Este Haim, arguably the most demonstrative member of the sister-trio Haim on stage, has really been demonstrating behind the scenes what she’s musically capable of, with her move into TV and film scoring. She’s being joined in that crossover by her newfound collaborator in composing for the screen, Christopher Stracey, who is one-half of the Australian dance-music duo Bag Raiders, and, as a (primarily) electronic musician and producer, has worked with or remixed artists including Ellie Goulding, Maroon 5, Orville Peck, Conan Grey and many others.
They came together through a mutual friend who “set up a playdate” to see how they’d get along in possibly co-scoring the award-winning Netflix limited series “Maid.” That pandemic-era partnership went swimmingly, and they went on to pair up a second time for director Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” a top Sundance Film Festival winner before going on to open in theaters and on Apple TV+ in mid-June.
With Haim on her way to London to play Glastonbury with her sisters, and Stracey holding down the fort back in L.A., Variety reunited both partners on a Zoom to talk about their “Maid”-en voyage into screen composing.
Este, the initial hookup for “Maid” started with you being invited to do something with the series, before you called Christopher in to collaborate. Had you kind of put your name out there as wanting to start scoring?
HAIM: I’ve been a fan of composition and composers in general for a very long time, and I knew that I always wanted to do it eventually. I’m very good friends with Ludwig Göransson, who produced Haim’s first EP; I would see him scoring “Community,” and it always fascinated me. So that was always kind of like bubbling around in the back of my brain. Then when the pandemic hit, I think every musician was feeling the same way, which was like, “Oh man, what does this mean for me? I can’t tour. And if I wanted to make music, I don’t really feel that inspired.” I was not immune to that. I was feeling very stagnant. I was just feeling very sad that I also couldn’t tour this magical record that I had made (Haim’s “Women in Music, Pt. 3”).
And then, like I’d manifested it, my friend Brett (Hedlom, executive producer of “Maid”) reached out and asked me to watch the the pilot and see if there was anything about it musically that I would change. It wasn’t necessarily about the score; it was more about, how does the vibe feel with the songs, music-supervision-wise? And I wrote back, “Oh my God, I love it. This song could also be good here…” I think that was like the gateway for him to be like, “Well, would you ever want to participate in the music on the show?” And I immediately was like, “Well, I can’t do it myself.” I knew from the second that it even was brought up that I needed a collaborator. And the first person that I went to was Tobias Jesso Jr., a mutual friend of ours who said, “Oh, you need to meet Stray. A hundred percent, that’s your guy.”
It was not even a year into the pandemic, and the idea of even getting into a room with people that I didn’t know just seemed so … not dangerous, but like, oh my God, are we ready for that yet? It feels like a dream now, but there was a time when it was like, “Oh man, this guy is not part of my bubble, and neither is Tobias. Is this even legal?” But Tobias, like a good dad, got a play date together and we all played really nice in the sandbox. And we ended up scoring most of the pilot just in that first day.
I had been crawling out of my skin most of the time. All I wanted to do was be creative. And to do something that wasn’t Haim was also really refreshing and invigorating. it felt almost like a side project or something. This is Stresste, I guess — that would be our DJ duo, or our side project.
What did you come up with first?
STRACEY: The opening when she’s driving away from Sean’s house, that was the very first thing. Our demo is pretty much how you hear it in the show. I think that was the theme that got us the job. It set the tone for everything, really. It felt like a world and it was a musical environment that made sense to us, for Alex’s character, especially as the kind of getaway theme. and it comes back throughout the show a few times.
HAIM: And then we did the scene when she’s cleaning Regina’s house for the first time, the kitchen theme, where it was a kind of rock-y, four on the floor theme, almost.
You’ve both been in bands and are accustomed to collaborating. But surely collaborating on a score feels different?
HAIM: I mean, there was definitely a learning curve there. At first, it’s a little jarring.
STRACEY: It’s so different because when you’re writing a song, you want everything to be like super immediate. One of the things about the score was, especially when you’re inside the head of a character or trying to portray an emotion, a lot can come down to things just like picking instruments in connecting with the emotion that we’re supposed to be amplifying a little bit. Instead of trying to be immediate and like “Here’s the chorus,” sometimes we’re trying to be like, how can we almost be ignorable? How can we make the audience not realize that there’s music there? Then gradually we’re sort of pushing them in a general direction of “Feel this” — without going, “FEEL THIS!”
Do you take on roles where you complement one another and one is good at one thing and one is better at another? Or do you feel like you’re both pulling the same load all the time?
HAIM: Well, Stray is good at everything. [Laughs.] Stray is a production wizard. Production is not really my forte. I know the sound that I want; I just don’t know how to get it. And Stray literally just has to hear me say, “I want it to sound like more green!” and he’ll be like, oh gosh, [makes computer input sounds] boo, boo, boo, boo bah. It’s a language you have to kind of learn within the relationship… [She laughs.] “Let’s make it more crunchy.” What the fuck does that mean?
But between the two of us, we play pretty much a bit of everything – like, any instrument you could think of, aside from I guess brass. But keys, strings, guitars, synthesizers, drums, we’ve got all that stuff covered. And then also, working with technology, a lot of the time we’d record stuff but then would use plugins or samplers to obscure the sound in different ways and create textures that way.
STRACEY: A lot of the Alex theme stuff is guitars, but then the anxious theme, like when she’s driving, that little sort of staccato theme, is a synthesizer. There were [guitar] things that we feel would be in line with maybe music that Alex might even listen to, as a person, but then contrast that with the synthetic-ness of synthesizers or granular kind of sampling stuff, or those kind of microtonal howl sounds that give it a little bit of discomfort.
We decided to use like the synthetic, really, to use the uneasiness. But also sometimes, like for instance that court scene, with the sort of staccato-y piano, plucky piano, you can play around with rhythm and . Some stuff is clearly like, okay, this is to grid and this is to time and things are happening rhythmically, like regular Western music. And then other times it’s a bit more free, and I was banging on my piano behind me that I’d put duct tape over the strings, so they don’t ring out. They just kind of make this like gunk, gunk kind of sound.
When we have like that playing over the top, in a kind of a bit of a haphazard manner, it kind of makes you just a bit disoriented. And that was when she’s getting hit with all the lawyers and legal jargon, and she’s got no idea what’s going on. We use little things like that to make you feel like you have no idea. Like, “What is that sound? It sounds like a piano, but it’s a bit disorienting. And then the fact that it’s a bit out of rhythm and a bit chaotic puts you in that mindset: This is uncomfortable.
How much did you wanna play to the anxiety? Alex is a character who is in trouble from the opening scene and has zero safety nets, You don’t want to do real light scoring around that, but at the same time, you maybe don’t want to overload the audience with dread either.
STRACEY: That’s true. We did get a note for being too sad at one point, didn’t we? They were like, “This is too depressing.” And we were kind of, “Well, it’s not that light of a show! It doesn’t really seem that happy-go-lucky to me.” [Laughs.]
HAIM: Yeah, that was definitely a part that we both really had to learn. Because obviously, because this endeavor is so heavy, I think it was hard not to be affected by it. It would make us sad, and so then the things that we would score would be sad. That was a a little bit of a learning curve there.
STRACEY: But I think with Alex’s character, while you feel sorry for her, you do really get this sense of drive that she has. And so we found a way of keeping the momentum moving forward. Yes, it’s got pangs of minor chords and kind of feels sad. But then there’s also a lot of her scenes have either something rhythmic or an element that’s driving it and moving her forward, where we’re trying to bring out her determination and her tenacity.
Este, you’ve said you identified with the main character, with things that resonated from your personal life. She is bottoming out so much at times, that’s almost hard to imagine in some ways for you, although there are many different kinds of distress. How much was identification with the character crucial to you?
HAIM: I think the part of Alex that I identified with was the manipulation and the gaslighting and the mental abuse. I think most women have gone through a version of something like that, or experienced a relationship with someone like that. I just found myself getting really emotional, watching a lot of those episodes when we were working on it. There were a lot of flashbacks that I experienced. And yeah, I definitely identified with some of the situations that she unfortunately was put into.
So there was this emotional experience you were able to put into it and it wasn’t just this objective, detached experience of coming up with music?
HAIM: Having the detachment from it came after feeling emotionally attached. Does that make sense? I felt what I felt, and I let that happen. And then I recognized that I had a job to do, and I had to be focused, and if I needed to, I would excuse myself and give myself a minute. But at the end of the day, it’s about the work.
Like we said before, neither of us wanted it to be this arduous, depressing, emotionally obtrusive score. There needed to be a little bit of levity. So that was probably the biggest exercise in almost, like, restraint, and not allowing my own feelings as a songwriter and as a musician, to go too emo, if that makes any sense. Because I do have a tendency to go pretty emo. But yes, it was very emotional for me, watching these episodes and making the music that was going to accompany these scenes. And I think Stray and I both felt we wanted to do Alex’s character right, we really wanted to give her a boost, if you will. We didn’t want it to be this downtrodden score.
And so the feelings part was primarily when you were watching the rough cut?
HAIM: Yeah. And then I watched “Maid” back after it came out, and I felt all the same things — the same way that when I perform songs that I’ve written on stage, I feel those same feelings that I felt when I wrote the song, every night. That’s why I love performing, because I genuinely feel like it helps me to remember that I’m human and that I feel things. And it’s the same way that I love watching things that are really sad, because if anything, it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in a lot of these situations that are depicted on TV and in movies. It makes me feel not as alone.
Clearly, you guys had a good relationship coming out of the first project and were ready for more. So how did “Cha Cha Real Smoth” come about? Did it strike you that doing something with such a different tone would be good proof of what you could do that was different, or a personal change of pace to work on something a little less heavy?
STRACEY: We were working on “Maid,” I think in the middle of a session. And Ro Donnelly, who was a producer on “Cha Cha,” was in my kitchen talking to my wife, who’s also a filmmaker, and Ro was talking about this project that they were working on, like, “Yeah, we need someone to do the music.” And Ro was like, “You’re in the room with the two composers who are scoring a huge Netflix show. You should give them like a look!” So we basically started a dialogue with them, and they sent us a script and we read it and we watched Cooper (Raiff)’s (2020 film) “Shithouse,” and we both liked it. We both liked the script, and eventually they spoke to us about where the film was living and gave us playlists of their inspiration while making the film. We gave them a sample of 10 fast ideas of things — not to picture, just sonic worlds — and they quite liked a few of them. One of them ended up being that main icebox queue, which comes back and winds up being reused as the end credits in a more fleshed out way. That was a very serendipitous happening. For us to get in that film was great.
Since you you’ve done two projects now, is this going to be your side band?
HAIM: Yeah, Stresste. Remember? Stresste’s going on tour. We’re going to take it on the road.
STRACEY: We’re definitely down to do more scoring together. It’s been really fun. I feel very lucky that we’ve been able to be a part of these two huge, pretty successful pieces of film, I guess you would call it. It’s such a nice way of being able to explore other creative outlets musically, especially when you’ve spent your life making records. To be able to explore musicality in another way where it’s not like about trying to make a chorus that hits.
HAIM: Exactly. Or lyrics. No lyrics? Oh my God. The fact that we didn’t have to write lyrics was such a blessing.
Clearly you’re not going to be doing this full-time any time soon, as we can see from looking at Haim’s European tour itinerary over the next few months.
STRACEY: There are busy touring careers, but when we can and when it’s possible, it’s a really, really nice thing to be able to do. For me, definitely, it’s something that I want to do more and more and more, and especially as the years move forward, I could imagine myself being 60 and scoring. Not so much being 60 and DJ-ing in nightclubs.
HAIM: Same. Well, actually that would be pretty incredible. I always joke that I’m gonna have a walker with a bass guitar attached to it, and I’m gonna get up on stage being held up by someone and I’m just gonna be able to do this on my walker.