Interviewer: Paul Goldowitz
Research, Copy, Layout: Ruby Gartenberg
Editing: Alex Sicular, Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Jason Hill, Alison Deknatel, and Netflix.
September 6, 2019
Jason Hill is the hypnotic composer, producer, recording artist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, admired for his arcane musical stylings and idiosyncratic approach. He is the frontman and thought leader of controversial post-punk band, Louis XIV, member of alternative supergroup, Vicky Cryer, and founder of The Department of Recording and Power, a voluminous vintage studio in Glendale, California. A contrarian musical nomad, Jason has thrived in myriad roles within the music business, working with David Bowie, The Killers, Robbie Williams, New York Dolls, Jet, Sky Ferreira, Macy Gray, The Virgins, Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs, and many others. After being tapped to fulfill the official trailer and teaser for Gone Girl, legendary director, David Fincher invited Jason to conjure a musical macrocosm for Netflix’s gripping criminal psychology thriller series, Mindhunter. Over two critically acclaimed seasons, Jason’s score negotiates the liminal space between masks of normalcy and unbridled savagery, masterfully evoking unseen traumas. In our sprawling discussion, Jason details his lifelong rejection of sonic mores and how he made Netflix history with his haunting re-imagining of the Mindhunter theme for the season two finale.
Before becoming a composer for media, you explored many artistic avenues in the music industry — Louis XIV, Vicky Cryer, and beyond. Could you describe some of your most fulfilling pursuits before you changed your professional trajectory? What are the advantages of having a strong pre-existing relationship to storytelling through music?
Well, it’s an interesting thought about the storytelling aspect. With songwriting, you’re trying to tell these mini stories, but I’ve had many, many fulfilling artistic projects. Louis XIV, I absolutely loved doing, and in fact, for the first time in 10 years, we’re in the middle of making another record. We’ve got a few songs so far, and it’s fun to come back around to it after we went pretty hard, toured the world, and made records. “The Best Little Secrets are Kept” is one of the records I’m very, very proud of. I just loved making it.
Looking back, I lived in this little, tiny…it wasn’t even an apartment, and it overlooked a Shell gas station. It didn’t have a shower or anything. I would literally connect a hose to the faucet and drag it out on the balcony that overlooked the gas station. In the middle of the night, I would hose myself to take a shower unless I was staying at girlfriends’ houses. I had a futon in the corner, but the rest of the place was just my recording gear. I was broke, but I was happy to be making music. That’s where all the Louis XIV material came about. It was essentially from those late nights, and that was a really great experience.
I’ve actually had so many great experiences related to music. There were times when me and my past bandmates moved to a place called Jamul up in the mountains, about an hour outside of downtown San Diego. We lived in this old adobe house on forty-six acres that an artist built. That was one of the places where we learned to sing harmonies and write together. That was also where I really learned how to record. We just had reel-to-reels, and I figured out how to do it. I’ve always lived in pursuit of trying to figure out how to do things by myself. If I signed a record deal, instead of giving another producer a bunch of money in the studio to make a record, it was like, “No. Let’s just buy a bunch of gear ourselves, and now, we can make records for the rest of our lives.” That’s why I have the arsenal of stuff I have to this day.
There are so many incarnations of my life in music, starting from the moment I first fell in love with it. I remember as a little kid; I was actually plagued by these things in my head, which later I learned were melodies. It would drive me nuts. To be honest with you, as a nine-year-old kid, I would have all these tiny, weird symphonies playing in my mind, but I didn’t know what they were until I started figuring out what music really was. Of course, I knew what music “was,” and I even wrote a song around age five, but at that point, I didn’t know how to make these melodies I was hearing come to life. It was like, “How do I get this out of my head and into the cosmos? How do I play it on a guitar or a piano?”. Oh god, it was so tough. That was a thing like, “I gotta figure this out because otherwise, it’s going to kill me.”
I think it’s always been a pursuit of the fog. It’s like a foggy mirror after a hot shower. Little by little, the fog comes clear, and you are able to see your reflection. That’s what music has been, for me, for my entire life, and now, I just have a lot more control over it. That said, it’s still this elusive thing, and I love that elusive thing. I love the feeling of not knowing, so I still dance in that realm.
The Glass Armonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin.
Taking place in the late ’70s through the early ’80s, Mindhunter charts the origin of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and the practice of criminal profiling. Together, agents, Holden Ford and Bill Tench, alongside psychologist, Wendy Carr interview and analyze incarcerated serial killers across the nation, applying this groundbreaking knowledge to solve cases. In your collaboration with David Fincher, what concepts and musical references does he bring to the table, and how does that inform your approach?
[David Fincher] is so articulate. He’s a brilliant man. I can’t stress that enough, really. He gives you these prompts, but they’re rarely specific. Nowhere in there is he saying, “Do this,” or “Make this piece exactly like this.” He just gives you these open-ended questions.
This time around, one of his prompts was ‘the death of disco’ and what that sounded like. It was a very interesting thing to consider when you think of our score and where it ended up. How does finding out what the death of disco sounds like translate to season two of Mindhunter? I still don’t know, but it led me in a place of trying to figure it out, which was a bit of a mind fuck.