Behind the Music interview: Hereditary’s Colin Stetson

Hereditary photo courtesy A24 via photo by Reid Chavis
Hereditary photo courtesy A24 via photo by Reid Chavis /

From collaborations with Arcade Fire and Bon Iver to creating his own music, Colin Stetson is one of the most unique musical artists out there and we’re proud to have him here on Hidden Remote!

Behind the Music is an ongoing series that seeks to interview and gain an introspective on both established and up-and-coming composers. These composers, who have worked for everything from television to film to commercials, share their experiences, work ethic, and more. For this edition, we chat with saxophonist and established multireedist work horse, Colin Stetson.

Though primarily a jazz artist, Colin Stetson has expanded his repertoire to include avant-garde jazz and indie rock, among other musical genres, to create a unique jazz sound for his music. Having also worked with various recording artists such as Arcade Fire, Lou Reed, Animal Collective, Bon Iver, Godspeed You! Black Emperor (whose music you might’ve had stuck in your head after watching the trailer for the new Nicole Kidman drama, Destroyer), among many others, Stetson has gained valuable experience from those collaborations and is now using that to his advantage with his own music.

Stetson has not only recorded an abundance of solo material, but now he is moving on to scoring original projects for film and television. His music was briefly heard in a scene from the Academy Award-winning period drama, 12 Years A Slave, but this year, he has composed two complete original scores. One score is for the Hulu space drama starring Sean Penn, The First, and the other was his work for the breakout A24 horror hit, Hereditary.

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Colin Stetson has used his heavy and layered musical style to compliment the different tones of Hereditary and The First and as a result, created a wholly original sound that is both pleasant and uncomfortable to listen to with both projects. Stetson’s work here is far from forgotten, as he is currently being considered for Best Original Score for next year’s Oscars for Hereditary (a deserving consideration in my personal opinion).

Colin Stetson discusses this and much more here with my Q&A interview with him! Topics covered include the process behind working on Hereditary and The First, his drive to experiment with his musical repertoire, his influences in music, and more! Much is covered here with him on Hidden Remote!

Hidden Remote: Well, to start things off, I’d like to offer my congratulations to
you for scoring what is gearing up to be one of the biggest horror surprises of the
entire year! When first starting out as a musician in your own right, did you ever
consider that this would become a reality to you at all?

Colin Stetson: I think that I always was drawn to working in film from a young age.  When I was growing up I was very focused on visual art, on drawing, painting, and sculpting, and in fact, before I became quite serious about the saxophone and of a career in music, I had imagined some future in film in practical VFX or the like.  So, as my life in music has continued to evolve and expand and to open up new avenues of focus for me, I’ve been very happy to have had the opportunity to work in that medium, albeit in a different capacity than I had originally imagined as a kid.

HR: How early into your life did you decide that a career in music was something
you needed to pursue?

Stetson: I was about 15 years old when I became serious about music as my focus and as a life’s goal.  My teacher at the time, Christopher Creviston, was hugely inspiring, and just a tremendous instructor, and so my skills and my engagement grew quickly in those years and put me very much on the path that I’m still on today.

HR: Your music seems to have a reputation of pushing boundaries and introducing
complicated musical compositions. What drives you to consistently experiment
with your music?

Stetson: I suppose that the basis for the solo saxophone music is one of working within the contexts of extreme limitations, so by design, in order to make something new happen that I haven’t heard yet or haven’t yet made into reality, I have to do a great deal of digging, experimenting with techniques and physical approaches, so as to get at these new imagined musical spaces and aesthetics.  In this music it’s constantly necessary for me to be reinventing, reimagining, and pushing out into new directions, and I’ve tried to keep that searching and striving mentality and practice alive in my music for film and TV as well.

HR: Your experimental work can be heard by members of Hulu on the new show
starring Sean Penn, The First. What caught your interest about the project? Is there just something about space that gets your creative juices flowing?

Stetson: When Beau and Jordan first approached me to score a new show they were working on, I was excited to say the least, but after they explained to me the premise and scope of what would be The First, I was ecstatic.  The opportunity to work with such a brilliant creative team as these two, and to be scoring the trials and tribulations comprising the narrative of a future mission to Mars, is just simply a dream come true.  I’ve been a sci-fi geek since my earliest days, fascinated with space travel and the vastness of possibility inherent in our wild imaginings for its exploration.

HR: The experimentation of the music is immediately heard on the first track off of
the soundtrack. ‘Morning Of’ gives off a sense of what I like to describe as
“beautiful dread” (which I mean in the best possible way), perfectly shaping the
show’s tone. What was going through your mind as you were crafting the first

Stetson: I wanted something that was both expansive and eternal, yet extremely intimate and imbued with a sense of underlying tension.  There’s a striving hope to it, yet an ominousness which is intact throughout, that I think is necessary in maintaining a nuanced depiction of the subject matter at hand.

HR: How the show inspire you to shape your music around it?

Stetson: The First is a show of many disparate extremes in terms of the personal stories being told and of the greater emotional arc of tragedy and of triumph, so it really set up a broad palette for me to draw from, musically speaking.  I was able to really delve deep into juxtaposing these varied and extreme musical spaces and it afforded me an enormous amount of flexibility in doing so.

HR: Has your experience made you open up to tackling scoring projects involving
the subject of space in the future? With Damien Chazelle’s First Man getting
considerable Oscar buzz this Fall, space epics could be coming back in a big way!

Stetson: I’ve been and continue to be very open to any and all sorts of stories in film and TV projects.  My main concern and interest is that the concept and narrative be something compelling that I can believe in and stand behind, and that the creative team around it is one that I’m going to enjoy working with to make it into reality.  And for sure, space epics are right up my alley.

HR: Not only do you have The First to go by, but you also had the chance to score
one of the biggest horror surprise successes of the year in the A24 horror film,
Hereditary. How did you try and differentiate the process of creating music
between this and The First?

Hereditary, Netflix, Amazon
Hereditary photo courtesy A24 via photo by Reid Chavis /

Stetson: The approaches to both couldn’t be more different from one another.  With Hereditary, I was specifically limiting myself to a pretty narrow set of parameters, specifically not dealing in recognizable theme or repetition, and in The First, this was almost the polar opposite.  Although there are moments musically in both that tread into similar territories, the overall approach to each was extremely different.

HR: The music in Hereditary seems to have a constant presence in the film, even
during some of the quieter moments, almost like a spirit haunting the family. Did
you desire this effect or is there something more behind its chilling presence?

Stetson: For me, the whole character of the score was really that of the series of events and intentions that had been set in motion years before the opening of the film, and in a sense, the character was that unseen spectre of this desire to see their god reborn.  So yes, my intention was to have the score, rather than be something that is an extension of each character on screen, be it’s own being in a sense, and for it to have this visceral, evolving relationship with each of them and to the gradually unfolding narrative.

HR: Writing and composing music for a film as unique as Hereditary may seem
like quite the challenge, given the film’s unnerving atmosphere. How did you go
about in the creative process behind the film’s score?

Stetson: Early on, Ari and I spoke about what his ideas and intentions for the score were for this picture. His direction, being both quite simple and very broad, was that he wanted it to feel “evil” and that he wanted to avoid any and all elements of sentimentality or nostalgia.  For me, it seemed as though the avoidance of conventional melodic themes or concrete repetition or variation was also something of a necessity, so the challenge became to keep the overall feelings of impending, evolving dread, while hitting all the necessary beats throughout each individual scene, and to have this whole arc unfold gradually, only ever mirroring that which was being revealed on screen, and accomplishing it all with a very minimal set of tools.

HR: The film has received massive buzz not only for its critical acclaim (as well as
mixed reaction from the general public), but also for its abundance of incredibly
disturbing and downright horrid sequences. What do you think was the most
difficult scene for you to compose a track for and why? We’ll put in a (spoiler
warning!) here if it involves a pivotal scene!

Stetson: I’m not one to have many issues with “difficult” imagery or subject matter, so there wasn’t really any particular scene which proved more edgy or disturbing for me in that regard.  In terms of just straight composition, I think that there were several pivotal moments that were, if not more difficult, then at least more time consuming, as they needed to be hugely effective and carry a disproportionate share of the narrative weight of the film.  Specifically, the crash scene and the ultimate scene in the tree house.

Hereditary, 2018
Hereditary photo courtesy A24 via /

HR: Despite a mixed reception from general audiences, Hereditary managed to
nab close to $80 million at the worldwide box-office, a record for an A24 film.
Broadly speaking, what do you think this means for the future of horror?

Stetson: It does seem clear that there’s a growing appetite for horror films in these past few years, and every studio casting their lot into the mix to pick up on some piece of this pie.  Though I think that maybe if Hereditary has done one thing more-so than the rest of them, it has been to pave the way for more similarly nuanced films which may aesthetically resemble and function as horror films, but are really bearing much more of a dramatic core to their message and effect.

HR: Before we wrap this up, I’d like to ask a few more questions on you on a personal level. Considering your background in music, I have to ask: what you consider to be
your favorite film scores ever?

Stetson: The Thin Red Line by Hans Zimmer, Prisoners by Johann Johannsson, There Will Be Blood by Johnny Greenwood.

HR: Are there any genres in music you are open to exploring in the future that you
haven’t done as of yet?

Stetson: Oh for sure!  I’ve always been someone who listens to an enormous amount and breadth of music, stylistically speaking, and that has definitely informed and inspired my musical output.  So yes, there are surely some musical aesthetics that I’ll be getting into in the coming years that will be new for me in the greater context of my work.

HR: Here’s an easy one: what’s your favorite film ever? Not particularly important
to the discussion on The First and Hereditary but just something to tell our
readers! P.S. It could be a good chance to update the trivia section on IMDb.

Stetson: The Thin Red Line and The Big Lebowski!

HR: Lastly, do you have any advice for any up-and-coming musicians looking to break into the industry?

Stetson: I’d say simply, just do the work.  Watch more, and listen more, and consume all you can of the things in the medium that you enjoy and that you’re drawn to, and also to give attention to those things that you don’t like, and to try and understand what is it about them that doesn’t sit with you.  As in all things, practice is everything, and so an immersion in the craft is always of the upmost importance.

Next. Hereditary: Will Toni Collette see Oscar gold?. dark

The First is streaming now on Hulu, Hereditary is available to purchase on disc media and streaming right now, and Colin Stetson’s music is available to stream and listen to on Spotify, YouTube, and more! Do you listen to Colin Stetson? If so, what’s your favorite song and/or album by him? Sound off in the comments below!