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Interviews, Music

Interview: Brendan Angelides Talks “13 Reasons Why”, New Music, and His Pet Squirrel

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

Brendan Angelides. (Photo: Spencer Hansen)

Known under his artist name, Eskmo, Los Angeles-based producer, composer, and recording artist, Brendan Angelides has not only toured the globe as an electronic musician, but has made a lasting impression on millions of screens across Hollywood and beyond.

Returning to score season three of the popular Netflix drama, 13 Reasons Why, and season five of the Showtime hit series, Billions, Angelides has had a full workload, inviting listeners back into the dark and mysterious world of corporate greed and the notorious halls of Liberty High. Yet the end of a season isn’t necessarily the end of Angelides’ packed schedule.

As one of the core founders of The Echo Society (an LA collective which hosts one-time-only innovative symphony performances), and the founder of FeelHarmonic (a program aimed at helping the deaf community and schools experience sound in new ways), Angelides can be found spending his free time collaborating with other artists, composers and smiling children alike.

But before you binge watch the latest season of 13 Reasons Why (out now), or attend your next Echo Society concert, make sure to check out our interview with Brendan below about his new music, shifting plotlines, his pet squirrel, and more!

To start things off, I’d like to dive into your work with Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. The season three premiere is out now. That must be so exciting!

Totally! It’s crazy that it’s already here and I’m really excited about it.

One thing I think is unique about the show is that not only is it character driven, but you also get to bring inanimate objects, whether they be the tapes or the polaroids, to life for viewers. Has working with and layering all these different elements provided any challenges or creative opportunities for you as a composer?

Yes, to a degree. It’s interesting, before I started scoring, my previous work was very recording heavy. I would go out and record sticks for snare sounds, branches, or anything that I could use. And what I found, especially when I was first working on Billions, was I had to be careful with that kind of thing because it can sound like environmental noise. So, aside from actually bringing in a lot of those types of sounds, it’s more of just using elements of the show that inspire me to create a thread and a narrative with it.

For melodic inspiration, I’ve used the footage with the cassette tapes, or the polaroids in the last season, as jumping off points. Those are some of the areas where I’ve gone for more of a vintage, retro sound to kind of have fun with the year the viewer is seeing on the screen. I want to say it’s less about trying to get those sounds in there and more about finding what type of inspiring sonic palette I can make which links the viewer to what they’re seeing.

I agree! Field recordings are a lot of fun, but it’s a balance for sure. (laughs)

Absolutely!

Moving into season three, we’ve officially said goodbye to Hannah’s ghost and the show takes a swing towards the murder mystery genre. Did you have to adjust or change your mindset going into the new season?

Only slightly. It mostly feels like a progression. Before I started working, we all met up to go over the general path the season would be taking and the storyline Brian Yorkey had in mind. It particularly felt like a continuation because, in the show, we have a central big “bad guy” character. There are dark elements created around Bryce. I think for the viewers, it feels very satisfying knowing that at least some type of justice is happening with him. It would have been really tough to watch him do the same thing for another season. It would have been too much for people.

So the templates were kind of already there in terms of a general mood and it’s basically just about turning the dial up.

There’s definitely an evolution of the score over the first few seasons, moving from a lighter feel with piano and strings to a heavier, darker sound with more drums. Were there any instruments that you knew you wanted to use going into season three?

The show is very thematic, and I wanted to make sure that I was still pulling from certain threads that tugged on the heart, while balancing all the thrilling and dark parts. Because, ultimately, I think this story is about love and it’s about growing up. It’s about friends and trust and all that kind of stuff. So, no matter how gritty and dark it gets, there are always soft moments of being able to empathize with kids that are on the brink of graduating along with other things that might come up for anyone at that time and age.

So, for me, it was all about figuring out what some of the strongest themes that I’ve developed were, and how I could merge them into this new world without having it feel completely heavy and foreboding all the time.

I think that’s a really lovable aspect of the show. There are clearly intense moments and topics, but you’re able to take a step back and capture the fact that these are still kids in a young adult drama.

Thank you!

In addition to the plotline, I was also excited to hear that as part of the new soundtrack, you created a cover re-arrangement of the Duran Duran song, “Ordinary World”. How did that come about?

That was a lot of fun to work on! Originally, we had the idea of doing a coverin the first season with Selena [Gomez] singing “Only You”. After that, was the idea to do another cover at some point this year. We knew it would come somewhere in the later episodes.

Brian Yorkey and Season Kent work on all the music together. I believe this was one of the top songs he [Yorkey] was interested in having a cover of, and if I’m not mistaken, it was actually something I had started a sketch on, back in season two. (Jokes) Honestly, it kind of all melds together! But it was basically one of his top picks.

As for me, I’m a huge fan of Peter Gabriel. That was one of the things that Brian Yorkey and I initially connected on when I first got hired for the job. In my mind, I was wondering if there was a way to merge some of the Peter Gabriel “ish” mindset, percussion, and sounds, into the reimagining of the song.

I got in touch with a friend working in TV who goes under the name of White Sea [Morgan Kibby]. She’s the former vocalist for M83. I’ve always loved her voice and hit her up about working on this together. It ended up syncing perfectly!

Personally, doing covers is always a fun, interesting side exploration because I’m also working on the show while it’s happening. I get to think of this as a proper song, but also work to keep a cohesive sound that actually relates to the show.

If I were to do a cover of that particular song, and if it wasn’t related to the show, I think the sounds would be different. For me, part of the challenge and exciting opportunity in it is thinking, “ok, how can I take the world of the sound that I’ve made for the show, apply it to a cover song, make it cohesive, but also have it stand out in some way?”

Brendan Angelides. (Photo: Trevor Traynor)

Do you think your background as a touring musician gives you a different perspective when it comes to things like this as well as composing?

Yes, I think so! It feels like my normal, natural sandbox. (laughs) Music is a place I already know and am familiar with, so it’s a really fun thing to see both areas come together in that way. It’s a cool experience!

One show where you get to incorporate more Eskmo-like electronic elements is Showtime’s Billions. You just wrapped up season four and are confirmed for a fifth season. Congratulations!

Thank you so much!

Where are you at in the making of season five?

I’m actually on break right now! (laughs) However, I believe they’re already starting to write. I’ll come in and start working once they have picture. That will probably be around October or November. I have both shows happening at the same time, so there’s a break in between each season.

During that time, I’ll focus on my own material. I’m working on an album right now as well as another project I’m part of called The Echo Society. It’s kind of my time [during break] to do all that stuff.

But whenever either show shoots up a flare and says, “alright, we’re going to start working”, I dive in, see the picture, and have a conversation with the showrunners about what they’re excited about for in the next season and the direction it might be going. I’m just like anybody else! (laughs) It’s all a surprise to me until I start to see the episodes and talk to the whole team.

You sound like a busy bee! As far as Eskmo material, didn’t you just put out another album recently with Kira Kira?

Yeah! She’s an Icelandic friend. We performed at Iceland Airwaves back in 2014 and I actually met her through The Echo Society. She was a guest for the second event we had back in 2014. While we were out there, we had a couple recording sessions, collected a whole bunch of sounds, and very methodically and patiently over the course of four or five years, worked on the record. She lives out in Iceland and I live here. We also write on different music programs. So, it was a process of patiently sending files back and forth and not really trying to rush it.

We’re really happy with the album. It’s a first collaborative record that I’ve done outside of scoring since my track with Amon Tobin back in 2009! It’s been a bit. (laughs)

Did you see any of the influences from composing trickle into your process as a recording artist? 

Absolutely! Especially on some of the tracks. I think regarding general workflow, one of the things that’s amazing for scoring television in particular, is that everything is very deadline based. You don’t really have time to spend seven hours on a hi-hat. You kind of have to get out of your own way and allow the ideas to flow. I think we really applied that to this album, even though it’s funny to say it took five years to work on it! (laughs)

During the actual process of writing the music, I feel like a lot of the scoring mindset helped play a part in terms of getting out of my own way, allowing the strongest elements to speak for themselves, and taking away some of the extra stuff. It’s a really fun album and is sonically adventurous for us. It’s kind of dark in places but then light in others.

I even recorded my squirrel and put that into one song! We have a paralyzed, two-legged squirrel living in our house, so he’s on the album! There’s a whole range of stuff. We didn’t do a big PR push or anything for it. We just released it out there. Whoever listens to it, that’s awesome. I was just happy to get it out there.

(laughs) Well, I’m definitely going to go back and listen for Albert, the squirrel!

Yeah! (laughs) He’s on the last track, “Pepper & Pinecones”. Towards the end of the song, you’ll hear some recordings of him talking. He’s a particularly talkative squirrel so he’s just saying a bunch of stuff!

How fun! (laughs) He’s also has the cutest Instagram account!

(laughs) I have to figure out how to market him more! I’d love to bring him into the studio, but there’re so many cables there. I don’t want him to chew anything or get electrocuted. He’s a big member of the family and he’s just basically like a cat! He hangs out and he’ll run and jump on our bed in the morning and just lay with us. He’s pretty funny!

That’s amazing! Jumping forward a little to your new record, where did your ideas and inspiration for those songs come from?

Actually, I’ve just started it within the past couple of weeks! I’m really excited to see how these few years of scoring will really influence my work process. The album with Kira pretty much started when I was doingthe scoring work, so it kind of progressed as Kira and I went along. But this will be the first, proper time that I’ll be sitting by myself and exploring what comes out of just me.

I’m really inspired in a few different directions. One is more song-based, which I feel would almost be the opposite of the scoring. I’ve been so deep in that world that I’m really excited to see what happens if I focus on a few long songs and vocals. I imagine there’s going to be some patient stuff that comes out of it as well. It’s hard to tell what might happen!

Another area you mentioned earlier was The Echo Society. That seems to be an area where your two worlds as an electronic musician and composer appear to collide. Has the collective inspired you to look at music or scoring television in a different light?

Yes, absolutely! It’s been very inspiring. We started it back in 2013 as a group of friends hanging out. We decided to throw a show with a small ensemble and try to combine it with electronic music tosee what would happen. Now, we’ve done one show every year since then. That really influenced the album that I put out in 2015, which is called SOL. It inspired me to release music that felt a little bit more cinematic.

The society was also the reason I ended up getting the Billions gig. The showrunner for Billions heard my album, SOL, on NPR. They got in touch via a Skype call and asked if I’d be interested in scoring. They were curious to see if I could do something around the vibe of the album. So, Echo has had a very direct impact on me. It really helped me shift into this world, because honestly, at that time, I was a bit tired of touring. I’m still open for it in the future, but getting the Billions show was perfect timing in 2015. It allowed me to jump right in, and it’s been a really rad thing to see the show progress.

With the Echo shows, we do immersive concerts in unique locations throughout Los Angeles. For example, we’ve had a show at the old Charlie Chaplin soundstage, one at a church, one at a warehouse, and one at a place called the Ace Theatre.

The last one we did was in a house where attendees got to walk through the entire space and see different players in different rooms. In that one, we had fourteen special guest artists come and collaborate and I think there were approximately fifty musicians. Each show ranges anywhere from around a nine-piece ensemble up to a forty-piece.

The next show that we’re planning to do, we’re looking at a seventy-piece orchestra to bring down to an elementary school in Compton, CA. It’s something we’re planning to do for November. It’s honestly pushed all of us to expand our horizons and for me, I’ve seen how it’s influenced the music I’m creating.

Brendan Angelides. (Photo: Trevor Traynor)

It’s amazing to see the Society expanding and doing great things! It sounds like a wonderful organization to be a part of.

So much inspiration has come out of it! We’re all busy with our own work, but it’s such a terrific thing to be a part of! I’m really grateful for it.

I know a big part of The Echo Society is not only self-improvement, but helping other composers blossom. Have you received any advice or tips from other members that stood out to you when it comes to composing for film or TV?

Definitely! When I first got the show for Billions, and I’ve joked about this since with Brian [Koppelman], when they asked if I knew how to score I said, “yeah, totally” and hung up the phone. I thought to myself, “uh-oh!” (laughs) I called Rob [Simonsen] right away and said, “dude, I kind of know, but don’t really know”. So, he helped me out a bunch and pointed me towards things to watch. I went over to his house and he showed me some of the basics.

A huge part of scoring is file management and making sure your folders are all organized so you can deliver on time according to deadlines.

Joe Trapanese was also a big help with some other sides of the job as well. Those guys are already deep into it, and have been doing it for a while. I jumped right into a brand-new world, so they were absolutely instrumental in helping me to feel a bit more solid!

Also, with some composing, you just have to throw yourself into it. I learned a bunch just by bumping my head around it and making mistakes. Now, after doing it for a handful of years, I’ve gotten smoother and smoother at it.

Speaking about helping others, you also founded the FeelHarmonic program under the same Echo Society umbrella in 2015. With it, you help bring the deaf community new ways to experience sound. Was there a moment that inspired you to kickstart that initiative?

The first inspiration for FeelHarmonic happened around 2012 or 2013. I did a show with some of the Brainfeeder folks, which is Flying Lotus’ record label. The event was at the Downtown Independent, a movie theatre here in LA. We brought in a sound system, and a group of friends were essentially performing music while another group were doing live visuals. So, imagine a regular movie theatre with people sitting there eating popcorn except they’re listening to a concert while live visuals are happening.

I reached out to this company, SUBPAC. I knew one of the guys there and asked if they’d be interested in bringing some of their equipment in. They have these tactile, vibrating machines that you put on the back of a chair or you can wear as a backpack. Essentially, you just plug a line into it like you would with a iPod, and you can feel the bass inside of these things.

We had a handful of them in one of the rows in the movie theatre. I thought it was so cool to integrate that technology. The idea was, what if we brought deaf, hard of hearing kids down here to experience this? They could go to the movie theatre and feel this bass while watching some type of visual performance. I basically took that on myself and started contacting elementary schools and booking a few principals. I quickly realized it’s much easier to go to the kids instead of having the kids come to you on a field trip, because a field trip is a whole crazy endeavor to partake in.

So, I ended up making a track just using bass notes. I could do this by turning my monitors off and use one of these SubPacs to feel the bass that I was writing. I wrote about a minute-long type of story just using bass notes. I worked with a friend, Bemo, who designed an animation for this little piece that I wrote and I brought that down to the elementary school.

I asked SUBPAC to lend us some of the equipment. So, we had thirty of them set up in chairs. The kids got to come and sit with the SubPacs and feel the vibrations. They essentially watched this video animation with characters talking to each other that they could feel with the bass. Then, the kids got to come up to the front of the room and play bass notes while the other kids sitting behind them in the chairs could feel what it felt like to play all the different notes. It ended up being a really amazing experience. I did a couple of those.

However, that’s when Billions also kicked into gear so I had to focus on the scoring process. At one point, I was touring, Billions happened, I was focused on the FeelHarmonic, and The Echo Society was happening! So, I had to pause on that for a moment.

My plan is to dive back in. I’m currently working on some different ways using different types of technology as opposed to just the SubPac. It’s an amazing piece of technology, but it’s just one thing. I would love to open this up to anybody. To have a kid that can’t hear sitting next to another kid and have them both experience their own version of something fun. To me, that would be really powerful and awesome.

You mentioned blending visual animation and the tactile experience of the vibrating SubPac systems. I know you have a mild form of synesthesia, and that made me wonder, does it help you when it comes to the music world and connecting all these different things together?

For me, combining senses makes a lot of sense. More so with my own work. I connect less with synesthesia when I’m working on the scoring because I’m supposed to be doing it to picture. Usually, I’m trying to create tones that feel like the imagery that I’m seeing. But for my own stuff, yes! Certain sounds do sound very purple, some sound very blue, some very red. I think in general, a lot can be done with that. FeelHarmonic is a step towards that idea by being able to play with tactile, sensory pieces of technology that inspire or evoke a fun reaction with people.

One of my last questions is do you have any other projects in the works or any any sneak peeks you could give us about the upcoming seasons of 13 Reasons Why or Billions?

13”, drops on Friday along with the soundtrack that’s coming out, and the single you mentioned earlier. I feel very proud of the music that I wrote for the season and I’m really excited to see how people enjoy it!

For Billions, I’m hoping to release another soundtrack when this next season comes out. It’ll be a culmination of the last couple of seasons of the show. There’s been a number of people who’ve been asking for it, so I’m happy to jump back in.

For me personally, it’s about writing this next album. One of the biggest things we have coming up is the next Echo Society show which happens on the 9th. It’s all hands on deck! I’m really focusing on that because it’s going to be the biggest show we’ve done so far.

To wrap things up, I have a couple of fun, fill-in-the-blank questions. Would you like to give it a go?

Sure!

If I had the opportunity to collaborate with anyone past or present, I would pick…

Tom Waits or Peter Gabriel.

A Netflix or TV show that I can’t wait to binge-watch is…

I just finished Chernobyl. We watched all of Chernobyl this past weekend and it was very heavy but really, really well done. It was pretty inspiring. I recommend it!

If I could travel anywhere, I’d love to visit…

Machu Picchu.

Last one for you! My favorite summer activity is…

Outdoor climbing.

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