The X-Files wouldn't be The X-Files without the spooky sounds of composer Mark Snow, the New Yorker who came up with the iconic theme and countless pieces for the series. We caught up with him to talk about storming the UK pop charts, infiltrating supermarkets and the magic of craft services...
How did you first get involved with the show? There's a great quote from Chris Carter that says, "I liked Mark's style, his music and the fact that he lived down the road from me..."
That's right! I'm pretty lucky about that, because if you know Los Angeles, he was in Pacific Palisades and I lived in Santa Monica, which was close. Some of the other people I understand were in downtown LA or Simi Valley, just far away. So that did help!
Was it (executive producer) Robert Goodwin who put you two together first?
I had worked a lot for and with Bob and when this came along it was easy for him to recommend me. He was the main man, so to speak, in the deal and getting Chris to take notice of me in the first place. Chris came over to my place to listen to some music and chat a bit.
Did Chris have any specific ideas for the theme?
He brought maybe five or ten CDs and said, "I like the drums on this, the guitar here, the violin on this one..." I tried to digest it and actually that didn't work out that well, but it wasn't harmful. I just kept writing. I wrote probably four themes before the main one hit. And those four were sort of like what he was talking about, but when I look back on them — I don't even know if I saved them — they sound a little generic or what you think would be on a sci-fi show. More pounding and rhythmic and dangerous and muscular. Chris said, "That's great, but it's just a little..." He's not all that effusive and gregarious, he's calm and close to the vest and you don't know what he's thinking for sure, but we got along really well. And then I said, "Let me just try something without any of these other influences." We had a little bit of time and luckily stumbled on the piece.
This guy in Nashville did sort of a Chris Isaak version. With pedal steel guitars: really moody, but cool.
Is it true that you ended up resting your arm on the keyboard and finding the sound by mistake?
Yes. It was that accompanying theme, the "da-ba-da-da-ba-da..." I had some echo-delay thing on the keyboard and I thought it worked well. Chris was always talking about simple, under-produced, not slick music. So I thought, "Okay, that's a nice part of this." Then I had to figure out what else it would be a three-part piece. Some sustained low notes underneath that, some low drums hits here and there, then all we needed was a melody on top of it. That was simple enough. I tried different instruments, including strings and sax and flute and it sounded ordinary. How about piano? Oh, no. So I stumbled upon the whistle sound and my wife said, "That's cool! You should keep that." She whistled along with it too, so that's where that came from.
Were you working from the visuals for the opening credits, or did they work from your music?
The music came first. Chris called me a couple of weeks before the show was on the air and said, "There are a few guys from Fox who want to hear this thing so they can also feel good about it." He told me to meet him at the studio at a certain time and bring a boom box — this was the days before MP3s, so I had a cassette tape. I went to the meeting and Chris said, "Oh! I've got to go see about something else." And left me alone with these executives! I put it on and it was a great Hollywood moment — no-one there would say anything: they were just passing the buck to the next guy. The first guy would say, "Well... You know, it's just... I... it feels... Jim?" And it would move to the next guy. "It just reminds me... I've got a feeling for it..."
They would not commit. They were puzzled and ready to hear something more generic. They were torn, I could tell, between thinking it's a great idea or it being too different. The real Hollywood moral of the story is a month later the show came out and people were talking about how great the theme was. One of the guys from the meeting called me and said, "Didn't we tell you? Didn't we tell you how great it was gonna be?" I took total advantage of it and said, "Yes you did! And thank you!"
Do you have a favourite cover version of it?
This guy in Nashville did sort of a Chris Isaak version. With pedal steel guitars: really moody, but cool. A lot of the covers were pounding electronic versions, but this was a mellow little cloud that just came upon you. It was really neat.
It got to Number 2 in the UK charts. Were you surprised?
Totally. I didn't think instrumentals could do that. Someone said, "Make a long version of it and let's hear it..." I think it was Warners or someone. I guess because the show was so popular in the UK and France. The frustrating or sad part was the record company called up and said, "Boy, we had such success with this, do another! What's your next thing?" I tried all kinds of things and it just didn't work out. For a moment I thought I was going to be like Moby, some guy who makes all these singles. I thought of everything I figured that would be cool and it didn't quite work out that well.
Have you ever heard the theme in a place that surprised you?
I was in LA once at Ralph's supermarket and heard it played as muzak!
Aside from the theme, which bit of X-Files music are you most proud of creating?
There was an episode called 'The Post-Modern Prometheus'. Somebody did an orchestral version of the main theme of that episode, and that was definitely one of the standouts for me, musically. It was great.
Did you prefer scoring standalone episodes as opposed to "mythology" shows, which tended to have similar themes?
I did. I don't know if all The X-Files people would like to hear that necessarily, but just musically, a standalone gave me a totally blank canvas to try all kinds of things and I was able to experiment with a lot of different things. The mythology shows needed that thread of almost traditional movie scoring.
When I got to go on set, I was mostly impressed with the display of food. It was incredible: everything you could imagine.
Music aside, would you say you had a favourite episode of the show?
I think what really stands out was when I saw the pilot and first couple of episodes and I thought, "Well, this is okay..." I didn't know what was going to happen. "These two kids, the stars, they're okay." Gillian turned into something amazing and I think one of the fun times was when she directed her episode and everyone called me to say, "Oh man, look out, she is not fun to work with, she's a horror show. She's gonna be demanding and has this attitude that she thinks it's a men's club and they're after her..." She came over to my place with a takeaway salad. I introduced her to my wife, we went to my studio, she sits down on the floor and starts eating the salad, then says, "All right... Let's hear it." I'd had one discussion with her a week before I started writing and she'd said, "I really kind of like New Agey stuff." So I played the first piece, which was a longish piece for the beginning and I was ready for the reaction. I turned around and she said, "That's perfect..."
Did you go on set much?
One of the directors, the dear old, dearly departed Kim Manners, said, "Hey man, we've got this little tiny part, a non-speaking role, that we're shooting in an episode called Per Manum at night out in the Valley. Why don't you come out and we'll put you in as a cameo." At 1am they had me try on my costume and around 2am we were ready to go. I had to walk up some stairs and stand next to Gillian when she was saying something and I had to nod and that was it. I remember I got home at six or seven in the morning and thought, ‘This is ridiculous... This is called work?' I was mostly impressed with the display of food. It was incredible: everything you could imagine.
Which instrument would you associate with Mulder and which with Scully?
Mulder: clarinet. Scully: cello.
What TV shows on now would you say have the best themes?
The one that comes to mind is Homeland, which is a jazzy instrumental with some really interesting background elements. Also American Horror Story, that's really pretty great too. With a lot of the new shows, there's not a lot of time for credits. Oh! And Breaking Bad is so lovely and sophisticated and modern.