Interview with The Walking Dead: Dead City composer Ian Hultquist

Will Ian Hultquist be composing The Walking Dead: Dead City season 2? I had the opportunity to ask and learn more about the haunting soundtrack as well as how he got started composing.

"The Walking Dead: Dead City" Premiere - 2023 Tribeca Festival
"The Walking Dead: Dead City" Premiere - 2023 Tribeca Festival / Rob Kim/GettyImages

Love The Walking Dead: Dead City? Sit back and learn more about how the soundtrack composer, Ian Hultquist, created the music as well as what's next for him and how he got started composing.

I had the honor to interview the talented composer and musician known for his work on Dead City, AXL, Dickinson, My Blind Brother, and Ivory Tower. Will Hultquist be composing Dead City season 2?

Find out below!

Show Snob: Are you a fan of The Walking Dead?

Ian Hulquist: I am, yeah. I was a really, really big fan from watching the first episode when it first aired. I stuck with it for a good eight seasons I think. Then I stopped watching it as often but I would still read the recaps and kind of know where the story is going, kind of try and keep track as much as I could. I watched the first season of Fear the Walking Dead, which I thought was awesome. So, I was very familiar with the world of the show.

Show Snob: How did you use that when composing for The Walking Dead: Dead City soundtrack?

Ian Hulquist: If anything it kind of made the job more intimidating because I know how long these characters have been around; I know how revered these characters are with so many people. So if anything it kind of made it a bit daunting to take the reigns on the musical sound of what we could do. But thankfully, in the very first conversation I had with the creator of Dead City, Eli Jorne, he [said], 'We're not doing anything [that's been] done before. We want to do something totally different. We want this to be our own sound, our own universe sonically. And we really just want to try something that hasn't been done in any of the other shows, really.' So thankfully, that kind of made things a bit easier for me in terms of not having to harken back to anything preexisting. However, then I still had to come up with something completely brand new.

Show Snob: You did watch The Walking Dead: Dead City, correct?

Ian Hulquist: Yeah.

Show Snob: What were your thoughts about the spinoff in general? Did you like it, or not like it compared to what you knew of The Walking Dead?

Ian Hultquist: Well so I was brought on before they even shot Dead City, actually. I got brought on as they were still planning pre-production. They were actually kind of getting all the key departments in place, production design, costume design and they actually had me part of a presentation to the Head of AMC, being like, this is our vision for the show, this is what we want to do with the costumes, this is what we want to do with cinematography, and this is what we want to do with the music. And I kind of had to give a little spiel to the president being like here's my thought, here's my idea (for) what we want to do. Which, at the time, was a bit more harkening back to '70s John Carpenter.

I think once we actually got to scoring the show, it evolved a bit past that but I think the spirit of those scores is still in what we did. I thought it was super exciting. I read the scripts before I saw anything. I just thought it was so cool, such an interesting take on the characters, especially what they do with Negan's character. And also just new scenes that haven't been explored in The Walking Dead before. I think things like everyone's kind of always wants to see but never got the chance to. Because so much of the show, once we get past Atlanta in the beginning is very much a real setting for a lot of it. It was so cool to be like, wow, we're actually going to see what Manhattan looks like now.

The Walking Dead: Dead City
Zeljko Ivanek as The Croat - The Walking Dead: Dead City _ Season 1, Episode 5 - Photo Credit: Peter Kramer/AMC /

Show Snob: What really was your main inspiration for composing the soundtrack for Dead City?

Ian Hultquist: I don't think it can necessarily be pinpointed to one thing. But I do know that we wanted it to feel exciting and tense. We wanted it to kind of be a blend of electronic, without sounding too synthy, but having a kind of organic feel to it. So I think I knew early on that I wanted to use a lot of samples and take on a sense that I have and use all the time. But really treat them in certain ways, process them in certain ways where it doesn't sound as recognizable. I think that was really the starting point, just like, how do we make something unique that really fits the setting? I think I also mentioned in our first few meetings, 'How do we kind of take this sound of a post-apocalyptic Manhattan and turn that into music?' I think that led us to actually sampling.

I work with a musician Ben Van Vlissingen, who's a fantastic composer [and] sound designer, and he will go out into fields, to abandoned warehouses and silos, and bang on them and record it. He would give me those samples and I would completely mangle them, pitch them down a couple of octaves, stretch them out. I think those started to kind of really lay a groundwork for what the sound of our score could be. Because it feels like buildings shaking, things like that. I think another thing too is we really wanted it to feel cinematic and big. I think a lot of TV shows kind of accept the fact that some scores stay very minimal. It can be super effective that way, but I think we wanted to do big. We want it to feel grand. Like [how] the city feels to these characters. Like seeing up these huge skyscrapers, they haven't been to New York ever even before the apocalypse and they've never seen anything like this. So I think we wanted just to have a scale to that. And Croat's theme is definitely one where I think that really came through.

Part of what was interesting about his theme, too, [is that] it's actually kind of sad and haunting because of his past. It's not talked about a ton but he does tell a bit of the backstory of what happened to him and how he ended up on Negan's doorstep sort of speak. It's pretty horrible and sad. I kind of wanted [that] even though he is the big bad I wanted his theme to reflect that a little bit. He is this menacing character but he's also coming from a terrible place. He's kind of been forced to turn into this person.

Show Snob: If you could pick your favorite track from The Walking Dead: Dead City soundtrack, what one would it be?

Ian Hultquist: That's a good question. I'm going to say "The Truth." It was a tricky scene because we had to reveal a lot with the music without any dialogue, just kind of reflecting off what's happening on screen. I won't spoil it in case people are reading this that haven't seen it, but it's basically towards the end of the season and it turns out that Maggie has not been completely honest about things with some characters and she's also just coming out of a very, very, climatic event so it was a hard piece of music because we just had been through a really crazy scene and then we have this really big revelation at the same time.

Show Snob: You have an impressive resume — you composed soundtracks for titles like Dickinson, The Good Girls, AXL, and most recently Dr. Death Cutthroat Conman. But which ones would you say were your favorite to work with and create?

Ian Hultquist: They are all different and they all have trials and tribulations that come with them. I'm really proud of the work I did in Dickison, I co-scored that with my wife Sofia Hultquist [Drum & Lace.] I'm really proud of our work on that. We did three seasons and it kind of feels like we got to do this crazy art project and we became close with the people who worked on it, from the cast members which doesn't happen very often in TV shows. That was a really great experience and something that we still hold true to our hearts quite a bit.

AXL I had a lot of fun with, that was a long time ago but I had a lot of fun. It was like my first bigger kind of, it wasn't a huge budget film, but it felt like a big, block-bustery film in terms of scope and what we were trying to do. It was kind of the first chance I got to stretch those muscles a little bit because I don't always get to write like that. Another one that's totally different that I did a long time ago was My Blind Brother, which was a sweet little rom-com with Adam Scott, Nick Kroll, and Jenny Slate. It's an indie film, not a ton of people saw it, but, like, I loved working on it and this score I got to write for it was really sweet. I kind of felt like I was making a Wilkins record or something like that, which is another side to my life outside of the dark, industrial, horror scores that I do.

Show Snob: What would you say is the main difference between composing for a TV show or mini-series and a film?

Ian Hultquist: I like the process of TV because you kind of can get more into [a] routine, especially if you have six to 10 episodes that you're scoring. You kind of get into more of a process where you can kind of focus a bit easier. I also like the active, constantly meeting with people and having [the] routine of that where you are doing spotting sessions and score reviews, mixed sessions, you are constantly working with these people. It makes you really feel like you are part of a team. I feel like on films, and I love films, too, but the process can be a bit more open. Especially if there is not a crazy deadline yet, and you are brought on early. It can be a bit meandering at times and it's kind of hard to fully immerse yourself and focus on it at times if you're not kind of being pushed into it. I kind of need pressure to make me focus, get me there and that's when I do my best work, I feel like. I love both. They are very different experiences, though.

Show Snob: For those who are unfamiliar, could you share information about your company Little Twig Records?

Ian Hultquist: I started Little Twig in 2016, mainly as a kind of vanity label in a way. I just wanted another outlet to be able to put out some scores that were for smaller projects that bigger labels might not want to put out. I put out some records with certain labels and every experience is different, some don't leave the best taste in my mouth. I just felt like there had to be a better way to do this, so I started it just to have an outlet whenever I have a smaller score like My Blind Brother for example, that a bigger label doesn't necessarily want to put that out, it's not going to be a huge money maker.

But I am still proud of the music, and I wanted to have a way for people to hear it and enjoy it outside of the film. So, I set up a partnership with The Orchard Distribution and it's basically just the way I can send must up, it goes out and everyone can enjoy it on Spotify or Apple Music. Through that, I've also released some of my wife's albums and then I also released a couple of records by my friend Jon Natchez, he's a fantastic musician, [and] composer. He plays on The War on Drugs. It's been a few years since we put anything out. Lately, most of the projects we've done that I want to put a soundtrack out for have gone to bigger labels that had wanted to put them out. I'm sure more will come soon that might end up on Little Twig.

The Walking Dead: Dead City
Lisa Emery as The Dama, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan - The Walking Dead: Dead City _ Season 1, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Peter Kramer/AMC /

Show Snob: Are you going to be composing for The Walking Dead: Dead City season 2?

Ian Hultquist: Yes.

Show Snob: That's great! Have you started working on it?

Ian Hultquist: I haven't started working on it, but I have read the scripts. I know what's coming. I'll just say that it's going to be a really great season. I'm excited to get working on it. I might start earlier than later just because I am excited, and I think it's going to be really cool.

Show Snob: For those who are interested in becoming composers, what piece of advice would you give them?

Ian Hultquist: It's an interesting time for composing I think, I feel like there are more composers now than there ever have been. I think with the advances of technology and computers and music software can be so easy to use, like Logic, I think so many people are writing music now from an earlier age than they ever have before because I don't think it was as accessible. And now there's literally a six-year-old on Instagram who's like a better producer than any of us. I think if you're interested in composing, what I did was I reached out to a few composers that I really respected that were just a couple years ahead of me. Not too big like a Hans Zimmer, but people that weren't quite there yet that I just thought what they were doing was interesting and unique and got my ear excited. Just start making friends with them.

I also reached out to friends who might be filmmakers. Start writing music for stuff whatever you can. Even if it means taking a scene offline just to score it to on your own to try and re-score it. Just start practicing it. If you can find friends, if you're college age — for example, when I was in Boston going to Berklee College of Music, I was lucky that the people who lived upstairs from me were filmmakers at BU. So I was like, 'Hey I want to write music for film, oh, I'm making a short film,' and that was the first short film I did. It was a three-minute short that no one ever saw because it was like a homework assignment for them. For me, it became a want to try doing this.

Start small. Just try it [and] see if you like it; not everyone likes it. People think they want to like it and then they do it and, 'Oh, I don't actually want to be told what to write or what to write for and how to write that.' It's a different process than writing a song for yourself. From there, study as much as you can. YouTube has become an incredible resource for scoring. Companies like SpitFire Audio; they are a sample audio company we use a ton. They have so many educational resources now. I'd say start from there and see how it goes and then hopefully you can get another short film and then another and start building it up more and more.

Part of the reason I got into scoring, and I always tell myself, like, it's a long career. I'm not doing this to get rich overnight, which you won't. This is a, I want to do this for decades, hopefully, knock on wood.

(This interview was edited for clarity, space, and grammar, which means some liberty was taken with the transcription.)

Next. My experience at The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live NYC premiere. My experience at The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live NYC premiere. dark

What are your predictions for The Walking Dead: Dead City season 2?