Interview with The Walking Dead: Dead City composer Ian Hultquist

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 27: Keyboardist/guitarist Ian Hultquist of Passion Pit performs during the Life is Beautiful festival on October 27, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 27: Keyboardist/guitarist Ian Hultquist of Passion Pit performs during the Life is Beautiful festival on October 27, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

AMC recently premiered The Walking Dead spinoff series The Walking Dead: Dead City, featuring established characters Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The two “frenemies” head to Manhattan in a quest to locate Maggie’s kidnapped son, Hershel Rhee (Logan Kim). The series also stars Gaius Charles, Željko Ivanek, and Mahina Napoleon. We welcomed an opportunity to interview Ian Hultquist, who had previously worked on the Amazon Prime Video series I Know What You Did Last Summer and Netflix’s 2021 vampire flick, Night Teeth.

Interview with The Walking Dead: Dead City composer Ian Hultquist

UNDEAD WALKING: How did you approach creating the score for The Walking Dead: Dead City to capture the dark and industrial atmosphere of the post-apocalyptic Manhattan setting?

IAN HULTQUIST: When I originally met Eli Jorné, a big point of reference for him was John Carpenter’s grimy-thriller Escape from New York. We discussed how that could play a role in the music, and decided early on that we would have a very synth-based score. However, I would say that we evolved beyond a 70’s synth sound and really created something a bit more complex & open.

UNDEAD WALKING: Can you tell us more about the process of sampling organic and environmental sounds for the music? What kind of locations did you explore to gather these samples?

IAN HULTQUIST: My friend Ben Van Vlissingen was on a trip in rural Maine, and he went with a few daring friends into some abandoned warehouses to capture some horrifying sounds & samples. They were banging on walls & metal, echoing instruments down long, dark tunnels. The photos of where they were looked like sets from The Walking Dead! Truly creepy, but it fully helped add the right kind of unsettling ambience to our project.

The Walking Dead: Dead City instrumentation and organic material

Dead City
The Walking Dead: Dead City season 1 key art /

UNDEAD WALKING: What inspired you to incorporate instruments such as brass and guitar sounds into the score? How did you manipulate and transform these sounds to fit the show’s aesthetic?

IAN HULTQUIST: In order to expand the sonic palette of our show beyond just Analog Synth, I wanted to try and utilize as much organic material as possible – even though it may not sound like it at times. Having live instruments in any production always helps add some much-needed air & complexity to a piece of music, which helps it feel alive.

UNDEAD WALKING: How did you collaborate with your friends and assistant to design samples and sounds specifically for the show? What was the creative process like?

IAN HULTQUIST: I originally wrote a 10-min suite of themes and material when I first got hired, just based off of the scripts I had read. I usually like to do that at the beginning of a new project as a way to present my ideas to the filmmakers, and see if we can all get on the same page creatively. Using that score suite as a template, I sent it to a few friends so they could hear what I was envisioning for this score, and from there they started creating various sounds & samples that could work as embellishments and ear candy for my cues.

UNDEAD WALKING: Could you share some insights into the role of booms, percussion, and drones in episode 5 of the series? How did these elements enhance the storytelling or create a specific mood?

IAN HULTQUIST: Most of Episode 5 takes place in the sewers of NYC, and we encounter quite a few gruesome roadblocks along the way. We wanted that episode to have a bit of its own sound, as our characters get further and further into the depths of the city. Part of achieving that was to create this drone that we hear every time we cut to the Sewers, and as the episode progresses it actually starts dropping in pitch lower & lower. It’s a subtle effect, but pretty nightmarish!

UNDEAD WALKING: What considerations did you make when choosing and utilizing strings, drums, synths, Therevox, distorted Baritone guitar, and Guitarviol to support vulnerable moments in the show?

IAN HULTQUIST: I always like to incorporate some sort of live instrument into whatever I’m writing, the trick is to not have it stick out from the rest of your sonic palette. As I got further and further into writing for the season, I found more areas where I could really start to embellish my arrangements with some distorted guitars & my beloved Therevox synthesizer. The Guitarviol is a beautiful instrument, but can be quite tricky to play well – so I ended up just running some violent tremolo passes on it for a couple of Maggie’s nightmare sequences.

The Walking Dead: Dead City has an original thematic core

The Walking Dead: Dead City
– The Walking Dead: Dead City _ Season 1, Episode 3 – Photo Credit: Peter Kramer/AMC /

UNDEAD WALKING: Were there any particular challenges or unique opportunities you encountered while working on the score for The Walking Dead: Dead City compared to other projects you’ve worked on?

IAN HULTQUIST: I think one thing I had to always keep in mind was to try and not tread the same water as the flagship show, musically. It was an interesting challenge to step into this established universe, but to give it an entirely new sound that we hadn’t heard before. I think we did a good job of never crossing over into that territory, and all the character themes I wrote were from scratch.

UNDEAD WALKING: How do you balance creating a musical score that enhances the narrative while also standing on its own as a piece of music outside of the show?

IAN HULTQUIST: That’s a good question, as that really is the main challenge of scoring. We are here to serve the picture & story, not ourselves. While there are many moments in this show where the music needs to sit under dialogue, without disturbing it – there are also plenty of moments where we allowed the music to really shine through on screen!

UNDEAD WALKING: Were there any specific scenes or moments in the series that posed a particularly interesting or memorable scoring challenge for you? How did you approach tackling those challenges?

IAN HULTQUIST: The cold open of 102 definitely stands out as one of the more-challenging sequences in the show. It’s a 4-minute chase sequence up an elevator shaft, where Maggie’s fear of heights almost gets the better of her multiple times. It was actually the first cue that I wrote to picture and it took quite a while for us to find our footing. The final version isn’t too far off from my initial idea, but we went through rounds & rounds of tweaks and adjustments to get it just right.

UNDEAD WALKING: Can you share any upcoming projects or future collaborations you are excited about? What can we expect from your work in the near future?

IAN HULTQUIST: At the end of last year I finished a film called Turtles All the Way Down, based on the novel by John Green & directed by Hannah Marks. I really love this film and the score that I wrote for it. Fingers crossed there will be some release date news on that soon!

Next. Jeffrey Dean Morgan wasn’t satisfied with Negan’s Walking Dead ending. dark

Thanks to Ian Hultquist for answering our questions!