Composer Will Bates Reveals the Musical Secrets of ‘Devil in Ohio’
If the arrival of fall has you endlessly scrolling for spooky autumnal fare, look no further than Netflix’s Devil in Ohio. Based on the bestselling book by Daria Polatin, seasonal vibes abound in the streaming elder’s new limited series. Chock full of cults, corn, bonfires, Stephen King references, teenage angst and, oh yeah, Lucifer, it’s a perfect appetizer to whet the fall appetite.
On top of finally bringing Polatin’s popular story to the screen, Devil in Ohio marks the welcome return to television of Emily Deschanel (Bones), who stars as psychiatrist Suzanne. When a reticent and traumatized young woman named Mae (Madeleine Arthur) shows up at the hospital where she works, Suzanne feels compelled to help. Having recently escaped a mysterious nearby cult, Suzanne befriends Mae. She even (questionably) offers Mae shelter at her home that she shares with her husband and three daughters. Despite Mae seemingly making progress, the dangerous nature of her situation soon spirals to wreak havoc on everything and everyone around her.
To breathe life into the fictitious Devil in Ohio cult, Polatin knew music would play a key role. More than just score work, the series’ composer would need to help develop hymns and songs for the cult itself. Part character work, part film scoring, part collaborative songwriting, it was a big ask to be sure. Thankfully, Polatin found the perfect project partner with British composer Will Bates.
A truly adaptable and talented composer, Bates has crafted music for video games, documentaries, TV, and feature films that include Imperium, Depraved, Bliss (2021) and the upcoming Toni Collette-starring comedy, The Estate. He has also toured the world with his post-punk band, The Rinse and co-founded the music production company Fall On Your Sword. Ultimately, this diversity and range of skills all come out to play with his music for Devil in Ohio.
Wonderfully evocative and hauntingly moving, Bates spins a captivating web of atmospheric electronic elements, suggestive instrumentation, and stirring vocals. Perfectly setting the stage for the cult-y drama to unfold, Bates’ music continuously supports the narrative while adding crucial layers of depth to the cult, the characters and their shifting dynamics. Coupled with killer songs written along with the talented Bishop Briggs and Maiah Manser, it is a musical backdrop that effortlessly flows between soundtrack, score, and diegetic music.
In celebration of Devil in Ohio‘s Netflix debut, we invited Bates for a walk behind the corn rows. During our time together, we discussed his approach to writing music for a cult, collaboration, nailing a theme, and his deep family roots in the horror genre. Join us, won’t you?
Dread Central: What was it like working with Daria Polatin on Devil In Ohio? As the creator, showrunner and executive producer, I imagine nobody knows this story better than she does.
Will Bates: Yeah, it’s amazing. I mean, gosh, she’s been on it for something like seven or eight years. She’s really been in this story. Because of that, I feel like she knew all the secrets. For example, the first thing I had to do was write the hymn for the cult. That was my first task, and she had this very elaborate backstory. She had the history of the religion, where it came from in Ireland and all of this stuff that I was able to pull from, which was really helpful.
She’s just so brilliant. When we actually got into doing Devil In Ohio, she would know exactly where certain beats would fall emotionally. Things that I hadn’t really thought of, connections within character and story. And she was always just really pushing me to take things further. That was always the note — “More! More of all of it!” Which is fantastic.
I think she really started to understand the power of what the music could do. Initially, it was maybe going to be more tonal. Then, as we got more into it, we sort of discovered these themes together. I think because of how connected she is with the story, she was really able to be like, “Why don’t we take that theme and have it portray this aspect of a certain character? Turn it upside down and do this.” It was really cool and really interesting.
DC: The music for this cult plays a significant role in its onscreen identity. Can you tell us a little bit about how you developed its sound?
WB: First of all, it’s quite an unusual thing for a composer to be involved that early on. Normally, we’re deep into postproduction by the time I come on. So this was cool. I was obviously reading the scripts and everything, but [Daria] was like, “We gotta write this hymn because the actors need to sing it on set.” And then it turns out they actually also needed it for the very opening scene at the beginning of the series.
Again, she had this backstory of 19th-century Ireland, and we wanted the hymn to be obviously satanic but also kind of ambiguous. It’s very spiritual because it needed to be. We wanted it to be a little bit of a red herring at the beginning of the series. Like, “What is this?” We don’t necessarily know that they’re worshipping the devil, even though it’s in the title. [Laughs] But we wanted it to be ambiguous and believable as a spiritual thing.
Because we were talking about Ireland, I started thinking about Gaelic modality and early Gaelic scales. I started to use some Celtic harps, the bodhrán, percussion and stuff like that—the hurdy-gurdy, which is weird. I was definitely reaching for some of that instrumentation. That was really based on that idea of the cult having those origins.
I think for it to be believable, it needed to have that spirituality to it. When we were writing lyrics, she gave me pages of adjectives in her email of different things to start to use to write the words — evening, the morning star, salvation from the dawn. That ended up becoming the title of the hymn. There’s nothing really that mentions the devil. We talk about him every now and again, but I love the idea that it can live in both worlds.
DC: Am I off-base in thinking it’s pretty uncommon for a film composer to write more traditional songs like this, complete with lyrics?
WB: It was pretty unusual. I mean, I wrote a hymn. That’s weird. [Laughs] I went to school in England, and we sang hymns and stuff, but I don’t really know anything about that kind of writing. I definitely had to give myself a crash course in organ music. So, it was unusual, but it was so helpful. I didn’t really get started on the score of the show for probably a couple more months until after they were done shooting. So this really allowed me to get into the world and get into the zone. By the time we were ready to really get going, I feel like I had the language set.
DC: You worked with some incredible singers on these songs and hymns, including Bishop Briggs and Maiah Manser. What was it like collaborating and working with those folks?
WB: So Maiah is actually the person that I collaborated with the most. When I wrote the hymn, I gave it to her to sing. She’s amazing. We’ve been doing stuff for a couple of years. I’ll just send her a PDF of the score, and she’ll send me back her parts. She over-records and always gives me way more than I need, and it’s always amazing. There’s always tons of surprises.
So when I did the hymn, Daria and Rachel [Miller] just really loved her voice. We talked quite early on about having a female vocal featured within the score of the show. So, she’s in a few episodes quite a lot. I would write parts for her to sing, and we started doing weird stuff where…I guess I kind of borrowed this from David Lynch, from the Red Room. I’d write a part, reverse it, and then have her learn it backward. Then, we’d reverse that, so the melody was the right way around, but she’s all back-to-front. There are a few times when she does that in the show. That’s really fun. It’s Satan! Backward stuff! [Laughs]
And then Bishop, I was just so honored to be able to be in the studio with her and write that song together. She’s phenomenal. Rachel made the introduction, and we hit it off online. Then she was like, “I’ve got a show coming up, do you want to come and watch me perform?” I was like, “Of course!” I knew her songs already, but then went to see her, and she blew my face off. It was amazing. She’s so powerful.
I’d started to work on the sketch for the Main Title but then ran back to the studio that night. I realized I kind of needed to throw the kitchen sink a bit at that production. I knew that I could take it a lot further because of the knowledge that she would be soaring above it. So I wrote the sketch, and then she came over and wrote the words and the melody. It was great.
DC: Let’s talk about the May character. She’s quite mysterious and has a foot in both worlds after her initial escape from the cult. How did you approach scoring her and musically chart her dramatic journey?
WB: To begin with, everything about May is from what we understand of the cult and what she’s run from. So there’s a lot of that instrumentation that I was talking about; the Celtic influence, the Gaelic influence, the hand-crank hurdy-gurdy and all of that stuff.
As it gets further on, it becomes clear that there’s a lot more to her than you realize. This is where it became quite fun to use Maiah and a lot of the backward stuff I was talking about. That starts to influence within her themes. There’s a lot more kind of chanty stuff.
I start to kind of use other characters as well. Like, Jules’ palette is more electronic, and whenever the two of them are sort of colliding, I tried to have each of them influence the other, which is always really fun. There’s some electronic elements that start to get into May’s thematic stuff when she starts to copy Jules and gets a bit Single White Female. So there’s a bit of that that happens.
I think the thing that I was really interested in as well was how she interacts with Suzanne and how Suzanne is clearly trying to rescue her from this situation. And, she becomes as damaged as well, in a way. That influences Suzanne’s palette as well throughout the season. There are a lot of threads, and this is where working with Daria was so brilliant because she could really identify how those threads coalesce and where we end up at the end of the Devil In Ohio.
DC: The juxtaposition of the modern world and the cult’s world is quite interesting. Did you use any specific or new electronic elements to help blur these lines?
WB: I mean, it’s right…there. [Points behind him to a synthesizer rack unit] It was not made for me, but it was something that I’ve put together over time. I guess that’s the thing about modular gear; all of those little silver things kind of slot together. Over time, I tend to rearrange them. I have a few of these in another studio that has a whole other bunch of toys.
I tend to switch things up for every new job. And, there was a lot more analog stuff in this show than I really anticipated. I tend to kind of reach towards the synths sometimes when I’m writing, but I feel like, for some reason, this one just ended up being much more acoustic somehow.
But with the modular gear, I tend to go through this thing called an Echoplex, which is like an old tape delay. So I run the synth through that and then through an amp. I love blurring the lines between what’s electric and what’s organic. I got to do all of that stuff and make the synths kind of dusty sounding. That’s sort of where I like to live. I think that sometimes when you use electronics, especially when you’re blending it with acoustic stuff, you have to be careful of how it links together. And somehow, getting it out into the world is the easiest way for me to make it blend with the acoustic stuff.
DC: I’m not sure if this is more a philosophical question or an emotional one, but when developing a theme or a sound for either a show or character, how do you know when you’ve gotten it right? There are just so many unlimited directions you can go.
WB: No, it’s a really good question. It’s sort of…I call it “The Eureka Moment.” Sometimes it happens instantly. Sometimes I’ve got tons of options, and they’re all good, but I’m not getting the connection feeling. It’s sort of this moment where I know that I’ve nailed it because one couldn’t live without the other. This melody just wouldn’t exist in the universe if it wasn’t for this scene, and vice versa. Until I have that feeling, I feel like I have to keep searching.
The Eureka Moment on Devil In Ohio was actually when May still isn’t talking, she’s in the hospital, and there’s a moment where you see her really connecting with Suzanne. She puts her head on her shoulder, and there’s a theme that happens there. That was sort of the “Aha! That’s it.” This was sort of early on in the process, and I feel like Daria, and everyone was like, “Oh, he’s got this. We’re gonna be alright.”
We ended up calling it “The Suzanne Trauma Theme.” It’s actually written on the hurdy-gurdy, but it became this spooky melody that comes up a lot throughout the show in different contexts and whatnot. But that was one of those times when I just knew it for some reason. I feel like that’s something that we composers are searching for; that feeling where you just kind of know that you’ve got it.
DC: Devil in Ohio has some dark elements, but it’s obviously fictional. You’ve also worked with director Alex Gibney several times on documentaries like Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, We Steal Secrets, Zero Days, and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley which are dark for different reasons and very real.
When you’re tackling something that deals with real-world connections and people, does that impact your approach at all?
WB: That’s interesting. I think, in the end, I approach it the same way. I still feel like I have to have that same experience, that eureka thing, whether it’s L. Ron Hubbard or Julian Assange. And Alex especially, his movies tend to be quite cinematic. Obviously, there’s a lot of information, and it’s a documentary, but there’s always something about his filmmaking that lends itself to themes — taking themes, throwing them out of context and having things grow.
His movies were the first documentaries that I ever worked on. And I think that he taught me that approach. Like, you don’t need to differentiate it. I think in the end, as you get further into the job, the difference between the dark and narrative is simply the scale. There’s just always so much more music, and your job is a little different because you can sit further back. But I think that the beginning writing phase is sort of the same. I still study to find the thing that’s making me connect to that person.
DC: You have a studio and music production company called Fall On Your Sword, and your set-up is, quite frankly, stunning. I mean, you have a full bar, and you’re surrounded by beautiful artwork. How important is it to you as a composer to have a physical space that fosters creativity? How have you developed that over the years, and what is personally important to you in regard to that?
WB: Totally. Fall On Your Sword grew into what it is now. It started out as a sort of music production company and then a mix place, so there were always a lot of people coming through even though I was always quietly just beavering away somewhere. We moved from Brooklyn to LA about five or six years ago, and we build all these art pieces as well. That’s a second kind of other thing.
My wife is a painter, so my wife’s influence is pretty massive in that space. I always want to walk into the place and be a little bit dazzled by it. I’ve just always been that way. I don’t really care about other people, it’s more for me. [Laughs] I want to be inspired, whether that means paintings, an amazing instrument, a really nice rug or two or whatever. I think I’ve always been a bit of an aesthete. My mom owned an antique shop for 42 years, and I think that’s sort of rubbed off on me a bit.
And you know, there’s an area that’s not on the website. We call it “The Orphanage.” There’s this room in the back where all the gear goes to die. All the instruments that I’ve bought for a specific project live there on shelves that go all the way to the ceiling. It sort of looks like the Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark ending, you know? That room is really important to me because I’ll walk in there when I’m a bit stumped. I’ll be like, “Okay. I’m gonna go in there and see if there’s something.” I’ll grab some weird drum and hit it with something. There’ll always be a source of inspiration.
I think always having stuff out is important. I have a nice big console, and I’ve mixed one track on it. It was actually the Devil in Ohio theme song. But the reason it’s there is just so that all of my stuff can be on, if that makes sense. All the instruments are mic-ed up, and all the synths are always ready so that there’s no “I should get that thing out and plug it in.” I’m also incredibly impatient. I need something straight away. So the place is kind of designed for immediate gratification.
DC: I mean, when you’ve got that creative flow going, the last thing you want is to stop and mess around with cables.
WB: Exactly. And things can run out of batteries, so everything is just always on. Also, [the timelines for] TV just go relentlessly fast.
DC: Ok, final question. This wasn’t planned, but I can’t help but notice all the old horror posters you have hanging behind you on the wall. Are you a personal fan of the genre?
WB: I should probably explain why that is. So, it’s because my parents were both horror movie actors before my mom had the antique shop. Do you know Hammer Films?
DC: Oh my gosh, yes.
WB: So, my father was Ralph Bates, and he was in Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Horror of Frankenstein, and Lust for a Vampire. He was also Dr. Jekyll in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, where he turned into a woman and went on killing sprees. My mother played a [sex worker] in that film, and that’s how they met and fell in love. He killed her, basically. [Laughs] So that’s why that poster is in the studio. And that’s why that’s there! [points to a poster behind him] That’s Taste the Blood of Dracula, where my dad turns into Christopher Lee.
DC: Holy cow. Definitely didn’t see that information in your bio.
WB: [Laughs] Buried in the bio, that one. But yeah, that’s why they’re all there. I think it confuses a lot of people because they ask, “Did you score that? You seem a bit too young.”
DC: That’s very cool. You’ve got cinema in your blood!
WB: Yeah. I’ve watched my mom and dad die in every possible way you can imagine. [Laughs]
Devil in Ohio is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix. In addition, several tracks of Bates’ music for the series are now available to stream on all major digital platforms.