Everything AND the kitchen sink: An interview with ‘Harley Quinn’ composer Jefferson Friedman

DC Universe’s Harley Quinn series has been fairly well-received, with a decent rating on IMDB, and good coverage from the fan press. I recently had the chance to hop on the phone and chat with the composer of the show’s score—indeed, the very music department himself—Jefferson Friedman, and I’ve got a transcript for you below. It was a fun, informative conversation, covering things practical and a bit more speculative. I hope you enjoy it.

Brian Warshaw: So the most obvious thing that jumped out at me as I was listening to these clips is that you’re using actual melody in a lot of them, and even some recurring themes. That’s not really something that’s uncommon in DC animated adaptations, or even live-action DC adaptations on-screen, but it is in stark contrast to much of the sort of treading water—I think it’s referred to as temp music or something like that—that you hear in a lot of action blockbuster soundtracks these days. So, were the showrunners looking for this specifically—you know music with actual melody and themes—or is this something that you were just sort of pushing for because that’s your preference?

Jefferson Friedman: I think it’s a combination of both. I think that it depends on the project, certainly, and I’m all for that kind of ambient score or repetitive kind of minimalist stuff, and if the project is right for that kind of stuff, for that kind of music, then obviously I would write that kind of music. But for this, I wanted the music to match the production design and the costume design, and so since it’s so kind of Technicolor and like very I guess the production design is like really broad in a way—I don’t know if that’s the right word—but I just wanted the music to match that, and so in my head, the idea that you were gonna have all of these characters have their own very identifiable specific themes, with their own chord progressions and melodies and textures and sounds was important to me. You know, I don’t think of it as a throwback exactly, but you know, obviously the style of the show is very reminiscent of Batman: The Animated Series, and the 90s, or a time where people weren’t afraid of actually writing a good big theme.

BW: Speaking of these melodies and themes, I did notice in the clips that I had access to that you seemed to prefer low melodies—low strings or low brass. Why that particular choice for the series?

JF: I mean, it’s a show about villains for one. I know that sounds reductive, but it’s true. You have to sort of play with the tropes of what a theme sounds like when you’re writing a theme, and so if you’re writing a theme for a villain, you know using the lower end of the palate is going to indicate to the audience that these people are bad. Also, just technically, writing melodies in the lower end of things or the higher end of things, just not in the vocal range of a character, makes the dialogue more hearable.

BW: Well, I’m saying “duh” to myself after that. That makes a lot of sense. Once a week at my church I’m playing as part of a pretty large ensemble, and obviously, have to consider where is it in the mix, as well. So I’m a little bit shocked that that did not occur to me.

The samples that I heard also were fairly stylistically diverse. I mean, the first one that I listened to almost felt like 70’s-style heist music, you know, from an episode of Columbo or something like that, with really strong drums. There were some that were almost Hans Zimmer-esque, there was some alt-rock-sounding stuff in there, and then even even a few selections that were more of that atmospheric type of music that I was contrasting your stuff against at the beginning. Where was your head at in in developing the music for this series, that you would end up with something so diverse in the variety of sounds that you have?

JF: I guess it’s like. instead of a minimalist score, this is a maximalist score, and what I mean by that is that everything in music history and every single style is fair game, in order to help tell the story. Batman has a very classic superhero score, orchestral with big horns, but then Ivy and Harley’s love theme is kind of like an indie movie sound. You know, it’s just basically anything and everything in order to help tell the story, and in order to help define these characters more starkly against one another. The show itself goes all over the place and references a lot of different genres, and so I felt like the music needed to, as well. Also, the producers are quoted as saying that you can sort of think of this as Gotham seen through Harley Quinn’s eyes, and so I just was thinking that if she had a score going on in her head, it would be just totally as bonkers as she is, just all over the place and crazy. But you know, she’s she’s really smart and sensitive, a psychiatrist, and so I felt like her brain could handle all of those references—would understand all those references.

BW: Yeah, that makes sense. I think it struck me particularly because you can look at something like, more recently, Hans Zimmer’s score for Batman v Superman, and there’s very diverse themes musically in that movie, but all of the songs still feel like they’re part of the same fabric, and the the clips that I heard from the Harley series were more all over the map, and that certainly makes sense what you said, that Harley’s brain is a bit of a scatterbrain. So you would sort of have a lot of variety in there also.

JF: You can get away with that in animation much more easily than you can in live-action, I think. I mean, if you can imagine a big superhero movie, a blockbuster movie, with a score that was as diverse as this score, it wouldn’t work in the same way. I would never write a score like this for live-action. The audience is already suspending a huge amount of disbelief when they’re watching an animated thing so their brain is kind of ready to accept the weirdness, that they wouldn’t accept if it were a live-action thing.

BW: Yeah, certainly. So I think maybe even a better contrast would be something like the music to Batman: The Animated Series, which has the benefit of being in animation, but still sort of the, you know, the themes tend to sound like they’re coming from the same set of musicians.

JF: Again, I don’t know that this score would have worked in the 90s, because I just don’t think that anyone—again, I don’t think that people in the 90s would be able to suspend disbelief in the way that they can now, because there’s been so much, kind of, postmodern pop culture references, like an expansion of what it means to tell the story, since the 90s, so it felt right to me to sort of, everything but the kitchen sink, or everything and the kitchen sink.

BW: No, that all makes sense, good points. I’m sure I know that the answer to this question is a “yes,” but it’s not really meant to be a yes or no question. Did you look to any of the prior DC animated work for inspiration, like the Shirley Walker stuff comes to mind from the Animated Series, but then I know Christopher Drake composes a lot of the music for the DC animated movies. Did you take any of that material for inspiration?

JF: So, I’m a huge fan. I watched Batman: The Animated Series when it came out, and I’m a big DC fan, but I made a rule when I started working on this show that I wouldn’t listen or watch any DC properties until we were done, so that I wouldn’t be derivative, and also I would have a more, sort of, abstract memory of that stuff. I’m not saying that I’m not influenced by all that stuff—I’m influenced by everything from the original Batman TV series with Adam West—the music on that, you know a lot of the big horn rips and stuff within the fight sequences are lifted directly from that style, of having a fight sequence, you know, like BAM and THWOCK doesn’t come up on the screen, but it’s like, that’s how the score works when there’s a big fight scene. And so Batman the Animated Series, that score is hugely influential, but it’s my memory of that score that is actually the influence on this.

BW: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, and it also makes sense that you would want to wall yourself off from the immediate recall of those things, both because it’s your work, you want to give it your own stamp, but I suspect also because, as you said before, this series is coming at a time, and certainly it’s with a character in the lead, Harley Quinn, that is very distinct from what has come before, and you want to have a musical identity that matches the identity of the show and its title character.

JF: The Batman theme that I wrote is a perfect example of this. I love Danny Elfman’s Batman score, I love Hans Zimmer’s Batman scores, I love the Batman: the Animated Series scores, all of the scores I love, and all of those Batman themes combine now to give Batman what he sounds like, how Batman sounds. And so, to not reference those, or to do something that’s completely different than that, wasn’t something that I was interested in. I wanted to build on the canon of what Batman music sounds like, if that make sense.

BW: No, it does, and sadly, there was not ,as far as I can tell, part of Batman’s theme in the package of audio files that I received. But I’m looking it up when we hang up, because I’m particularly curious now. But at the at the moment, I can’t comment any further on whether or not I feel like you succeeded or failed.

I did notice two themes recurring in the samples, and just looking at the episode numbers, it’s not just within a single episode, but over a few episodes. One of them, the clip is called “Introducing Dr. Psycho,” or something like that, and it starts with a minor six.

JF: Yeah…

BW: And then, “You’re Looking At You’re Replacement,” that one, I think it’s the first interval is a major second, and then goes down a diminished fifth—because it’s the tritone—why these two particular themes popping up over and over again? Is there something I’m not seeing in the way these tracks are named that might give me a little more clue as to the significance of these themes?

JF: Well, the “Meet Dr. Psycho” theme is pretty specific to him, I think, and I don’t think that his theme is defined by that first interval. I mean, maybe I just use minor six all the time in my music.

BW: Not just that—it’s in particular the stringing together of—it’s the minor sixth interval twice, and then it I forget the one after that. I’m not gonna hum it, cuz I’m gonna butcher it, but it’s the sequence of the first, I don’t know, maybe eight notes or so, kind of shows up again in a later episode.

JF: So that theme, I think, I’m almost a hundred percent certain I only ever use that theme when it’s Dr. Psycho. That’s like Dr. Psycho’s melody. Now, that one for the fight sequences, actually, I sort of lifted from Joker’s theme, so that little bass line was originally part of Joker’s them, but because the first fight sequence I wrote was between Joker and Harley, it sort of turned into the kind of standard sound for all fight scenes that happened after that.

BW: Yeah, well it makes sense, and I mean, they’re simple themes, but I think they’re effective themes. And again, like at the top, I’m somebody that likes to have  themes in music, soundtrack music in particular, and like you said, there’s room for more ambient stuff, but it was refreshing for me to hear a defined musical identity that is absent from a lot of soundtrack work that’s out there today and in film blockbuster films.

JF: Thank you!

BW: Yeah, no problem.

You said that even when you were younger, you watched the Animated Series, and there have been a number of prominent character themes in DC material for the past 50 years—Williams’s Superman, Elfman’s Batman, which we talked about. I really like Shirley Walker’s Joker theme from Batman: the Animated Series, and you know the Zimmer Dark Knight stuff. Do you have a favorite DC theme from all these years?

JF: Oh boy, that’s almost impossible to answer, but I’ll go with the standard John Williams, because you can’t get in trouble if you pick John, because everybody agrees that he’s the greatest of all time, so let’s go John Williams Superman.

BW: Yes, it is pretty amazing work. I think one of the tragedies of the past couple of years—and that’s me misusing the word “tragedy,” because in the grand scheme of things it’s not—but I didn’t really care for Batman v Superman very much, and I know there’s a lot of people that loved it, but, for better or worse, the movie did not reach the success that that Warner Brothers wanted it to. But I thought that the Batman theme that Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL came up with in that film was actually really, really nice. Are you familiar with it at all?

JF: I’m not.

BW: Okay. If you look it up later, I’m not so much talking about just the heavy hits at the beginning of the movie, but there’s this low melody—just a really nice, low melody that kicks in at times that I think is a fabulous Batman theme, but that will probably slip into the ether because the movie was not a success.

JF: Sometimes, you know, there are themes that just end up getting licensed for a lot of stuff, or just become part of the cultural memory, from movies that aren’t part of the cultural memory. Like there are things that get used over and over for previews, and some of them are from movies that did terrible box office, but the composer wrote an amazing theme.

BW: Well, yeah I guess that’s a possibility. I unfortunately haven’t seen it pop up anywhere, and I also unfortunately haven’t seen anybody being very vocal about sharing my opinion on the quality of it.

Well, do you have any other—and these sorts of questions are always “if you can talk about it,” and the answer is usually “no”—but do you have any other DC-related projects in the hopper?

JF: Not as we speak, but you know, I’m available for anybody who’s making anything DC, and I’d be happy to expand my DC palette. I’ve already worked on two DC shows, so might as well do another one!

BW: And what was the one prior to Harley Quinn?

JF: Powerless.

BW: Oh! Oh my goodness, yeah, okay—that was on NBC?

JF: Yeah.

BW: Yeah, that show—I think I saw an episode of it. It had some high points, had some low points. I think the biggest thing that show had working against it is I feel like I remember it sort of changed what it was about in the middle of production, which doesn’t tend to work out well in the end.

JF: It was—how do I say this—it was a tough situation, really for everybody.

BW: It seemed like it, but it had a lot of very talented actors working on it, as well.

JF: Yeah and then some of those—I mean, the showrunners for Harley Quinn were the showrunners for Powerless, so they, you know, they’re starting to have their stable of people that they use. So you know Ron Funches, who plays King Shark on Harley was on Powerless, and Alan Tudyk, who plays the Joker and Clayface and a bunch of other little bit characters was also on Powerless.

BW: Okay, well, excellent.

JF: Natalie Morales is another one. She plays Lois Lane and she was also in Powerless, I think. I’m sure there are others that I’m forgetting.

BW: And now I know that they had the same composer!

JF: <laughs>

BW: Well, any other projects outside of DC that you’re excited about that are coming up on the horizon?

JF: Well, I’m continuing working on New Amsterdam on NBC right now, and that is about as different score-wise and show-wise as you can get. So, working on Harley and working on New Amsterdam is like a really nice balance for me. I get to do pretty much everything that I want to do between the two projects, score-wise.

BW: Nice! Something I didn’t ask about earlier: I don’t necessarily have the best ear, but it seems like the the actual recorded music for the the Harley series—is that using software instruments, or is that actually using real instruments?

JF: I mean, almost everything comes out of my computer but every once in a while it doesn’t cut it, so—I mean, like all the punk stuff, like all the rock and roll stuff is me playing guitar and bass, but you know, most of it is in the box, and every once in a while, you do need a musician to come in and play something, because you just can’t do it, you can’t fake it. I don’t like to call it faking it, because it’s the way music gets made these days, [so yep butyeah everyone said well] you need live players, and of course, if we had the time and the budget, I would love to use live musicians for everything. But the turnaround is so quick for TV, and the budgets have become so small, that it’s just kind of impossible for composers to hire musicians anymore, unless you’re working on like, one of these big blockbuster movies that has like a$500,000 music budget.

BW: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. I mean, I guess a question that kind of flows from that is—you know, as the composer, it sounds like from what you were just saying your job is actually not just the composition, but the delivery of the final product, as well.

JF: Yeah, I’m the music department. I get paid a certain amount of money, and I can use it however I like, basically. But you know, that amount of money is not enough for me to hire musicians, so, for example, like every stitch of music on the show was written by me and my team, and all the music in the background, all the bar—the stuff that’s playing in the background on the bar—there’s that Bar Mitzvah episode that has tons of like party songs—all that stuff is is from the in-house music department—that’s me and my team members.

BW: No, it makes sense, and I mean, we’re at a point in in the history of the technology where the the quality is good enough for a lot of that stuff, that it’s hard to justify doing live musicians for all of it, both for the time, and like you said, the finances as well.

JF: Again, it’s sad though, because I come from like, my background is in classical music, and so for the first 20 years of my career, everything that I wrote was performed by live musicians, and so it took a little getting used to when I switched career paths and started doing film and TV, to realize that I had to produce this stuff myself inside a computer. And so like I said, you know, any opportunity that I have to hire actual musicians, I do, and I will in the future, because there’s nothing like—it there’s there’s no comparison.

BW: I agree with you.

As a guitar player myself, I’m curious—what kind of guitar do you typically play?

JF: I have a Strat. People ask me how many guitars I have, and I have one electric guitar one bass, one acoustic guitar—that’s all you need.

BW: I have a—it’s Ernie Ball’s version of a Strat that came out a couple years ago, the Cutlass—that’s pretty much my exclusive guitar, as well, and I would agree with you—I think for me, at least, you have some sounds in your head that are your sounds, and with an instrument like a Stratocaster, or in my case, the Cutlass, you can get a lot of sounds out of that one instrument.

JF: Yeah.

BW: And are you pretty much reamping in software, or are you recording in room?

JF: No, straight into my audio interface on the computer.

BW: What are you using to reamp it, and for processing and effects?

JF: I use Universal Audio stuff for the most part, as far as amp modeling and such, although you know, there all sorts of little tools, and the Sound Toys stuff is super helpful. And then, to be honest, like Guitar Rig—which you get with [Native Instruments’] Komplete, it has like a ton of great amp and pedal modeling in it, so I tend to use that.

BW: Very nice. Well, that’s pretty much all I have in terms of questions. I want to thank you for taking the time to speak to me, and it’s the first time I’ve had the privilege of interviewing a composer, and I hope it’s not the last.

JF: Okay!

BW: So yeah, thank you, and may you have a good day!

JF: Alright, fantastic, thank you.