Interview: Aaron Dlugasch (Composer for Systematics Sound)

As I continue to meet new people throughout the industry, I think it’s worth sharing those who I think who have the ability to make an impact on the genre down the road. In one of those weird twists in life, I met this musician, Aaron Dlugasch ( www.systematicsound.com ), over a decade ago while we were both just a year or two out of high school. Aaron was big into metal and I was into grunge, so we didn’t connect musically at the time. Just last year I was looking for a composer and came across Aaron. 

I hired Aaron to compose the score to a woman-revenge film I wrote & produced titled Legend of Suzi (starring Suzi Lorraine). At first, Aaron turned out a heavy metal score that the producers were not satisfied with and I had to break the news to Aaron. He asked for me to give him some more direction, so we told him we were looking for something more orchestral, and a few days later, he pulled out one of the best scores I’d heard for a short film in the indie horror industry in a long while. I was so completely taken in by Aaron’s versatility and his willingness to work with his producers that I hired him for two more projects (a shoot for GoreZone and a mockumentary titled Guy With a Camera), and it seems that Aaron’s hardwork is finally paying off as more horror projects are being fed his way. 

James Morgart (JM): How long have you been a musician?

Aaron Dlugasch (AD): I’ve been a musician since the doctor cut my umbilical cord…. My first love was drums – and I was kicked out of 2 kindergartens because I wouldn’t stop banging on things. I simply wouldn’t sit still. Of course, my teachers would say I COULDN’T sit still. All that interested me was making noise. I remember as a toddler I had those little cheesy pianos for 5 year olds, and I also had those drum-like bongos. That’s all I ever played with.

I remember visiting my grandparents in Florida when I was young. They lived in an apartment complex for seniors, which had this awesome clubhouse in the center of the development. There was a pool, games, a gym, and of course a stage with a piano. I would spend hours on that piano. Needless to say, I didn’t spend much time with my grandparents. But, even as I got older and kids my age were playing with GI-Joe action figures, I was making my own guitars out of rubber bands and brooms and destroying my fathers brand new counter tops by banging my drum sticks all over them. I think that was what finally convinced my father to finally buy me a real drum set.

JM: How did you become interested in scoring films?

AD: Well, it was totally by accident actually…. My main goal had always been to be in a band, get signed, and tour the world. My backup plan, if the whole rock star thing didn’t work out, was to be an audio engineer. So a few years after high school, I went to the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Arizona to learn the trade and also to minor in music business. While there I was pretty close with a student there who was in the post-production program who needed someone to score a film and that he would mess with the multi-tracking, EQ, levels, and mastering. He asked me if I would write and record the music for him. Of course, I said yes…

When all was said and done – he was thrilled with what I gave him and his friends and classmates were blown away by what we did. He said I had given the film “life” which – as a musician taking his first stab at film – was a HUGE compliment for me.

From that time forward I felt like my goals were interchangeable. My new plan was to pursue the band thing and scoring films at the same time. Believe it or not, the band thing kinda took off for a long time. So scoring was on hold so I could ride the band wave as long as possible. A few years went by and the band thing fizzled out – so I switched my focus to scoring.

JM: Why horror films?

AD: Well there are 2 reasons.

Muscially speaking – in horror, more than any other genre, I get to really toy with the listener. I get to experiment with atonality which is a big no-no in other genres, and I also get to use the psychological science behind music theory to create tension in the audience.

Emotionally speaking, horror is far and away my favorite genre of film. The ironic thing about that is that I was completely tortured and traumatized by horror as a kid. When I was maybe 8-9 years old, I had a babysitter who thought it would be funny to force me to watch a scene from A Nightmare On Elm Street.

She called me into the living room and told me that if I didn’t watch this scene, she would tell my mother that I was bad. I would have been grounded and had my toys taken from me as punishment, so there was no way I was gonna let that happen.

To make a long story short, she made me watch the classroom scene when Tina shows up in a bloody body bag, and I have never been the same since. For months after I barely slept. I was afraid to go anywhere alone, and I was prettified of the dark. I hated my babysitter for doing that to me. I still do. Its probably why I have such terrible sleeping problems now as an adult.

I remember when I was in sleepaway camp, the counselors would scare the sh*t out of us with standard stories of “Bloody Mary” and Cropsy. I avoided looking in mirrors at night for a long long time. I was a hyper-sensitive impressionable little guy. But as I got older, I fortunately started overcoming all these irrational fears by confronting them. I dove into horror films like it was oxygen or candy. the more I watched, the less i feared, and I more I loved what I saw.

Oh, by the way…. I recently saw the 2010 clip of that scene – and it made me wanna kill myself. Holy sh*t. I guess I’m still a little traumatized by that scene after all…

JM: What is your favorite horror film and who is your favorite horror filmmaker?

AD: That is not a fair question and you know it! I go through phases and I am always changing my mind on this. Lets break it down a little….

Lets start with my favorite horror film that I can veg out to, laugh at, and has personal meaning for me.

I know I couldn’t possibly be any more cliche by saying this, but, Elm Street 1 is my favorite for all the deep seeded psychological damage it caused me as a kid. As an adult I love watching it and pondering my own psychosis. Its like someone who is afraid of heights and then gets the nerve to jump out of a plane – and then jumping from planes because his favorite pastime.

Now if you wanna talking about my favorite horror movie that I respect on a million levels for a million reasons, Id have to say: Funny Games – both Spanish and English versions. I mean, even the title freaks me out.

I know that answer wont go over so well because its really not considered a horror staple the way The Shining, Psycho, Chainsaw, Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp, and Halloween are… But Haneke pulls strings in my brain that I don’t like having pulled. He does things to my eyes that I really don’t want done. I respect that. I mean, if you can make me drop my defenses during a horror film and just brutalize me, scar me, and torture me – but somehow convince me to keep watching… YOU WIN. You’re the man. You’re a sadistic asshole, but you’ve earned my respect.

Secondly… Funny Games exemplifies what I mean about using music to really psychologically screw someone. Haneke uses this abrasive, horrible, violent speed metal to really assault your ears at a time when your brain and your eyes, and your level of stress are all being maxed out. Its a very calculated decision by a very sick director to overload your senses.

More importantly, and maybe even more effectively – Haneke uses silence in places you would really expect some sort of score or sound bed to really add tension. A great example of this is after Georgie (the son) is shot and killed at close range with a shotgun. I mean, he’s just a toddler, and he’s killed in front of his parents. His blood is everywhere….

Instead of some crazy orchestral or cinematic crescendo – you get silence. You are stuck listening to the parents moan and cry… You are stuck listening to the ambience of the room. It gets even more tense when right after when Naomi Watts is trying to free herself for a good 5 mins at least. No music. No talking. Nothing. Just foley, breathing, and whimpers. Its INSANE.

I think thats really the mark of a great director and a great musician: Knowing when NOT to play. And from a directorial standpoint – you really need to have ultimate confidence in your film to let the cinematography do all your work for you without the help of dialogue or a score. that takes balls.

That said, I’d say he is my favorite horror director, too.

JM: Who is your favorite horror film composer? Favorite horror score?

AD: Hmmm… thats a tough one because so many of my favorite composers cross genres to and from fairly often. That said, I’d have to say Jerry Goldsmith is my favorite composer… I mean he has been at it for well over 50 years… almost 60 years I think. And yeah, he does cross genres but I feel like his work in horror and sci-fi is far and away his best. He writes with this thick layered darkness that is really hard to come by.

His stuff is just insane on so many levels – and I don’t mean “insane” as a compliment… I mean he really must have some issues. Its everywhere in his music. “The omen” is probably my favorite example of that level of insanity and layered darkness… the main title from that film is a masterpiece, and the priests murder scene is a nightmare to listen to – in a good way of course.

My favorite score has be for Jacob’s Ladder by Maurice Jarre. The title theme is gutwrenching – and the overall score is really coarse, tense, and cold – but somehow really inviting. Its hard for me to put into words – but that score is absolutely engrossing and thought provoking for me.

JM: As such a wildly popular genre, horror has attracted all sorts of scores ranging from hardcore heavy metal to industrial to punk to orchestral to straight up Broadway like some of the catchy numbers in Lloyd Kaufman’s Poultrygeist. When approached to score a project, how do you come to a decision regarding the type of score you want to pursue?

AD: Well that really depends on the goals of the director. I like to sit down with the director and discuss what emotions he wants to evoke in each scene, and I sort give my musical recommendation on how best to accomplish that – be it with orchestral instruments, synth, guitars, sequencers, and so on….

Its the science behind the notes, the music theory, that does the majority of the work. For that reason I like to leave it up to the director to decide what instruments to use.

A good composer can pull an emotion from the audience regardless of genre or instrument arsenal – and that is what I always strive to do. A composer should be able to create tension, weather it is being delivered by a symphonic orchestra, overdriven guitars, synth, or all of the above. Making that happen, and communicating that emotion is the crux of my art – and it is also my favorite part of my job.

It gets a little tricky sometimes because a director cant always verbalize what he is looking for in musical terms. Many times I hear things like “this part needs to make the viewers nervous”, or “this part should be frantic” – and its my job to translate that into music. I hear that and I think…. ok – this scene calls for dissonance, something slow and staccato, maybe in phrygian mode or harmonic minor.

JM: As a composer, do you prefer to see a screenplay first? Can you wind up “overthinking” a score?

AD: I’ll be honest… I would much rather see some clips from the film – even if there is no final cut just yet. I’m a composer…. I am a musician. I am not a director or a DP, and I am definitely not a literature major. My thinking is that, since my passion and my talent lies in evoking emotions from audiences, and accenting and adding to the films effectiveness – I really need to see the imagery. I need to hear the dialogue. I need to know the inflection from the actors voices – and play off that.

I was in a situation once where I was reading a script, and what I saw in my head had absolutely nothing to do with that ended up on film. So all the ideas I started formulating in advance, prior to seeing the footage went out the window. What I was formulating in my head would have worked for what I IMAGINED the script to be, but definitely did not work with what I was given. That was a hard lesson for me to learn – and that is also why i think its absolutely essential to listen closely to the director and really take his cues and ideas and translate that into music.

But yes… I have absolutely been guilty of overthinking a score. It just happened to me actually.

While I was working on the film you served as producer on, Legend Of Suzi…I had worked for about a month scoring the film – and I can’t tell you how much everyone loved the way it came out. Suzi herself got a hold of me to tell me how much she loved it. That blew me away. But….. A few months after-the fact – I remember I was reapproached and asked to lower the volume of a vinyl record effect that had become too loud during compression. So when I revisited the score, and the session – I started to over analyze my work, and found things that I wanted to change and fix. I begged everyone to let me redo this one part that everyone was super happy with – but was just driving me nuts. In the end, everyone still liked my original work the best, and that was what got used.

In my defense though, it is so common for a musician or composer to listen to their past works and be overly critical of themselves. In the end though, there are things that I can hear as the composer and audio engineer that may irk me – but your average listener would never realistically pick up on. Billy Joel is a great example of a guy who hears nothing but mistakes in some of his most well known and best loved songs. I love Billy Joel.

JM: What film have you scored that you’re most proud of so far?

AD: That would definitely be Zombies of Asbury Park – a documentary about the zombie culture movement in NJ, by Steven Hunt. I actually just finished that project.

I always tend to be most proud of my most recent work. I think that may be true of lots of composers – because you become so emotionally invested in a project that you inevitably put your best foot forward each time out.

JM: Let’s say tomorrow Michael Bay comes up to you and offers you the opportunity to score the next big horror remake making Aaron Dlugasch a millionaire success overnight. Would you continue to accept work from low budget films?

AD: Of course! Look, its no secret that the bigger the budget is, the fewer the number of artistic risks can be taken. Whereas lower budget films tend to take more risks -and that, in turn, allows me to take more risks musically – and that is really what I love. Since the content is often riskier and more guttural – it really brings out great music.

Don’t get me wrong, I would never ever turn down big budget work. I would never turn away from that kind of success. But if I am going to keep loving what I do – I have to make sure it never becomes a “job” And if I have to write manufactured music, for a blockbuster with a manufactured formula imposed by film execs – I simply wont be happy.

Of course, being rich would make me happy too. But with money comes the freedom to choose my projects more carefully and with more discrimination – and you can be sure the vast majority of them would be independent horror.

JM: David Hess is widely known for his acting roles, but long before his debut in The Last House on the Left, he was a mainstream songwriter and even scored Last House. Could you see yourself exploring other roles in filmmaking aside from composing?

AD: Believe it or not, I was recently offered the chance to play a lesser known serial killer named Bob Berdella for a horror compilation DVD that is going to be released by GoreZone Magazine later this year (your project, of course). I really lucked out because Suzi Lorraine was asked to play the lead – and she had suggest to the powers that be, that I would be a great Bob.

I’m not sure how much of a compliment that was because Bob Berdella was a fat shrubby looking guy who also happened to rape his MALE victims. So one one hand it was cool to act in a horror film as the Kansas City Butcher – but on the other hand, it’s probably safe to say I wont be winning any modeling contests any time soon.

But would I really consider acting more in the future? Sure. Absolutely. But I will admit that it was a little hard on me emotionally to act out a lot of the horrible things Bob did to his victims. Getting into – and staying in character took some mental strength and energy that I didn’t know I had. And coming down from that wasn’t easy.

I have such a new found reverence for actors now. ESPECIALLY those who play murderers, psychopaths, and their victims. It is NOT an easy thing to do.

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