In a World Full of Secrets – She Is The Key
February 3, 2023
Will Bates and the MAYFAIR WITCHES Score
Interview by Randall D. Larson
About Will Bates: Will Bates is an award-winning composer, multi-instrumentalist and founder of Fall On Your Sword. He has composed original scores for a myriad of filmmakers including acclaimed directors Mike Cahill (Another Earth; I Origins; Bliss), Alex Gibney (We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks; Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief; Zero Days; The Forever Prisoner), Ry Russo-Young (You Won’t Miss Me; Nobody Walks) and Fisher Stevens (Mission Blue; Bright Lights). His film and television credits include Dean Craig’s comedy film The Estate, starring Toni Collette, Anna Faris and David Duchovny; Netflix’s mini-series Devil in Ohio, starring Emily Deschanel and Stacey Farber; Starz’s Sweetbitter, starring Ella Purnell; the Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated Netflix mini-series Unbelievable, starring Toni Collette; and drama/sci-fi series Away, starring Hilary Swank; SyFy’s hit series The Magicians, starring Stella Maeve; and the George R.R. Martin produced series Nightflyers, starring Eoin Macken; The Looming Tower, starring Jeff Daniels; and the biographical documentary, Hillary; NBC’s Rise, starring Josh Radnor; Michael Mohan’s thriller The Voyeurs, starring Sydney Sweeney; and more.
As a solo artist and multi-instrumentalist, Bates has recorded and toured around the globe under the name of his own post-punk band The Rinse and has collaborated with Electric Six front-man Dick Valentine as The Evil Cowards. As a saxophonist, Bates has collaborated with legendary artists ranging from 60’s icon Lulu to techno legend Marshall Jefferson. As a producer and composer, he has worked with a similarly diverse bunch including Mike Rutherford, Roy Ayers, Pussy Riot and Morcheeba’s Skye Edwards. In 2007, Bates created the first of a series of videos under the name Fall On Your Sword. His videos quickly went viral on YouTube, racking up hits in the millions and an explosive FOYS live act soon followed. In 2009, Fall On Your Sword evolved into a music production company.
About MAYFAIR WITCHES: Based on Anne Rice’s best-selling trilogy, Lives of the Mayfair Witches, the 8-episode series focuses on an intuitive young neurosurgeon, Rowan (Alexandra Daddario), who discovers that she is the unlikely heir to a family of witches. As she grapples with her newfound powers, she must contend with a sinister presence that has haunted her family for generations. Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches premiered Sunday January 8th, 2023 on AMC, with new episodes streaming early on Thursdays on AMC+.
Of the soundtrack, composer Will Bates says, “The gothic horror of New Orleans and the complexity of Anne Rice’s characters really allowed me to experiment with instrumentation and themes. I love to make use of the enormous power of melody when working on a show, planting the seed of a theme in 17th century Scotland and allowing it to grow into a new context in contemporary New Orleans.” Layered atop Bates’ darkly ominous instrumentation and horror-inducing synthwork, the resulting soundtrack reflects the series’ gothic New Orleans setting while maintaining the complexity of Rice’s story and characters.
Watch the trailer to MAYFAIR WITCHES:
“I’m very inspired by sound. I tend to stumble onto unusual new sounds and a lot of the time that’s how my melodies are brought to life.” – Will Bates
Q: What brought you into this project and what were some of your early discussions with the showrunners and directors about the kind of music they were looking for?
Will Bates: I met Esta Spalding [creator, writer, executive producer] through my agent, and we just hit it off almost immediately. And of course she encouraged me to go and read the books and try to bring myself into Anne Rice’s universe. It was important, I think, for us to be drawing some inspirations from New Orleans – that was definitely the beginning of our first discussions. In fact, the first piece of music that I wrote was actually something they needed while they were still shooting, it was in the first episode when Young Deirdre [Cameron Inman] goes to her uncle’s house for a party; there’s a band that’s playing in that sequence and it needed to be somewhat ambiguous to what era it was. The music supervisors had set this idea that it should be this calypso song, which I recreated so they could have it on set, but they wanted it to accelerate as she finds this man and she starts dancing with him and then they go to bed, and then something horrific happens, so this piece also needed to connect with score. That was the first thing I wrote, and because it had the instrumentation of this band, that somehow informed a lot of my choices moving into the rest of my score. And then there was another sequence in Episode 4, where there’s a 17th Century Scottish funeral, and I had to write this Gaelic, almost witchy chant that they’re wailing – and again they needed that to be on camera. They have strange percussion and weird harps that they’re playing, so I chose these instruments and that also informed a lot of my later decisions when I came to scoring those sequences that were in the 17th Century. It was really helpful to have had that experience right at the beginning.
Q: When you began scoring the series, how did you come up with the musical and instrumental palette for this series?
Will Bates: I’m very inspired by sound. I tend to stumble onto unusual new sounds and a lot of the time that’s how my melodies are brought to life. So I really wanted there to be this blend between these raw textures – I use a wonderful violinist named Lev Ljova Zhurbin who is featured a lot on the score. I would send parts to him and I’d encourage him to really dig into his instrument and make it as raw as possible. I combined some of his sounds with a lot of my analog synths – I have this very odd Russian-made synthesizer, it’s called the Ether and it was made for me by a Russian guy called Vlad Kreimer at Soma Laboratory. He makes all sorts of very esoteric, really interesting stuff. This one is played by rubbing your hand along a brass plate. Stuff like that really blended well with this raw, very human playing – and the percussion was very fierce, driving, and raw as well. Esta also talked a lot about wanting the house to have its own breathing feeling and an anthropomorphic vibe with a rising visceral tension – it’s like digesting the souls of the people living there. I used that brass synthesizer for that; you just can’t tell what it is and it feels like this thing is churning. There was lots of room for fun, experimental instrumentation. Because of the scope of the show, melody was a massive part of it. It’s not just a textural score, we wanted there to be a lot of themes that reappear and develop over time.
Q: What can you tell me about scoring the primary characters, and determining the thematic elements for this score?
Will Bates: Another vibe we also set on was featuring a female vocalist. I brought in Maiah Manser, who’s a wonderful singer, and she’s someone I’ve used a lot in the past. I had these melodic lines we had her play at the beginning – for example, the first time we get to the 17th Century Scottish storyline in Episode 2, Maiah is singing something in Gaelic that I wrote for her, and then it subtly becomes the theme of Rowan [Alexandra Daddario] and, to some extent, also reflects the lineage of the Mayfairs. That melody reappears in the same episode when she sees her mother for the first and final time in the elevator; that motif is there and is assisting her in the back of her mind. And similarly with Lasher – I have a melody for Rowan and Lasher [Jack Huston] and there’s a mass version of the same melody that appears later in that episode, when there’s a very climactic scene in the 17th Century and I have her sing a sort of Latin version of the same melody. It was really fun to play with these melodic elements – they’re almost like mini songs, if that makes sense. I did the same with Deirdre [Annabeth Gish]; she has a sort of escape melody that I refer to quite a lot throughout the show, and sometimes I had Maiah sing that as well. Sometimes I would have Maiah sing in Gaelic, or sometimes I would have her sing the words reversed and I’d figure out phonetically how I could literally flip the recording and then write it out for her, which is kind of crazy! Then, also, there’s some chant-y whispering things that are happening quite a bit, which again is almost like the Mayfairs are calling to Rowan through the ages. And, going back to that Scottish funeral, when I wrote the words to that, those are also in Gaelic but I took those lyrics – which I think are “Lo, do I see my mother, one day I will take my place beside her” – those are whispered in Gaelic when Rowan is starting to understand the extent of her powers.
Listen to the cue “The Prophecy,” featuring Maiah Manser:
Q: What are the instrumental elements of your anthemic opening track, “The Witching Hour,” and how did you configure that cue?
Will Bates: There was a lot of Ether in that one. That was really the beginning of this mission of the house, and trying to bring life to the house and that idea of soul-digestion that Esta was talking about. There was a lot of that with my wonderful violinist. There’s something towards the end of the cue called the Shepherd’s Tone, are you familiar with that?
Q: Oh yes. I love that cycle!*
* [Shepherd’s Tone: a sound consisting of a superposition of sine waves separated by octaves; which creates the auditory illusion of a tone that seems to continually ascend or descend in pitch, yet which ultimately gets no higher or lower]
Will Bates: I had Lev do that at the end, which Esta loved, and then I also use it in the show quite a bit, with the ascending and descending strings; and of course Maiah is also featured on that one, too.
Listen to “The Witching Hour” cue from Episode 1 of MAYFAIR WITCHES
Q: Watching the film with the subtitles, as I tend to do, I’ve found the designation of “Dark Music” an interesting description throughout the series. How would you describe what dark music is within the boundaries of this series?
Will Bates: That’s so interesting. It’s just what happens? It just says “Dark Music Playing” on the screen?
Will Bates: Wow. That’s funny. Well, darkness is definitely something that we wanted to bring across, that ultimately this story gets to some very dark places. But it needed to be deeper than that and there’s certainly some pathos and tragedy, and in order to understand Rowan’s conflict I think there needs to be a certain kind of motive passages that make you connect with her in a different way. I think the choices that she and her mother and her grandmother have made throughout the ages are important to understand why they’ve made those decisions. So the darkness to be is often times more emotional than just straight up dread.
Q: How would you describe your orchestral palette throughout the series?
Will Bates: It’s pretty heavily reliant on higher strings. Also, I’m a sax player, originally, so some times I find myself writing with the horns. Often they get taken out – I decide that I need to go into a different direction, but sometimes they stay in. I feel like that was a bit of a nod to New Orleans as well, there’s some brass in there that I tend to manipulate and make them feel similar to bed-like textures. So there’s a very constant blend of strings, lower brass, and also some crazy weird synths and modular synths.
Q: You mentioned the period settings of the film, such as the Scottish sequence that opens Episode 2 and continues into Episode 4 with the grieving ceremony in the woods. Would you elaborate a bit on how you accommodated some of the music from that period?
Will Bates: When I was asked to do the funeral scene I made those decisions thinking about what they would be playing in the woods at that funeral. I ended up going out and buying a Celtic harp, which is quite a small, very beautiful harp, and moving into the rest of the series I would start my writing by tinkering with that harp and coming up with melodies and chords, and then building it from there. A lot of the percussion is the Bodhrán [Celtic frame drum], so there’s a lot of that in there. I went out and got one of those and then realized it was actually very hard to play! I had my buddy Spencer Cohen play a little of those parts; he’s a fantastic percussionist. I wanted that to be a simple kind of raw energy as somewhat of a contrast to the contemporary palette.
Listen to “A Funeral in the Woods” from MAYFAIR WITCHES:
Q: I thought another very effective element was the growing electronic music we hear at the end of Episode 3 where Rowen allows Ciprien [Tongayi Chirisa] to touch her and thus show her the full extent of her powers.
Will Bates: Yeah, I really dove into that! I have a lovely old Roland Juno-6 and a Yamaha CS-80, and in order to capture that feeling of them falling in love, basically, and there being this connection, I wanted that electronic sound for the feeling of the synapses opening up, but at the same time giving it a warmth. The CS-80 is such an emotional synth for me, I tend to always reach for it. I have a gorgeous, big studio in North Hollywood with all sorts of rooms and synths and stuff, and then I have a home studio; my wife was very like, “You’re leaving the CS-80 in the home studio, because if you bring it to the other studio I’ll basically never see you again!” So it’s been in my house now! That reappears a few times in the show after it comes in during Episode 3; Esta wanted it to feel a little bit different to the rest of the palette, that this connection that they’re having is new and exciting and maybe slightly dangerous, and you don’t know if it’s going to go well. So bringing the electronics in seemed to make sense.
Q: Without giving away spoilers of any kind, what other musical elements will we look forward to hearing across the balance of this season?
Will Bates: There’s that mass that I was talking about. I’m really fond of that scene. I think that’s in episode 7. There’s a much larger orchestral arrangement of Lasher and Rowan’s theme in the final episode, for reasons that will become clear when you watch it. I have a thing called The French Connection, which I also use quite a lot; it’s sort of a re-creation of an ondes Martenot – so lots of manipulated, weird, bendy electronic versions of themes that have been planted earlier in the show. Because of the timeline and the scope of the series, it was, again, so lovely to plant the seeds of melodies and really allow them to develop across the course of the episodes. It’s something that I really love about working on television, that you can have that sense of scale, as opposed to a movie where it’s briefer.
Listen to the cue “The House,” from MAYFAIR WITCHES:
Q: Overall, what’s been most interesting or challenging for you in scoring MAYFAIR WITCHES?
Will Bates: That’s a good question. I think the thing that I’ve been really loving has been writing for a singer and really featuring Maiah melodically, and coming up with these lyrics in languages that I don’t fully understand. I had to do quite a lot of linguistic research on this one. That was great, and she and I have a lovely way of working, which is I’ll write a part, sometimes I’ll sing it myself and send it to her, not embarrassed to just have her hear me squawking away, and then hear what she will do so well. So that’s been delightful. She has a studio at home and she’ll send me her parts, and its just such a treat to bring in what she’s recorded and then it inspired me to take it even further and orchestrate against what she’s recorded. That’s probably the thing that I’ve enjoyed the best.
Q: What’s coming up next for you that you would be able to talk about?
Will Bates: There’s a show for FX that I’m currently working on, it’s called CLASS OF ’09, which is very different. It’s sort of a futuristic FBI show, and that’s really fun. And then I’ve reunited with a collaborator from many years ago, a wonderful director named Larry Fessenden, whose made a fabulous werewolf movie called BLACK OUT, and I’ve been having all sort of fun scoring that one. It’s wonderful. And working with Larry is always delightful, he’s one of my favorites.
Many thanks to Will Bates for taking time out to discuss his score in detail. See my previous interview with him about scoring 2022’s THE DEVIL IN OHIO, here.
Special thanks to Alix Becq-Weinstein of Rhapsody PR for facilitating this interview. Studio photos provided by Sarah Bereza.
Will Bates’ soundtrack for MAYFAIR WITCHES has been released digitally this Friday, February 3 by Milan Records.