Exclusive SXSW Interview: Ian Hultquist on composing The Diabolical, departing Passion Pit and more

Ian Hultquist is at SXSW promoting the horror film The Diabolical, for which he composed the musical score. He is also a founding member of synth pop band Passion Pit, although in October 2014 he announced his departure from the band. In this interview, Hultquist chats about the nature of composing for film, his inspirations, and his reasons for leaving Passion Pit.

So how’s your SXSW going so far?

It’s good, I haven’t really seen too much mostly just kind of catching up with friends out here. I did see the Interstellar Virtual Reality Experience, bit trippy.

Cool. Is this your first time at SXSW for a film?

It’s my fifth South by and my second time for a film. I was here last year with Animals.

So tell us a bit about the process for The Diabolical. Where did it start? How did the project come up?

So I started working with an agency recently and this was kind of the first project that they found for me. I got a call about this movie that was being put together, to see if I was interested, and I was also moving to LA from New York around the same time. So it was kind of a crazy period of time for me. But I had a phone call from the director, Alistair Legrand, just kind of feeling each other out then he sent me a script. The first five minutes of the movie they had this kind of introduction done to it and I read it and watched it and was just like, I am so into this. It’s just this crazy, fun orb movie mixed with sci-fi. Then once I got out to LA and got my studio set up I dove into it and it turned out to be the biggest score I’ve done so far. It’s like 85 minutes of music and it’s really loud. I had a lot of fun with it.

Where do you start? In terms of looking at a scene, where do the ideas come from? What’s your first thing you get down?

It took me a while. It was one of those things where I knew I was doing a project, I had the footage and I definitely procrastinated for maybe a month and a half just because I wasn’t sure what to do. Actually, I think the first thing I did was this tiny little scene which was kind of a ‘scare moment.’ I basically just spent that month, whilst procrastinating, I’d be putting together sounds and just messing around with things and I guess producing all the materials I would use to create the score. But yeah, I didn’t really write the first bit of music until I got this little section done where it’s like some horn moments. And then I think I started working with what became the title theme and it just went on from there.

What’s the most difficult part about composing for a film?

Each film has been different for me; this is the only one I’ve done that’s a straight up horror/sci-fi movie. It’s such a big sound. Some of the other ones I did last year, say for Animals, it was like this really hyper-realistic film where we were in the car with two people for the whole time almost. Music could easily get in the way of that whereas this one we’re bombarding you with music. So I think it’s kind of find that middle ground – how am I going to support the story without ruining it? How am I going to bring people’s attention in but not draw their attention to music, just draw their attention to story and do it justice? I think that’s always the trick.

Obviously you’ve worked in big bands before, are there any specific challenges in relation to writing songs for radio and writing a composition for a film? What’s the main difference apart from perhaps the obvious?

So I actually am not a songwriter for any of the Passion Pit material, I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not but I’m not in the band anymore but I have written songs in the past though. I feel like with the song writing you’re only kind of telling a story for yourself usually, you’re drawing from your experiences and telling something from your perspective whereas when I dive into a film, I am at the mercy of the director and his story. I am telling that story and nothing else. However, you need to tell in a way that can reach everyone at the same time. It has to be generalised to an extent where everyone gets it and it makes sense to everyone. So it’s an interesting challenge both ways, writing a song or writing a score. Both times you’ll have a very specific goal or story in mind but you also have to do it in a way that people will be receptive of it.

So you’ve mentioned a bit about the director, what kind of collaboration is there between him [Alistair Legrand] and you, when you’re making music?

So he gave me pretty good free reign and some of it was a good base point to start off with. It helped to have an idea what they’re thinking about but I kind of started running with my own stuff and he, honestly, was one of the best working relationships I’ve had so far. I was actually with him earlier! But he would come over to my house every week or two weeks and I’d just show him as much as I’d done, and we actually did that from the beginning of the movie straight to the end which I don’t usually do. But he’d give me notes here and there, and most of the time the notes would be like make this bigger, make that louder, and make that harder. So it was really fun, it was kind of like having a playground of reason to work with and he just let me do what I wanted.

That’s pretty good! What kind of set up do you have in your studio? What kind of instruments were you using? Was it mostly midi keyboards, things like that?

There are some midi stuff on it but I actually try to use a lot of hardware synths. I had a few string players come and do some cool stuff for me.

Of course being a horror film you need the strings.

Yeah, absolutely! I did some terrible things to those string sounds but they sounded really cool. My friend John who plays with The War on Drugs did some horn sampling for me, I’ve worked with him a few times now. My wife Sophia sang on it and then I was at the Rose Bowl Markets in Pasadena, and it was right when I moved to LA, and I wondered if I could find something cool here to use because I just wanted to do something weird. I love sound manipulation and sound design, and I found this thing called a ‘ukelin’ and it’s half ukulele and half violin, but it’s really just a board with a sound hole and strings on it which you can strum. It’s horribly out of tune and I just used it as is. I never tried to tune it, I never tried to play correctly. I would slam on it and I would like scrap the strings on it. A lot of the first sounds I started making for the film are all from that $60 piece of junk I found. It’s fun.

So you’re into sound manipulation. Where did that interest come from?

I think I’ve always had it. Growing up when I would listen to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for example. My ear just caught onto that type of sonic playability of I can take something, completely destroy it and make it into something really pretty. And all through growing up, any music I would ever listen to, I get drawn to that type of thing, these amazing sonic landscapes. It’s something that I’ve always kind of adapted to easily I guess, more so than writing a traditional score. So whenever I get the chance to incorporate that I get really excited.

And that kind of sound manipulation would work well for the film as well because you have so much scope to try it out. What kind of composers do you look at for inspiration? Do you have any people that you really want to emulate?

Yeah I mean there’s a few. There’s like, I don’t want to say old school, but there’s the big guys: Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat. I really love what those guys do, and then there’s like new classic composers that I’m slowly trying to weasel my way into, like Rob Simonsen, Joe Trapanese… Nathan Johnson is a big one. Those are guys who are able to be friends in LA and I’m so inspired by what they do. It helps me by keep moving forward and keep striving for stuff.

So what’s next for you then after this film?

So, The Diabolical is actually the third film that I’ve worked on and I actually just before I came here finished my sixth, so next month will be a trip back to New York for a documentary called Thought Crimes and then I’m just waiting to see what happens with the rest of them. But I’m hoping within the next year there’ll be a small handful of films coming out.

So obviously last year you left Passion Pit which was a massive band. Am I able to ask how did you make that big decision to leave?

Yeah, so end of 2013 we finished our tour of Gossamer and I kind of woke up one day and realised I don’t know if I want to keep touring. It’s not an easy thing nowadays and there’s definitely some amazing fun parts about it like you know playing shows is great but there’s a lot of really hard, annoying tiring stuff that comes with it. I was just realising that I want to try different things. I was in the band for seven years and I think that’s an honourable amount of time to spend – it was really just that. When I told Michael it was a nice conversation, there was no fight or anything it was just kind of like ‘I think I’m ready to try something else’ and honestly I’ve been really happy doing my own thing.

Sure, I mean the touring cycles are punishing these days. I guess there’s something about modern music and people not making enough money on records anymore. They’re forced to do these three year long touring cycles for one album.

It’s the main way to make money these days. It’s interesting because they [Passion Pit] are here and I’ve been meeting up with them and hanging out. It’s funny, everyone’s back at South By but we’re all doing different things.

That’s cool. Is it a bit different to be here for, I mean you were here last year for a film, but to not be in that kind of music crush? Or do you still see most people?

It is, I mean I still get to see them but it’s kind of nice because my schedules so light that I’m really here just for those one or two screenings that we have and I just get to go around, see friends when they’re playing and go see a movie if I can. It’s definitely more leisurely than whenever I was here with the band.

Yeah, I’d recommend going to see Deep Web by the way.

Oh, Alistair saw that yesterday and said it was really good.

Definitely, it was chilling.

Thought Crimes, the documentary that’s coming out in Tribeca, it centres around that world. So it should be interesting.

Fascinating, so what films are you going to check out? Do you have any on your list for the week?

I’d love to see Ex Machina but I don’t think its playing while I’m here unfortunately. I am curious to see Adult Beginnersbecause I love all the people in that. So there’s a few.

Ian Hultquist chatted to us as part of his appearance at the screening of The Diabolical at SXSW.

Interview by Jules LeFevre. Transcription by Debbie Carr.