CMT Interview: Andrew Hollander About Composing the World of A Serial Killer, Amongst Other Things.

By Niy Birden

composer Andrew Hollander

It is a widespread idea that the mind of a composer is often a rambunctious and claustrophobic one, with numerous do-overs and second thoughts. It is especially difficult when making something for a designated medium or even, for another person. Strangely enough, this understanding can also be applied to psychopathic killers. But according to Andrew Hollander, things really aren’t that complicated. With having enough context and musical ambition, plus a little luck-finding the perfect balance between the “colors” of a score and a hinting script was enough to craft the subtle sounds for My Friend Dahmer, a daring and even funny coming-of-age autobiography about one of America’s most interesting serial killers.

Q: Okay, so for starters, this may seem a little bit weird to ask, but I know that music is becoming more digital now- there’s so many apps and different DAWs- so I have to ask, do you play any instruments?

A: I do, no-clearly that’s not a crazy question, I do, I play a bunch of instruments. I mainly play piano and any sort of keyboard instruments, but I play a bit of guitar, bit of drums, you know.

Q: I notice there aren’t really any leads to your origins. What got you specifically into composing, and how did you get started in the niche? Also, which came first, songwriting or film composing?

A: They came at more or less the same time, funny enough-when I started playing music,I was like, I think 12 or 13 and I was in a bunch of rock bands…


I started writing, some song stuff, some instrumental stuff, but I felt like-I always loved movies, so film scoring always kind of intrigued me, and then after college I moved to NY. And I got hired for this really low-budget indie film to score it, but they also needed some songs, so I also ended up doing both on that film. And it kind of just set me on that path, I was always doing things pretty much in parallel, sometimes I would do-and still do- a score and songs, for a film, but I was always working with different artists and bands on records and scoring films. Like certain years I might be busy with one more than the other, but I always liked just working in both worlds. One was never…neither of them was ever peripheral, both were really important to me and really inspiring to me. And so, they seem to be very parallel paths to me.

Q: Do you consider there to be a difference between a songwriter or producer versus a composer?

A: Sometimes. I think it depends. You know, there’s certainly people who feel they are in one of those worlds and not the other; for me I found that my approach to making music isn’t really that much different. And that may seem a bit strange for me because when you’re scoring you’re basically serving that story, that narrative of characters and you’re collaborating this whole world. But I actually feel that my creative process is pretty similar which is that I’m always trying to find a way to create music in a way that feels true in whatever the film is, or whatever the artist’s record is. I always am trying to get to the heart of whatever it is. So for me, the process of creating is really not that different, they’re just different disciplines and certainly there’s a learning curve with each, so I think it’s that someone spent more time doing one thing rather than the other…I don’t know, I think I’m always trying to just find the thing that’s just right for a project, and I find that to be a really similar process in both.

Q: Right, right. So, what would you consider as being your first big break in composing or songwriting?

A: My first big break on the film composing side I think was the film Waitress. That was the first film I did that really got out into the world in a bigger way and it was something I was really proud of. The director, Adrienne Shelly and I had worked together on a few projects and it felt good that that was the way that it got out into the world.
…And then on the songwriting side, it’s interesting, I’ve always been working with independent artists while working with signed ones at the same time.

Q: Right, because I feel like Celine Dion was such a BIG thing (laughs)!

A: Celine was big, and it’s funny because it was never something that’s funny how things happen sometimes, because it wasn’t something I was thinking of. At the time my songwriting partner and I wrote these two songs and sent them to Rene (Angélil). Yeah, and they just responded to them that all actually happened really quickly. And that certainly opened up a lot of opportunities in the more mainstream pop worlds for me.

Q:You said that you had a songwriting partner. Who is that and how did you meet them?

A: One of my songwriting partners is Dana Parish, we wrote the Celine songs together. We met through a mutual friend’s show in NY and just started doing music together and started writing songs together. And a lot of times when I’m songwriting I’m writing with the artist in the room, more particularly in the pop world, like with Carly Rae Jepsen.

Q: Do you have a preference for composing? Both musically/instrument-wise and for industry?

A: I don’t really. I play piano, but you can get so many sounds from keyboard instruments. Sometimes I’ll pick up a guitar since I really don’t play that much, …sometimes being kind of naive on an instrument can be good when you’re songwriting.

Q: So do you have an affinity for vintage equipment or instruments, or do you adapt to new technology?

A: Both. I feel like you need to be flexible, because you never know what a project will demand. You don’t want to go in there with the mindset like “I have to work this way”.

Q: Who is a film composer that always gets it right in your opinion?

A: I think Bernard Herrmann always got it right. In all his Hitchcock films and anything else he did. Angelo Badalamenti, who does all the David Lynch stuff. Those are the first two that come to mind. I also think Randy Newman. And him being one who is an amazing score composer and songwriter.

Q: Oh yeah, definitely Randy[?]

A: Yeah I always feel like that guy always gets it right.

Q: What about songwriters?

A: It’s funny, it’s like, as opposed to someone who writes scores throughout the year with songwriting- you write so many songs- the people, I’m like I may not be a fan but then I might hear something they do and think “Oh my god I love that song”.

…There are certain artists that I do get excited when I hear they have a record out, but that can be anyone from Radiohead, to Kanye West to Ryan Adams.

Q: So what would you be doing if maybe you weren’t composing music? Would you be a singer, or…?

A: (laughs) No idea. Yeah I literally have no idea. I definitely wouldn’t be a singer because I’m a terrible singer, but I really don’t know. I love to play music too, but I’ve always liked to be in the background a littler bit. I have no idea, to be completely honest with you. There’s like no close second for me, so I really don’t know what I’d be doing.

Q: Oh wow, so you’d be screwed, basically.

A: Yeah [laughs], that’s fair to say.

Q: You recently composed for a film about a notorious serial killer. What was the initial mindset you had for composing? Were there any definite do’s and do-not’s shared by you and the director?

A: It’s interesting, I met with the director and the editor, and one of the producers, and they showed me a few scenes from the rough cuts. And in watching it and speaking to the director, it was very clear that while the film is about a serial killer, it’s about a serial killer- before he starts killing people. So my first thought was “So I guess this is going to be a horror movie” but I figured’s really a coming of age story. It just happens to be about the coming of age of someone who became a serial killer. So, what was interesting is that they said that there is a certain demographic of people who do know who Jeffrey Dahmer was, and a demographic of people who didn’t. Which was an interesting challenge: in that some people know how the stories end, and some don’t. So part of the score was to not really put that away. It’s a pretty subtle score, and it is very much is very ambient and has some sound design elements and there are some little pieces of melody. But not typical themes in that way. The themes are sort of sonic in some sounds that come in and out. But the movie was very psychological, and there was just creating a subtle sense of unease.

Nothing too in your face, giving anything away. And we found that anything that was too heavy or moved the audience on too much didn’t work. Because we really wanted to stay with the main character in the moment that he was going on in his life. He wasn’t planning to be a serial killer. He was trying to repress a lot of feelings and urges that he was having. He wasn’t planning a lot of the things that he ultimately did. So the director was really clear in staying with Dahmer in whatever moment he was in during the film. And that was really helpful to me….It was definitely challenging, because there was no real template for doing something like this film, because it was about a serial killer, but it’s not a horror film. And for that reason, it was fun, because we were just all trying to figure out how to get things to feel in the way that the character is feeling.

Q: What for you looking for in the film that would help you create the right environment or soundscape?

A: I was trying to find something that would pull you in to this environment. And the environment was really-you know obviously he was someone who was very troubled, but obviously no one knew how troubled he was. So it felt to me like it just had a hint of that, like just under the surface thing, you know? So everything was like a little blurred, disguised, a little bit camouflaged musically and sonically.

Q: Did you focus more on the script or the characters to aid in composing the film? Why?

A: Everything. I think really everything, because of again, it was a really fine line of not wanting to give anything away but still needing to be in his head a bit.

Q: So is there anything that you’re waiting for to happen creatively with your music?

A: I don’t feel like I’m waiting for anything, but I do feel like every project, something happens. Sometimes something big, sometimes something small. But I think it’s in a way constant breakthroughs, they’re not always massive. Sometimes it can be a really subtle thing. Sometimes it is in the music, when you are trying to move a certain bass. Or sometimes it can happen in writing, like “Oh, I’ve never written a melody like this before”. That happened to me in Waitress. I didn’t feel like I had written anything that I would be able to compare it to, prior to that film. …At some point you just lift your head up and you’re like ‘Huh’.

Q: What are you working on now, and what do you have coming up?

A: Right now I’m working on a really interesting documentary called “It’s A Hard Truth” that I just started working on, and it’s awesome, I’m super excited about that. And then there’s another film thing, but I cant talk about- that, yet.[chuckles] And then I’m working next month with Christina Perri. And then I have a record that I just finished with this artist out of the U.K., his name is Adam French. He’s really great, I wrote this song with him called ‘My Addiction.’ He’s really good. And…a bunch of other stuff that I can’t mention [laughs]

Q: There’s always that NDA [laughs}

A: Yeah. {laughs}