Composer Gustavo Santaolalla created the Emmy-nominated main title theme for AMC’s Hell on Wheels. In this exclusive interview, he discusses his inspirations and the impact of country music and his native Argentina on his work.
Q: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination! What were you doing when you found out?
A: I do so many things and have many interests, so I’m always very busy. I knew we had submitted for consideration but I forgot about it, so I woke up and opened my computer and there it was! Although music of mine has been licensed for other shows, this is the first thing I’ve ever done specifically for TV, and to have this recognition, I feel great.
Q: What was your inspiration for the Hell on Wheels theme?
A: I was very attracted by the story itself and that historical moment. I think it’s so crucial in the development of this country. I really liked the way it was told, the photography, everything. I was captured by it. The music of the series itself, which a friend of mine, Kevin Kiner, does, was inspired by a collection of tracks that I did around this Western theme. The main title theme is very peculiar because it was done with a Turkish instrument that’s kind of like a banjo with a really long neck. With the addition of two friends of mine — Gabe Witcher, who plays fiddle, and Bob Bernstein, who plays the dobro — I did all the percussion myself, including Native American drums and spoons.
Q: How did you end up writing music for Hell on Wheels?
A: [Series creators] Tony and Joe Gayton were fans of my music. I think they were attracted to my approach to music, which tends to be minimalistic and off-center, not like the typical film or movie composer.
VIDEO: The Cast on Season 2 of Hell on Wheels
Q: Argentina has its own rich cowboy history with the Gauchos. Since you’re from Argentina, did you draw on that at all?
A: That’s part of who I am. I grew up in Argentina listening to a lot of music. I’ve always been exposed to a lot of music, and my parents were avid record buyers. I listened to tango and Argentinian folk music, but I always loved country and western when I was a kid. That has always been a part of my musical background. I use drums that I’ve brought from Argentina, and there are traces of Argentinian guitar players in my work. I do think the fact that I come from Argentina and the fact that I grew up listening to country impacts whatever I do.
Q: You’ve won two Oscars for your work as a movie composer. What’s unique about making music for TV?
A: I still haven’t gotten the experience of scoring a TV show, but I think a good theme is like a good song — it connects with people and will work in any media.
Q: You’ve also won 15 Grammys, and now you have an Emmy nomination. Any EGOT aspirations?
A: I still don’t believe [the awards] are there and that it happened. It’s exciting to play with the possibility that I could win some other type of award like an Emmy, which I’d love and think is a very prestigious award, or a Tony — I’m actually working on a musical. I’ve never done anything for an award; I’ve always done things that I feel connected with and that I can relate to. I celebrate when I receive any kind of recognition because it means what I’ve done has connected with people, and that’s what I’m interested in: affecting people positively with my work.