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‘Yellowjackets’ Composers on Drafting a Perfect Indie-Rock Theme Song

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The ’90s: back! Also back: overwhelming existential dread! They’re two great tastes that taste great together, as any fan of Showtime’s hit series “Yellowjackets” can attest. Besides all the mid-’90s pop and indie-rock needle drops that pop up amid the calmer moments in the show’s sometimes horrific storm, there’s also music of an uneasier nature coming from the two musicians responsible for both the score and original songs, both ’90s veterans: Craig Wedren of the band Shudder to Think, and Anna Waronker of That Dog.

Without resorting to cannibalism, these two formed a few survival skills of their own, in escaping the uncertainty of the music business for steady television work, and previously became a TV team working on a couple of very different series, Hulu’s “Shrill” and The CW’s “The Republic of Sarah.” Now, “Yellowjackets” has allowed them some moments to revisit their ’90s band roots, as if they were in a parallel time frame of their own, especially in the theme song, “No Return,” and some end-credits bonus tunes. But as rocking as those can get, don’t look to their instrumental score for too much respite from the scariness of the woods and teen/human nature.

With the first season coming to an end this weekend — no, they didn’t realize it wasn’t a closed-end miniseries, either, until they were well into it — Variety got on the phone with Wedren and Waronker from their respective homes in Los Angeles.

VARIETY: The theme song is a little bit scary and a little bit fun. That could have been a tricky balance, because you don’t want people to come into it too lighthearted, but horror is just one element of the show, and you don’t want them to be overcome with fear before they settle into the drama.

WEDREN: I think that’s sort of a good motto for how we approach the whole score. We want it to be really unsettling and really fun — like an intense thrill ride.

In the score, you lean toward the scary, probably, on the scale of things. But with the theme song, something with a vintage Farfisa organ sound is just never going to be not fun, even if it’s ominous.

WEDREN: Yeah, exactly. It’s funny that you say that, because initially we had done that line with a piano, and it just wasn’t working, and we were like, “Maybe that line just shouldn’t be in there.” But you take something out and you sort of judge whether you need to put it back in by if you sort of ghost-hear it, listening back without it. And every time we listened to it, it was like, “Nope, I’m still hearing the line.”

WARONKER: But we needed something spooky.

WEDREN: And there’s nothing more fun and spooky than a Farfisa, because that’s a classic (thriller sound), as well as being in B-52s stuff, which is one of the billion things that Anna and we agree on,. Not that the theme sounds anything like B-52s, but just that sound.

WARONKER: Although I’d love to hear them do a cover of it. (She breaks into an imitation of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson singing the riff.) I’m putting it out there.

WEDREN: We’ll produce it, you guys. We’re here for you. We’re here to help produce the next B-52s record. Speaking of Farfisas in TV shows, I’m looking out over our next door neighbor’s haunted house, and the woman who owns it used to work on “The Munsters.” Didn’t that theme have a Farfisa?

Is it true you were originally just charged with doing the score, and the song was almost an afterthought?

WEDREN: They weren’t sure for a long time that there was going to be a theme song, because it’s still such a rarity. I suppose “Succession” has made theme songs kind of hip again. But themes really went away for awhile and turned into these little 5-to-10 second ringtones. And I really missed it. I love the golden age of theme songs.

WARONKER: That’s one of my favorite things. I used to listen to that album of ‘70s and ‘80s theme songs.

WEDREN: Me too! 100%.

WARONKER: I can’t believe we’ve never covered that subject.

WEDREN: I know. I can’t believe we’ve never covered that record. But speaking for myself, I got to do a lot of theme songs in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and it was so fun and I felt like it was just like going to be a thing, like one of those fun, weird things that you get to do. And then it just went away and it was sad. But now it’s not. Now it’s happy.

It’s like how so many movies have 20-minute pre-credit sequences now. With TV, they want the audience to jump right in.

WEDREN; But I suppose once they figured out the ”skip intro” button, then it allowed themes to come back, because you can listen to it or not. if you’re binging a show, you don’t have to watch the one-and-a-half minute thing every single time you do it. Although I’m hoping that with “Yellowjackets,” nobody has ever hit the skip button.

WARONKER: Never. I’ve never hit the skip button on “Succession.”

WEDREN: They hit the loop button. That’s what we need for “Yellowjackets,” the loop button. People keep wanting the longer version, and we’re like, there’s nothing more to say. It’s done.

When the song finally went up on streaming sites, fans were assuming it was going to be like a five-minute version. And it’s like, nope, it’s a minute and a half and we’re done, even on Spotify.

WEDREN: We talked about it. We were like, we could do another verse and another chorus, and a fuckin’ bridge or a break or whatever. But then it’s like… eh.  I feel like theme songs are cool. They’re like punk-rock songs: in and out, and move on. IT feels like it sparks the way it is right now. And if we dragged it out, then it feels overly serious or something, if we double the length of it.

Talk about first getting involved with the show. You mentioned that originally, when you were doing the theme, you were working on end titles, with no thought of opening titles. What was happening when you first came on?

WEDREN: We were just brought in to do the score. Karyn Kusama is someone with whom I’d worked on some stuff in the past, and she directed a couple episodes of “Yellowjackets” and is one of the producers. So she brought me in because they had done the pilot a few years ago. And then when it came back around, Teddy Shapiro (who did the music for the first episode), for whatever reason, wasn’t going to be involved. I took a look at it and thought, this seems like a blast, and I know exactly what to do — and also, we need to bring Anna in on this. Just because Anna and I have a ball working together and make each other better in a lot of ways. But also, it’s such a female force, this show, that it would have felt a little bit strange to me to (do it as a solo-male scorer). Plus Anna and I been looking for something dark and dramatic to do, so it really checked all the boxes.

When we started, it was just the score, but we knew there were going to be end-credit needs. End credits are always fun because oftentimes you can go off-grid from the score tone. If the score for a show is very traditional, you can get a little weirder for the end credits. In this case, it was the opposite, because the score was already pushing a lot of boundaries, so we were like, “Oh, we can draw from our ‘90s, alternative, punk, art, whatever you want to call it, band roots — and really play.” And just based on the needle drops that they had in the show, the licensed songs, we’re like, “Oh my God, we can indulge all of our instincts that we would never have let ourselves do in the ‘90s,” because we were both in very distinct, original bands. WIth Anna in That Dog and me in Shudder to Think — I never would have let myself do something that sounded like Nirvana or Liz Phair or whatever, because like we were Shudder to Think, and we needed to sound only like Shudder to think and not like Dinosaur Jr.! But now, who gives a shit? And it’s right for the show and we’re not kids anymore; we can do whatever we want. So we could be like, “Turn up the PJ Harvey! Turn up the Pixies!”

WARONKER: We also get to play around like it’s our own band. I always say that each show we work on is like our side band’s album. And so we go into that headspace, especially when it’s like an end song. It’s short. It can be fun. Let’s just kind of like get it out really fast. And I think it’s such a great juxtaposition to the score, to have it be this like kind of like witchy, playful, poppy, bouncy thing that we were feeling and would want to perform.

WEDREN: Totally. And I think that once they heard particularly this one that we did called “Snarler,” this thing that I think wound up being the end credits for most of the episodes, they were so excited about it that once they decided that there would indeed be a proper opening credits sequence. We had made it obvious that if they wanted a song, we were the band, you know?

Lazy loaded image

(L-R): Christina Ricci as Misty, Melanie Lynskey as Shauna, Juliette Lewis as Natalie and Tawny Cypress as Taissa in YELLOWJACKETS. Photo credit: Brendan Meadows/SHOWTIME.
Brendan Meadows/SHOWTIME

With the main theme, with the lyrics, they’re pretty vague. Did you feel like you didn’t want to like tip too much in terms of theme or storyline to sort of set an expectation for the show?

WARONKER: (We went with) whatever kind of came to mind that felt like the right thing to say, whether it made sense or not. Because does the show even make sense? You know, there’s so many different variables going on. It felt very kind of youthful and smart and kind of ‘90s too, what felt right for a song, versus a storyline.

WEDREN: It’s an impressionistic lyric. For me, that’s frequently where I come from, unless I’m assigned to do a more traditional pop song where it needs to be clearer and more overt. I much prefer the sort of dream logic of… I don’t want to say vague, but alchemical lyrics, I guess, that make you feel a certain way, but you’re not sure why. It’s specific enough that anyone might feel like they can relate to it, but there’s enough room there that people can plug in their own meaning and be creative with it. It engages the imagination. But it wasn’t random. We really worked on those lyrics, and it took a while to kind of find the right combination where it was like, “Oh yeah, that feels like ‘Yellowjackets’; that totally evokes the images and the feeling and the relationships and the weirdness of ‘Yellowjackets’ without giving aaaanything away.” Also, when we wrote the theme, we were on episode 3 and didn’t know where the hell the show was going. We weren’t reading scripts. So we would just see cuts of the show the week before. We would have a week to score each episode, and we would get rough or close to final cuts of each episode and be like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they did that!” And then we would try and both complement  their audacity and top it. Like, “I’ll take your rotisserie chicken birth and I will raise you! I will raise you a screaming witch!”

WARONKER: Yeah, exactly. (With elements like) backwards distorted breaths.

WEDREN: The producers really, really encouraged us to go out on multiple limbs and really be experimental and try stuff, which is such a rare direction to get. You often get it in the first meeting — you have that creative hopefulness — but then it usually simmers pretty fast. But in this case they kept just making us walk the plank. Like creatively, they’re like, “Nope, do it. Try it. Go further.” And we were like, This is scary! This is fun!

WARONKER: We were just like, what’s the most out-there thing we could think of? And we were doing it. There was actually a very funny thing that happened. THere’s the scene that’s in episode 6 where Lottie is getting baptized, and  I think it’s like six or seven minutes long. And for some reason, when we sent the files to the producers, half of them didn’t come across in the audio. And it was already a very out-there piece of music. So (with the glitch) they heard only half of it — they heard some breaths and maybe like one string. And they actually gave it time and thought, because they thought that that was what we had intended to send them.

WEDREN: They sent us back really, really thoughtful notes on it!

WARONKER: But then I listened back and said, “Ooh, what happened?” And then we realized that there was just some sort of technical issue. Then we sent them the actual piece of music, and they were thrilled.

WEDREN: If we had sent them the actual piece of music first, who knows, they might’ve been like, “This is too weird.” But because what we sent them first was basically silence punctuated by breaths for five minutes, by the time we sent them something that actually had music in it, they were like, “Oh my God, this is perfect.”

WARONKER: It was kind of this amazing measuring stick of where we could push it. Because it’s unusual to be able to do that. I mean, even in our own music, where we have weird splotches, it’s unusual to be able to have that embraced. So it’s super fun for us to push those boundaries and limits, together.

WEDREN: There is that sort of confidence and safety in your gang mentality, where it’s like, “Let’s push this.” And because Anna and I have each other to sort of bolster and protect one another,  it makes things more spontaneous and more adventurous — as opposed to when I’m working alone, where I‘m simultaneously one foot on the pedal, one foot on the brake. And that’s a very strange place to be, where you’re simultaneously creating and judging.

How conscious were you if at all of wanting to have something that felt at least in the same territory as the show’s ‘90s needle drops — especially with the theme song? I was trying to think, how would I describe the song? Because it’s not in a real specific style, but I did think well, you could kind of describe it as Radiohead meets Nine Inch Nails with some ‘90s female indie-rock energy on top of it, or something. But that’s a very loose, random description, but…

WARONKER: It’s pretty accurate! [Laughs.]

WEDREN: Sure. I mean, we weren’t being quite that specific, but because we came up in the ‘90s and our first careers were fronting ‘90s bands, it’s just in our DNA. It’s right there, so it wasn’t something we had to overthink at all. And there were moments where, when we were hearing it back, at least for me, I would be like, “It feels too Nails. It feels too Jesus Lizard. We need something to soften it.” And then we would put in female opera vocals on top of it. It was this weird experience of having the benefit of hindsight, where we could sort of cherry-pick … not old tropes, but just like stylistic habits that we were immersed in in the ‘90s, and collage them together in a way that no single band that existed would have known to do then. Now with the benefit of hindsight, we can pick and choose from any of it and then add all this modern stuff to it, so it feels very 2021 and very 1995 at the time.

WARONKER: It’s interesting because as we evolved as writers and artists from that time period where we were a part of the music scene, some of those habits kind of get shoved away and stored in some sort of attic in our brains. So it was nice to kind of be able to crack that open and just ligo right there where it all kind of started for us in a way as individual artists…

WEDREN: It’s like opening up a closet with all of your old guitar pedals. And you’re like, oh my God, right, I totally forgot about you! But all we need to do is put the nine-volt and there it is, there’s the sound.

Why is ’90s revivalism a thing in music, can you say, from your perspective?

WEDREN: We both have kids, age 12 and 13, boys. And I can’t speak for Alfie, who is Anna’s son, but my son Lennon and his friends, it’s like all ‘90s, all the time. It’s so weird.

WARONKER: Alfie listens to bands that are clearly inspired from that period, where I’m like, “Wait, is that band using my tuning?”

Why do you think the show has become such a phenomenon?

WARONKER: I think everyone needs to not think about their feelings a little bit and just like get wrapped up in some other world. And there’s something so rebellious about the teens and that era in the ‘90s as well. They’re out there on their own, just scavengers trying to take care of themselves. And I think it’s a nice release for how difficult the last couple years have been.

WEDREN: I also sort of noticed with myself that when the pandemic hit, quite the opposite of running from darkness and horror, it was like I started watching a lot more horror– the fun kind. And I think that everybody needs in a weird way to focus on something fantastical, phantasmagorical and fictional that sort of makes almost like a cartoonish sense of this collective horror, dread, uncertainty and kaleidoscopic confusion that’s been happening over the past handful of years. A show like this puts it all in a frame and makes it really, really fun. It’s like playing a game, like wolves and villagers, or telling a spooky campfire story with your friends. It heightens what you’re already feeling and puts it outside of yourself, so it feels playful instead of dreadful.

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