in that. This overall season is an entity unto itself — what the vibe is and where it will be heading. This [show] is distinctly thematic in certain ways, and a lot of it is, for me, just trying to continue [the themes].

As an example: This [season] is very thriller-y and it’s darker in ways, but it also has some really big-heart moments. So it’s like this: How do I take some of those themes that have evolved and plug them into this same universe, but then work it in a way where I can turn up the dial to have it go more intense? But then also reel it back to hit some of the really strong heart moments as well?

That makes sense. And because it’s also a very musical show — the original premise centering on mixtapes — you’re interacting with the licensed music to an extent.

Yeah.

But then you’re also actually creating your own cover versions of some popular songs. For example, for this season you’ve teamed up with White Sea (AKA Morgan Kibby) for a cover of Duran Duran’s exquisite “Ordinary World.” I’m a huge fan of that era of Duran Duran but also of Morgan Kibby. I think she’s supremely talented.

Yeah, she’s awesome.

How did that come about? Is that sort of a suggestion from [Yorkey] as well?

Yeah, just as a track in general it was a suggestion. I know it was a song that he was wanting to do something with for a couple of seasons, I believe. And it just fit into this one — where the idea came out again to use it. And I had actually started a sketch of it — I believe it was last season — where one of my big influences was Peter Gabriel.

Oh, nice. He’s great.

And that was actually one of the things that Brian [Yorkey] and I connected about when I first got hired for the job. So in some parts you’ll hear very strong references, and just my love towards some of his percussion, and chorused-out, flanged type of sound design stuff. 

The original “Ordinary World” is a ballad and slower and that kind of thing — very epic and open, you know?

I wanted to take it in a different direction — have it be more up-tempo, and kind of in my mind fusing some of the inspiration that comes from Peter Gabriel, combined with my sonic aesthetic. Basically, I linked with [Kibby], and she was super into the idea, and her vocals just ended up working so perfectly with it. It just kind of evolved pretty naturally, honestly.

Oh, that’s awesome! And she has the vocal ability to really take a song like this to great heights. 

Totally.

billions-score-eskmo

As we touched on a bit, Billions is a profoundly different show. It’s also a great show. It must be fun to score that one — the story, the acting, everything. How do you change mindsets for this — for going from scoring something with often more intensely sad themes like 13 Reasons Why to scoring something intense but often whimsical like Billions? You’re having to shift your creative gears, I imagine. 

Yeah, honestly, that was more of a challenge right at first. I feel like I’m so used to it now.

They distinctly have — at least in my mind — their own universes. I’m using literally different types of synths for all of them, and pulling from different sounds. As I mentioned before, 13 Reasons Why is very thematic. So for some of the beginning motifs and stuff that I started to work on when I first got hired for the job — I’d sit down at the piano, and I sketched things out… watching certain scenes and really going about it in that more traditional sense. Billions was a lot more textural, because the showrunners, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, specifically were curious to play with things that weren’t overtly thematic. They wanted things that just created a world around them, as opposed to very strong lines that just go through. 

I’m using literally different types of synths for all of them…”

And so for me, with that show… Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades: My way of tapping into him is that this character is emotionally all over the place. Everything’s spilling out all the time and everywhere. For him, a lot of the sounds for me are loose and kind of churning and unquantized — just like this thing that rolls. It’s an oscillating/undulating growling thing. While Damian Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod character for me is clinical and linear. 

Right. I can see that.

They’re obviously both manipulative in their own ways, but [Bobby’s] super tactical and kind of serpentine to me. And, you know, Taylor [Mason, played by Asia Kate Dillon], is super cerebral. And then every once in a while, like with the conversations with Wendy [Rhoades, played by Maggie Siff], it’ll get super heart-based and a lot softer. 

So now that I’m deep into [scoring both shows], I’ve really been able to find an easy way to kinda flip back and forth.

Yeah, you have a system in place by this point.

Honestly, usually each day, I’ll tend to work on only one of them, which helps. [laughs] It helps my brain.

You have a well-established background with studio albums — the self-titled and 2015’s Sol, which Koppelman heard on NPR and which was the catalyst for you getting hired to score Billions. When you’re composing for either of the shows, what do you bring from that non-score experience?

It feels like an extension of [the studio work]. It’s like a way to branch out even further… [and] it’s definitely of the same universe. [Furthermore,] the opening credits for 13 Reasons Why is actually one of my songs from one of my previous EPs that I put out. So for me it’s felt like a very natural continuation of my touring life and album life. [Editor’s Note: He’s referring to “Oh in This World of Dread, Carry On” from 2012’s Language EP]

One thing I wanted to ask you about. The Echo Society does charitable events and youth music clinics, and in general pursues the noble cause of giving back to the community. Also, in 2015 you launched the organization’s first community outreach program, Feelharmonic, which is aimed at bringing a sonic experience to people in the deaf community. Is this penchant for giving back something that’s always been with you? Or something you grew up with? Or a value system you’ve developed over time?

I think, over time. I come from a big family. Maybe that’s part of the inspiration to it. I know with music that was always a pretty big driving force: the idea that music can heal, and finding a way to play with that narrative that doesn’t come off as pompous or cheesy.

But it’s honestly been one of the driving forces for me for sure since high school. I think it’s just the natural progression of the more you collaborate with other people, you just see the impact that the projects you do can have. And I think, also, nowadays it’s the narrative that’s out there. The world is so crazy.

If you can do things in some type of way that contribute to a future that has more light, I think that’s a good thing; no matter how small that might be.

You’ve been scoring for four years. What have you learned about yourself — musically or personally — over that time?

I feel like I’ve grown so much in terms of just how I work. Even before these shows, that’s been one of my biggest focuses with music… making sure that I’m personally growing during all of this. Because if you’re not, I feel like you’re kinda missing an opportunity to evolve. And so I feel like I’m sure I have. You’d have to ask my wife. [laughs] She would know more than me.

We’ve had a lot of different changes happen in life. I think it’s just being aware and paying attention, and… it’s hard to answer that without coming off as pompous or anything. But I do know that I have grown.

Some of the most logistical and easy-to-see ways: building a studio, and having a properly-running thing here; and getting a solid sense how to deal with deadlines and what the scoring world entails — all that kind of stuff. For me, one of the biggest things I’ve been focusing on is making sure that I still also keep my artist-style life, while also focusing on the composing stuff, and have both of those really kinda feed each other.

13 Reasons Why has already been renewed for a fourth and final season. Billions doesn’t seem as if it’s going anywhere — thankfully. What else is on the horizon for you? A new album?

I’m actually just diving into my next album now. Basically, both shows happen around the same time, so I have chunks of time off.

Oh, that’s excellent.

So, for this break, my plan is to write as much as I possibly can of an album. This will be the first time doing my own thing since 2015, because I’ve been mainly focusing on scoring.

I did release an album, a collaborative thing with a friend a few weeks ago. It’s Eskmo and Kira Kira. [Editor’s Note: In June Eskmo rather surreptitiously released a collaborative album entitled Motions Likes These with Icelandic musician Kira Kira. He met her through an introduction from Rob Simonsen.] 

It’s that and an Echo Society show coming up in November. That’s a huge undertaking that takes a lot of space. But essentially, those two things are my main priorities right now.

Awesome. Thank you for the interview. I can’t wait to dive into your new work. Is there anything else you want to add before we sign off?

Mostly, I just wanted to mention the Echo Society show. There’s only so much you can say about an album that doesn’t exist yet. [laughs]


Paramount Music’s 13 Reasons Why score and Interscope’s soundtrack are available now in various digital forms. Milan Records’ Billions release is available on digital and vinyl. 

 

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