Finishing its four season run earlier this year, Banshee was a cult hit that swiftly carved a niche in the heart of genre fans with its combination of colourful characters, intricate storytelling and over the top action. I was recently lucky enough to get the chance to talk with the show’s composer Kris Dirksen, as well as exclusively presenting some previously unreleased tracks from the show.
How did you initially get involved in Banshee?
I started composing in the trailer music world, my partner Dane Short and I have a company called Methodic Doubt Music. Banshee’s showrunner Greg Yaitanes had discovered us through seeing our company’s music in a trailer, and after a couple of months of meetings and a demo/audition we were brought on board. Banshee was Cinemax’s first big push into scripted material so they were a little nervous about hiring on a composer without any prior TV experience but they took a leap of faith and we dove into the first season.
How do you approach writing music for a show with such varying tones?
I wish I could say there was an approach! Television production happens so quickly that there’s not a lot of time for premeditation or experimentation, most of the writing is based on instinct and it’s usually your first idea that ends up being used. The first season is always the toughest because you’re starting from scratch and having to build the musical world of the show as you go. Towards the end of that first season, and in subsequent years, it becomes a bit easier as you’ve established a palette and some general themes as a jump off point. Banshee, despite having developed a general “sound” for the score, kept introducing new characters and situations so it kept things interesting and prevented things from getting too stale. Greg was always very supportive and open to trying new directions, and the show was always pushing its own boundaries so it was a fun project to be involved in.
How long on average would it take you to come up with and finalise a track?
Anything from a few hours to a few days. I think episode 106 (Wicks) had the most music in a single episode, but I only had 4-5 days to finish it. Other episodes I had up to 2 weeks. There’s always a lot of coffee and little sleep. By the end of each season I probably looked like the bearded, reclusive Lucas Hood we see at the beginning of season 4.
Did you see the scripts in advance or did you wait until the cut of the episode was finalised before coming up with tracks?
Script-wise it was always different, and I’m not given the episode to work on until the cut has been finalized and locked with HBO. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to plan in advance, but I also see the benefit in approaching the episode without any preconceived notions about it. Seeing it with fresh eyes and ears, as the audience does. Ultimately, as a composer you watch the episode hundreds of times, and every additional watch takes you farther away from your initial reactions and reactions.
Can you tell us a little bit about the two unused tracks? Why did you end up going with what you went with in place of them?
Creating the main title theme was probably the toughest part of the Banshee experience for me. During the first season I was still learning some of the basics of how to score a television show, and the schedule was fast and furious as it always is, once you finish an episode you’re almost immediately jumping into the next one so there wasn’t a lot of time to devote to writing the main theme. I was throwing ideas at the wall and it took a while to hit the mark, this track was one of them. I worked pretty closely with Jason Yaitanes from Tin Punch Media who created the visuals for the title, so it ended up being a collaborative experience and they set a high bar for quality that I was trying to match.
The second track was a concept I came up with for the end of the series finale. Obviously that was a big moment for the show so it took at least a couple of tries to find the right moment for that sequence.
How closely did you work with Jonathan Tropper or any of the other producers?
Music’s always the last step in the process and once an episode was locked and ready for me, Greg became the main point of contact on that front. We’d meet and talk about his intentions with the score. Once he gave his initial direction I was very much left to do my own thing. There was a level of trust when it came to the music that was refreshing, relative to other projects.
Watching Banshee with friends usually resulted in all of us weirdly singing along with the opening theme; it’s one of those immediately iconic and compelling themes. Can you talk us through your process for coming up with tracks like that?
Like I mentioned it wasn’t easy to get there, and I wasn’t entirely sure that the theme was that strong when we locked it in. That said, deadlines aren’t flexible in the TV world so you do your best with the time you’re given and move on to the next song. The theme was slightly tweaked customized for all 38 episodes of the show so I spent a lot of time with it and second guess it over the course of 4 years! In retrospect, now that I have some distance it’s been nice to hear positive reactions from the fans and I’m proud that we were able to create something that was hopefully at least unique and helped set the show apart in some way.
Can you tell us a bit about what projects you have coming up?
Quarry, set in early ‘70s Memphis, is airing on Cinemax at the moment. Much of the Banshee team worked on that show and it shares some of the same pulpy, noir-ish sensibilities, so hopefully the Fanshees give it a shot!
You can check out the unreleased tracks here!