There are so many excellent things about Serial and one of them is the theme music. It's instantly recognizable: the piano chords, the build, the break. Now the hugely popular podcast – which spends an entire season taking a deep dive into a single case – is back. And the theme music has been altered to reflect the new season and new story.
While season one looked at the murder of Baltimore teen Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, season two (which began airing this month) is investigating the case of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who was captured by the Taliban and held for five years after leaving his post in Afghanistan in 2009. After he was freed, he was charged with desertion.
The podcast, from the creators of This American Life, also has some Canadian content: That instantly recognizable theme music was written by Canadian musician Nick Thorburn, also known as Nick Diamonds. Thorburn, 34, was born and raised in Campbell River, B.C.
A self-taught musician, Thorburn was drawn to music while attending Carihi Secondary School. He didn't grow up taking music lessons, but calls his peer group his music teacher. He had friends who played in punk bands and he loved what he was hearing so much, "I just kind of wedged my way in and was learning by doing and kind of lied my way in and said that I played music when I didn't."
It's worked out for him.
Since leaving Vancouver Island, Thorburn (also with the indie bands The Unicorns and Islands) has lived in Montreal, New York and now Los Angeles. The Globe and Mail reached him at his L.A. apartment – where he does all his composing.
How did you get the Serial gig?
The first go around I was recommended by a producer on This American Life who I sort of knew socially through my rapper friend El-P, who's one half of Run the Jewels. I met her at a barbecue and she threw my name in the ring in the This American Life offices for Serial, and I said yes, pretty much sight unseen. I knew I wanted to be associated with a This American Life production; I'm a fan of that show. No one knew that it was going to be such a break-out thing. And it was really easy. I just turned around some music in a weekend basically.
How did you come up with that theme in a weekend?
I actually had maybe come up with the little progression for the first theme a few days before, maybe even before I was asked, I don't recall. But I was playing around on a little synthesizer that I have called an OP-1.
How much of the story or actual episodes had you heard when you wrote the original theme?
I heard one episode and it was a rough cut; it had not been finished. So it gave me a sense of the tone of the story, which is true crime. I've sort of likened it to Twin Peaks – there's this mysterious murder. This is real life; it's not fiction, so I wasn't trivializing it, but I think I was sort of coming out of it from that realm. It didn't take long to lock into it.
It became so well known, instantly recognizable and used as a cue to introduce a discussion about Serial or even sort of spoof the gumshoe approach to solving a mystery. Were you surprised at its impact?
I was. I was delighted. I think that has a lot to do with just how popular the show was. It was tethered to that. I mean, I think it stands out on its own as a theme, and as a cue, it's really almost like a Pavlovian response that people have with it. The Portland Trail Blazers, the basketball team, last season, they used the theme when there was a disputed call by a ref and they played that song through the arena. And I got to go to a game; I got courtside seats, just because they were using it, as a guest of the Trail Blazers. So there's been really cool perks and crazy kind of cultural moments with the song.
You called the theme Bad Dream. Why?
I don't know; it needed a title, it rhymes with theme. And if someone is in jail for a crime they claim they didn't commit – a murder charge – that seems like a bad dream.
Let's talk about season two. What led to the decision to alter the theme? Did you consider using the same theme?
It was always an idea, but both myself and the producer, Julie Snyder, independently had the idea that it would be more interesting to create a new theme because the show was going in a new direction this season. It was covering a new story; it had nothing to do with murder and crime. It was more of a war story about desertion so it felt appropriate to give it a new colouring. It's a perfect new theme because it so closely references the first season, yet it's something new – it's in a different key, it's a different chord structure, but it is clearly like a reprise or a sequel of sorts.
The alterations are subtle but impactful. What else changed?
It's a little more complicated. There's a trumpet on there. There's more synth work and it's a little more complex. I think there's like five chords instead of three. And I think the piano's a little more complicated, a little more detailed. I think it's more Technicolor than the last season.
How much of season two had you heard when you were writing it?
They were still creating it up until the 11th hour. I heard a bit of tape. They sent me a snippet of unedited interview just to give me the vaguest sense of what it was.
Is there more pressure this time around? Before season one, nobody knew what Serial was going to be. But we've all been breathlessly waiting for season two.
There was a little more pressure. As someone who makes records, generally your follow-up record, your sophomore record, is always under a lot more scrutiny than your debut, which sort of comes out of nowhere.
Do you keep writing throughout the season?
No. Now they have the library and they can pull from it what they want. It's a little less romantic than you imagine. It's not composing in the traditional sense – which is something different and something that I plan to do.
Do you have any thoughts on Adnan Syed's guilt or innocence?
No, I really don't. I'm just a worker for hire. I don't have any insight into whether he did it. I always just assume everyone is guilty in everything. We're all guilty. We all did it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.