By RACHEL REEVES
In Netflix’s BLACK SUMMER, zombies are just one of the many dangers that apocalypse survivors face. Acting as a prequel to Syfy’s popular Z Nation show, BLACK SUMMER takes place during the earliest days of a zombie outbreak. Endorsed by Stephen King himself, the first season delivered “existential hell in the suburbs, stripped to the bone.” Now, the gritty and visceral series has returned with a chilly second season that zombie expert Simon Pegg calls, “propulsive, dynamic and relentlessly bleak.” As characters struggle to survive, reunite with loved ones and attempt to make sense of the chaos that surrounds them, the show explores the true lengths that people will go to survive. Dripping with dread and executed with definitive precision, there’s an extremely effective realism embedded deep at the core of BLACK SUMMER. Along with the incredibly engaging filmmaking style, part of what truly solidifies the beautifully harsh tone for the show is the icy and terrifying music.
Created by composer and Deadsy drummer Alec Puro, the soundscape for BLACK SUMMER is one that is as foreboding and chill-inducing as the situation itself. Seamlessly ebbing and flowing with the sound design, Puro’s blend of electronic elements and powerful, mood-inducing tones acts as a true partner to the gripping events that unfold on screen. In celebration of the show’s recent and well-received second season debut on Netflix, Rue Morgue sat down (virtually) with Puro to dig into his work on BLACK SUMMER as well as his wild and multifaceted musical career.
How did you first become involved in BLACK SUMMER and what attracted you to this project?
John Hyams, the showrunner and creator of the show, he’s been a friend of mine since I was about 13. I’ve known him forever. He’s also a family friend, an amazing guy and an amazing creator. So, for years and years and years we’ve talked about working together, but for a long time he had another friend that was a composer that kind of did all his movies. Then at a certain point when he was branching out into TV, BLACK SUMMER came up and he was like, “This may be a great opportunity for us to finally collaborate.” We share so many of the same sensibilities musically when it comes to film and stuff, and it was just a dream come true. He is such an artist and so amazing with the process on every level. But as far as composing, it’s just a totally different experience than most anything else I’ve worked on. It’s a super, super fun show to score.
That makes a lot of sense because, one of the things that I really like about the show is that the music seems to be used very strategically and very deliberately. That also makes me wonder, before you started working on the project, what were some of the early conversations like with John regarding the show’s musical direction?
What’s different about this show—more than any other that I’ve scored—is John and I will get together before he’s even started shooting the season, and we’ll talk about it. I’ll maybe read some scripts and then we’ll kind of talk about tone. The one unspoken thing that we both share musically is that we really love minimalistic scores. You know, not putting score in for the sake of putting music in or making you feel a certain way. He is really into realism and making things feel real. As you can see with BLACK SUMMER, it has a very documentary type feel. So, it was more about supporting what’s happening on screen rather than dictating what’s happening.
I really tried to stay away from being too melodic or being too in-your-face. There are moments where the music does come up and it hits you over the head, but a lot of the time, the music and the sound design kind of become one. Where you almost don’t notice the music, but you’re feeling that anxiety and the suspense that is happening on screen. That’s kind of the goal for us. And then, when it is appropriate, the music will kind of bang in. So, we talk about all of this stuff and I will actually start writing theme ideas or experimenting with different sounds without picture.
A lot of the time, I’ll write 20 or 30 short 2-4 minute pieces before they even start shooting. I’ll then go back and forth with John, get his feedback and, because we’re so in sync in that way, most of that music ends up getting temped into the cuts and pieces of the show. Then, we kind of go from there and I’ll build upon those things. I’ll build upon those things I’ve maybe already written or I’ll write new stuff. Or maybe they’ll just end up using one synth stem of something somewhere that spawns a new idea that I expound upon. So, it’s really very collaborative which is just super cool.
So cool! I can also see how that could really help the production team shape how things are paced. So I guess my follow up question to you is, being brought in so early, is that more challenging because you don’t have those visual cues? Or, is it actually a little bit more liberating because you’re not tied to the visual?
Honestly, it’s so much more freeing. One thing I do love about composing is that you’re given parameters and you typically need to work within this box. Then, you need to work with the picture to really support that. So, it does kind of dictate in a way some of what you’re writing, how the themes come out and whatever. And in this process (which I don’t get the opportunity to do a lot) there were no rules. It’s almost like when you’re in a band and you make a record; there’s no rules. You can do whatever you want. And, it’s like I didn’t have that—for lack of a better word—condom on my brain. I don’t know what a better saying is to put into writing, but I just didn’t have that restrictive thing on my brain. [laughs]
That thing that’s like, “Oh no. You can’t do that because this person is talking here and you’ve got to come down.” And, “Oh, you can only do a bar and half of the theme here.” There was none of that. I didn’t have to think about that. So, I could really find a cool sound, slowly build it and just tweak out kind of. Which is fun because [John] ends up most of the time being like, “Oh shit. That’s a really cool sound. What about developing that for this person’s theme?” It’s really cool to just throw a bunch of stuff out there and see what sticks. It makes the process really, really fun and just different.
Along those same lines of what you were just talking about, something I think is really cool about BLACK SUMMER’s music is the notable lack of traditional melody and melodic themes. There’s also a lot of space which really helps support what I think the production team is trying to convey. As a composer, do you ever struggle with the idea that maybe sometimes less is more? Or do you consciously ever use those traditional boundaries that we’ve been conditioned to expect and kind of play with them as a sort of emotional tool?
Sure. I mean, for me, the word theme means so many different things. But at the end of the day, a theme is just some sort of motif that’s repeated. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be a melodic little motif. It could be a sound. I say that because in BLACK SUMMER, a lot of the themes and a lot of the thematic stuff are more like these sounds and these different tools that we use that could be one note. Sometimes I try to challenge myself on this show to write a cue that’s literally one note because it’s really hard to do! And also, how do you do that and make it effective, and build, but not be repetitive? So all of those things, we’re really conscious of. What John and I share is the idea that less is more. Especially with scoring.
Now, different projects call for different things. I mean, I score certain shows or films where it’s like, wall to wall sound. Which sometimes is necessary. But, I feel like the minimalistic approach, it makes things so cinematic and so realistic. They just feel real. And for this show, it definitely brings you in. I mean, the show is not really about zombies. It’s more about the lengths that people will go to to survive given the circumstances here. And, having so much of that open space, it really helps convey that cold reality. It really lets you sit with that and it’s like, “Oh. This is uncomfortable.” It feels much more realistic in that way. In Season 2 with the new kind of backdrop where it’s all snowy and the visual landscape is just so massive, sure. You could have a huge Hans Zimmer type thing and it would probably work great as well. It’s just a different choice. But I think John really likes (as do I), the minimalist, Brian Eno, Michael Mann style and approach to things.
I definitely wanted to ask you about this new season as there are some familiar faces, but there’s also a lot of new changes—including the scenery and season. How did your music have to evolve to mirror these changes?
Staying on the minimalist topic, we started talking about snow and how when you’re in the snow and snow is falling, it’s like this weird silence. It’s almost like you’re in a padded room in a weird way. So, I started to try and play with sound to find that thing that kind of connected with that. I’m not sure that I totally succeeded, but I definitely wanted to leave as much room as possible so that all the real, natural things that were happening (whether it’s a snow storm or whatever) really came through and I wasn’t stepping on that. Because it’s that stuff that ultimately makes you feel so alone. And also like, “What the hell is happening?” It’s terrifying. I just tried to do that a little bit more in Season 2, as well as take previous themes and elaborate on them. And then I wrote a bunch of new themes as well.
The sound design in this show plays such a crucial role. It really helps physically place the audience within the show’s world while simultaneously forming narrative connections. What was it like working with the sound department on BLACK SUMMER?
Oh wow. Yeah. It’s basically like the score and the sound design—for most of the show—becomes one. When I finish a piece and it leaves my studio, a lot of the time the meat and bones of it, there’s a lot more going on than what happens on screen sometimes. When any composer finishes a piece of music and it leaves your studio to go to the next stage, it’s not really yours anymore. You break things out and you give stems of all the different instruments and the different sounds that are playing. So that way when they’re mixing it in Dolby Atmos, they can place things in different spots. That way my low end rumble isn’t hitting on some sound effect or car rumble.
In some instances, they may take my low end rumble and also keep theirs in so it becomes this weird thing where they just become one. In that way, I try when I’m writing to keep that in mind so I’m not stepping on anything. For example, in Episode 7, there’s a lot of really long scenes with a lot of music, but there’s also a lot of sound design. So, it’s really this dance that they do. And, in terms of bringing things in and bringing things out, they ended up really doing it in the sound mix. John really drives the ship on that and he just has such a clear view of what he wants. Working with creators that have such a vision like him, it just makes the whole thing so amazing and so fun. It pushes you to a place you may not have ended up in.
So, I’m sure with every project there’s a level of experimentation that goes into finding just the right sounds. But in BLACK SUMMER, there’s some truly creepy sounds in your score. How much experimenting did you do for this project? Was there anything unique that you came up with or are particularly proud of?
I definitely experiment a lot and I love running different synths through different guitar pedals and random stuff. I used a weird instrument on this called the Aztec Death Whistle. One of the editors had seen something online and was like, “Dude. You’ve got to check this thing out. It’s like the most evil sounding thing ever.” So, I checked it out and I ordered one. I was then able to use it on the score in a couple of places. It’s finding new things like that that I didn’t even know about that is just so much fun. The world that these people are living in, to try to just deconstruct sounds and really just make things feel as horrible as possible, in a way it’s a challenge, but it’s so much fun to get the freedom to do that. It’s harder to do that when you’re doing it to picture. Starting out early and just finding that palette of sounds that I’m going to use, you’ve got to do that before you’re sitting there and looking at the picture.
Oh wow. I’m so glad I asked. I’ve never heard of the Aztec Death Whistle!
If you go online to YouTube and see it, it’s crazy. Very disturbing.
Before you started scoring, you were a founding member of the band Deadsy. And still are! What sparked the transition into film scoring and what attracted you to the field?
I started playing piano when I was 8 or 9. When I was about 13, I started playing drums. That’s when I was like, “Ok. I want to be in a rock band.” Then me and my buddy Elijah (who is the singer in Deadsy), we went to middle school together and we just started jamming at that point. From there on out, I was in a bunch of bands and I got really heavy into the drums. I was still playing piano, but I was all about playing drums and sessions with all sorts of different people—Robby Krieger to Cher to Jackson Browne or whatnot.
I also went to CalArts in Valencia and studied jazz drums, orchestration theory and started to get back into piano. A bunch of my buddies were also making short films and were directing and producing and just as I started getting into that, the band got a record deal. Then it was like, my twenties were just bananas and on the road. It was really fun, but as I was doing that, in my head I was like, “This is so much fun. I’m going to live this up. But, if my band is not NIN or Coldplay level of success, then I want to be a composer.”
So, I started scoring for friend’s short films and this and that and had a little set-up on the bus. I guess it was after the first record, there was then a big gap until the second record. I really started getting into it then and ended up scoring a buddy’s film called The Good Night with Gwyneth Paltrow, Penélope Cruz and Danny DeVito. I got to do a full orchestra score, it went to Sundance and it was like, this big moment. I was just like, “Oh man. This is it. This is what I’m doing.” And from that moment on I just got really heavy into the independent film scene and then started scoring TV shows.
There’s a lot more in there, but that’s kind of the interesting bits. Also, the band is still Elijah. Over the past couple years he’s written all these songs and he wants to make another record. So, on the weekends and whatnot when I have spare time, I’ve been playing drums on that and hopefully he’ll finish it. The songs are really great.
I have to imagine that playing in Deadsy and scoring an indie film are two very different musical endeavors. It has to be kind of cool to explore and stretch yourself creatively while exercising those different creative outlets.
Oh for sure. Being in a band is definitely a team sport. And sometimes, I don’t know, it’s nice to have the aspect of composing where it’s really about looking within and you’re kind of in control of what’s creatively happening. Unless you’re collaborating with others. Which is awesome too! It’s just a totally different skillset, mindset, everything.
On top of all these things, you’ve also created your own music production company. What spurred you to do that and how do you think that diverse approach to the music business has benefited you?
Going back to that first film that I scored that went to Sundance, I think that was 2006. After I scored that movie I was like, “Oh man. I am only going to score movies from now on. I’m not going to do a commercial or a reality show, like nothing.” And then literally, I kid you not, six months went by and I was like, “Oh shit. I still don’t have a job. How am I going to pay my rent?”
But it was really like that. So I was like, “Oh Jesus. How do I do this? How do I 50/50 this with 50% of my time only devoted to creative, passionate projects that I love making music for? And how do I keep the lights on?” So that became how I started cataloging my music. Because as a composer, when you go up for a job, a lot of times they make you do a demo on speculation. And when you don’t get the job, you own that music. So I was cataloging that and putting it in different reality shows or licensing it. Then that sort of started to grow as my composing career started to grow. The company side of things, that was really to keep the lights on.
Every quarter, when you have music in TV shows, you get royalties. So that started to really be like, “Oh my god. This is so great. While this is going, I can keep composing.” And they both kind of grew and kept growing. Now, with Gramoscope the company, I have a catalog of over 50,000 pieces of music that we own. All the networks, production companies, they all have access to it for their shows. I have five full-time employees in house and we have 40+ composers on staff. We’ve created the music for all these unscripted shows, branded content, podcasts, really music for anything. And it’s been great because the two don’t really mix in terms of, you know, if I’m going up for a movie or a cool scripted show, nobody really cares about this other side of things.
But on the same token, a lot of these shows that I score need to license songs and they never have enough money to license the song that they want. So then it’s like, “Hey guys. I’m already scoring the show. You can use my catalog if you want?” So, it’s helpful to have those resources. And when I do the composing thing, I have people here to help me with the administrative type stuff that goes into putting together spotting notes, uploading QuickTime’s, downloading the latest this, that and the other. Now I have help with that because Gramoscope exists. It definitely keeps things fresh because there’s always random stuff going on.
That’s so smart. You’ve really set yourself up to succeed.
It’s definitely a constant hustle and hard work just like anything, but I love it. And it really gives me the opportunity to be able to do things like BLACK SUMMER. Because the way that the TV industry and everything is set up now, it’s like, there’s so much content out there that if you’re a composer or a sound designer or whatever, you can’t just do one show. If I just did BLACK SUMMER, I would be out of work for like, a year at a time. Because, those jobs are for a few months; three, four, maybe five months. But then, they may not make another season—if you even get picked up for a year. So you have to be juggling a lot of stuff to just put food on the table.
I’m glad you brought that up. I think that’s a real misconception that people tend to have about creative fields like composing—that you have the luxury to just be creative and do whatever you want.
100%. I mean, when you’re done with the job, you’re essentially unemployed. The first part of the day, before I even start writing, I’m sending emails out and connecting. You just have to throw stuff out there. Because, you don’t know when the next thing is going to come. Especially with the world being the way it is and everything being so unpredictable, you have to. You can’t just wait for anything. You have to just get out there and not be shy about it.
BLACK SUMMER is currently streaming on Netflix. You can also hear more of Alec’s work in Hulu’s animated series THE MIGHTY ONES and the upcoming Olivia Munn, Frank Grillo thriller, THE GATEWAY.