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In less capable hands, a show like Hulu’s The Path could feel like an overly dramatic horror story, about the dangers of falling in with a cult. But Will Bates has created a sound for the series that compels viewers to understand the world that these fascinating characters inhabit, as members of the Meyerist movement. Starring Aaron Paul, Hugh Dancy and Michelle Monaghan, the series (now on its third episode) is making some bold statements about religion and society as a whole—and such bold statements needed an equally bold musical backdrop. Bates, who worked as the composer on HBO’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks spoke with Paste about how he approached this unusual story, his “eureka” moment with Dancy’s character and his art collective, Fall on Your Sword.
Paste Magazine: Looking at your past work, it seems like you sign on to projects that you feel strongly about, one way or another. Can you talk about what drew you to The Path?
Will Bates: I got involved with The Path through Mike Cahill, who I worked with in the past. He directed I Origins, and he introduced me to [creator] Jessica Goldberg and we hit it off. I read the script and it just jumped off the page. It’s really compelling, and so nuanced and unusual. I worked very closely with Mike as he was directing the pilot, and got to see what he was doing with it. It became very clear that they were into creative freedom, and they seemed to be picking pretty specific people—and trusted [those people]. That was really exciting for me, that they were letting me do my thing.
Paste: For those of us who watched Going Clear or We Steal Secrets, or any of the other projects you’ve worked on, will there be familiar sounds or musicians? I’m wondering if you find yourself returning—intentionally or otherwise—to certain styles.
Bates: I try to switch things up. There’s obvious comparisons between Going Clear and this show because of the cults, but that’s incidental. Both scores are quite electronic, but other than that, they’re very different. I try to make things exciting for myself by picking things that are all over the place, stylistically. And it’s a pretty different process scoring a doc, or something that’s cinematic, versus something that’s narrative. I remember talking with Jessica about how there was gonna be this blend of unusual, experimental, electronica and also some more conventional orchestration. If there were gonna be strings involved, it would kind of be one cello, intensely played, simple harmonies—but with this strange, electronic backdrop. I ended up finding this guy in LA who builds modular synthesizers. He built this crazy modular rig, which I think is always gonna be The Path’s instrument. With every project I try to find at least one thing that’s unique, in terms of an instrument or a technique. For this project, that’s what that was.
Paste: Can you talk a little more about the process of working with Jessica Goldberg? Did you find your own ideas, or collaborative ideas, shifting in any interesting ways over time?
Bates: One thing that was clear from early on is that the music was going to be very bold. That’s something that we talked about. Of course there are moments of underscore, but it’s not really that kind of score, particularly with these performances. I guess I feel like the music can serve a different role when the performances are this strong. It can paint the picture of something that isn’t necessarily happening on screen. They really wanted the music to do that, to make a statement. But in terms of the way that we found the sound, we were really able to sculpt it as it was being created. By the time Mike Cahill was putting his director’s cut together, I already had a bunch of stuff that I had written for the show.
Paste: When I talk to other composers I’m always fascinated by the idea of composing sounds for a particular character on a show. Working on The Path, was there a specific character or group of people who posed a challenge for you, or one you especially liked working with?
Bates: With every project I score, I always have to have that—I call it the “eureka” moment. I find the theme, or the core sequence, or something that’s intrinsically connected to that character—where one couldn’t live without the other. That’s a moment I have to have at the beginning of the process, and sometimes it takes longer than other times. [Dancy’s character, Cal] has a melody and instrument—I was, like, hammering piano strings with metal objects. And that was one of those moments where it was like, “This is Cal’s thing.” There’s also a scene right at the beginning of the show and right at the end, where I knew they were melodically connected.
Paste: Fall on Your Sword is a mixed-media musical experiment that I’m assuming allows you to collaborate with lots of other artists. Has developing this organization influenced your own artistic approach as a composer?
Bates: It definitely has. It started out as a video art experiment, and it’s developed into this umbrella for all the different media that I involve myself in. It’s a safe place to create and we’re something of an art collective at this point. I think that the work that I do as a composer is definitely informed by it. We have a team of people who work on the art stuff that we create, and the commercials. I just generally do the TV and film stuff these days. Fall on Your Sword has the identity of, like, those crazy YouTube mashup videos (laughs). We’ve learned from that aesthetic, and gone from this sort of sci-fi thing, to an art collective. We do a lot of installations, music-driven art pieces and galleries. It’s allowed me to develop everything that I’m interested in doing, and work with all the people that I’m interested in working with, in a space that allows me to experiment.
Paste: I’m excited to see more of the work that comes out of it. What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects we should know about?
Bates: I’m just finishing up a movie called Imperium, which is a pretty interesting movie starring Daniel Radcliffe. He’s an FBI agent who infiltrates a group of white supremacists trying to build a dirty bomb. It’s extremely dark, it’s a thriller directed by Daniel Ragussis. It should be released in the summer.
Paste: Looking forward to it. Thanks so much for this.
Bates: Thank you.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.