Bear McCreary interview: The Walking Dead composer on ten seasons of musical mayhem

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead season 10 has returned to AMC, and with that TV viewers are enjoying more of Bear McCreary‘s awesome and terrifying score for the long-running series. But what does it take to craft music for one of TV’s best known shows, especially when you’ve been working on it for almost a decade?

I caught up with Bear on the convention circuit for our latest interview to discuss how the music of The Walking Dead has evolved over the show’s run, how composing for the series fits into the bigger picture of what has become a massive entertainment brand, and how technology has impacted the business of composing for film and television.

Dive deeper into the music with my Bear McCreary interview below, and make sure you visit his website to learn more about this incredible artist and his lengthy resume of amazing credits.

Brittany Frederick: The Walking Dead season 10 is another season with major character changes, as Danai Gurira announced this would be her final season. How do character departures affect you musically?

Bear McCreary: Oftentimes I try to write a theme for every character, and in the case of The Walking Dead, even in the early days I started to slip away from that only because there are so many characters and they’re unified in these factions. Unlike most projects that I work on, with Walking Dead there’s a few characters that have really clear themes and others that there’s sort of a theme for larger story arcs, or there’s a theme for factions or groups.

I have a theme for the Kingdom. I’ve got sounds that I’ve associated with Negan, which can be transplanted to the Saviors. I think the most specific musical character theme on The Walking Dead is probably for the Whisperers last season, where I really created something that would have to be transplanted. For example [with] Morgan going from The Walking Dead to Fear The Walking Dead, I’ve used a lot of themes to associate with the stuff he’s going through but I wouldn’t say there’s a theme for him that’s so iconic that you’d have to take it with you.

That being said, I wrote [Lennie James] a theme on Human Target

BF: We’re now talking about a third Walking Dead series as well as movies. As the franchise continues to expand, does the music continue expanding as well?

BM: It does. As the world gets bigger, you obviously have other composers contributing their voice on Fear The Walking Dead and on the games and other stuff. [But] even in that trailer for the movie when they show the logo at the end, it was my theme that they really wanted to connect with fans. As the world gets bigger, the simplicity of the theme that I wrote for the first flagship show becomes important to unify, ground people in the world of The Walking Dead. I’m very excited to see where the franchise goes, where the universe that’s being created goes as it goes into new mediums. But it’s cool to know that no matter where it goes, that if somebody wants to connect you to this idea of The Walking Dead, it’s this [theme] that takes you there.

BF: Do you have to be aware of what those other composers are doing or do you get a chance to interact with them at all?

BM: I definitely don’t interact with them, just for a lack of time. I’m not aware of what they’re doing. What I’m doing is so influenced by the new characters [and] the complicated storylines. When I sit down with [showrunner] Angela Kang, I’m just trying to download from her brain where are we going this season? What are the Whisperers going to be doing? What is Negan going to be doing? And that fills my brain to the breaking point. If we also added “Well, on the game side they’re doing this,” my head would explode. 

BF: You’ve been with The Walking Dead for all ten seasons. Is this the longest that you’ve worked on any particular project?

BM: Very few people get to season 10 of anything. I wouldn’t know the percentage of shows that get there, but I would guess it’s less than one percent. This is the longest running thing I’ve worked on. I was on Battlestar Galactica for six years, Agents of SHIELD was seven, Eureka we went to five and Outlander we’re going to at least six – but ten, this is crazy. 

BF: What’s it like for you personally to say you’ve been doing this show that long? Especially since, as a composer, you’re doing multiple series at the same time?

BM: I definitely think it’s more fun. I think it’s, to be perfectly frank, a different level of commitment. When you are one of the leads of a TV show, you really can’t do anything else, so every other offer [when] your agent says “Hey, this movie might be interested in you,” you’re not even in the running. On the [composing] side, it’s just a matter of how much sleep do I want to lose. But I could do another show. I’ll figure it out so that I can do these other things.

In many ways I don’t envy actors that have to stick with this one project exclusively for a decade. I completely understand why someone like Andrew Lincoln wants to move on and do something else. I also understand why he wants to have the option to come back. I totally get that. For composers it’s just different; I’m grateful for that. I love multi-tasking. I love doing different things. 

BF: You’re one of the busiest TV composers, and many of the biggest names in your field also multi-task on multiple series. Would you say it’s something the best are inclined to do, or that they have to do?

BM: I would say it’s absolutely a prerequisite. I would challenge you to find a successful composer that only does one thing. That’s an old model. That’s what it used to be. We used to be someone you pay to come in and write a manuscript that was produced into a score. To write a score meant you were literally writing on a piece of paper.

To write a score is to produce a product, and as technology has made it possible to make something that sounds better, quicker, cheaper, the expectations have gone higher. The time frames have become lower. And the reality is it’s a struggle to only do one thing. So you find ways to go I’ll do this show, and this series, and this movie. Being able to multitask is a way for composers to sort of keep afloat.

It helps if you’re hardwired like I am, where I genuinely enjoy jumping from project to project. I love doing a horror project like Walking Dead and then busting out the bagpipes for Outlander. It’s fun for me.

BF: How much has technology changed the business of composing?

BM: It’s always changing. It changed radically between the mid-80’s and sort of late 90’s, in this 15-year stretch where almost the definition of what the job is changed and most people outside the music industry don’t know that.

Let’s put this in visual terms, which is something I think fans can associate with more. I think the average fan knows more about how the visuals are made than how the sound is made. I remember watching the special features of Jurassic Park. They were going to do a computer-generated dinosaur test, and [Phil Tippett] said he was perfecting this new technique to do motion blur. He goes, we worked really hard, we made this amazing dinosaur footage, and then I saw the CG guys. He said he looked at it and said oh, my job is over. It wasn’t just we’re not going to do Jurassic Park, we are never working again unless we take on this new technology.

Music is the same thing. If you didn’t have the capacity to use technology in your writing and you weren’t as famous as John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, that’s it. Everyone else in the 90’s retired. I came in after that. The expectations have changed and you are expected to deliver higher and higher quality. Which is fine, I love doing that, but it’s something I’ve had to keep up with. 

BF: You had done select concerts a few years ago. Are those on the back burner right now with The Walking Dead and your other projects?

BM: I’ve done a few live shows, but I want to get back into that. I sort of opted to walk away from that because I wanted to cement my status as a composer of film and TV, and didn’t want to take the time to do [live shows]. But now that I’m feeling a little more stable in [TV and movies], I miss that and I want to do more of that. 

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.

Article content is (c)2020 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr.

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