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Netflix’s Travelers composer Adam Lastiwka on making music, the show and battling chronic illness

Adam Lastiwka is the composer for Netflix’s award-winning futuristic TV series, Travelers. Here the Canadian-born composer talks to Mandy News about the intricacies of composing for the show, his surprising musical background, the sheer genius of playing approximately 100 musical instruments and how he is able to pull 16 hours days if need be, while a Type 1 diabetic.

16th July 2018
/ By Diedre Johnson

Netlflix Travelers composer Adam Lastiwka JOSHUASCHULTZ

You started experimenting with electronic sequencers and computer software in your teens and didn’t find out that your grandfather was a musician until his death?
Well, I didn’t have an idea to what extent he was. My parents talked about it. I was the youngest in my family and he was kind of old and not too far off from death at the time I became aware of it. My family would talk about it but I didn’t realise that he had albums and that he was such a talented musician in his own right. It was mostly after his death that I started exploring what he had done.

***** Check out our EXCLUSIVE interview with Emmy-winning Fargo composer Jeff Russo *****

Once you found out, how did his music influence you?
My uncle had taken the vinyl that [grandfather] had made and put them into CDs and I got to listen to them. They are a lot of traditional Russian and Ukrainian folk songs that I recognise and kind of stick with me. I also inherited one of his instruments and use it in a lot of my scores. Just the awareness that there is a bit of a musical lineage kind of reinforces your own. You feel that it’s more part of you and more innate than it would otherwise be.

What was the instrument?
It’s called a cimbalom. It has a bunch of other different names and variations in different cultures. It’s also called a hammer dulcimer but the way he made them was interesting because he had six strings per note and you usually have only one or two strings. Like on a piano, you have two or three chorus strings per note, but his has six so it has this really rich kind of sound. It’s very filmic. It really suits film and television sound. (Ramin) Djawadi uses it on Game of Thrones a lot, so it has that really, characteristic, evocative, weird, open sound.

And you got a three-album contract at 17 years old. How?
It was just an independent label but it was interesting because it was on that first cusp of digital releases when physical sales were dwindling and I was just doing my production with a very ram-shackled studio. Being that age, and solely interested in licensing and sovereignty scoring rather than conventional music production, I just really wanted to work on writing and scoring. 

Having the digital releases at that time really worked in my favour because music supervisors were obviously looking for simplified outlets to find new music and they could go online and search databases. It was the first set of releases where you could actually do that so I ended up getting some pretty good placements and licensing opportunities at a really young age.

At 17 years old you were talking about licensing, that’s great!
Yeah, what was interesting was that obviously these things take time to conspire and [I] have no idea about expectations and ambitions. I really thought I would sell more albums and that would be my livelihood and [there] was just this realisation that it doesn’t work like that but when the licensing started to happen I got really excited and aware of different opportunities in not so obvious places.

Scoring TV wasn’t anything I’d ever considered as a career path. I wanted to do film and I wanted to make albums and do licensing and stuff. Sometimes these opportunities come up and you don’t know they are opportunities at the time. You do your best no matter what, but you don’t realise until later that it was a pivotal moment.

I think I was aware that making albums was very unprofitable in the album sales sense but not in the licensing sense because the single license for a trailer exceeds ... at least in Canada, you make twice as much money as the Number One chart hit.

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You apprenticed for seven years with TV composer Shawn Pierce – please tell us about that.
I was working at a music store at the time and it was a little bit hard to be a new composer trying to make a living. I didn’t know what I was doing so I thought the best thing to do was to get a practical, full-time job so I could keep exploring music without the pressure of having to say, "I made it." So I took the music store job because I saw it as an opportunity to meet people that I wanted to learn from.

I met (Berklee music grad and composer) Shawn Pierce under those circumstances. He moved to town to work on an ABC series called Defying Gravity and we really hit it off. I was doing technical work for him and then it grew naturally. Our personalities matched really well. He needed sound design stuff and, because I was young and really in tune with all the electronic stuff, it became very collaborative and very symbiotic, just a real mutual benefit scenario. There was a lot of richness in the relationship because we had so much to learn from each other.

Shawn was the reason I got on the TV path. He saw something in me that was inherent — in TV you have to have a certain work ethic, otherwise the nature of the schedule just chews you up and spits you out. Just the fact that you can work in television, means you can work in television. I realised pretty quick that the schedule is not for everyone. There are 16-hour days, seven days a week for months on end. It’s the nature of the machine.

He saw how eager I was to learn and he was happy to take me under his wings. We worked on this stuff for seven years and we’re still the best of friends.

Netflix's Travelers NETFLIX
Travelers cast Mackenzie Porter, Reilly Dolman, Eric McCormack and Nesta Cooper

What was your first Hollywood offer and what else did it lead to?
I got a license for the film, Body of Lies. The first album I released when I was 17. It was a trailer and I was shocked. I didn’t get it until I was about 20 years old, when I was doubting what I was doing, so that really reinforced to me that there is remuneration. There is work there.

Did that open the door for the other stuff you did?
No, it was just its own thing. It was an avenue. I don’t explore licensing as aggressively anymore because TV has nearly taken over but it’s been a sustained presence in everything that I’ve done for a long time. There are some companies that I work with now, whenever I make a new album, I just send it to them and it can get placed or it cannot but my ratio is pretty good.

Did you get the finished pilot for Travelers for Netflix before you started scoring or did you just get snippets of scenes?
They brought me in, in the contextualising stage, which was really unique in television because usually they don’t think about the composer until they are way, way done.

I’ve never, ever been on a series that’s given me this opportunity but Brad (Wright, show creator) and Nick Hurran, who were directing this first episode, were really keen on the music because they know what an impact a good score can have, and they know that it’s actually another character; the narrator. It’s subliminal but it ties the whole show together.

When I started working on it, they were still thinking of the show. They’d only written three scripts. They had the actors on set and hadn’t started shooting and so, when I came on, I read the scripts during production meetings and created a bunch of sound collages that Brad and all the other writers were listening to while they were working on the show.

It was almost like a two-way collaboration because we were creating this sound and this world and this universe simultaneously. Then I was writing stuff, I was thinking of characters that Brad would kind of pick and choose and say "I really like this one," or "for this character, I think this is a good main title theme, and this is a good end credits theme." He picked and chose and established the theme early on, which is amazing because one struggles with themes. While he’s thinking these things, he’s thinking something else. We go back and forth and tweak them. The sound of the show is established before they go to camera, which I really like because it gives me an opportunity to think about the universe I’ve created — for them and vice versa. I get to look at everything they’ve done and the response they’ve had and I get to respond again when I finally score the show.

I don’t ever work on TV from anything but watching the picture because their production schedule is so tight. I don’t read the scripts anymore, I just watch the show as a viewer so I can have that initial emotional reaction to it as someone watching it would have.

You can never go back and watch something for the first time again, so I always feel like that experience is the most important but if I see an opportunity to foreshadow cinematically in a clever way, then I will ask what is going to happen. In Game of Throne season one, if you watch season seven, you can hear what he [has done] musically because he’s obviously read the books and is aware of what’s going to happen. We don’t have everything written yet so you watch the end of it and the beginning, and see how in very subtle ways these scenes are growing and develop through the series. It’s a different experience than Thrones, which is based on a whole book series. Everything’s done. Travelers just gets written as you go along.

Did you actually utilise 25 different instruments for the show’s score?
Absolutely. Growing up parallel to technology, you forget how connected you are to it. Every time I got a new project, I would build a concept for it with specific instruments and I would learn to play them. Not to the extent of mastering them but functionally so that they could evoke what I was after. You use technology to enhance and embellish the sound. I have a music collection that is closing in on 100 different instruments; guitars, weird little small percussion instruments. I have a giant tuba that I use sometimes. I learned to play them all. I struggle more on some than others. 

I just felt that breaking a sweat while I’m working is the right thing to do because it adds to the voice and character of the show. Me playing all these instruments, learning to orchestrate and arrange them, is going to create something that no one else can so when I come to producer with that, they see that this score is unique. People like that because it’s for them. It’s my job, to tell the story, in a way.

Now you do all this while dealing with health issues, diabetes and autoimmune syndrome?
Yeah, Type 1. Some people confuse Type 1. Type 1 is autoimmune so there is no known cause for it and it’s pretty serious.

How do you protect your health and work in the industry?
I would say that chronic illness of any kind likes routine and predictability. You have to explore with your health and you have to find things that you know work and have to very quickly abandon the things that you know are damaging and harmful.

You can never know for certain that something is working and it’s infallible and it’s great but you can know with much more confidence that something isn’t working. So I found it more a sculpting process … I got my lifestyle down to something very simple. I avoid anything that is definitely going to compromise. I don’t drink because the hangovers for three days don’t make you productive and makes your work harder and more challenging.

I simplified my diet and I use exercise as a treatment. I think looking at my day as a balance of intensity and rest – and not rest as in just lying on the couch and watching TV but using things that are counter-activities like doing a really intense weight-lifting routine – is almost relaxing for me because it’s a very different activity that springboards me with energy to work and focus.

When I say I work for 16 hours a day, I’m not sitting in one place working for 16 hours, I am using the sort of springboard method where I use one activity to leverage energy and focus in another. Sometimes that means going on a slow walk or just listening to music, reading or just getting out and socialising a little bit.

When I work, I have a specific goal and I say, "this is what I am going to do for this hour," then I am focused for that hour and I accomplish what would take me four hours of just meandering work. You know, internet browsing and checking your emails while you work.

So it’s really benefited my health as it’s just a really natural rhythm. I find I am a lot less stressed, I have a lot more control over my blood sugar levels and my stress levels. Sleeping is much more stable.

It requires a lot of discipline and it’s very subjective to how you might respond to these things but having a lot of knowledge about what is happening to you and a lot of self-awareness to experiment with things and stay committed long enough to see the benefits.

It is stressful. The days do get long and sometimes you don’t sleep. I find the first thing you have to take care of is your sleep, no matter what happens. I’ve been at this for 15 years, I’ve never pulled an all-nighter and never had a late delivery, so something I’m doing is working.

Travelers has been renewed, does that mean you’ll be working on the show again next season?
Yeah, I’m halfway finished with season three already so they’re not finished shooting but yeah, I just finished the fifth episode, which is pretty fun.

You like this show? You like watching it as well?
Yeah. I think the best advice I got from another composer was, "no matter what you are working on, no matter what you’re doing, whatever it is, it’s the best." It’s the best show and you come in with that attitude and you learn to love it.

I’m really do love the show but when it comes to projects that are more challenging, if you look at them with an attitude, "oh, this show’s no good," you undermine the show, you undermine your work, you don’t respect your work or the work other people have done, simply because of your take.

Look at every project like it’s the best and find every bit of it that you can appreciate and it will enhance your work. I really do feel that a good score can elevate things and make things that were muddled and confusing clear and make a show more watchable.

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