Los Angeles based TV and film composer Derek Whitacre has been crafting the soundtracks for shows such as Queen of the South, NCIS, and Debris for years, always using the visual element to inspire his music.
This interview was conducted prior to the release of his new album, Iraddenda, released under the name The Moscow Coup Attempt, he’s looking to do the exact opposite – he wants to tap into the imagination of listeners, and have the music inspire the visuals.
YRB: What is The Moscow Coup Attempt?
Derek Whitacre: In a purely historical context, The Moscow Coup Attempt was the 1991 last ditch effort of the Soviet Communist Party to seize control of the dissolving Soviet Union. Now you might be thinking, “Thanks for the history lesson, Mr Google, but that’s not what I was asking.” Yes yes… I’m getting there.
Many years later around 2004, I discovered something called The Conet Project. It was a multi-volume collection of shortwave radio recordings made over the many decades of the Cold War.
The recordings were referred to as “Number Stations”… mysterious transmissions of coded messages read by distant and somewhat robotic voices on seemingly random shortwave sideband channels. It had been determined to be part of multi-country spy networks making clandestine communications with agents in the field.
I became somewhat obsessed with these recordings and their histories. Many of the transmissions would include little musical cues, sometimes atonal in structure, to signal the beginnings of the coded messages. So I started experimenting with translating the cues into my own new musical endeavors. Then I went so deep as to start tracking down and recording Number Station transmissions myself, using remote shortwave radio receivers on the web, and then incorporating them into music. Keep in mind, this was around 2004, so it was getting pretty difficult to find these types of transmissions so long after the supposed end of the Cold War.
After some time, I started to think of these new musical experiments as a new “band” for lack of a better term. So what to name it? One of the transmissions on The Conet Project was recorded during this previously mentioned coup attempt in Moscow. The track was called The Moscow Coup Attempt.
Sounded cool. I went with it.
YRB: Your last album was Transmissions from the End of the World in 2010-
How different is the approach from this album?
Derek Whitacre: Excluding my first album, the previous albums had all been written from start to finish as one piece. Transmissions(…) was also like this. The instrumentation had remained similar throughout all of my previous albums. There was a definite sound that connected them I think of them all as different stages of a long story. There was a consistent theme of broken relics, broken instruments, communication breakdowns, haunting vocals and shortwave radio recordings, and wicked drum beats.
Iraddenda was a fairly drastic change. I had evolved as a person so much since Transmissions. I had delved into other interests, made a documentary, pushed my career as a composer to full time and beyond, experimented with psychedelics, started a real long-term relationship, had a near death experience… you know, usual stuff.
Because of a lot of things, my writing for TMCA was scant and mostly just little bits of experimentation since about 2015. I think in 2019 I got serious about making a new album. I started compiling all of these bits and pieces from the previous years into something I thought I could quickly put together and release. That didn’t happen.
All of those bits and pieces were expanded upon, re-written many times over, and a lot of new material was written. Iraddenda is easily my most challenging album, and I believe the most dense in material and production.
YRB: How long have you been working on this album?
Derek Whitacre: Theoretically, since 2015. But really I didn’t get serious until early 2019. At some point around December of 2019, I was convinced I was almost finished. Then March of 2020 caused me to pause. Not sure if you’ve been keeping up on current events, but 2020 kind of sucked the desire out of me to finish my album about “existential dread and the end of the world”. With a bit of time I got back into it. I forced myself during 2020 to really go to the next level with the production and what I was feeling and how to transmit that. I wrote more and re-wrote other parts over and over again.
YRB: Tell us about the title track “Iraddenda” what are the samples we are hearing?
Derek Whitacre: Those “samples” are actually shortwave transmissions I recorded. I think they may be Mossad, but I’m not exactly sure. The days of finding actual Number Stations are long gone. But you can still find some interesting sounds floating around out there if you have countless hours to spare just listening to static, mining for gold. Those shortwave recordings are interspersed throughout the album.
YRB: Tell us about the collaboration with Alu on the song We Dream Awake.
Derek Whitacre: Full disclosure: We are a couple and live together. It was just a given that she would be doing some vocals on Iraddenda, and I would be working on the production of her single Alu’s Not Dead that also was recently released
Originally there was no “song” type track on my album, but I felt at some point that a “song” was really needed to speak my thoughts more clearly. I wrote We Dream Awake with Alu in mind obviously, but what I wanted vocally from her was very different than how she usually sings. We briefly discussed what I was looking for and she nailed it immediately.
She captured that ghostly voice I wanted perfectly. I was hearing in my head the voice of ego death and personal awakening. The voice of ayahuasca with the implied words of Terence McKenna. The voices of inter-dimensional beings in outer and inner space watching us, waiting for the right moments to communicate.
Alu’s Not Dead music video.
YRB: What is your production process like? What equipment is involved?
Derek Whitacre: How do I make this sound interesting? Mostly it’s just me sitting in front of a wall of flat screens and a pair of Series 1 KRK V8 monitors for days/months/years. I’ve been using Logic since about 1999 when it was an Emagic product. I keep equipment pretty slimmed down. I used to have a lot of hardware synths, but I got rid of almost everything a number of years ago. As far as other software I really love… I use a ton of Arturia virtual synths, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, LASS Strings, most of the Spitfire Audio string catalog including the Hans Zimmer collections. I’ve been a long time user of the BFD drums and I’m also a big fan of Superior Drums. For processing, I’ve been a long time fan of the full array of Universal Audio plugins. I seriously could go on forever on this topic because of my profession as a composer for TV and films. I need to have everything available all the time.
For recording “outside of the box”, I use mostly a Lauten Audio FC-387 and occasionally an Audio Technica 4050 pair. My main preamp combo is the Universal Audio 6176. I also use the preamps in my Universal Audio Apollo 8 audio interface as they are quite good.
For real instruments, I have an assortment of vintage zithers and a 100-some year old piano. I also have a too many guitars to list.
Usually when I’m doing work for TV and such, there’s no time or money to get authentic strings recorded, so you’re at the mercy of the best libraries you can get. And they are very good now. But for Iraddenda, I reached out to Hiro Goto to transcribe and record my string arrangements. I had very particular requests for how I wanted the strings to sound and how they were played. He and cellist Judy Kang did a fantastic job considering the restrictions of remote working in 2020.
YRB: What do you think Bob Lazar would think of this album?
Derek Whitacre: I would like to think that he would recognize a couple bits here and there as references to things he has spoken about. Like the track Omicron. Ultimately, I would just be flattered if he listened to it at all. Maybe give that half smirk of his, smile, and say “Ah, ok.” Then he tells me where the Element 115 is hidden.
YRB: Tell us about the track Granulated Eyelids?
Derek Whitacre: The original version of this track was written around 2015 for a short film that, as far as I know, was never finished. The director and I had a rather substantial falling out, so I kept the music and shelved it until 2019 when I started assembling Iraddenda.
The track was initially an homage to the score of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. As I developed it further, it became a cross between the aforementioned with a hint of Ennio Morricone, with Alu channeling Edda Dell’Orso. It gave me chills the first time Alu sang that track.
YRB: Our editor wanted to relay the story:
A friend “borrowed” his Dad’s 1987 911 to go to party in Manhattan and was too drunk to drive back home to New Jersey.He asked our editor, can you get us home, have you driven this car before? YES (in the video game) and he knew how the car sounded and handled from the video game NFS-Porsche unleashed
We know you are a Porsche guy. How much have you played the game Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed?
Derek Whitacre: That is funny. I have not played that game, but I did put a few years into the Gran Turismo racing series. When I got seriously into vintage Porsches and driving competitively, I dialed back the video gaming.
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YRB: Tell us about the track The Future Was Now- (we really like this one)
Derek Whitacre: The conceptualization of what was futuristic in the past is so much better than the future we’re living in. We were promised 2001: A Space Odyssey, but what we got was Children of Men. That’s the idea anyway.
Grandstanding about the title aside, it’s really a track I that I wanted to explore the idea of retro-futurism, but mixed with elements that are core “Coup Attempt”. I was thinking of the track No Dollars In Them Days from my Insomnia album. I always liked that track because of it’s simplicity with a focus on the drum beat. So, it’s sort of a new take on that old track. But it doesn’t sound anything like that old track. Evolution of an idea.
YRB: Will this album get a release on vinyl?
Derek Whitacre: I don’t have any plans for that, but if there was a demand I suppose it’s a possibility.
YRB: What do you want people to get out of this album?
Derek Whitacre: ANYTHING. The art is whatever anyone gets out of it. Whatever it means to them is what it means to them. Ultimately, I made it for myself. And I want to share that. The most I can ask is that it means anything to anyone at all. I have no clue what Jackson Pollock was trying to say with his paintings, but I know how they make me feel when I see them. The energy and emotion is what’s important. If those elements are communicated, then that’s all I can hope for. That would be a success.
YRB: How do you take your coffee?
Derek Whitacre: Every morning I grind the roasted Peruvian beans I buy from the shop down the street and brew them in a French press for 4 to 5 minutes. Pour into cup. Drink.
Short answer: black.
YRB: Thank You.
The new album Iraddenda is now available on all major streaming platforms