Spencer Creaghan Talks About Creating SurrealEstate’s Signature Sound
SurrealEstate is winding down its second season, with two episodes left, and just as in Season 1, Spencer Creaghan’s music continues to be a character unto itself. And every week, he shares tidbits with the fans via his s social media channels, something he started to help give them an understanding of how it all works, and as a nod to his love of behind-the-scenes documentaries. In the next part of our recent conversation, he talks about creating the show’s uniquely evocative sound from the ground up.
“I worked with Blue Ice Pictures on a film called Letters to Satan Claus, and that was a blast. It was an awesome film. Really weird, really hilarious, really bloody, but also really Christmas. It’s very Hallmark and it’s very slasher. They liked my music for that, and so they pitched me on SurrealEstate. I submitted a demo that ended up becoming the main theme. And then it was just a lot of conversations with [series creator] George R. Olson and [producing director] Danishka Esterhazy about what the music was gonna sound like,” he recalls.
“The idea of Celtic instruments and ancient instruments came from two aspects. One was they wanted it to have very ancient kind of qualities, as if these ghosts have been around for a long time. I love myth and I love folklore and pagan things, so that got me very enthralled. And then beyond that, it was shot in Newfoundland and Newfoundland’s landscapes are just so majestic that I wanted to kind of give to that, I wanted to play up that.”
“I didn’t want it to just be some background set. Let’s make this land come alive. We don’t really know where the show takes place, so I thought, ‘What if the land then became another character? How could I help that along musically?’ And that was just tapping into Newfoundland’s own musical heritage of Celtic music [so I] began there.”
“I brought in Irish whistles and pipes and fiddles, just to try and see what that would do to make the music have its own sense of identity. And we didn’t want the show to sound like anything else. We knew that we needed to have Gothic strings and piano and things like that, that were staples of the genre, but we also knew that we wanted to be something beyond that.”
Creaghan tapped into his own multi-genre background, and discussed with Olson what aspects the music should have. “I have a big rock and metal background, [which] comes in with the rocket guitar and drums and stuff. But I also have a big folk background. So a lot of those I came in with were hurdy gurdy and whistles and bagpipes and all these different kinds of instruments I thought might be interesting to kind play along with,” he explains.
“And George loves vocals. So we knew that a voice also had to be a big aspect of it, as well. [We thought], ‘Let’s do a female vocal for this. What if we take an Eastern European, or a Balkan vocal, and what if we use it over a whispered percussion?’”
On top of the overall sound for the show, Creaghan also imbues music into the houses themselves. “We needed to find a way to bring these houses to life. I started realizing that we needed more than just musical instruments. So I started experimenting with knocking on doors and creaking walls and things like that, just general sounds that you would find within a house. And learned I could make music out of that,” he says.
“One of my proudest achievements was my assistant recording a rubber mallet rubbing against a bathtub, which has this really creepy kind of ethereal sound. And then I took that and played with it a little bit, and created this really cool choir from hell kind of thing that I’ve never heard before. And that ended up being one of the major sounds of episode 10 last season.”
“And this season, we have this big AI kind of house. So I I asked what we could do … to incorporate machinery into this somehow. He recorded an hour of electronic sounds like his fridge and his microwave and a buzzy light.”
“So I listened to that and I took 10 seconds of it and turned that into what became the music of this AI house that Susan is now trapped in. I just felt like the houses are such an identity that I didn’t wanna just make it about the characters or just about the ghosts. I wanted the houses themselves to also feel like they were alive, as well.”
Creaghan explains that much of the magic happens when he compiles those various components into the score. “I’ll take a hundred bits and pieces. Sometimes I say, ‘I want exactly this melody, but you’re welcome to add artifacts and things like that.’ And other times, I’ll say, ‘I need exactly this, and I’m sorry that you can’t really mess around with it.’ So it’s sort of a mixture between what’s necessary,” he explains.
“And then I’ll take those and figure out how to make a new piece of music [with it]. I find a lot of the experimentation happens with me mid-afternoon, I’m alone here and just trying to do hot tweaks and things. My team also does a lot in terms of trying to figure out [sounds]. [When we had the episode] with dogs, I had this idea that I wanted to do with the music. I had to write these pieces, though.”
“My team might go on a mission to figure out how to make music out of dogs. They’ll start with figuring out how to capture those sounds and I’ll turn them into synthesizers and then I’ll take those and I’ll write afterwards. I come from a band background, so collaboration’s a really big part of my background. Even though it’s collaborative, at the end of the day, I’m still processing it through the Spencer brain to make sure that it all is cohesive.”
Throughout both seasons, Creaghan has used signature pieces of music to telegraph certain turns in the action of the episode. “Beyond the character themes, I really like psychological themes. A lot of the major musical themes are about family and letting go and investigation,” he shares.
“We have little bits and pieces of music that show up in almost every single episode. If we have to deal with family, then a family theme plays. At the end of almost every episode, there’s this melody that is about letting go.”
“And then whenever they’re doing some kind of investigation, there’s a flute riff that I call a countdown to a witching hour, that’s them diving deeper into what the darkness of a house is, to learn a bit more about what might be going on, but knowing that there’s a danger ahead, and also maybe hope that they can discover the truth.”
“So a lot of those play into what we are trying to talk about and get to the heart of it, whilst also complimenting the action and the suspense. And based on the reactions of the fans, I think we’re getting there, if we haven’t already.”
SurrealEstate airs Wednesdays at 10 pm/9c on Syfy in the US and CTV Sci-Fi and Crave in Canada. You can catch the first eight episodes now streaming on those platforms. ICYMI, our Season 1 and 2 coverage, including previews and interviews, is here.
Photos courtesy of Spencer Creaghan and Duncan de Young/Blue Ice Pictures/Syfy.
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