The Chill Soundscape of High Maintenance: Q&A with Chris Bear

Ben David Russell. Acquired via HBO Media Relations site.
Ben David Russell. Acquired via HBO Media Relations site. /

The High Maintenance soundtrack is diverse, uplifting, and fantastically calming. Series composer Chris Bear chats about how the original score all comes together to create something wonderfully unique.

Like those mix tapes your chillest friend made you back in college, the High Maintenance soundtrack is a gold mine of wonderful. As the series focuses on disparate stories, oftentimes multiple vignettes in the same half-hour episode, the music provides the emotional heartbeat of the show, steering our feels in all sorts of welcome directions.

Chris Bear, notably of popular rock band Grizzly Bear, is the composer for High Maintenance. He’s responsible for many of the introspective and funky musical interludes on the series, imbuing episodes with a calming presence that moves each unique story along with quirky grace.

Ahead of the High Maintenance Season 3 finale, Bear took some time out to chat with Hidden Remote about his creative process, his favorite musical moments on the series, and when viewers might be able to access his original score for this season online.

Hidden Remote: I know some of your music was featured on some of the webisodes before the show hit HBO, but how did you get involved in the HBO version of the series?

Chris Bear: “Well, I guess around the time that Ben and Katja were just doing it on the web, a mutual friend sort of introduced us. Then my wife and I kind of became friendly with them. They were always in the midst of working on stuff, and a lot of their needs were fulfilled at the time, and I was always on tour. But at some point they asked me, ‘hey, do you want to do something for this? We don’t really have any music for this episode!’

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“So starting with those couple of things for the websiodes, between that and our friendship continuing, when it came around for the HBO season and the format was changing a bit, I had a discussion with the two of them. And it felt like, okay, yeah, this could be cool. Rather than using a bunch of different musicians for the score side of things, kind of have a little bit of consistency there and develop a little more of a sound.

“So that was kind of how Season 1 came together, and unfortunately I was sort of busy right around delivery time for Season 2. I was starting a three-month tour, so it wasn’t in the cards for me to do Season 2, but I was really happy to be back on Season 3. As you have seen, the show just continues to evolve and I think continues to get richer in terms of the storytelling and the depth that they can kind of go to in the crazy stories that they can tell.”

HR: Overall, the soundtrack to High Maintenance feels very safe, calming, and reflective. In a way, especially in the first season, your original score seems to be the recurring core of the show as it’s often the soundtrack to the Guy’s life. Are there any musical guidelines that you follow? 

Chris Bear: “I think for Season 1 there were certainly moments of feeling like, okay, this is a little bit of the sound of the Guy. It leans in synth-heavy but there’s also a woozy funkiness to it. It’s not a sharp sound. It’s definitely still a little bit hazy. We definitely played around with that a handful.

“Some of the other episodes where it was more soundtracking, like for example in the first season, the episode through the eyes of the dog was fun.”

HR: Yeah! Gatsby is definitely a fan favorite, and I believe you scored pretty much the entire episode?

Chris Bear: “Yeah. So that was kind of like, let’s create this character, but also what is the character of this dog? And we looked beyond just the dog. That episode, and this season, the Jemima episode (Note: Bear is referring to S3E4 “Breathwork”, which stars actress Jemima Kirke) there are the characters and the sound of the characters, but it also starts to become the sound of what the episode itself sounds like.

High Maintenance
Ben Sinclair, Jemima David Russell. Acquired via HBO Media Relations. /

“The Jemima episode, even just the way it’s shot and the way it moves and pacing and stuff is way more like a traditional sitcom, like major network, feel. So beyond just the characters and some of those references it was also like, let’s also reference and think about making the show sound a little bit different. Almost like that aesthetic of TV becomes an aesthetic that we push even further with the music. For example, I normally would potentially cringe at having a MIDI keyboard canned brass sound, but we tried it, and we agreed that it was totally what would happen on a huge network sitcom show! That would be the sound! The overall look and feel of the episode almost becomes a character itself.”

HR: High Maintenance is so unique in that each episode focuses on a different character, so the music really sets the tone to elicit a specific feel right away. It’s interesting, because when you get the scenes, you have to create that feeling from scratch. What is your process like? 

Chris Bear: “Sometimes it’s definitely helpful to know where Katja and Ben’s heads are at, just initially. Especially if they’re feeling attached to something with a specific pace or instrumentation. That’s always helpful to know. And sometimes we’ll be working on that and going down a path and exploring it, and we all realize that this isn’t the right thing, or we push it in a different direction. Sometimes it’s with some temp music in there, and between Ben and Katja who have excellent musical taste, and Megan Currier who is the music supervisor this season – she’s incredible and tasteful – it’s sort of like we’re all tossing around different reference points.

“And sometimes I get scenes where there’s no temp music, and that’s a fun way to approach it, because we get to think about what that sound is, and create that in our heads. So, for example, with the Jemima episode, I knew from the get go that had to be something that allowed for space and timing of all the jokes that would be running through almost all of the scenes where you’re on set. So figuring out a way of having something that’s looping around but changing enough and leaving space to punctuate when you’re moving from one thing to the next leaves a hole for a joke to happen. It was really about creating this sort of fast paced franticness of this parody of making a TV show. We were referencing all sorts of stuff like older score music and Bollywood references, and things that are really good at taking a wide range of instruments that shouldn’t belong together, and then throwing them together. And it kind of creates this weird chaos that’s also really fun.”

HR: In terms of the work you’ve done on the show so far, what would you say some of your favorite musical moments that you’ve created for the series?

Chris Bear: “I had a lot of fun working on the bodega episode, “Dongle”. That was a lot of fun getting to play off this Rockaway, Puerto Rican love story, but also through this sort of beachy New York lens. Actually, especially we really pushed the end credit theme in some amazing visual and musical directions, and I guess pretty much all of the end credits have wound up being [set to preexisting] songs, but the Dongle one was the one I got to get in on. You have a minute and a half to take a very weird visual and make some music for it! That was really fun.

High Maintenance soundtrack
Yael David Russell. Acquired via HBO Media Relations site. /

“Season 1 I think though it was definitely a challenging one, and one that we had tons of back and forth on, in the end the “Gatsby” episode was very gratifying to sort of finally push it over the finish line and realize that it actually came together. For an episode that was lower on the dialogue because it was largely through the eyes of Gatsby, having to fill the shoes of some of the character building, that was a really fun one to do, too.”

HR: Yeah! And dogs are so full of emotion, and so is music, so it made sense for him to “talk” through the score of the episode. 

Chris Bear: “Sure!”

HR: People have been looking online for your original music from this season. There’s a Spotify playlist up of your tunes from Season 1, but nothing online for Season 3. Do you know if that’s something that will become available in the near future? 

Chris Bear: “I’ve talked to some of the producers to see if they’re up for that. I think they are. Even for Season 1, I think it had all aired and it took a couple months for the music to finally get out there. So I’m hoping that we can get that out again.”

HR: Grizzly Bear started in Brooklyn, and you lived in Brooklyn for a while, so do you think High Maintenance accurately captures life in Brooklyn as you know it?

Chris Bear: “Oh, I mean, yeah. It obviously has changed, and they’ve done a really good job of following that change, but it also does feel like the city that I knew for sure with all the funny little details. I live in L.A. now, and it’s interesting to step outside and not be in New York anymore. The show really reminds me of things that could totally happen there. Like, oh! Of course! That’s exactly what it’s like in the summer in Brooklyn!

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“But I think it was also interesting to have the whole upstate element to it this season, and that seems to be part of the New York experience, like oh we’ve gotta get out of the city for the weekend or the summer. But I think they really nail it. It’s a city that is so rich in its stories that are out there, but I think that they are really brilliant at sort of selecting and capturing those different stories, including the ones that aren’t necessarily the most stereotypical characters, which reminds you of what makes the city super unique.”

High Maintenance airs Sundays at 10:30/9:30c on HBO.