Beyond the misdeeds and greed of the beloved televangelist family featured on HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones,” one of the most marked elements of its co-creators’ rude, enlightened and hilarious series is its music.
As with every other series creator-writer-actor Danny McBride has co-concocted — including 2009’s “Eastbound & Down” and 2016’s “Vice Principals” — the unique musical tone of “The Righteous Gemstones” comes down to the longtime friendship of college buddies McBride, composer Joseph Stephens and music supervisor Devoe Yates.
Where the musical mix of “Gemstones” is concerned, theirs is a genuinely fresh blend of new or rare sacred songs intimately tied to an equally bracing, secular, Southern-fried brand of rock, blues, country and soul, to say nothing of its hot and holy original music and nuanced arrangements.
Orchestrator-composer Stephens’ often-souped-up synth-wave vibe also matches the hyperactive tone of Yates’ needle drops, making for a character of its own devising.
“The music and the score are such an important part of what we do because our shows tend to jump all over the place, tonewise,” says McBride. “There’s a serious sequence one second, then something thrilling the next, or wildly silly.
The score, then, is what the audience needs to know that, ‘Yeah, you’re feeling the right thing here. You’re allowed to laugh or be scared by this.’ Music lulls the audience into what we want them to be thinking.”
“The Righteous Gemstones” is touched by Yates’ bold spiritual needle drops (e.g. Johnny Cash’s “Amen”) and Stephens’ maximum overdrive megachurch-inspired scores, compositions or arrangements of classics, such as Wayland Holyfield’s “Some Broken Hearts Never Mend,” sung by first-time vocalist McBride.
“That’s a perfect representation of us working together with something I didn’t even know I could pull off,” he says “I think that we’re also going for the unexpected as often as we can, surprising people as to how a track you would not have imagined there could work, especially in a different version than you might be used to hearing,” Yates says. “I like to go off the radar particularly with the religious songs, maybe a different version of a traditional hymn or a newer track not too many people know offhand.”
“When we started these series, we were all pretty green — lots of needle drops, a real Scorsese-Tarantino approach, and scorewise, my songs needed to fit within the palette of other tracks used,” says Stephens. “If Yates found that a song was too expensive to license, we’d pull out a song of mine that we could pick apart and use in different ways.”
No matter what music Stephens, Yates and McBride used or which fresh tracks they made, everything had to help the jokes work — without ever feeling obvious or geared toward the comic.
“Our music could feel cool and energetic, or sad and melancholic. It just couldn’t feel … as if we were doing a comedy.”
McBride, Yates and Stephens, who collaborated on “Vice Principals,” wanted something actively synth-wave and Tangerine Dream-like for that. The co-creator had an idea of a military aspect to the proceeding. “Danny had drum lines in mind for ‘Vice Principals, something more score-driven than ‘Eastbound,’” Stephens says. “Everything was synth-y, dark, heavy with percussion and propulsive.”
The composer notes that “Vice Principals” was a logical precursor to the music of “The Righteous Gemstones” and its use of grand original score and orchestrated moments.
“This second season of ‘Gemstones’ was a bigger, more epic season, so we played to that,” he says. “This feeling of this most recent season, discussed by the team early on, was about something cinematic, operatic and mysterious … different from our previous series. We wanted to have character themes that reoccurred through the series. I came up with unique sound palettes, chorale stuff that you would associate with church music, but gave it a dark dramatic turn.”
To that end, Stephens says, the score to “Righteous Gemstones” does not have overtly sacred melodies but does use the elements that one might find in religious music such as heaving organs, grand uplifting voices and tubular bell tones.
“We felt that sound in our guts,” he says. “We wanted it to feel legitimate, right out of the Christian rock handbook and not as if we were making fun. It has to feel earnest and legit, never, ever a farce.” Adds McBride: “ We want these scenes to feel big and real. Something about that is fun to use and rip on it. The music we use is another way to build out that world.” With that, Stephens adds that his goal is to play to the drama, not the laughs. “We let the comedy come out of the absurdity of these characters,” he says. “My job is to pay attention to the story rather the characters’ delivery or their buffoonery.”
McBride insists that he is one of those guys who, whenever he sees a script that has a specific song written into it, it always turns him off.
“How can you possibly know that that song is going to be the best thing that can be for that exact moment? It always feels presumptuous to me, so I feel as if, when I write, that I will use music to inspire tones. Before I start a season, I’ll go to Devoe and Joey to talk about tone, feeling and what I want to do, and they’ll put together a playlist of stuff that inspires us. As we get into it, and get our hands in the footage, Devoe and Joey have a strong sense of what the vibe is we’re even going for, so then it influences Joey’s songs and orchestrations and inspires what Devoe will pick and present to us.
“We don’t get too specific until later. When that vibe matches the image, that’s when we start getting specific.” Mention what Yate and Stephens call McBride’s love of a good montage and accompanying, fast, edit-driven music, and McBride says: “As our stories deal with characters with over-inflated egos and wild senses of themselves, a montage scores all that a character is imagining, how they see themselves.”
So how does McBride see himself and his old musical pals Stephens and Yates in this explosion of ideas that connect the dots between the sacred and the secular in a fresh way?
“As we gravitate toward what we want to do in ‘The Righteous Gemstones,’ and how we want to do it, the ideas you haven’t seen or heard before float to the top,” he says. “We all have different tastes, but when we work together, we find a tone that I don’t think would happen on our own. It is the alchemy of Joey, Devoe, mine and Jody’s influences melding together to make something cohesive. This thing is set in a world of religion and megachurches — places known for these musical numbers.”