After the “Previously on…” intro from Ira Glass, each episode of Serial, a serialized podcast created by the team behind This American Life, begins with a theme song built on broken-down pianos and a swelling synth line. This haunting piece of bummer pop, along with most of podcast’s excellent score, was composed by Nick Thorburn, the industrious musician who for more than a decade has been part of groups including the Unicorns, th’ Corn Gangg, Reefer, Human Highway, Mister Heavenly and Islands (his primary band since 2005).
Serial, which is hosted and produced by Sarah Koenig, investigates the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend and fellow Baltimore teenager, Hae Min Lee, in 1999. Its weekly chronicle format has made Serial a podcast phenomenon. It quickly hit the top of the iTunes podcast chart and Slate has started going in on it like it’s True Detective.
Thorburn’s score does a great job embellishing the show’s something’s-not-quite-right atmosphere and he recently made the collection Original Music from Serial available on his Bandcamp page. The music was recorded over a few days last July and Thornburn played every instrument on it.
Wondering Sound spoke with the composer about how the score came to be and what he hopes it leads to.
How did they approach you for this project?
It was through this woman Jane [Marie] who worked at This American Life. I don’t know her that well; we have mutual friends, and I guess she passed my name on. There wasn’t really a vetting process. They sent me the episode and then I sat with it for a bit and I just put down some music that I felt fit the tone. It was really that fast; it was just a couple of days of putting little songs together and sending it to them. And they liked pretty much everything I sent. There weren’t revisions or anything.
Did you get a sense that when Jane Marie recommended you that they knew who you were?
I don’t know. I know Jane through [the rapper] El-P, who I have a dormant project with called Stepson. I was on her radar, but I don’t know if, when she recommended me to Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig, I was on their radar. They never made mention of it, I think they just trusted her taste. Thank god.
How do you go about scoring a podcast? It’s a pretty new medium in itself.
Yeah, but it sort of plays out like a radio play. There’s dialogue and there’s narration. From what scoring I’ve done, it’s like scoring to picture, but there’s no picture. Obviously, with this show there’s tension and there’s a mood to it. It stands apart from other podcasts, it plays much differently, so it lends itself to a cinematic score.
“Adnan” and “Murderland” especially have a distinctly ominous and threatening feel that you wouldn’t usually get on a segment for This American Life.
It’s a nice new tone. Just listening to the first episode, I wanted to help push it in any way that I could. It might have been more accurate to release that collection as Original Music for Serial and not “from Serial” because most of it they haven’t even used. They’ve used about a fifth of the music I made for it.
You composed everything just from hearing the first episode?
Yeah, they didn’t have anything beyond that. They’re still just one episode ahead of everyone listening, I think.
When you were composing, were you considering how the pieces might be used down the line, divorced from the specific context that you were creating them for? Was that a tough challenge?
Yeah, it was. And in some ways I felt like I was blindly grasping for straws in the dark, mixed metaphors-style, but I just used my intuition and taste to guide me.
Have you been following the show?
I have. Sometimes I get distracted because I’ll start focusing on where they used the music. They have a guy [Mark Henry Phillips] who mixes it and drops it in — he’s probably doing a lot more work than me. [Doing the score happened] right before I went on tour, so it was kind of a last-minute thing. They have certain pieces that they need that I didn’t necessarily give them. There’s a few times in the episodes where it’s [Phillips's] score and it’s kind of a sound-alike. I’ll be like, “Is that me? Did I do that piece?” But that’s fine. I’m not around to be as involved and hands-on as he is, so it’s good that they have someone there to pick up the slack.
What other scoring have you done before this?
I did a documentary called Only the Young. And my friend Alia Shawkat is an actress, but her father owns a strip club in the desert and she made a short film about it. I did the music for that. I’m just getting started. As I go on tour less, I’d like to do soundtrack stuff more.
Serial seems like a good opportunity for you to have this new outlet, but it also came the same year as the first Unicorns reunion shows, which I’m sure people have been asking you about for the past 10 years. You seem to be doing something from your past but also looking at a direction of where your future could go. Do you think about that stuff or do you just take it as it comes?
Just as it comes. The Unicorns thing, I don’t know, you can only be asked about it so many times before you just submit. But it was pleasant, as far as giving in goes. As far as giving people what they want, it wasn’t so painful.
Would you ever do an instrumental album that wasn’t tied to a score?
I definitely would. I don’t think I have the luxury of going deeper into musical landscapes. I’d need a little more juice for that to happen, but I definitely think it would be a really fun experiment. The project with El-P — we were working on it years ago, we’ve talked about getting it back together — maybe that could be an outlet for that, more of a collaboration.
Have you been getting attention for the Serial stuff?
It’s been crazy. It’s been one of the biggest things I’ve been a part of. So many people, acquaintances and even random people I have not met, will come up to me in public and start talking to me about the show. Everyday someone texts me or messages me or hits me up or just yells. If I’m in a social setting, they’ll bring it up, I guess because my name is at the end of the episode, which is nice. I feel fortunate.