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Music for a Killer: Talking with Composer Pat Irwin about ‘Dexter: New Blood’

Just a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with composer Pat Irwin about his work on Dexter: New Blood, a follow-up to the popular Dexter series that was released in 2021. Pat Irwin is an American musician and composer whose credits include Nurse Jackie, Bored to Death, and of course Dexter: New Blood just to name a few. He’s also composed the music for a number of cartoons including Pepper Ann and Rocko’s Modern Life.

I had a great time speaking with Pat Irwin about his work on Dexter: New Blood and I hope you enjoy the interview!

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Before you started working on this show, had you seen the original Dexter at all? Were you familiar with it?

Absolutely. Yeah, I was a fan.

So how did you get connected with Dexter New Blood?

Well, it came from a couple different directions. I primarily had worked with the showrunner Clyde Phillips, who had worked on [Nurse Jackie], and I had composed three seasons of Nurse Jackie. And he was the showrunner on that. But I’d also worked with the music supervisor, Michael Hill, whom I’ve known since I first arrived in New York. And I also had some experience working with Showtime. So it was a combination of all those things.

Were you inspired by the themes of the original Dexter series or were there any connections that go back and forth between them? Or is it wholly its own thing?

Oh, I was definitely inspired. First of all, the the original score is fantastic. It sounds great, it’s beautifully written. It’s beautifully played. And it’s an inspiration. It definitely was a presence and had an impact on what I did and what we wanted to do for for New Blood.

We knew we wanted to take [New Blood] in a completely different direction. We knew it was a new show. It was a new character. It wasn’t Dexter anymore. It was Jim Lindsey. It was 10 years later, in a completely different place, it wasn’t Miami anymore.

So when you say the original still had an impact, what did that look like?

Well, you know, first of all, there were fans who are really invested in this character. And it was important to acknowledge [that]. Well, aside from the fans, I needed to allude to that music harmonically.

But I wanted to use a different instrumentation, I wanted to put it in the place for Upstate New York, and I wanted it to be part of Dexter’s past. Without, you know, being explicit about it. I want it to be like a presence.

So, you mentioned instrumentation, so like, are just like, I’m assuming there was like a very different sound mix for the original compared to this one?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, we wanted a more ambient sound. And so I pulled out a handful of synthesizers, some that I used on Pepper Ann by the way, and I went for a very cold sound. And I used a lot of textures. Like, instead of like guitar, playing a melody, I used guitar feedback. I wanted it to be a presence. And I would allude to the melody most of the time with piano, but very sparsely, it was very fragile.

I haven’t seen a whole lot of the original Dexter. So if New Blood has a cold sound, what what did the original have, that makes it so different?

It was more it, it pulls you in, in a really strong melodic way. And it left a huge imprint. It was terrifying. It was bone chilling, it was dark. And by the time we got to New Blood, I knew that the storytelling was going to basically go in one direction. I knew where I was going to go. So to a certain degree instead of pulling you in, we were pushing you away.

We were creating more of a distance. We wanted you to be invested in the storytelling. But we were on a long curve throughout the season, and telling you in so many words that you know it probably is not going to end well. This is not a good guy. He may be likable, he may be your favorite neighbor. He may be the guy you wave to on the street. And there’s some of that in New Blood. But we didn’t want you to get too invested in this character. And I think that might have been hard for a lot of fans.

It reminds me this was always meant to be a limited event.

Right. But I think that even even though it was meant to be a limited, there were a lot of fans who wished it to continue. I wish that we had continued.

I remember when the original Dexter ended, there were a lot of people upset at how it ended and a lot of people felt this [New Blood] was going to correct that.

Yes.

So you said you knew going in exactly where this was going to go? Does that mean you got some very specific directions on where the music needed to go?

Well, let me rephrase that. I didn’t know exactly where it was going to go. To be honest with you. I had gotten a couple of scripts, but not all of the scripts. It was in my heart, I’ll put it that way. And I was making a guess, to a certain degree. I mean, we talked about it. I wasn’t just going off by myself. I spoke with the writers and the producers, I spoke with Michael C. Hall. We all spoke together. Marcus, the director, Scott Reynolds, a writer and Clyde Phillips, a writer. And we all talked about the the way the music was going to be a part of the storytelling.

It must have become obvious that Dexter’s story was not going to have a good ending. So was that foreshadowed from the beginning? Or did that come about later?

Well, I, in a subtle way, tried to foreshadow that from the beginning.

Are there actual specific themes for characters like Dexter and the others? Are there actual themes? Or does the music not go that direction?

Yes. It’s more ambient. For instance, with Deb, there’s some textures that I used, that would return for her presence. There’s a definite theme for when Harrison and Dexter interact. When Dexter pursues Harrison, at the bus stop in that first episode, that’s part of an arc. But when Harrison first appears, he’s more of a shadowy presence. We don’t know who he is. And the music is not a clean, clear theme, it’s more of a texture.

I did the same thing for Kurt. I used a Baroque cello and some pretty dark sounds that I would blend together to create this sort of brooding, fanatic theme. There are, I would say, thematic textures and chord structures, and some melodies, but I wouldn’t describe it as strongly thematic.

Because that would pull the audience too far in?

Well, in a way. I wanted to create tension, but I didn’t want it to be like, oh, here he is. And then, you know, like a light go off. It’s Kurt, the bad guy. You know, often, the writers would say, let the actors act. And I would really take that to heart and not step too hard, but create a simmering presence.

It’s always interesting hearing how different shows have different mixes, and some have themes and some work better without.

Right. And they really wanted to make this a go without the stronger themes. So it was like finding that balance. Yeah. Because, if that doesn’t make sense, it reminds people that, it’s a different guy, but this all happened to him. He’s the same person after all, and that’s part of the story. You know, he’s he’s a killer. He’s a bad guy. He’s a serial killer after all.

Isn’t the whole point of New Blood that he’s tried so hard to get away from that, but it ended up rearing its head anyway.

Yes, I think so.

So we’ve we’ve talked a bit about some of the instruments are used, like you’ve mentioned synthesizers, a cello, what all was used for the sound and instruments?

I used a couple [amplifiers] for the guitar feedback. I use this combination of old amplifiers, small amplifiers, not big amplifiers, but small amplifiers that I could turn up very loud. One was made by Supro, and another by Fender and I would have them face each other and put a guitar in the middle. Then I would just tune it to an open tuning and depending on the key of a cue, I would hit it and then go for some unpredictability. You never really know when or how the feedback is good to generate. That was a lot of fun.

And I would have that ready, because sometimes the deadlines are pretty intense. I used a Moog synthesizer, a Mini Moog. Then I used a new cymbal, you know, some new technology also, like a synthesizer program called Omnisphere. I used quite a bit of that.

Then I used some subtle percussion. I would use synthesizers, but I also had some pieces of metal that I would use and blend into the sound. So you can hear that. I tried to find a blend of some textures that I just thought were appropriate.

Was there anything you tried musically speaking that you ultimately abandoned? Because it wasn’t working for a scene?

Yeah. I mean, when I found out that I was going to get the job, I had made a catalog of every piece of music and every episode that I could refer to. I didn’t want there to be any questions. Sometimes they’ll draw a blank, but I knew what they had done. So I wanted to be able to recall the original, because in a way New Blood is like a coda [to Dexter]. I wanted to be able to refer to the original.

I tried using more guitar. And I tried, instead of strings, I tried using the guitar with a slide or a bottleneck. And I did a fair amount of work with that, this is before I saw any footage or gotten any scripts. I knew he was going to be in rural upstate New York. So I was going for more of a sound that I thought would reflect that place. But it didn’t work. So I abandoned all of it.

How much time did you have the score New Blood? Are we talking weeks, months?

No, I wished it was. I wish there was months. I had done a fair amount of that work and preparing in advance. And thankfully they were also shooting when I was recording my first ideas, and so they didn’t really have the time to focus on the score. So the deadlines got pretty tight. Sometimes I would do one and make a revision, and they would change the picture. So I would have a matter of days.

Oh, wow. So, so this all happened in a pretty short period of time.

Yes, but it was up and down. Like television production, it wasn’t a straight line. There wasn’t a clear production schedule, like Pepper Ann. There was COVID, they were chasing the weather, and we were working remotely. So it was a very different working process for me, for all of us.

Yeah, I was going to ask, so the pandemic did affect the recording process and the scoring process?

There were a couple of pretty big hurdles. If we had pursued having musicians all in the same room playing together, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.

And so that impacted part of how I proceeded. I could have pulled it off by recording separately and would have been able to do it that way. But that wouldn’t have been very efficient.

Was there still a group of musicians besides yourself? Or was it just you recording everything?

It was mostly me.

Did you have the picture to score to? Or did that come after the fact?

I started by compiling ideas that I would send to the editor and the writers and they would just listen and occasionally try them out. It was when I finally got the first rough cut that I could score directly to the picture

Was there a favorite piece of music? Like looking back at all of New Blood in the music? Is there a favorite piece you did? Or do you like it all equally?

I really enjoyed getting a piece of music that works for the creators and when I got the first themes for when Harrison and Dexter meet. I was so happy to be able to follow through on that sound, a very sort of fragile minimal sound. I also enjoyed the dark music for Kurt the bad guy.

One thing I did want to ask because I know there’s this whole aspect of how the serial killer part of Dexter is hidden. Did you make any kind of musical texture to reflect that part of himself?

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, even on the first first piece of music that you hear on the first episode, he’s sharpening knives in his cabin. And I use that sound throughout the series, the very sort of metallic dark sounds that that create this very sort of internal melody.

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I want to thank Pat Irwin for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Dexter: New Blood. I hope you enjoyed reading this interview and have a great weekend!

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