Words by Charles Steinberg
It stands to reason that the common perception of a score composer sees the sole artist tucked away in a studio, parsing scenes on page and screen for an emotional connection to guide the music that’s written. Musically translating that connection in a way that resonates universally would seem to be an endeavour of solitary focus. For any collaboration to succeed, the partners would have to be in fine tune and sync with one another, artistically and intuitively.
This synchronicity may explain the success of the scoring partnership of Ian Hultquist and Sofi degli Alessandri-Hultquist. Ever since the pair met in a film scoring program at Berklee School of Music, their personal connection has grown parallel to their compatibility in the studio. Pooling their distinct backgrounds in performance and production, the couple has set a model of versatility through coordination in the scoring medium.
A keen ear for contemporary pop styles and the practical methods of achieving them has propelled Ian and Drum & Lace, Sofi’s recording moniker, into the arena of demand for fresh soundtracks to enliven the edgy new series or film. Their stylistic and technological savvy has illuminated two of their most recent projects: Dickinson, the popular modern spin on the young life of Emily Dickinson for Apple TV+, and the new Netflix vampire film Night Teeth, which offers an updated, hip, and even endearing take on nightwalkers.
For Night Teeth, harbinger tones signal the wickedness that stirs in the shadows and nightclubs of the underworld and then swirl into the synth-laden beats that nocturnal travellers would turn up in their rides. Their score for Dickinson upends expectation for the period drama with surprising contemporary production, eschewing historical accuracy to revolve around the emotions of its young characters.
Adapting on the fly in a juggling act of current projects – a slate that is hard to imagine could be handled by a solo composer – has been advantageous for this young scoring couple on the upswing. Now they’ve had to adapt to having a newborn, relying on the same principles that have served them so well professionally: being industrious, receptive, accountable, and most importantly, inventive. Ian and Sofia let us in on some secrets behind their successful coordination in all facets of life.
How has having a child impacted your professional lives as composers and your artistic sensibilities?
Ian: Everything we’re doing is for our daughter. We take on a lot of jobs so we can make a life for her. It has made us want to work harder but also not as much because we don’t want to be stuck in the studio all the time. We want to watch her grow up. It’s finding the balance of taking on the projects that allow us to have the life that we want but also not be shut in the studio forever.
Drum & Lace: It has been incredibly inspiring. Playing with her and just being with her sort of unlocks a creative bank that I hadn’t tapped into since I was a kid. When you’re with someone who can’t communicate except for making sounds, it can open something up in you and even lead to an appreciation of a rhythm or sound you can use.
We’re more tired but our lives are more structured. We get more done now between the hours of nine and five than we used to between the hours of nine and midnight when we weren’t parents. For me, it has provided the pause that I needed to not burn myself out.
Ian: I agree with Sofie about the inspiration and I don’t know exactly what it is. She's forcing us to be more imaginative. Maybe when you talk gibberish all day, you drop your inhibitions a little. I’ve been able to write more interesting music faster and more easily than I have been able to in a long time. We’re playing and singing songs and making things up, so when I come into the studio, I’m already in a zone and I just go.
Everything we’re doing is for our daughter. We take on a lot of jobs so we can make a life for her.
I’m interested in how each of your individual disciplines has impacted your scoring: Ian, with your background in bands like Passion Pit and Sofia, with being a vocalist who was also heavy into music tech. Are there strengths and weaknesses you fill in for one another based on your backgrounds?
Ian: We definitely compliment one another’s strengths and weaknesses. I’m more interested in how something sounds and feels than what notes are being played. I want to lock in a sound and emotion to something. At the same time, I tend to lean more towards the Hollywood sound of big, beefy orchestras. Sofi helps me so much because she thinks outside of the box and brings in unconventional sounds and techniques I wouldn’t necessarily think about. That’s where I really rely on her because I might make something that sounds kind of stock and she can make it sound insane and weird.
Drum & Lace: Ian has such a great sensibility and knowledge of classic film scores. His love of film and the traditional canon is really helpful because sometimes you need to lean into that on certain projects and that’s a strong foundation to have. But with me, I never feel like a cue is done until I can put something weird in it, like my voice running through something or a little beep from a weird synth I found. I feel like with everything we do, we have to leave our mark on it and sound like it came from us.
We joke about this when we have people mix our scores because they’ll often want to clean them up. The whole point is to leave the imperfections in there. I know what’s right technically but I don’t like doing it. Ian’s great ear of what is technically right makes for a great balance when we work together. It’s great too when we work separately because we have very different sounds as artists and that leads to less resentment in our professional and personal relationship. We want different things.
Can you recall on occasion where one of you picked up for the other in a pinch? When one of you stepped in on the other one’s piece and found a solution?
Ian: Pretty much every day. Even when we work separately, we’ll ask one another to come and listen to what we’re working on and say if it’s ok.
Drum & Lace: Because Ian has such a vast knowledge of mixing techniques, he’ll listen to something I’m doing and suggest adding a compressor or tweaking something in a certain way. On something like Night Teeth, I never could have done what we needed to do on my own. The scope of it was too large. Hopefully, Ian feels the same [Laughs].
Ian: Night Teeth was originally just supposed to be me scoring but then they requested both of us. That was the wisest decision they could have made. With the amount of work and interfacing we did with the studio, it was a two-person job for sure. It also yielded something way more unique and interesting than it would have been if I had been on my own.
We listen to a lot of contemporary music and I make it a point to know what the top forty is sounding like.
Night Teeth was a little like Collateral meets Blade with a young romance tucked into it. As a critical viewer, comparisons to older films in a genre come up all the time. Does that happen with you guys and is comparison helpful or hurtful to your process of arriving at a sound?
Ian: It’s funny, the Collateral comparison has come up a lot since the movie came out but I didn’t think about that once when we were working on it. I naturally thought of things like Scorcese’s After Hours and Once Bitten, that random eighties high school vampire movie with Jim Carrey. We were focusing more on hip hop production than any film reference though. We were also super inspired by the look of this film and we were pushed in a synth direction by what we saw. At the same time, we were conscious that this was not supposed to sound like John Carpenter or Stranger Things. It needed its own unique and modern sound.
Drum & Lace: If anything, the movie Drive is more of a reference sonically. The colors and the tones in this movie lent themselves more to the aesthetic of Drive, which is why we leaned heavily into electronic production. For Night Teeth, in addition to supporting the story, you want to give an ode to the LA setting, which is what Drive did.
Apart from the natural references you made, what were some of the specific directions you had to follow?
Drum & Lace: The director, Adam Randall, had such a strong vision for every part of this film, including the music. He is a huge fan of old hip hop, artists like MF Doom and Run The Jewels, and the band SAULT. We based our composition on his musical influences. Adam also wanted the music to sound like it was one long mixtape played throughout the night and the music supervisor Rob Lowery did such a good job with the needle drops. We had to level up to the songs he chose. They all had a size and expansiveness and our focus was getting the score to sound as big and as good.
To that point, The NIght Teeth soundtrack begins with “Come Alive”, a full hip hop track with verses, including one from the lead actor Jorge Lendeborg Jr. Was that your beat?
Ian: That one actually wasn’t ours. The main character Benny is a music producer in the script and at one point it was thought we would have something to do with the music he makes but there was so much score that we had to prioritize. We suggested getting a producer from (the film’s setting) Boyle Heights or someone who could represent Benny’s musical voice in a special way. The funny thing is, we had no interaction with the producer of that track, Deputy, but when we heard what he came up with, we were like, “Wait, did he hear our score? He hadn’t.
Seriously? That beat sounds like a part of the score. That’s why I thought you had done it.
Drum & Lace: No, it’s crazy that they work so well together! He hadn’t heard our music before that and I think that speaks Adam Randall’s vision. He gave those guys the same references that he gave us and they must have ingested it the same way we did to create that cohesive sound.
For me, it's listening to new music but I’m also super keen on the mixing and production techniques behind it. If I’m not writing music, I’ll be watching something like Mix with the Masters.
How important is it to stay current, not just technologically but with musical trends? How much of your work involves keeping up with contemporary artists?
Drum & Lace: One thousand percent. We listen to a lot of contemporary music and I make it a point to know what the top forty is sounding like. Especially for something like Dickinson. We hope that music sounds timeless but it does have that modern trap drum sensibility. And the music for NIght Teeth is a mixture of modern hip hop and electronica beats. We also stay up on technology in terms of gear. A lot of the synths we use are newer and even the modular synths I’ve been using can do things that a euro rack modular couldn’t do five years ago.
Ian: For me, it's listening to new music but I’m also super keen on the mixing and production techniques behind it. If I’m not writing music, I’ll be watching something like Mix with the Masters [laughs] where producers and mixers like Al Schmidt or Alan Myerson will break down how they mix cues or songs. On Night Teeth, for instance, I was saying to myself, “These 808s are not hitting hard enough. How do we make them hit harder!?” So I’ll watch videos about how Finneas gets the production in Billie Eilish songs to sound the way it does.
I think part of what people might find attractive about what we do is that we don’t always have huge arrangements. It’s sort of the same with pop production. If you look at our sessions, sometimes it’s only three or four elements but we use them to take up a lot of space. Granted there were some cues in Night Teeth that got massive.
But a lot of the time we like to say a lot musically with as little as possible.
You could say that the function of the music in Dickinson is to sort of bridge the historical gap and appeal to the young audience it’s targeting. A sort of contemporary pop delivery device for a classic and important cultural figure.
Ian: When we first got brought on to Dickinson, I think it was assumed that we would do classical music with a twist. Like a string quartet on a Kanye West type of track. But we were listening more to things like Prodigy and Missy Elliot and Phoenix for the inspiration. There was something we could take from each of those artists that would work for the specific story we were trying to tell. We both have a background in bands and production for artists so we’re lucky that [those kinds of cues] come somewhat naturally. For Dickinson and Night Teeth, we’re writing cues that sound like a fully produced song. We’ve heard people will Shazam something from those scores thinking that it’s a song.
Drum & Lace: Actually, the Death theme in Dickinson was trending on Shazam the first week! The same thing for the title sequence in Night Teeth. It’s always really cool when people think something we write sounds good enough to be a (pop) track.
The evolution of the music mirrors where the show has gone. In this season, Emily Dickinson’s life [is intersecting with] the Civil War and it’s interesting to see how much the conversations a twenty-year-old would have during the Civil War era are so similar to the ones they would have right now, around living in a divided country with people not listening to each other and a lot of senseless killings. So while the show is set in a historic time period, it’s very contemporary. That also helped with the music because we were scoring a character’s emotion. It didn’t matter what decade or century they lived in.
On scores like NIght Teeth, Dickinson, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, samples are great. Nobody would ever know because they’re layered in a way that sounds realistic.
I’m interested to know how your dynamic shifts when you’re writing for documentary films. There are occupations considered as best performed without emotion but scoring films is one where working with emotion is unavoidable. How do you deal with the high emotions – especially anger – that documentaries like At the Heart of Gold and After the Truth inspire?
Drum & Lace: For something like At the Heart of Gold it was really hard. The subject matter was so heartbreaking and gruelling. I don’t think either of us realized how far into that headspace we were until we were out of it. It felt like a dark time. There were a lot of cues I don’t even know how we came up with. It is a different language because you have to keep it engaging wall to wall without getting in the way of the dialogue, which is mostly very meaningful. You’re trying to do justice by the people who are telling their stories in documentaries.
Ian: Not enough credit is given to the composers for documentary film because it is so challenging. The amount of music I have to write for these projects is never not overwhelming. And constantly watching the same difficult scenes and dialogue is really hard. The one I’m working on now is maybe the darkest one I’ve done. I have to take breaks and cannot work on it every day. I break it down to dealing with it one cue at a time, two minutes at a time so that I’m not overwhelmed.
Are there things that each of you wants to take on, or together, that will allow you to spread your wings more and attempt things you haven’t tried yet?
Drum & Lace: The new projects coming in are allowing us to scratch that itch. On my end, I’m really excited to be entering more of a horror/thriller phase. I find that I thrive in that space artistically and those projects musically follow what I release on my own. The next big step would be to work with a director I really admire on more of an auteur level.
Ian: I always say that I want to be able to work with a big orchestra, like at the hall at Air. Not even conducting but I just want to be in that room and feel its vibrations. We’re starting to get closer to that, which is really exciting.
Drum & Lace: We’ve done things with orchestras and ensembles remotely – Ian with Budapest and me with the London Contemporary Orchestra – but on our next project we have a whole week blocked up to record with an orchestra, which is very exciting. It’s our biggest project to date.
Ian: I’ve used remote orchestras over the years because of budget limitations, but they are fantastic and have only gotten better through the years. Some people are narrowing in on using them exclusively.
Drum & Lace: But on scores of ours like NIght Teeth, Dickinson, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, samples are great. Nobody would ever know because they’re layered in a way that sounds realistic. We actually sampled our felt piano and had a custom instrument made and what we discovered in the process is that there’s so much attention paid to the integrity of a sample library. Ours sounded ok until you compare it to a real one.