Crush Effect Meets Transformers
November 5, 2022
Crushing It: Scoring Genre Bending Music for TRANSFORMERS: EARTHSPARK
Interview by Randall D. Larson
Meet a new generation of heroes in TRANSFORMERS: EARTHSPARK, a fun kid-friendly streaming series premiering on Nov. 11 exclusively on Paramount+. The computer-animated television series, based on the Transformers toyline by Hasbro and Takara, will consist of 26 episodes in its first season (the series has already been renewed for a second). The series is composed by Southern California’s Crush Effect (producer duo Jesse Molloy and David Veith) who make genre-bending music that spans from nu-funk to nu-disco to electronic Motown. Their experience with production and live music runs deep, as David plays keys for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, and Jesse plays sax for Panic! At The Disco. TRANSFORMERS: EARTHSPARK Crush Effect’s first foray into composing for film, and the show’s creative team gave them the freedom to create a cinematic, synth-heavy score for the series by pulling sounds from modern cyberpunk, EDM, and the dance world. Having grown up in the 80’s with the original TRANSFORMERS series (1984-87), Crush Effect also wanted to capitalize on that nostalgia by taking inspiration from classic retro 80’s scores like those of Tangerine Dream and the original TRON. The resulting score feels authentically “Crush Effect” with a punched-up cool factor and a bit of a darker edge one might not expect from a Nickelodeon animated series while still finding the right balance for the show’s lighter moments and thematic motifs for the iconic characters in the series.
Watch the TRANSFORMERS: EARTHSPARK Trailer:
Q: You’ve had a number of tracks licensed for films and television over the years – how did you find the switch into serving as series composers for TRANSFORMERS: EARTHSPARK?
David Veith: Jesse and I have been working together for at least ten years, and it was about four or five years ago that we started trying to make this concerted… not switch, but move into film and TV. We’d done some sort of free-lance work for our agent/manager Lee Scheinbaum, where he needed some one-off music for different TV or film shows, and he liked our music enough and knew our background and he asked if we’d be interested, and we said we’d love it. So for about the last four years Jesse and I have been working on a reel, pitching for various projects and trying to hone the craft of writing to picture, and then this opportunity came up. It was like everything lined up perfectly. The team at Nickelodeon are such cool, great people and very musical. They heard in our music the style of music that they wanted for this show. We didn’t do any spotting sessions with them – we talked about the show and as soon as we got in its vibe, they’ve just let us do our thing. I think they liked our style of music enough that they trusted us. We’d had enough experience that Jesse and I knew how to write to picture, we just didn’t have any professional credits yet in that genre. But they took a big chance on us, and kudos to them for doing it, because not a lot of people would have, especially with a franchise like TRANSFORMERS, which is a big deal, so for them to hand us the keys was amazing for us.
Jesse Molloy: It’s been such a cool journey for me and Dave as partners in Crush Effect. Our journey’s been coming from playing and touring and live bands to producing together to wanting to be DJs together to then making tracks that found themselves with sync licenses. We had been dabbling a little bit with some commercials and doing things here and there randomly. We have always loved how score and music come together and what kind of creative bit that is, so all of a sudden we found ourselves with a passion to put some momentum that way.
Q: I understand you were given freedom to compose a synth-heavy yet cinematic score for the series. How would you define your musical palette for this show?
Jesse Molloy: In a lot of ways we treated it as a bit of live action. Even though it’s animation and it’s family oriented, where there’s a scene that has high stakes, where there’s a lot of tension and a danger moment, we go, “Okay, this is where this episode peaks,” and we want to treat it the same as we would if it was live action. Once we started to feel what their vision was, we had the freedom to really go for it within that world – like here’s a part where we want that sorrow to really come through, or this is a battle scene that’s super intense. We brought in a synth-heavy style of Giorgio Moroder, a big influence, with a very thick ‘80s nostalgia. It was cool in that the film involves a family where we could discover that small town. Being a kid from the ‘80s, too, there are some sounds that just go there, so it’s really fun to mess around with that and see what happens, thematically, through chord progressions that we identify with that time period – or let’s make this soundscape that’s very sci-fi and then we get something that pulls very modern right down the center of it. So it’s been nice to mix a modern and a nostalgic aesthetic.
David Veith: We knew the world that they wanted to live in. They’d given us a lot of reference tracks of just general music – we got a lot of Tangerine Dream, the first soundtrack to TRON, some of the Atticus Ross/Trent Reznor stuff for WATCHMEN, and some more obscure 80’s cinematic synth stuff. So we knew what they liked, and everything we got from them was very dark, musically, so the challenge, for Jesse and I – because it’s a kids’ show – was how to take enough of that. They really wanted us to punch up, musically; they didn’t want it to sound like a kids’ show – they didn’t want any thing twinkly or cute, so we definitely knew the world they wanted us to live in. They wanted it to be a little more cinematic and darker when we could do it. Jesse and I pulled from all those elements that we grew up with and loved, and mixed them with a lot of the modern techniques that we tend to like and use in our productions. That made a nice kind of hybrid that seemed to work really well with the show.
Q: How have you used the style of some of the classic music of ‘80s synth bands and films in developing your score?
David Veith: We kind of grew up with a lot of that music, so for Jesse and I, we didn’t have to go back and research a bunch of these bands and see what their DNA was. That’s what got me into playing keyboards when I was a little kid – it was the synth sounds and all of that, so we were so excited when they gave us some of these reference tracks, and we just immediately had a sense and a vision of where to go with them. It wasn’t a big stretch for us in getting into that space.
Jesse Molloy: I think there’s something incredible about our synergy as a duo. There’s an instinct that we’ve always enjoyed, whether we’re making tracks for an artist or we were doing something for ourselves. There’s a fun kind of on-a-mission back-and-forth that Dave and I have: “this is what our target is, here is the vision of the creative team, and then all of a sudden it’s ‘ah, that’s it!’ or ‘maybe lean it this way’.” A lot of it had to do with both of us growing up with the sound, but there’s also this fun element, as Crush Effect, where we want to serve the mission on hand and we really enjoy that. I think our partnership is strong that way, where we can both go, “Yes! That’s it!” Usually that intention and that intuition has good fruit from it.
Q: Did the animation style of this particular TRANSFORMER series affect the musical needs of where you were taking the score?
David Veith: Not necessarily. The show looks really good. The production part of it on the visuals, is pretty top notch, and the nice thing about animation is when Jesse and I get it, it’s a locked picture. Not everything’s there, but most of it is, 95% of the time. It’s hard not to be influenced by anything you see, visually. Some of the animation that they pull off is extraordinarily cinematic, so it’s inspiring, musically, when we see it. That dictates what this thing needs to be, such as the way they’ll do big pan shots that you don’t necessarily see in a lot of animation. It’s not necessarily the visual style of the show but just their aesthetic. For them, as an animated show, I think they wanted to make it feel cinematic, and that, by default, has influenced us in the music as well.
Jesse Molloy: Yeah. I was blown away when we got our first glimpse of what this show was going to look like. I remember coming across the first couple of episodes, and there was this fog in the forest, in the background. That detail, in an unexpected way, had an allure, and it sparked something for us to find a pad that’s atmospheric that can tie us into that fog. That’s definitely part of the fun of scoring, where we notice details like that, and they drew me in, creatively, for a moment. Going with that can create a spark.
Q: What can you tell me about coming up with the main theme and other recurring motifs for the series?
David Veith: For those, once Jessie and I got the green light and the go-ahead, we had our first big creative meeting with their team. They gave us a general scope of the entire season. They took us through every character and what their arc is, what their relationship is with the other characters. They didn’t want to get too crazy on details, as far as “Oh, you should have a motif for this person or that character,” or whatever. So when that meeting was over, Jesse and I had about six weeks to write the score for the double-episode pilot. For the first two weeks it was Jesse and I figuring out sound palettes and little melodic motifs – what could work, what couldn’t work, and then we would throw little bits up against picture and see what sounded good for this character, and could this music translate when that character is in an action scene as well as in a dialogue scene or an emotional scene. We were sending little, teeny 10- and 15-second clips back to each other and every once in a while there’d be one that’s great. In writing the pilot, things got revealed – like, this little thing that you came up with would be great for this overall thematic thing – some of it was conscious writing, and some of it just developed out of necessity to get the thing done in a short amount of time. We’re on episodes 17 and 18 right now, and we’re still pulling from a lot of that thematic material from episode 1 and 2. What’s that quote, “repetition creates legitimacy?” We created little three or four note melodic motifs we’d find that we really liked, and then all of a sudden those things become part of the soundscape and feel like a part of the show. They definitely make it easier to write as each episode comes along, so now we have material for different situations, which is a good starting point for us in a lot of ways.
Q: How have you brought in elements of modern cyberpunk, EDM, and the dance world into the Transformers’ universe, and making this series’ music very much your own style?
Jesse Molloy: I’m a big fan of electronic dance music. Dave and I have made a lot of that music, so in a lot of ways, having that be the musical exclamation point in, maybe, a fight scene – and being that we’re working on a TRANSFORMERS show, we’ve got plenty of robots in a battle scene – it’s just right up our alley to take flavors of some kind of aggressive cyberpunk element or an EDM element and have it really come to life as a score. Mixing all that kind of stuff is part of the hybrid world we live in and another characteristic of where we come from.
David Veith: For the last ten years, doing a lot of modern EDM and hip-hop production, that sort of thing came naturally to us, too, to go to and mix with the sort of retro stuff. It’s kind of funny because I think so much of that synth sound from the ‘80s is the modern sound now. It’s totally had a resurgence, and there’s the Dark Wave and Cyberpunk, and a lot of that came out of Dub-Step, and there’s a lot of pop records that have a very ‘80s kind of hybrid thing. So it didn’t feel unnatural to us, at all, to figure out ways to bring in what one might consider modern sounds as well as the older stuff and put them together in a way that hopefully serves the overall picture and vibe the best – to kind of give you a little bit of nostalgia within this totally new show.
Jesse Molloy: One of the things, too, for us, is I’m a saxophone player. It’s been incredibly fun on this project to play saxophone in some inconspicuous ways and areas, where there’s like outlier pieces of music and maybe the sax comes in and it’s a nostalgic ‘80s sax riff, or it’s something back in the texture that brings it in. I’ve done that mixed in with the synth or the EDM, and it’s fun to find out where we can bring in the sax in very sparse ways but also in very cool orchestral ways that tie in with the different mosaic of genres.
Q: How have your themes and motifs developed across the arc of the season, both for the familiar iconic characters and for any new characters that might be introduced?
David Veith: I think as far as arcing motifs, you’ve got the classic characters from the old show, Megatron, Optimus Prime, and Bumblebee, with Bumblebee and Megatron being more in the forefront. We started with a couple of things for those two characters, and as an arc throughout the season they’ve developed as their characters have developed, but at the core it’s always the same stuff. There’s enough melodic and sonic anchorage in those themes that gives us the ability to keep them growing, making themes move forward without sounding the same from when we started.
Jesse Molloy: It’s fun to see, viewing as the episodes roll out, that this was a specific motif for a character, but we’re kind of dabbling with that every time we see the team of Autobots, or these three or four characters. Sometimes there’s a bit of an umbrella starting to happen over themes that, organically, just come to the surface a bit when we come across confrontations of different combinations of characters. There are quite a number of characters, more than I thought their would be, so there are introductions to a lot of different characters.
David Veith: We don’t have themes for every character. There are character themes and then there are situational themes, or environmental themes. For the family, there’s thematic material and sonic material for them, and then within that the mother and the father have these smaller themes that are played throughout the show. And the young girl, Mo, has kind of a motif also. Sometimes, in certain situations where a scene needs to have some heart to it, we’ll go back to the family themes or mix and match and have them intertwined to tie things in. The show moves so much and there are a lot of new characters – in a lot of episodes there’s a new villain that will come in, and it’s usually a throwback character, and we’ll write a little something for him and then you might not see that character again – or maybe we will, ten episodes later. So the characters that get a lot of screen time are the ones that we mostly have the music that you’ll start to hear.
Q: What have you found most interesting or challenging about scoring the first season of TRANSFORMERS: EARTHSPARK?
Jesse Molloy: Sometimes an intense or a dark scene, an action scene, can just flow. I think sometimes when we get a scene that’s a learning moment for the kids, and we’re writing and then we’re like, how do we do this so that it doesn’t get sad when it’s a learning moment? It’s about how to create just the right texture for this moment to play out in the way in which the dialog and the characters’ expressions, and those moments where it’s maybe a learning moment, or it’s a lot of dialog, and it needs to be right down the middle. It’s not sad, it’s not happy, so it’s about how we push it along.
Q: How would you define a learning moment in the context of TRANSFORMERS?
David Veith: It’s always with the young Terrans and the kids, and it could be separation anxiety, the first time after the Terrans and the kids have bonded together, and the kids have to go to school all day, and it’s like, “are you guys abandoning us?” The Terrans are young, too, and they don’t understand everything, and so throughout the episodes we realize, they’re basically family. Trying to navigate that musically can be tricky, like Jesse said; it’s easier to punch up and go dark in this style of music, and the tough thing to do are those more emotional moments. We avoid things like the high strings floating in the air as they do their dialog; but we still make it feel like it’s in this world and hit the right emotional buttons without going too far – where we don’t need to pound it in that hard. That’s always a challenge. Those are the scenes where we’re always kind of looking back and forth and asking, hey did we get this right? For us, with season 1, that’s been the biggest challenge for me.
Jesse Molloy: In a very synth-heavy world, just speaking about textures, it’s like something that’s possibly simple, where if you were to see the session there’s a lot of things moving in and out, but to the ear it might seem simpler than how much is actually going on. So, in a way, you can create that space, or have something rhythmic moving, having a synth moving around, maybe it’s an arpeggiator or something that’s percussive, maybe it’s filters, maybe there’s cut-offs or maybe there’s different textures, but there are enough things so you can keep the music moving along without it getting in the way of dialog.
Q: What do you hope in terms of this project opening further doors for you in film scoring? What would you like to be doing in another five years?
David Veith: I think we would like to get into some live action. Jess and I definitely have the bug as far as writing to picture. In five years from now I would love to have a couple of shows going and do a movie once a year; that would be amazing. This show is great, and it’s been great for us creatively; if this thing ran for five years Jesse and I would be ecstatic. But at the same time we’d love to take a crack at some live action stuff and some TV or film. We both are prone to edgier, quirkier, artistic-y type stuff, so anything that would get us in that direction where we’re given enough creative freedom to do what we do would be amazing.
Jesse Molloy: Yeah, like Dave said, we’ve got that itch. We’ve got that bug. Five years from now, TV shows, films, live action, that kind of hybrid world where we come from, musically – we’re excited to continue exploring that and meet other creative teams. We have just been so grateful and thankful and lucky to have paired with the creative team at TRANSFORMERS, Ciro Nieli, Dale Malinowski, Ant Ward and the whole team here, they’re really and sincerely talented and awesome people, and it’s been such an enjoyable experience for us. I think this is just the starting point for Crush Effect.
Special thanks to Andrew Krop and Yefan Zhang of White Bear PR for facilitating this interview, and especially to Jesse Molloy and David Veith for taking time out to talk with me about their music for TRANSFORMERS: EARTHSPARK.
The series premieres Nov. 11 exclusively on Paramount+.
For more information on Crush Effect, see their website https://www.crusheffect.com/
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.