Bobby Krlic and the Twisted Fairy Tale Music of ‘Midsommar’

Go to Sweden now and the days are short, with darkness a dominating force that in some parts of the Nordic country cultivates a sense of everlasting nights. It’s a beautiful sight to behold, for sure, but the depth and breadth of darkness can be brutal. For some it’s a horrorscape. However, likewise, the blissful warmth and enduring sunshine of June can carry with it a distinct set of horrors.

We experience this in Hereditary director Ari Aster’s sun-lit horror and twisted fairy tale, Midsommar. It’s an onslaught of brightly illuminated beauty harmonized with the corporeal brutality of body horror and the emotional brutality of grief and loss. Completing the narrative is Bobby Krlic, the musical mastermind behind The Haxan Cloak project. It’s an extraordinary film and Krlic’s music plays a huge role in making it great.

“I think it was pretty obvious to both [Ari and me] that there was a really common language and common interest,” Krlic told Vehlinggo in a Skype chat in late December. “Communication was really easy. We had exactly the same reference points and we could talk openly and freely and make mistakes and not feel silly.”

Before he got into scoring, Krlic released two noteworthy albums as The Haxan Cloak, his 2011 self-titled debut and 2013’s Excavation — each containing elements that foreshadowed Krlic’s score work on Midsommar and other films. (He also has released EPs that speak to various facets of his musical expression.) Along the way he collaborated with the likes of Björk, Goldfrapp, and The Body, among others.

It was when Krlic connected with composer and Nine Inch Nails member Atticus Ross in the early-mid 2010s that Krlic started going down the scoring path. He’d long wanted to work in films.

Ross is widely known for his work with Trent Reznor on films such as The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the HBO TV series Watchmen. Ross has also composed scores with his brother Leopold and fellow 12 Rounds bandmate Claudia Sarne, with Krlic later joining them in various capacities.

Following an email from Ross to Krlic’s manager, Krlic found himself on a plane to LA. It was the London-based Krlic’s first trip to the United States and he was on his way to meet a musician he admired.

midsommar haxan cloak interview
Bobby Krlic scored Ari Aster’s ‘Midsommar.’ Photo by Corinne Schiavone.

“We got on really well immediately,” Krlic said. “I played him some music and he played me some music, and then he got a little bit serious and turned around and was like, ‘So what do you want to do with your life?’”

Krlic jumped at the chance to share his long-term dream of scoring and Ross soon gave him the opportunity of a lifetime: contributing some music to Ross and team’s score for Michael Mann’s Blackhat. After that they did a few films together, including John Hillcoat’s Triple 9. 

Fast forward to Krlic’s work with Aster on 2019’s Midsommar. Krlic, a student of Scandinavian and medieval folk music, infuses the daytime horror with a beautiful array of sonic storytelling. The bright but menacing palette of the visuals find its true match in Krlic’s score. Krlic and Aster have formed a partnership that I could see developing into a deep and creative bond akin to Nicolas Winding Refn and Cliff Martinez or perhaps David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti.

“Ari and I… developed a shorthand very quickly,” Krlic said. “I think he was very generous with me very early on. He would… send me production design ideas and ask what I thought of them. He asked for my opinions on certain lines of dialogue in the script or things like that.”

It went both ways. Aster, who reportedly wrote the script to Midsommar while listening to The Haxan Cloak, was there with Krlic in the studio during the Midsommar composing sessions offering notes. And because of their bond, Krlic was open to Aster’s constructive criticism and wasn’t interested in “taking offense” to the suggestions, Krlic said.

“It made the feedback process just completely fluid and neutral and really easy to deal with, because we established a degree of what our tastes are…,” he said.

Here’s the rest of the extensive interview, in which we focused on Krlic’s work on Midsommar, a musician’s sense of identity across projects, and his scoring roots, among other things.

Vehlinggo: One thing I’ve been thinking about is the idea of “uncertain perception.” I’ve experienced this a few ways with Aster’s films. For starters, when I’ve rewatched Midsommar I’ve noticed visual elements I totally missed on first viewing — and they’re not even easy to find on multiple viewings.

Additionally, when I interviewed Colin Stetson, who did the music for Aster’s previous film, Hereditary, he mentioned that a misconception people have about that score is that he used a lot of synths/electronic instruments, when often he really was centering cues often entirely around manipulations of his own voice. Is there any element of what we’re hearing in your score that is not what it seems? If I hear strings during the schmaltzy parts of your score, am I actually hearing strings — or is it a synth or sampling? How are you painting these cues? What’s your palette? 

Bobby Krlic: My palette varies a lot. But with this one I made a pact with myself that I didn’t want any of the kind of manipulation or the writing to be done with a computer. I have a computer and I use a computer for a lot of things, but if I want to go full analog just onto tape, I can do that.

So that’s what I decided to do for this movie, which was kind of a foolish endeavor in terms of how much time it took and how complicated it made things. But I really loved it and I got a lot of sounds that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

“There are a lot of things that might slip under the radar as sound design that are actually score.”

And particularly, what you’re saying with watching the film repeatedly and kind of noticing digital elements that you maybe didn’t before — I think there’s probably a lot of auditory things in there as well. There are a lot of things that might slip under the radar as sound design that are actually score. It happens kind of immediately when they’re in the restaurant — the pizza place — and just as we see Josh [played by William Jackson Harper] and he sinks his head into his hands. There’s this little diving tone that happens with him. And then all throughout it builds and builds.

Then when they get on the plane, I was doing all this stuff, like taking these suspended string chords and blasting them back out into the room and getting a lot of ambience and stuff around them. And then I would record that to tape and I would slow it right down to a quarter speed. What you get is just this soupy, weird, almost windy room tone sound.

That was my sound for that kind of hive mind of the [Swedish commune Hårga], basically. As soon as [the main characters] get on the plane and they’re heading to Sweden — this thing is in the background of a lot of the film — and it gets louder and louder as the film continues into Sweden to convey the kind of brainwashing and influence that the Hårga are eventually going to have over all these people.

So that’s one little Easter egg.

Extraordinary. You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that there’s a kind of classical Disney or fantasy vibe to the music. You’ve called the movie a kind-of “twisted fairy tale,” which I thought was fascinating and highly appropriate. It’s a bit of a throwback in the sense that classic European fairy tales were rather dark and twisted themselves. 

If anybody’s ever read the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, they’re horrible. They’re really depressing and cruel.

The nature of Midsommar — being a twisted fairy tale/folk-horror story told during the daylight — becomes even more disturbing with the strength of the beautiful string orchestrations of your score.

Yeah, I think so. I mean, it wasn’t necessarily the intention… obviously, I can see why it is perceived like that. But the first time that we really go into a schmaltzy string world is when they first see the house [in Sweden on the compound] — with the murals and the crazy tapestry ceiling and everything.

All that kind of music is really just attached to Dani Ardor [played by Florence Pugh]. I was really lucky to be in conversation with Ari for a really long time prior to the film. So I felt like I was able to spend a long time getting to know the characters — just thinking about her journey and how she’s had this unbearable kind of trauma that she’s been dealing with. And then she’s transported to basically this kind of magical fairy-tale land. [Editor’s Note: For those who haven’t seen the film, the plot kicks off with Dani’s sister committing a murder-suicide of herself and their parents, thereby rendering Dani alone but for her aloof boyfriend and his friends.]

The first time when she steps into that house, I felt like it was the first time that her mind has been allowed to wander somewhere completely different. And it felt like all this kind of anguish and grief was melting away for a minute or two. And that’s why we kind of had that music introduced there — to really strengthen the thing a bit, being like a Disney princess fairy-tale journey for her in a twisted way.

Right! She’s escaped the grief and then slowly it comes back as the story progresses and then the Hårga mirrored it back at her.

Those insanely beautiful or schmaltzy or romantic moments can be born out of just wanting to escape something else. Just wanting to dream and drift off to somewhere completely otherworldly is where you’re at in that moment, I guess.

That’s definitely what we’re trying to tap into with Dani’s character.

the haxan cloak pitchfork
Bobby Krlic (The Haxan Cloak) performs live at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago in July 2014. Photo by Swimfinfan. Creative Commons License.

 

Switching gears a bit, I recall you mentioning in earlier interviews that you didn’t want your Midsommar score to be seen as an album from The Haxan Cloak. However, I do hear a lot of the worlds/sonics you’ve built, especially those reminiscent of your 2011 self-titled debut. So I guess I’m wondering where The Haxan Cloak ends and where Bobby Krlic begins, when it comes to scoring? Where do you separate things in the creative process?

This is a project that I started when I was probably 19 or 20 and now I’m 34. I think the lines start to blur a bit as you get older. I guess the only delineation that I tend to make, or why I don’t tend to score things under that name, is because it’s not really about me. As much as it’s my music and I love it and I’m proud of it and I wouldn’t have made it any other way, I’m still in service to something else at the end of the day.

“I struck gold with ‘Midsommar’, because if I were to choose to make another record, it probably would have sounded a lot like that.”

I struck gold with Midsommar, because if I were to choose to make another record, it probably would have sounded a lot like that. It was a pretty seamless process. But yes, generally, I think that’s the crux of it — if you’re scoring a film, I think it feels a bit egotistical to put it under your artist name, because that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about serving the greater good of the whole vision and it’s not just my thing.

Right, that makes sense. You’re helping to tell the story, but you’re not the story.

Yes, exactly.

I’ve read about how you’ve been interested in films for some time. You perhaps even wanted to be a director at one point when you were growing up. 

I did. Yes. I’m still film-obsessed. I’ve been film-obsessed since I was probably seven years old. My parents would buy me the Time Out Film Bible for Christmas every year. It’s not a very exciting thing. It’s just a history of film and all the reviews of Time Out basically compiled into one huge book.

That’s really cool, though.

They update it every year with all the new movies. Every year I would get a new one. I would literally just go through and be like, “Oh man, that sounds really cool. I wonder if I can find that somewhere.” Or I’d just circle things and wait for them to come on the TV.

I really wanted to be a director for a really long time [and] I’ve been playing music since I was six. I used to write my own films and make short films at home. When I was 16 I was obsessed with the idea of going to New York Film Academy… [studying] somewhere along the line of music.

Oh wow.

I basically did an arts degree at university, which was visual art with a focus on sound. I did get to do quite a lot of visually-based projects and stuff, but I think music eventually just took the reins in the end.

Midsommar Ari Aster Bobby Krlic interview
Florence Pugh (center) plays Dani Ardor, a woman experiencing immense grief and loss who finds herself and her friends at a mysterious commune in Sweden during the Midsommar festival. Credit: A24.

You’ve been getting more and more into scoring in the past several years, so you’re still feeding visuals. When I think of the intersection of your music and a visual element, I’m trying to imagine Midsommar sans your score. What a different experience that would be.

Yes, totally. I think it is. It seems like it’s an obvious point to make, but the symbiosis of music and image when you get it right — it’s a pretty incredible thing.

One of my favorite films of all time is Halloween. I remember reading that when [director John Carpenter] first made that film and showed it to the financiers, they laughed him out of the room — he didn’t have any score on it. They thought it was an absolute disaster and then he went and put the score on it and everybody said it was the scariest film they’d seen in years.

Those three notes or whatever it is. I think it’s three or four notes.

Yes, that is terrifying. If you watched that film without the sound on it’s fine, but even as a grown man I find that hard to watch in a dark house on my own with the music on.

When you were writing this score, I know that you had been working pretty closely with Aster — based on what I’ve read you’d described it in a way that suggests a collaboration of-sorts. 

Oh, yes. We met so early on. We became quite close very quickly. I think Ari — I don’t use the term lightly — but I do think he’s a genius. I really do. I think he’s an auteur and I think a big part of his skill level, aside from his storytelling, is the fact that he knows exactly which collaborator to pick for the story that he wants to tell.

You talk about how if you get it right, it really works. How hard was it to write the score for Midsommar? And building off that, how did you get the right sound and how do you know when you’ve got it?

It’s [in] part just knowing. I don’t want to say it was easy, because it was really challenging. But also when you’ve got somebody [like Ari] who’s so adept at telling a story and also communicating what that story is, it just makes your job so much easier as a composer.

“… When you’ve got somebody who’s so adept at telling a story and also communicating what that story is, it just makes your job so much easier as a composer.”

The bulk of the score was written pretty quickly. The only difficulty then lies in the minutiae of everything. I mean, Ari — more than anybody I’ve ever worked with actually and this is a positive thing — his attention to detail is just beyond anything. It’d be like, “Well, Dani’s eyes are moving to the left, we need a tiny sound to accent that. Then the camera pushes down and pushes in and as the camera pushes in, I want a really small subtle sound that moves with the camera.”

That’s what I mean when I say there’s a lot of sound design that might go unnoticed, because literally every twist and turn is — we worked really hard on accenting all those things. That was difficult because it’s not a way that I’ve ever really worked before to that kind of intensity, but I just think it made for a really incredible experience.

It sounds like there was elaborate planning. I’ve also read about how you recorded a lot of cues that never ended up in the film.

We talked a hell of a lot before anything was shot. There was a lot of test music written that I was sending and we were having conversations back and forth. Everything felt great — like it was sitting in the world that it should be. Then… it’s one of those things where we started getting the dailies back and putting it on the dailies. It didn’t work. It was good music, but once the actual images were shot and put together, it needed something else.

That was the product of — I think I read on The Quietus — 10 hours a day with you two?

Yeah, he came to my house.

You’re at the piano.

Yeah.

Have you ever seen that video — there’s a great video of Angelo Badalamenti talking about how he wrote Laura Palmer’s theme to Twin Peaks.

Oh, yeah — he’s playing it as he describes it.

He described David sitting next to him being like “you’re killing me Angelo, you’re killing me.” Ari and I would sit and joke about that all the time while we were doing this. I’d be playing the piano and Ari would be behind me just like, “Okay, great great. Now you need to take me here. Now I’m there. I need to go here.” And then just gesticulate. We both — you just laugh. It was such an electric process. It was wonderful.

“[Scoring ‘Midsommar’] was such an electric process.”

For sure. I think viewers feel this when they watch Midsommar — that you two had something more than the standard “score-to-picture” dynamic. In other words, you weren’t scoring the film in isolation in front of a screen.

Yes, definitely. That was Ari’s deal that he hammered through the whole time. There’s nothing superfluous in the movie about the sound: everything needed a purpose and everything needed to be tied together.

I think that’s what a great director does. He not only gets great performances out of his actors, but he gets great performances out of every everybody that he or she works with. I think that’s where Ari is a really killer talent: He’s an excellent communicator and you know what to do to fulfill his vision.

Yes, but are you spoiled now? What about the next project?

Oh man. Yes, I think so. We’ve talked about doing something else and I hope that we will, because I think he has become one of my best friends really.

I’ve read that you’re currently working on building a new studio. What about a new The Haxan Cloak record? Any other scores?

I’ve got to a point where I got all my master rights back for my material, so I’ve set up my own label, Archaic Devices, to re-release everything. I’m going to be putting out some music on that [in 2020]. There are definitely more things coming.


You can stream the Midsommar score now via the usual channels. You can purchase the Milan Records vinyl at your favorite retailers. The film itself is available to purchase and rent via streaming and physical media.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.