The Americans is a cold-war era spy show on FX that’s wrapping up its final season, but for composer Nathan Barr, it’s another high-note in a career that plays like a symphony.
Classical Greek philosopher Plato once said about music: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” For pop culture, the sounds behind our favorite scenes often receive little appreciation. Without the theme to Superman or Star Wars, those films lose so much of their soul. Without the soaring sounds of ET, the moment Elliot and his extraterrestrial friend lift off on the bicycle loses its wings. Music fills in the space emotional between viewer and entertainment that brings life to the acting, effects, and direction.
Monkeys Fighting Robots spoke with Nathan Barr about his past, present, and future in the music making business now that The Americans is over.
The road to composing for film and television started with a now household composer “It started in about 1997. I started working as Hans Zimmer’s assistant for about eight months.” For Nathan, it was part of Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions which was known as Media Ventures back then. “That was sort of being thrown into the deep end of the pool. He showed me the ropes.”
Before composing Nathan was already an accomplished musician, “I’m a cellist and a guitarist. I studied music my whole life.” And Nathan had goals “I’ve always had an interest in doing film and television.”
How do you go from a horror movie to a spy thriller? “It’s just really about connecting with the characters emotionally. As long as there’s a character I can connect to and the performances are strong, it’s really easy to go back and forth between different genres.”
Speaking about The Americans “… Philip and Elizabeth are such amazing characters … so it’s really easy to plug into them emotionally. To further his point “With something like The Son, another show I’m doing, or a show I’m doing that’s coming up on Amazon, Carnival Row, the characters on these show are really wonderful.”
Where does Nathan gather his inspiration? Is it from other movies or shows? “Not really, I try to approach it with my sound.”
Reference tracks are a normal thing now in Hollywood and Nathan thinks “I’m doing a movie right now with Eli Roth called The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and there’s temp [tracks] all the way throughout. It helps me get an idea of what they want. Eli is a director, though, who really wants his own sound and so I depart from the temp.”
Has a director ever wanted something that resembles the track more accurately? “I haven’t really run into that. If I had someone insisting that I duplicate the temp, then I’d probably not do the project.”
“I really try to stick to acoustic instruments. I have a bunch of weird string instruments that I like to use. But I’m really all about keeping things as organic as possible.” But, not everything is so simple “Some shows require quite a bit of synth stuff because it fits in that world.”
Nathan Barr’s career is highlighted by horror films and TV. Is that his favorite genre? “Probably a third of my career is horror films. I love horror films. I watch pretty much everyone that comes out. I’m disappointed most of the time. But still the past couple years there has been some great stuff.”
Time is money, as they say, and how does time change the approach to a project? “With something like True Blood or The Americans I have hours and hours of content to explore the world through music versus 90 minutes in a movie.” Nathan adds “However, with a movie, like this one I’m working on now, I’ll have four months to really work on the themes whereas with a tv show, you have a little more time on the front end but then it’s week-to-week sometimes.”
Like many professionals, Nathan doesn’t encounter the composer’s version of writer’s block much “Thankfully I figured out pretty early that I really thrive under deadline.” However, with that said, he continues “I guess if I have too much time there can be times where I don’t feel like writing.”
Nathan cements a vital part of the creative process for him “Being away from the studio is also as important as being in the studio, to sort of clear your head.”
As for Nathan’s studio, it’s transitioning to bigger and better things “I do the majority of my work at an in-home studio, but I’m just building a very large studio down in Tarzana where I’ll be able to record an orchestra of up to about 60 players, and that’s where I’ll start working most of the time.”
What is the relation between writing music and a scene? “A scene tells us how long a piece is going to be, what themes are going to be in it, where it needs to have its changes, where it needs to lift, where it needs to dip. It’s like a roadmap.”
The future is here, and video games are the dominating force of entertainment for the coming generation. Nathan declares “I’d totally work on a video game. I’m a gamer, and I think of Jeremy Soule’s work on Skyrim or the stuff done in BioShock. It’s just amazing.”
And to cap things off, I ask Nathan to name a modern composer who he admires “The guy I’m always impressed by is Dario Marianelli, he did Anna Karenina, Paddington 2, his work is always just really phenomenal.”
Thank you to Nathan Barr for taking time out of his busy, music-making day to speak with us. Additionally, thanks to Impact24 PR for connecting us with Nathan and providing the photos scattered throughout the article.