Cinemax's gritty drama Quarry is a rollercoaster ride of emotions not only for its main characters Mac and Joni, but for its audience as well.
For the audience, the music heightens those emotions, adding to the intense drama taking place on screen. Composer Kris Dirksen is the guy responsible for creating that dramatic sound.
In addition to composing for Quarry, Dirksen also worked on Banshee, and his music can be heard in hundreds of movie and TV show trailers, including Mad Max: Fury Road, Sicario, The Revenant, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and more.
We put some questions to Kris about his life as a composer and what it's like scoring for a show like Quarry.
Take a look at what he had to say below, and be sure to tune in for Quarry Season 1 Episode 8, the season finale, airing tonight on Cinemax at 10/9c!
TV Fanatic: How did you get interested in music? Did you always plan on becoming a composer?
Kris Dirksen: I grew up in the suburbs of Canada so becoming a composer never felt like a serious viable option for me. I messed around with a 4 track in my bedroom in high school but that’s about as far as I ever thought my musical career would go. I ended up going to law school, hating it and interning at a record label, and that indirectly led me to writing music for trailers and eventually composing for TV/film.
Was it hard breaking into the industry with no formal training?
KD: It’s not an easy field to break into regardless of your training and there’s no clear path to build a composing career. If anything, the fact that I didn’t go to Berklee or film school might have actually helped me in that I didn’t have any rules or preconceived notions of what my music was supposed to sound like.
Where do you get your inspiration?
KD: I’ve always been more influenced by artists and bands that I like rather than film score, so that’s probably played a role in my attempts to create some type of unique, signature sound. When my partner Dane Short and I started writing trailer music there weren’t many composers using guitars and synths in their music, so we were sometimes dismissed as Nine Inch Nails knock-offs because people didn’t have a reference point in film music. In the early days I was more influenced by bands like Mogwai and Godspeed you Black Emperor. Obviously once Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won the Oscar for Social Network that blew the doors open and you now hear hybrid, synth-driven scores everywhere.
How would you describe your style?
KD: I’m a bit of a chameleon and always trying to find a unique, interesting sound for each project I work on. I’m best known for my hybrid, guitar and synth work but I’m always searching for new approaches rather than just emulating what’s popular. It’s great to see some of those sounds being used and accepted these days, but I’m always trying to look forward. It feels like we’re reaching “peak synth” in 2016, and personally I’m getting a little burnt out on that direction.
Who were your influences while creating the music for Quarry?
KD: I tried to capture some of the grit you hear in the recordings that were coming out of Memphis in that era from places like Stax and Royal Studios. Artist-wise I was probably influenced the most by Daniel Lanois’ pedal steel work, I bought an old Sho Bud pedal steel guitar and you’ll hear a lot of me playing that instrument very poorly on the score.
How would you describe the Quarry sound?
KD: It’s my attempt to create a modern-sounding score through the filter of old studio gear and instruments. We didn’t want a funky ‘70s retro score but I wanted to create something that used the sonics of the era in a way that didn’t feel dated. Recording to tape, and using effects like phasers that many people think of as cheesy these days, but trying to make a way to make that sound current. Most of the gear I used is stuff that would have existed in a studio in 1972.
What are the challenges of scoring a show that features such great music?
KD: When the score is surrounded by such great music it definitely sets the bar high in terms of quality. Memphis in 1972 was such an important place in the history of music that I felt a certain responsibility as a musician to not mess it up, especially given how great a job they did on the production side in terms of getting the details right.
How much of Quarry were you actually able to see before you began composing?
KD: This project was interesting in that the original pilot was shot by a different director, with a different cast from the final product. Seeing that in advance definitely helped in trying to build a sonic world for the show. I saw some early cuts from the first half of the season, but as with most TV shows you’re mostly diving into the episodes as they’re ready.
I absolutely loved the music that accompanied the Mac tracking Eugene sequence in episode six, “His Deeds Were Scattered.” What sort of influences went into creating that particular score? What type of mood were you trying to create?
KD: There was a style and tone that comes up throughout the series that I thought of as the “driving” music, where Mac is in the car following his prey. It was established in the pilot when Mac and Arthur set out to put the hit on Suggs, and later on when Mac pursues Cliff Williams. This was probably the closest Quarry ever came to “action” music, but even in those moments I tried to keep it fairly restrained and not sound like typical, in your face, action score.
There’s a muted, ominous tone to the Quarry score and in the “driving” moments it was a delicate balance trying to find a way to move things along and create some pace without making the music too upfront and forward. Usually drums are used to create that energy but I don’t think I used a single drum on the score. The only drum-type sound you’ll hear is a noise loop from a vinyl record that I effected to build a percussive rhythm under some of the action sequences.
What was your favorite Quarry episode to score and why? Any particular scene you enjoyed scoring the most?
KD: My favorite scene in terms of the score was the sequence from the end of episode 2, where Joni plays back Mac’s tape recordings from Vietnam. The music was fairly minimal but I loved the way the director Greg Yaitanes and the editor Doc Crotzer assembled that scene.
What do you most enjoy about working on a show like Quarry?
KD: The showrunner and director Greg Yaitanes is really open to new ideas and down to experiment, so his projects in general are always fun to work on.
You also worked on Banshee, how different are the two shows as far as composing is concerned?
KD: Banshee was much more over the top in general, whereas Quarry was much more grounded and contained in terms of what was happening on screen. They both shared a pulpy, nourish sensibility but Quarry was a little lighter on the action side of things and more focused on the human drama aspect.
How is composing for a TV show different than composing for a movie trailer? Do you favor one over the other?
KD: Trailer music is used in a very upfront way and the music is almost always trying to call attention to itself, you’re always trying to make things sound bigger and larger than life. With TV scoring it’s often the opposite and there’s more of a need to make the music play nice with dialog so you’re often pulling things back. To make a bad basketball metaphor, trailer music’s more like a show-off slam dunk, whereas in scoring you’re looking for the assist.
Out of all the work you’ve done so far, what has been your favorite to work on and why?
KD: Quarry was a lot of fun in that I had an opportunity to surround myself with a bunch of really cool old gear. I try and use real instruments and analog gear as much as I can in my work, but I doubt I’ll get another chance in my career to fully dive into that world like I did with this show.
Are there any other shows that you particularly admire sound wise?
KD: I just watched the new season of Black Mirror and really enjoyed Clint Mansell, Max Richters, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s work on that. Cliff Martinez’s score for another show on Cinemax called The Knick has been criminally under-appreciated in my opinion!
Lisa Babick is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.