The Man Behind the Music of HBO’s The White Lotus

 

For six weeks in the summer of 2021, everyone was headbanging to the score of The White Lotus.

Two months after the HBO show’s season finale, I found myself face to face with its composer, Cristobal Tapia De Veer. He is nowhere near the sandy beaches of The White Lotus. He is in his own little paradise: a barn 90 minutes north of Montreal in the woods.

He is quick to draw comparisons between his surroundings and the setting of The Shining. From my vantage point, it’s an apt comparison. The barn’s vaulted ceiling makes way for twinkle lights cascading across beams and furniture, large paintings lean against faded wood walls and oddball audio equipment looks as though it’s been thrown around in an arrangement only Cristobal can decipher. It makes sense that this is where the score for The White Lotus came to life.

“If I feel like I am on vacation, I don’t feel like working. I find it really hard if I am in a nice place, like with the sun and the beach, to get anything done.”

And so, Cristobal exists in his rural barn, often by himself, spending his downtime deep diving through YouTube videos. When asked what is sticking around the barrage of clips, Cristobal tells me about how often dances alone to 2000s EDM songs and Billie Eilish’s debut record.

As he describes his days to me, the image burns its way into my brain: A Chilean-born man with long brown hair in a top knot dancing in his dim, wooden barn to “Bury A Friend.”

“I suppose my approach is a bit trashy… I just listen to whatever is out there. I’m a pop fan, really. I’m not into soundtracks or anything like that. Pop gives me a drive. There’s no nostalgia, you know? I try to bring it to my work. For [The White Lotus] it made sense to have a theme that was more poppy. It’s almost something that could be on the radio.”

I can’t help but think of one of summer’s best memes: The viral video of Lindsay Lohan dancing in Mykonos reset to the theme song of The White Lotus.

Detailing his taste in music, Cristobal’s opinions appear to be formed as ideas of size and space. He describes jazz music as a tight tunnel back towards the past. Pop music is like a cage filled with animals on the verge of domestication. Native music, like many sounds in The White Lotus, is an open field defined by wildness.

While sharing his musical palette with me, he never refers to himself as a composer. In fact, he is steadfast in the belief that he is neither a composer nor a pop musician.

Cristobal Tapia De Veer is a musician uninterested in traditional structures and formulas. His work is wild and born out of his subconscious.

“I find more freedom in movies because I can change. I can be whoever I want for a certain project and then change for the next thing.”

In 2013, Cristobal broke through for his score for the BBC show Utopia. In his mind, the score he created for Utopia was akin to gambling. Thankfully, he struck gold.

“I went all out. It’s kind of like coming out of the closet, in a way. It made me really nervous when it was going to come out, actually. I thought people were going to blame me for destroying the show because it was too weird. But then, when it came out and it was a success and it worked. People accepted it. It was surreal because it was like being scared of a part of you for a long time and then having people tell you, ‘Yeah man, do that!’”

This “all out” energy means the creative process for Cristobal is never easy.

When asked about how the score for The White Lotus came to life, Cristobal leans back in his chair, his hand through this thick beard. It is clear how his brain is time traveling back to those initial days of inspiration. Quickly, he throws his hands up in the air, recalling how he felt he had no option but to play tribal drums. The instinct was too strong to ignore. For three weeks, he was immersed in the chaos of tribal percussions, knowing there would never be correction or computer tricks applied to the score in post-production. What he was recording, his arms flying wildly through the air before crashing down on the drums, was it. That chaos was essential.

“Everything was very wild and natural. It was half because I’m just like that and half because it seemed to fit the characters. It was kind of accidental and I have to give credit to my subconscious. It didn’t really feel like I did it; it just happened.”

Once the drums were complete, Cristobal made his way toward flutes and other wind instruments. While playing, he found himself running out of oxygen and taking sharp inhales, which eventually made their way into the score. Listening back to the recordings, he suddenly craved more voices.

At this confession, I stop him mid-sentence and present the question I have been most anxiously awaiting to ask.

Who were the voices in the score?

As the show progressed, one particular voice kept emerging to the forefront of the music’s complex web of sounds. The voice was moaning, or at least that is how I heard it. It would swarm in and out of the score without rhyme or reason, like a character demanding to be set free.

I had a wide array of theories as to who the voice belonged to:

•          It was the voice of Jennifer Coolidge.

•          It was somehow the distorted sound of an instrument.

•          It was actually Cristobal himself.

“Are you talking about the voice that goes, ‘ah-ah-aaahaaah?’”

Leaning forward in my chair, I nod my head violently, like a kid begging for a piece of candy.

YES. Yes, that. What is that? Is it Jennifer Coolidge?”

Over the summer, the Coolidge theory was by far my favorite. With each passing episode, I was more and more certain it was her.

“Ah, yes, I have heard many people think it’s Jennifer Coolidge.”

“So, it’s not?”

Cristobal is shaking his head, playing with his mustache. A devious smile emerges from the side of his mouth. I know he’s about to rock my world.

“Uh, maybe it’s a bit creepy, now that I think of it? But I’ll explain it and it won’t be creepy when I am done. That is a twelve-year-old girl. Her voice is obviously not that low. I had her mother and her come to the studio and we recorded it. Her mother is the main voice and the sound you asked about is her daughter.”

My jaw is practically on the floor.

“I asked her if she could just do an ‘ooooh,’ you know, random stuff. Then I just picked one note and started jamming. And then it went low and I found that note. And it sounds like someone… you know… having… whatever you want to put in there as information is okay but it’s kind of sexy and weird and unsettling. It just works.”

He tells me the other voice, the more prominent vocal sequence that runs through the show’s theme song “Aloha!” belongs to the mother. Cristobal had her record one note on repeat so he could play around with it.

The creative process, as he describes it, is incredibly playful. To watch him relive the moment of recording is deeply entrancing. One second, he’s looking directly at me, his words impassioned and flowing, the next he’s mimicking the sounds themselves. Soon, it’s as though I am there with him, in the recording room, while he illustrates how he managed to manipulate the original sound into the now iconic melody. Even while he half-heartedly sings the sounds, his tenor is vibrant and filled with passion. It’s oddly breathtaking.

As his vocalizations calm down and the memory begins to slip back into his subconscious, Cristobal goes quiet. He’s thinking about whether or not he wants to tell me something. Smiling, I nod towards him. It’s a gentle nudge.

The next thing he tells me is filled with trepidation and nervousness. It is a first for our conversation and I can’t help but think maybe something has gone wrong, that somehow the mental time-traveling has upset him. Clasping his hands together, he nods, mentally deciding he’s going to take me on a more elaborate journey.

“Maybe you already know this… Why I did those voices originally… It wasn’t for The White Lotus. It was a thing I did for Kanye.”

If there was water in my mouth, I would have done a spit-take.

As he continues, I attempt to keep my face still, to not give away how deeply shook I am by this information.

“I went to LA to work with him on something a few months before he came out as a Trump supporter. I wasn’t aware of any of that at the time. Long story short, I was in the hotel for a week trying to find something to give him. It was very important to me because I had to be creative and really take things that were very far away in the subconscious and give them to someone of a certain standard and caliber. It had to surprise him. It’s Kanye West. He has done very futuristic stuff. He is always cutting edge. It’s not like I could serve him a nice pop tune, it has to be outrageous. It has to be. For me, that was important for me finding these voices. It feels like if you hear it once, it’s going to make an impression. It felt like gold. So, yeah, I’ve had it for years. And then [The White Lotus] came and it was just the thing. So, I can say, Kanye got that out of me, if that makes sense.”

Pondering on the way he’s told me this story, my brain fires on all cylinders. Of course, Kanye West ranks high on the list of modern music’s most influential figures. But now, nearly a decade into his career, isn’t Cristobal Tapia De Veer also on that list? Hasn’t he managed to create a niche entirely his own that is destined to be imitated? Haven’t we all stumbled on some meme or Internet joke based on his work in a way we never thought possible from a television score? Didn’t his work for The White Lotus challenge the very notion of what a television score is capable of?

It’s rare to have the opportunity to ask someone what they make of their influence. Cristobal is shy to respond but slowly his sentences start to take shape.

“There’s two sides to it… There’s the public side, which I was really happy out. People really connected, you know? Not just with the music, but with the show. The reaction to the show was great but then I realized everyone was just talking about the music… Of course, it felt awesome to touch so many people.”

Here, he pauses, once again fiddling with his mustache. He’s wisely choosing his words, making sure he won’t say something that could upset a man in a suit somewhere.

“The business side is…”

He barely makes it through one sentence before stopping again. Looking up at me, I can tell he’s considering how he wants to approach the subject. I shoot him a smirk. Another gentle nudge.

“You know, I met with everybody. The Marvel’s, the Walt Disney’s, you name it. And that is even more surprising [than the public reaction] because my music is kind of… How to call it? …it’s not conservative. In 2012, when I started, it was different. At that time, producers and all that stuff felt like a different world. Now, it’s a better place, I have to say. You see it in projects too. There are different people being leads, different subjects, more experimentation. You see this in the music too.”

I tilt my head to the side as a way of imploring him to continue without interrupting his train of thought.

“I think people are scared for no reason about the music. They’re particularly scared of the music. I don’t know why; it’s not a touchy subject. To me, it feels like people should trust the creatives to make the stuff that people are connecting with. And if it doesn’t sound like Hans Zimmer or Celine Dion, well, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to work and you’re going to lose millions of dollars. Music never does that. When a movie fails, it’s never about the music.”

For a moment, we sit in silence. The musician is not wrong. Anyone remotely in the orbit of Hollywood can attest to the gatekeeping happening at the top. The irony about those at the top, those who make the decisions, is how they tend to be the least creative people in any room. Historically, those people have viewed money as king, not creativity.

But Cristobal is optimistic

“It feels like something has switched. It’s very exciting. I try to move forward with the faith that once people hear my music, they’ll start thinking differently and change. People will still ask me, you know, ‘What you did for The White Lotus, can you do this for us?’ For me, at least, I know they’re open and they want to try things. This is really new.”

For Cristobal, the future is already happening. When prompted about whether or not he’ll return for the upcoming second season of The White Lotus, he exhales deeply. It is clearly a question he’s dreaded but one I can’t let him off the hook without asking.

From left, “The White Lotus” cast members Fred Hechinger, Connie Britton, Sydney Sweeney and Steve Zahn pose together at the premiere of the HBO limited series, Wednesday, July 7, 2021, at the Bel Air Bay Club in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

“The only thing I can say is that I am working on a movie right now. I have been working since right after The White Lotus ended this summer. It’s a big project, it requires my entire attention. I can’t do two projects at once. So, I will say, at the moment, it’s not looking good.”

It’s unclear whether or not his potential inability to return to The White Lotus is upsetting to the musician. He is once again looking at me while his brain runs wild with thoughts. This time, however, I don’t feel like nudging him to tell me more.

Instead, I ask him what piece of advice he can share for creatives who, like him, feel wild in their work and potentially constrained by expectations. Even before my question finishes slipping from my tongue, Cristobal responds, his hands once again making sweeping gestures.

“Sometimes, it’s important to just let stuff happen by itself. For some reason, things just happen and you’ll find your way. To me, it feels like when I try to control everything and tweak things eternally until I have everything the way I want, it’s terrible. If you do that, you’ll make stuff that isn’t alive. You have to have trust in the future.”

Published on November 2nd, 2021 by Arya Davachi

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