music notes

The White Lotus Score Is Definitely Trying to Make You Anxious

Photo: HBO

The breakout star of Mike White’s juicy HBO miniseries The White Lotus isn’t Jennifer Coolidge in a rare dramatic role, nor is it Lukas Gage’s bare ass — it’s Montreal musician Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s wild, haunting score, which gives the show an unpredictable edge from its sunny beginning right through to its final moments. A tribalistic, ultrapercussive suite that makes the Hawaii-set social satire feel more like a high-intensity nature documentary than a show whose central conflict revolves around a double-booked hotel room, the score — in particular, its ominous theme song — has found celebrity fans in Sarah Paulson, indie musician Perfume Genius, and Billie Eilish’s producer and brother Finneas, the latter of whom described the theme as his “favorite theme song of a show maybe ever.” (It has also proved to be great meme fodder.)

Beyond the theme, though, there’s plenty to find hidden within BAFTA-winner Tapia de Veer’s score, which runs the gamut from foreboding, almost violent, drum-heavy pieces, to tracks featuring sexual moans and animal noises, to serene nods to Hawaiian guitar music. A new look for the composer whose past scores — for Black Mirror, HBO’s The Third Day, and the Channel 4 thriller Utopia, among others — have skewed electronic and atmospheric, The White Lotus’s score already feels like one of many reasons the show will be remembered as a linchpin of pandemic-era television. Zooming in from the converted barn where he records, Tapia de Veer spoke to Vulture about how he came to join The White Lotus, writing music that reflects the show’s “Hawaiian Hitchcock” vibe, and why he thinks so many people are connecting with the theme song.

How was The White Lotus pitched to you, and why did you decide to sign on?
They contacted me in January, and the script was really amazing so I took a meeting with Mike White. We just spoke a bit about the direction and what we wanted to do, and we just had a great vibe so I just jumped right in. We were mixing about three or four weeks later, so it was really, really fast.

What was it about White or his sensibility that drew you to the script?
What’s interesting for me is the perspective the music needed to bring to the show. We didn’t want to do straightforward comedic music or anything like that — Mike really wanted the music to be a really strong character and to push the dark side to the front. I’ve been reading about the show, [and] it seems like people describe exactly what we were talking about when we started: Lots of people say they feel very anxious [listening to the score], and some people feel like there’s going to be a sacrifice and things like that. And that’s exactly what we were planning since the beginning.

I guess the percussion has lots to do with it, bringing in a bit of a wild or chaotic element. There’s like a tension always bubbling — even when there’s not much really happening on the screen, it feels like something’s cooking. We spoke a lot about doing some kind of “Hawaiian Hitchcock” thing with the music.

You’ve previously written scores for a lot of dark, dystopian projects, like Black Mirror and The Third Day. Does The White Lotus’s score come from the same place? 
In a way, yes. It’s not nearly as violent as previous shows I’ve done, but in a way, it could be — I mean, it depends how much you want to read into it. I think these characters are really dark; even though they’re not killing people or anything, they can be dangerous in their own ways. So I suppose it has just a different darkness to it. But it’s really more of a satire than anything else I’ve done before.

The score feels like its own character in the show — it is so, so present, and often it acts as a connector between these many disparate plotlines and characters. What was the reasoning behind making the score so present and so constant?
I’m not sure exactly how it came to be like that because we never spoke about doing lots of percussion and tribal [sounds], but it somehow became like that. I was sending music to Mike, and he was really excited with how it was transforming the show. When they were mixing, he told me they were putting the music so loud that sometimes you could barely hear the dialogue — so he really went all in with this concept of the music being a character. But there wasn’t like a master plan, it just happened, really.

For deep listeners, there are all these really interesting motifs: human screams, monkey sounds and then, in the end-credits music for the fourth episode, there are audible sex noises. Can you tell me a little about where all these sounds came from and their utility in the score?
Some of that stuff, I was just trying things — all the moaning, I actually tried that in the third episode and then Mike thought it would be great to use for the end of the fourth episode. I think all the sounds, whether it’s the monkey sounds or the screaming and stuff like that, it’s all about making these people feel like it’s like a jungle or some kind of zoo. There are moments where the music is kind of laughing at the characters — there is some toying with making these people feel like a bunch of chimpanzees. It somehow brings out what might be happening in their heads, I think.

Where a lot of shows use a score to evoke pathos, there’s not much of that here: For example, in episode three, when Jennifer Coolidge’s character is kind of binge-drinking and mid-breakdown, and the music is still in this sacrificial, quite dark mode. Why hold back in a moment like that, when the obvious thing would be to make the music a little more tearjerk-y?
You’re very rarely sad for any of these people. It feels like we’re more in observation mode — I guess that’s where the zoo idea comes from. With straightforward drama, you get into the characters and then if something bad happens, then you feel sad for them, and it’s just a more honest relationship [you have] with the characters. In this, I feel like we’re always just watching: It’s almost like voyeurism, just watching privileged people doing their stuff. So I’m not sure how much empathy the music could convey for these people. I’m not sure it would be convincing if I used a sad song or something that’s obviously trying to manipulate you into feeling sad for the character; I don’t think that would have worked very well.

There are moments where we do feel kind of sad — for example, with Rachel, who’s married to this guy who’s an asshole. But again, it’s like, very first-world problems; what they have is rich problems. So it’s kind of hard to really be sad for any of these people besides the little brother, Quinn — he’s my favorite character because he’s just suffering the abuse from everybody who doesn’t give a shit about him. He’s been treated like a dog — it’s just so terrible. He has a moral compass that’s telling him he doesn’t quite understand the situation, but he understands that something’s wrong. Something’s wrong with his parents, with his sister, with the people around. He can tell that this something is just not okay.

People are really connecting with the show’s main theme — what is it about it that you think struck a chord? How did you go about writing it?
I’ve been reading lots of comments, and people seem to get very wild [listening to the theme] — it’s making them feel like they’re on an adventure or something. There’s something exciting and wild about it. It’s pretty raw, [and musically] it’s pretty simple. There’s not many instruments, there’s no bass or anything like that, it’s pretty much all drums and only a little bit of keyboard at the end. It’s very poppy, but it’s very raw at the same time, so maybe that’s an interesting combination. Most pop songs that we listen to are very not raw — [they’re] extremely produced, extremely perfect, auto-tuned and pitch-perfect and quantized and all this stuff. This is very much the opposite of that: It’s like barely in tune. It’s kind of chaotic, but you always still get that pop-music simplicity and vibe. Maybe that’s why people get into it.

The White Lotus Score Is Trying to Make You Anxious