Conveying somber inner struggles and the intense threat of zombie-esque creatures known as Freakers in the same score is no easy task, but composer Nathan Whitehead is up to the challenge with his emotional music for Days Gone. With the open-world post-apocalyptic video game out now for the PlayStation 4, we caught up with Whitehead for our latest Q&A feature to discuss the eclectic instruments he used for the Days Gone score, using music to enhance the internal struggles of the game's main character and the external threats in equal measure, and his work on The Purge films (including how his music for The Purge: Anarchy helped him get the composer gig for Days Gone).
Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, Nathan, and congratulations on your score for Days Gone. How did you get involved as the composer for Days Gone?
Nathan Whitehead: Thanks very much! I got involved with Days Gone when John Garvin, the creative director at Sony Bend Studio, heard a piece of music I wrote for The Purge: Anarchy, and he thought it could be a good blueprint for the game. That led to a meeting with the Sony music team and eventually a meeting with John. I wrote a couple of pieces right away to play for John and shortly thereafter I was invited to join the team!
When you set out to compose the music for this game, were there any pre-existing guidelines to follow, or did you have total creative freedom?
Nathan Whitehead: We discussed a few broad concepts in the beginning. We talked about the music having a connection to the Pacific Northwest setting. The music also needed to balance action and horror with Deacon’s past and his internal process. One minute he’s fighting off Freakers and the next he’s remembering his wife and dealing with regret. The score needed to cover that range. But these ideas were much more inspiration than limitation, and I felt tremendous creative freedom while I was writing the score.
How much did you collaborate with creative director John Garvin and the team at Sony Bend Studio on the score to ensure that the music blended with their vision?
Nathan Whitehead: It was a very collaborative process. I met with John every chance I got and those meetings were crucial for understanding the story and characters of Days Gone. I think John is great at knowing when something feels right, whether it’s an actor’s performance or a piece of music I’ve written. It sounds obvious, but I think that ability is so valuable and it doesn’t come easily to everyone. He could listen and immediately articulate how the music made him feel and that is generally much more helpful than discussing specific musical ideas. I also worked closely with the Sony music team, specifically producers Pete Scaturro and Keith Leary. It was a fantastic team to be a part of and the collaborative nature was really a highlight of the project.
What types of instruments did you utilize to create the score for Days Gone?
Nathan Whitehead: I used guitars, string orchestra, percussion, some synths, and a lot of processed sounds and textures. Coming up with this palette was a huge part of finding the identity of the score, and I had a lot of conversations about this with the Sony music team. For me, guitars were inspired by both the biker/bounty hunter world of Deacon and by the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t want to lean too heavily on the rock/folk/Americana elements, but I felt including a taste of these vibes brought some gritty authenticity to the score. It helped me believe this music belonged in Deacon’s world.
Were you a fan of zombie movies, video games, and the horror genre in general prior to working on Days Gone?
Nathan Whitehead: I was! 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead stand out. I remember watching Dead Alive in junior high and it was horrifying, repulsive, and amazing all at once.
Were you influenced or inspired by any zombie movies and video games while working on the score to Days Gone?
Nathan Whitehead: Not really. At least not intentionally. What I loved about Days Gone from the very beginning was how the music needed to be as much about Deacon’s internal struggle as the struggle to survive the global infection. To me, this made for some cool juxtaposition and took the score in a slightly surprising direction. I liked the idea of the score evoking the sense of riding the open road in this beautiful place. The world is now broken and it’s deadly, but Deacon remembers life before the outbreak. Even the Freaker theme needed to be about tragic human loss in addition to the pulse-pounding terror of the Horde. I thought the score needed a thoughtful, reflective thread and, to me, that sets this project apart from a lot of other zombie movies and games.
What was it like playing Days Gone for the first time and hearing your music through the speakers?
Nathan Whitehead: It was really amazing and difficult to describe. I worked on the project for over two years. I’m proud of both the score, the amazing accomplishments of Sony Bend Studio and the entire team. It was just extremely satisfying to finally play the game and see all of the pieces of such a massive project come together.
Do you have a favorite musical moment from Days Gone?
Nathan Whitehead: Some of my favorite musical moments would be big spoilers, so I’ll avoid those. One moment I love in the main theme is near the end when big, lush strings are playing the tune and then this dissonant swell builds and slams into the sound world of the Freakers. This is one of the first pieces I wrote for the game and it introduces this juggling act between the beautiful and the deadly. Balancing these two broad aspects of the Days Gone world was one of the big challenges of the score and also made it a really satisfying score to write.
In addition to Days Gone, you’ve also worked on The Purge films. What has that experience been like?
Nathan Whitehead: The Purge was a surprising and wonderful experience. I scored the first three movies and none of us had any idea the first film would be so successful and would spawn all these sequels. It’s great working with James DeMonaco; he really encourages creative freedom in the whole team and it feels safe to throw ideas out there. I also really enjoyed the blend of action/thriller/horror music that The Purge scores turned out to be. I got to make a lot of sounds with synths and by mangling recordings and I enjoy working that way. It was challenging to keep ratcheting up the stakes and the scope with each movie, but they were all fun scores to write.
When did you initially become interested in music and what did you listen to in your formative years?
Nathan Whitehead: I’ve been fascinated by music as far back as I can remember. I think I was eight or nine when I started tinkering at the piano we had in our living room. I began deciphering simple melodies I had heard and that was when the idea of writing music first popped into my head. As a little kid, I remember hearing my parents’ music artists like The Beatles, Jim Croce, and Simon & Garfunkel. My parents also had this film score compilation cassette tape that we played constantly in the car. That tape introduced me to composers like Maurice Jarre and Vangelis. I hadn’t seen any of those movies, but I was mesmerized by the music. My formative years consisted of a lot of punk rock like Fugazi, Bad Religion, NOFX, Operation Ivy, etc. I was also a huge Cure fan and I went through this interesting phase where I listened to The Doors a lot.
In addition to Days Gone, what other projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about, and where can our readers go online to keep up to date on your work?
Nathan Whitehead: I’m excited to be teaming up again with James DeMonaco on his next movie. I can’t share too many details right now, but I really love the film and it’s quite different from our past work together on The Purge movies. The best place to find me is on Twitter and Instagram, @nathanwhitehead for both. Also check out my website at www.nathanwhitehead.com.
[Photo Credit: Above Nathan Whitehead photo by Leah Murphy.]