There are many paths to the world of film and television scoring, but the duo known as “Elegant Too” – Chris Maxwell and Phil Hernandez – have established a name for themselves with their quirky comedic music for shows like Bob’s Burgers and The Amy Schumer Show. They’ve also contributed to Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz and the Oscar-winning David O. Russell film, The Silver Linings Playbook.
Most recently, they scored Josh Ruben’s Scare Me, a hilarious horror-comedy on Shudder that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, in which Ruben stars with Aya Cash (The Boys) and Chris Redd (Saturday Night Live). Ruben and Cash play two horror novel writers, one more successful than the other, who spend a night holed up in a remote snowed-in cabin trying their best to scare each other. Redd is pizza delivery guy Carlo, who is dragged in to break the stalemate about who is winning.
The work by the Elegant Too contributes greatly to both the comedic and the horror aspects of Ruben’s film, which involves a lot of quick-cut editing and cues to enhance the scares and laughs equally.
Below the Line got on the phone with the composer/musicians — Maxwell speaking to us from his Woodstock, New York home and Hernandez from Panama — to talk about their work on Scare Me and just how they got into the world of film and television music to begin with.
Below the Line: How did you guys meet and start working together as Elegant Too?
Chris Maxwell: We’ve been together for a really long time. We started out as friends. I’m from Arkansas and Phil’s from different places in Texas, but we both got into New York around ’94, and we knew each other. The band I was in at the time called Skeleton Key was doing a remix record for Capitol Records, and we invited Phil to do one of the remixes. There are a lot of really great remixers on the record. Phil was just dipping his toe in it at the time, and he kind of blew everybody else away. It kind of got me wanting to get out of live music, or at least the rock band I was in and start getting more into studio stuff. He had some connections with Puff Daddy’s studio, and we started doing remixes together. That was sort of the birth of the whole thing. We just got together every day and just did remixes and worked on original music. In the mid-90s, it was sort of the birth of that whole digital audio workstation recording process that up until that point, it was mostly studios that had Pro Tool rigs and the home studio thing hadn’t really taken off yet. This was sort of at the birth of that whole thing, and that part of it was really exciting, because whatever your imagination led you to do, you could do. We took off from there, produced a lot of Lower East Side bands, and got into doing commercial music, and then eventually got into TV and film stuff.
BTL: Do you have a studio in the city where you worked together before what’s going on now or do you generally work on your own and collaborate back and forth?
Maxwell: We worked in my apartment for a few years in the beginning, and then around 2000- ish, early aughts, we moved our studio out of my apartment to a building on 47th Street. Before that, we were on Canal Street, ann then we moved to 47th Street to a proper studio, and we leased space there. We worked there for I think maybe over 10 years we worked on 47th between Fifth and Sixth. We met there and work and then eventually I bought a place outside of the city here in Woodstock, and that was also the beginning of how… you know, in the early days, you had to do everything through bike messenger, and then suddenly there was a Dropbox and We Transfer and things like that, so we were eventually able to break away from being stuck at the studio every day. A lot of what we were doing– scoring and stuff — way less production work required us to be in the room together as much. We were able to start working remotely a lot more, so that’s kind of how that all went down.
BTL: Phil, you came from the remix world, but do you play any instruments as well or do you tend to put things together more in the computer?
Phil Hernandez: I am a drummer. That was like my main instrument, and I have always dabbled in a little bit of everything, then when I moved to New York, I couldn’t have my drums. I couldn’t play drums all the time like I used to when I was in Texas. John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants is a friend. I was talking to him, and he had a bunch of leftover They Might Be Giants gear lying around that they weren’t using. He just gave me a small little set-up, a Casio SG1 sampler and a crappy computer. I started spending time learning how to make stuff on the computer, but I can play other instruments, but I’m more self-taught. I can make my way around a few instruments. We did a lot of work with them at the very beginning, too. They helped get us our first break as far as learning how to do score more. Whey they got the Malcolm in the Middle gig, we helped them and do a bunch of cues writing for them and with them. Flansburgh would come over to Canal Street, and we would just bang out TV cues. He’d say, “We need a fight scene!” and literally have an egg timer and say, “Two minutes, we’ve got to come up with something like quick,” and we had a blast, and it was really fun. It was good to learn that way.
BTL: You guys seem to be so busy with all the stuff you’re doing, so how did you connect with Josh Ruben to score Scare Me? Scoring a movie seems like a lot bigger time commitment.
Maxwell: We had met Josh a while back. He’s from Woodstock. I didn’t grow up here, but he was from here, and his half-sister Rachel Yamagata is a friend of mine. We just have some similar circles. We did some early work with College Humor, and he was a big person in that scene, so our names circulated around each other a lot. I think as a result of some good, mutual friends bringing us together, when this movie came up, we got a little bit known for doing some of that stuff. If you look at the website, you’ll see the Amy Schumer stuff, where we can satirize songs. It’s all just a gag, but it’s something we’ve done a lot of. The very first thing in that movie was doing a Star Search kind of song. If you’ve seen the movie, there’s a song in there that Aya Cash sings. That sort of kicked it off, and that’s how we got our toe in the water then he hired us for the score.
BTL: There’s obviously a lot of cues that are used both to enhance the horror and the humor. You obviously have more experience doing the latter from the comedy shows. What were some of the instructions or directions for the music cues? Did he give you any references or movies to watch or was it more like Flansburgh?
Maxwell: The early part of the conversation started off around really classic Bernard Hermann-y kind of film score stuff. That’s where a lot of those jokes needed… for them to land, that music sort of had to come from that classic horror.
Hernandez: Also, the movie is so minimalist – it’s just those three characters in a cabin with basically no lighting and hardly any effects, so he definitely wanted the music to help bring those scenes and different stories alive. He wanted the music to really work with all the sound effects, too. He was like, “You’re going to see these three characters. I want it to feel bigger than it is, but not too over-the-top Hollywood style.” He really relied on the music and the sound effects to give us that feeling.
BTL: Did he have a lot of temp music down before you got involved or were you involved even back when he was filming?
Maxwell: I think he had temp music.
Hernandez: Yeah, there was temp. Not all of it, because we had to discuss a lot, and we had to throw things back and forth. Yeah, there was some for sure.
BTL: You already brought up something I was going to ask about working with the sound designers, because the music plays a huge part but so do the sound effects. Did you guys work with them directly or was a lot of that worked out by the sound editors and mixer?
Maxwell: The editor was Patrick Lawrence. I’m not totally sure if he was the one responsible for the sound design, but whoever, I’d have to go back and look, we met all those guys, but we didn’t really have that much of a conversation back and forth with those guys. At the time, one of the things that came up was was the filmmaker Edgar Wright. We did a thing with him for Hot Fuzz. Those movies, the soundtracks are important, but the comedy is really driven by the over-the-top sound design. The guys who did that on Josh’s movie were really good. They picked up on that and really delivered. You’re trying to make something really cool, and you’re basically in a static environment like a cabin. That’s what sold a lot of those jokes, was the combination of those sound effects and the music
BTL: I’ve seen so many movies trying to emulate that whole comedy-horror thing that Edgar does so well, and Josh’s movie is one of those rare movies that achieved it
Hernandez: Yeah, the comedy-horror thing, it’s a fine line between being good and being really horrible. Josh is a great writer and the acting’s great. We all just kind of vibed from the beginning, and it was fairly painless.
BTL: Are you guys doing everything MIDI pretty much or do you work with other musicians and have them record stuff live or all in the computers at this point?
Maxwell: When we have to have somebody, we definitely have people to call that we bring in.
Hernandez: Mostly for the orchestral stuff. We might bring in one or two players, depending on the budget, or have some people play on top of some MIDI samples, but drumming and all guitars and stuff, it’s all actually recorded usually. I would say it’s about 50-50.
BTL: I’ve been asking almost everyone I talk to about adjusting to working during the pandemic. I assume you’re used to working at your own studios and collaborating that way, so has it been pretty fluid to continue working?
Maxwell: We do a show called Bob’s Burgers, it’s on FOX, and that’s animated, so they learned to get around that pretty quickly in terms of how to get everybody hooked up at home and working from home. Obviously, we were already doing that. The writers and the voice talent sorted it out fairly quickly, and we’ve stayed fairly busy with that. We’ve definitely slowed down. We have Disney shows we worked on that were live action, so those took a dive up until about a month ago, and then they kind of got resurrected again. We slowed down, but we didn’t stop.
Hernandez: Nothing drastic changed for us, as far as our workflow. At this point, I have a fully functioning studio, and so does Chris, and we work together even online, throwing sessions back and forth and throwing ideas back and forth. If I need guitar, Chris is always there, and if he needs drumming or whatever, it’s a good balance to have Chris for most of the stringed instruments, and I can handle most of the percussion and bass stuff.
BTL: Going back to Scare Me, what are some of the considerations you make when you take on a project like a movie that requires more attention and time?
Maxwell: We’ve done a few more feature length films. Over the 20 years we’ve been doing stuff, we haven’t done that many, but we did something with Scott Vickers from The Onion, directed and wrote a film called Bad Meat and a movie called Love in the Time of Money. We’re lucky that we both work as a team and we’ve been doing it for so long. Film is different. It’s longer, but you’re still working with the idea that you’re going to need a palette you’re going to work with. Like Bob’s Burgers has a palette that we work with, and when you step outside that palette, it’s really noticeable. It bumps you out of the show. It’s the same way with a movie. We sort of define what that sounds going to be. A lot of that is concocted by the director and the editor. They temp the movie, they try to get a feeling for it. They come to us, if they know that we’re a good fit. They’re not going to come to us if they’re looking for a 60-piece live orchestra. We kind of hammer it out palette-wise, and then just kind of work through it with the director and the editors in terms of figuring out how we’re going to get in and out of it.
Hernandez: Are you asking what do we consider when we’re first approached about a film? I think we have to be interested in it, first off all, and feel like we can bring something to the table. There’s always that thing of time and budget, like do we have the time and is the budget big enough to [do it]? If there’s not enough money, can we take a hit and balance everything else out? I think eventually we’d love to be in film more, but a lot of opportunities out there, the budgets just don’t weigh out at this level that we’re in right not to just drop the whole show or something. It’s tough.
BTL: Are you guys still able to do music for yourselves? I was pretty impressed that you guys worked with Iggy Pop and John Spencer and other music people, so do you still do that stuff?
Maxwell: We don’t do as much. Being together was always a thing that made producing and stuff work. We still do remix work. It doesn’t really come along as much anymore, but it’s also just the nature of that was a thing at a time that’s not…
Hernandez: You’re an artist. You released a couple records over the last couple years.
Maxwell: Phil knew me as a songwriter before we started working together. I’ve always done that, and Phil and I have made a lot of music together. Being in Woodstock has been really fun for me to work with a lot of different musicians here. It’s kind of crazy the musicians that live in this area, and I’ve got a studio on my property, so I’ve been doing that and releasing some stuff.
You can catch Scare Me on Shudder, and all ten seasons of Bob’s Burgers are available on Hulu.