Behind the Music interview: Assassination Nation’s Ian Hultquist

For the next edition in this series, I interview Ian Hultquist, who has two upcoming major releases that contain his musical DNA: the family sci-fi film, A-X-L, and the Sundance hit, Assassination Nation.

In the recent edition of Behind the Music, I interview the former Passion Pit member and composer of A-X-L and Assassination Nation, Ian Hultquist. Hailing from the world of indie electronica music, Ian Hultquist has built his career out of music for all kinds of media.

Notably, Hultquist’s career first began to gain traction after helping form the indie electronica band, Passion Pit, back in 2007. The band is known for their catchy synthpop sound and pleasing arrangements, of which Hultquist helped contribute to with his role as the band’s guitarist. He has since left the band, but that has not stopped him from creating music, forming a project called Aislyn with his wife, Italian composer Sofia Hultquist, and lending his musical talents to the world of film.

Hultquist uses his electronica roots to deliver futuristic and complex arrangements for the films has worked on and anybody who might not have heard his sound before could get multiple chances to do so within the next month. Firstly, his music will be heard in the science fiction family adventure film set to release this Friday, A-X-L, which tells the story of a boy’s chance encounter with a highly advanced military robo-dog. The feature stars Akex Neustaedter, Becky G, and Thomas Jane, and looks to compete with the other dog feature which debuted last week, Alpha.

But if you happen to miss this one in theaters, there’s still a chance for you to hear Ian Hultquist’s music in film, as his second project is his work on the highly anticipated Sundance satire action-horror-comedy, Assassination Nation. The film, which tells the story of a small town named Salem going insane after a massive hack, has made waves with its intentionally provocative marketing, promising that audiences will be “triggered” by what they see.

Hultquist gets a chance to elaborate on what the film is trying to do, along with his work on A-X-L, his thoughts on electronica music entering the film world, and more in my interview with him!

Hidden Remote: Thank you so much for taking the time to be featured on Hidden Remote! I know it must be difficult to make time with the amount of projects you’ve tackled this year so far. Has this been your busiest work year as of now?

Ian Hultquist: My pleasure! I think it’s fair to say that this definitely has been my busiest year in scoring. However one of my 2018 resolutions was to try & learn to pace myself, so thankfully I haven’t felt too overwhelmed- yet!

HR: Before delving more into scores for films and TV shows, you made a name for yourself as a member of the electronica band, Passion Pit. Just so the readers can have a chance to know you a bit better (and if you’re cool with the question), how did you get your music career started?

Hultquist: I was actually studying Film Scoring at Berklee College in Music in Boston, MA when the band started. So I always knew scoring was something I wanted to do eventually. However, when Passion Pit started up we were all young & wanted to go play music around the world, so we were lucky to be able to go and do that for a while.

Eventually, the scoring itch came back so I started reaching out to anyone & everyone I could think of, asking them to let me score whatever it was they were working on. Thanks to a few trusting & generous friends, I was able to work on a few short films & documentaries as well as getting into commercial writing.

HR: What would you say were your largest musical influences as your career continued to solidify?

Hultquist: A lot of my influences early on came from films & bands that I liked, it wasn’t until later that I started to appreciate the actual composers. Early Spielberg is definitely a big one for me, some of my earliest movie memories are of his films. I also got really attached to Christopher Nolan, David Fincher & Denis Villeneuve.

Band-wise, it’s a big mix from Wilco to the Beatles, LCD Soundystem to Miles Davis. Any band or musician who is very into tones & textures always catches my ear.

HR: From Disasterpeace’s magnificent work in the horror hit, It Follows, to Oneohtrix Point Never’s enthralling musical score for last year’s A24 thriller, Good Time, it’s seeming as if electronic-sounding scores are beginning to form its own trend in films. Considering your own background in electronica, do you feel this makes it easier for electronic or electronic-influenced artists such as yourself to break into the film and TV industry?

Hultquist: For the most part, absolutely – however, there is a caveat to that. The positive is that there is definitely an opening for that kind of sound now, and a lot of audiences are really excited by it. I really love how Synthesizers have had such a revival, and it’s allowing companies I love like Dave Smith & Moog to really grow and expand with new products. However, in my opinion, there is a skill & craft to actually reading & scoring a film that takes some time & dedication to learn. Not every musician knows how to do that right away, but if they are willing to put in the work then I can really appreciate what they are making.

Assassination Nation

Assassination Nation image courtesy BRON Studios

HR: It must feel great to be the musical force behind what is shaping up to be one of the year’s most buzzed-about and possibly even controversial releases, the Sundance hit known as Assassination Nation. What drove you to become involved in the Sam Levinson feature?

Hultquist: It’s been quite a ride being part of this film, and it’s not even out yet! I was initially sent the script by my agent, not really knowing much about it. However, once I read it, I immediately became obsessed. I had definitely never read a script or story like that before. It perfectly captured so many thoughts & feelings I’ve had, especially considering the conflict happening now in our country.

I sent over a demo reel of my music to Sam & thankfully he really responded to it. I think we had a Skype conversation towards the end of 2016, and then they started filming/I started writing in April of 2017.


Assassination Nation

Assassination Nation image courtesy BRON Studios


HR: Assassination Nation is carrying itself as an intentionally provocative skewering of various traditions of American culture (at least that’s what I could gather from the trailer). How would you go about to create a score that could match the film’s tone in this regard?

Hultquist: It was definitely an interesting challenge, and it became a pretty long process of experimenting with ideas to find the right tones. We spent months playing with different genres, from dark synths to Morricone westerns, to delicate orchestra. It was pretty wild. In the end, I think there is an influence of all of those in the music, much like America is an influence of so many other cultures.

HR: To my knowledge, the soundtrack hasn’t been released,but based on how the film looks, I imagine it will have a profound effect on the overall final product. Without spoilers, what’s your favorite piece of music that you created for the film and why? A little bragging is allowed here. After all, it’s YOUR music!

Hultquist: I don’t want to say too much, but there is quite a big set piece where things really take a turn in the film & the music there is pretty insane. That was probably the hardest scene to get right, and it only worked through a collaboration of Sam, and Julio Perez IV (Additional Editor).

Ian Hultquist

Assassination Nation image courtesy BRON Studios

HR: What sets Assassination Nation apart from other films you’ve scored? Not just in regards to the story, but the creation process behind the scenes?

Hultquist: I think the sheer amount of time & ideas we came up with on this film really sets it apart. It’s pretty interesting starting a film off coming up with Americana Western suites, and then a bit later finding yourself writing Trap beats that we could chop & screw into oblivion.

HR: The Sundance hit will surely get people talking about it come September. On the other hand, it’s not the only upcoming film where your music will be heard, as A-X-L, the family adventure film focused on a high-tech robo-dog, is set to come out later in August! How did you switch up the creation process with this film’s score, as opposed to Assassination Nation?

Hultquist: I had so much fun writing on A-X-L! That film was definitely more straightforward as far as the process went. I got brought in to watch a cut of the film, and I just immediately clicked with it. The story is just one big adventure, centered around a boy & his (robot) dog. It also reminded me a bit of Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant, which is a film I love so much. I met with Oliver Daly & the Lakeshore team, and it took some restraint to not start begging them to let me work on it!

HR: The film’s story, which follows a teenage boy coming across a robotic dog created by high-grade military technology, is looking to mix the traditional story of a boy/dog buddy adventure with the glossy world of science-fiction. Was this what drove you to tackle the project?

Hultquist: Absolutely! I love that the film has an epic, blockbuster feel to it – but still on smaller scale. There’s such an excitement to that kind of storytelling to me. It makes you feel like being a kid again.

HR: Considering the film’s dabbling in the science-fiction genre, a futuristic score is expected, so how did you go about to create a memorable score for A-X-L? Your background in electronic music seems tailormade for this kind of film, so how did you use that to your advantage here?

Hultquist: This score was interesting to make because we really wanted to make a mix of “blockbuster score meets pop song production”. It’s a full on adventure film with heroes & villains, so we needed that wide scope – however, our main characters are teenagers & we wanted the music to feel like it could still relate to them. It was really fun mixing those two sonic worlds together.

HR: The soundtrack hasn’t been released, but for people who go to see the film, are there any specific moments (without spoilers of course) where you feel the music stands out the most? Maybe the readers can go into the film with this in mind to set their expectations high!

Hultquist: Without giving away too much, there are two scenes I really love and I feel like the score helped nail the pieces together. One is a montage scene (I can’t say what it’s about), and then I’m pretty proud of the climax of the film. It gets pretty emotional.

HR: Before we wrap this up, I’d like to sell the films to the readers, all in the hopes of having both of these films leave their mark by their release dates. Firstly, why should audiences go and check out Assassination Nation, despite its heavy content and themes?

Hultquist: I think Assassination Nation is the kind of film you can get obsessed with. It’s been amazing to watch how it’s already built a bit of a cult following on social media, and most people haven’t seen it yet! It really has something for everyone in there, and I truly feel the story has only gotten more & more relevant since we finished making it. Go see it, because you won’t be able to stop talking about it.

HR: Not to forget about A-X-L, what sets this film apart from other dog-friendly adventure films? The premise alone is enticing, but from your own experience scoring the film, what makes A-X-L worth seeing on the big screen?

Hultquist: A-X-L is a totally different animal (pun intended) to Assassination Nation. It’s a family-friendly (rated PG!) adventure, that I think is truly heart warming. I would take breaks from writing & just on the floor hugging my dogs. It makes you appreciate how special of a connection that is.

HR: Lastly, are there any final words of wisdom you’d like to share with the readers? No limit on what those words are, so just speak from the heart!

Hulquist: As I mentioned before, it has been a very busy year for me – but that hasn’t come without it’s challenges. It’s very easy in this job, to get caught up on the little things. Either working yourself to exhaustion, or spending too much time comparing yourself to your peers. I really wanted to take a mindful stance this year and try and focus more on taking care of myself, and my family & I think it’s been one of the most beneficial things I’ve learned so far! Remember to take a breath, take a step back, even shut down the studio every once in a while and walk away. Your brain & your body will thank you!

Next: Behind the Music interview: Guernsey's Alexandra Harwood

A-X-L will be released on August 24th in theaters, while Assassination Nation gears up towards a September 21st release.

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