Jay Gruska’s Unreal Music for Supernatural
By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications • May 31, 2019
Earlier this year, the CW announced that the upcoming 15th season of Supernatural would be the show’s final run. Supernatural’s decade and a half on TV makes it the longest-running sci-fi series in American television history. And veteran ASCAP composer Jay Gruska has been there since the beginning, scoring every other episode since episode two. We caught up with Gruska at his Sherman Oaks studio, just after he wrapped the milestone 300th episode.
Congratulations on making it to episode 300 of Supernatural! What do you think accounts for the longevity of the show, as a show?
For the first ten years I had no idea ::laughs:: I think the biggest thing that hit this audience is stressing the family component. There’s the scary part, and everybody goes there for that thrill, but it’s just this little family connective thing. And the sincere chemistry between the two lead [actors], who genuinely like each other. They live in the same city in Austin. Their families are growing up together, and that just translates. They have a really loyal audience based on that. I don’t know if you guys know, but Supernatural conventions are one of the biggest conventions in the world. They do 15 or 20 a year. Mostly US, but a bunch of international, Brazil, Rome. I’ve gone to one, when it was here [in Los Angeles].
You alternate episodes with composer Chris Lennertz. How did that happen?
He got hired to do the pilot by Eric Kripke, the guy who created the show. They were college roommates. And Supernatural was one of Eric's first outings, in television. So he was assigned a veteran producer in Bob Singer, who I’ve done work with for a couple of decades. They said “Let’s have Chris do the pilot, and then let’s bring Jay in to do episode two,” and the unspoken thing is, whoever we like is going to do the series. Certainly to my thrill, and I think Chris’s as well, they liked us both. It’s unusual to alternate on a gig like that. Although, interestingly for me, it was my second series of doing that. I did it on Charmed for eight seasons with J. Peter Robinson; I alternated with him for seven of the eight seasons.
Do you have to interface with Chris to make sure the sound is consistent?
We did it in the first few episodes, but only sonic template. We didn’t discuss harmonic language or melodic language. Only maybe three of four times in this whole 14 year run, have the producers said either to me or Chris, “Hey, these characters had a little sonic thematic thing, can you guys have a conversation so that when these characters come back, there can be some connective tissue?”
Would you say there are certain signature composerly things that you do that distinguish a specific cue as a Jay Gruska cue?
I would say yes, but the main reason I would say it is because the audience and various reviews have picked up on a certain thing. It really became a little bit of a luck-of-the-draw. We don’t know what episode we’re gonna get. And the first several seasons I happened to get melodic, thematic and emotional episodes. And so I still have two themes that are kind of like fan favorites, because they fall into those categories. So I suddenly got pegged as the emotional guy, and Chris was the scary guy. Of course we have a good laugh about it, because we each have to do each.
After 14 seasons, how do you keep things fresh and interesting for you?
You know, the scary stuff is the scary stuff. Which ranges from a couple of eerie atonal notes to a big giant noise. It’s hard to reinvent the wheel for this long, you know? But it’s the other stuff that really has kept it an unknown world.
The producer's dictum initially, and I still hold to it, is that instead of making it a serial show, it was going to be standalone episodes. Also, there’s a geographic component, these guys travel all across the US. And so, not only did they make their own little one hour movies, for the first eight or nine years, but musically, one week you were in Ry Cooder land, and the next week it’s some sort of full-blown orchestral imagery, then there’s rock band sensibilities. I’ve written three or four songs for the show. That’s another thing that’s really kept it interesting as a composer, that the musical language has constantly shifted.
I read that for episode 200, you wrote a song that became an iTunes hit. Did you write anything special for the 300th episode?
The 200th episode, they had the boys go to a high school because there was some mysterious death there. They happened upon an all-girls school. And this is where the show has a lot of fun with breaking the fourth wall - [the girls] are putting on a musical about Supernatural, with all girls playing the roles of the guys and everybody in it - super fun. Wonderfully meta, you know what I mean? And so the screenwriter of that episode wrote the lyrics, I wrote two songs, Chris wrote one, and then additionally, I arranged and produced an arrangement of that Kansas song “Carry On Wayward Son.” Which has been sort of the unofficial theme song of the show.
[Episode 300] was more emotional writing and I used two themes that have been around for 10 years, specifically for family, or relationships with the father. Very simple harmonic language, Americana vibe.
If you think about the music that you composed for the series in a global way, how would you say the sound has evolved since the beginning of the series through now?
It’s probably a little more sparse. It was pretty orchestrally dense the first five seasons. And of course when I say orchestrally, I mean it’s basically orchestral emulation with three or four players. But it has probably become a little bit more minimalistic over the course of time, even just because we’re now familiar with the characters and storylines. Everything’s a little more relaxed about how to deal with it. And listen, it’s also driven by “We have a week to write this.”
Yeah, but it’s always been like that.
It’s always been like that, but I slept a lot less the first five years. Now it’s more like, “What’s the thrust of the statement?” I’ve always found, in composing one-hour drama for television, you don’t have the luxury of loving every cue you write. You have to figure out how to have your craftsmanship show up, so that it’s at a certain level, and then you pick those handful of cues that are A) going to be heard, that don't occur while there’s a helicopter hovering, let’s say, and B) that have a dramatic intent where detail work is more exposed. So if I’ve got five days to write and a day to have musicians and a day to mix, I’m going to frontload where I want to write my detail work, and then the craftsmanship part is a big component just to make a deadline. There’s no such thing as “I’m not going to be ready Thursday.” That in itself was an interesting learning curve for the first years of doing television work. [So different from] the record environment that I came from, which is “It’s not done ‘til it’s done.”
At this point in the run, what kind of feedback do you get back on a weekly basis?
For any of my blessed colleagues that have to play and preview things and rewrite things, I apologize, because literally for the last dozen years, and it’s been the same for Chris, I’ve rewritten two cues.
Wow, that’s so lucky.
It’s lucky for sure, and also because of the level of communication and understanding, but I would credit the producers with a combination of being clear on what they want and what they don’t want, and not being micro-managers. I’m approaching, I don’t know, 550 hours of dramas at this point in my life, and it’s so rare to not have to preview, not have to audition cues, not have to get a call from the stage, “You know what, 3m2, the first minute works but the second minute isn’t working for them.” “Okay, I’ll have it to ya in two hours.”
So do you get spotting notes?
Deep spotting notes. The spots are super clear, there’s always at least one or two producers there. Technically the first step is that I get a basically final cut but with no sound effects, no looping, and temp score. I watch that rough cut before the spot, so that already going in I know what the story is, I know what the setting is, and I know what the lean for music and where it goes is, and then all of that gets tweaked during the spot. Like “You know what guys, you put a piece of temp music in there, we don’t need anything. That’s a great scene.” Or “There’s nothing there, what do you guys think if we do duh duh duh.” There’s always dialogue, and sometimes the dialogue even extends into coloration conversation, because everybody on the production team is super musical and can get in the cracks about instrumentation.
This amount of trust is an unusual thing. Suddenly Chris and I go off into our worlds and we feel like trusted artists in the game. I’ve walked over enough egg shells in my flying time that I recognize how fortunate this is.
So this is a really interesting time for you to be composing a series with such longevity, because you bridged the pre- and post-streaming era. Does the idea that it’s possible for people to binge watch the entire season change the way you approach the music?
What an interesting question. No, it doesn’t. Because when I sit down to write here, I am just in my cocoon. And I don’t have any consideration other than “What does the scene want, what do the producer-directors want from me, what do the fans want, what do I want?” And it’s kind of almost in that order. Occasionally I move up the chain a little bit. But it’s in service of the story, in service of the scene, in service of picture. And so I don’t really care whether someone’s streaming it and watching 200 episodes in a month or if they’re going to take 10 years to do it.
In some ways, it’s more interesting to look back, and go “Wow, in 2007 that was an interesting approach to that...I maybe would do that different now.” The main theme, I’ve done it 40 different ways, even though the harmonic content and melodic content is the same. Different instruments carrying the melody, different secondary lines, occasional reharmonization, you know? So that’s super fun, because it’s not really a show that always supports thematic stuff like Lois & Clark - if [Superman] was flying it was the flying theme, if Lex Luthor was there it was some version of his thing…Supernatural doesn’t really have that, other than this family theme we talked about. Demon of the week, new music.
So many of the TV projects that you’re best known for involve superhumans - Lois & Clark, Charmed, Supernatural...are there things that you can do on a show like that that you might not be able to for a show about standard everyday life?
These kinds of shows allow you to be over the top. You can make discordant, polychordal giant noise that you would never do in a drama that [requires] hear-a-pin-drop sensitivity. So it’s been great for all sorts of compositional devices that I wouldn’t necessarily use in a down-to-earth drama, where nothing magical is in the air. Nobody flies, nobody grows werewolf teeth, etc.
Last year we did an episode of Scooby Doo meets Supernatural, where through some magic potion, the characters get sucked into an animated version of Scooby Doo. Chris and I split the episode because it was all live, with a small orchestra at Capitol. Insane amount of note writing, [plus] we had to be in the style of Scooby Doo, and we had a week. But super fun, incredibly wonderful, both our live rhythm section, live small orchestra. Completely different language than we’ve ever done on the series. There are so many more places to go [with a show like Supernatural] that you wouldn’t go in a more subtle environment.
Long before you started doing film and TV work, you were songwriting, in bands, and you had albums of your own. What led you to transition over to this other world?
I was a staff songwriter for 15 years. Nine years at Screen Gems, four years at Geffen, and then three years at Universal, and I had half a dozen pretty great covers, and three pretty big hits. So it’s 1983, and I’m just starting my solo album for Warner Bros. records. So my daughter Barbara was born, and I wrote her an instrumental piece that was two minutes long that I did with orchestra, and Warner Bros. is going “Uh, what or who are you?” And of course the album’s called Which One of Us Is Me. Because I didn’t know musically. I have this wide range of interests musically, but that does not a cohesive album maketh. I started to realize “I think I’m happier writing than performing,” and I have a little bit more language to take advantage of than the three-minute pop world. Which I love, and couldn’t admire more and respect more, but I wanted to free up. So I went back to UCLA and took mechanics of film scoring.
Even though I was about to have two really big hits, the Michael and Jermaine Jackson duet “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming” followed by “Friends and Lovers,” which was a huge pop hit and then a separate #1 country record, my mind was already in “I don’t want to raise a kid and figure out what to do between hits.” It was this combination of my daughter being born and me wanting to be more practical about how to be in her life and not necessarily be a road musician. I was in the crossroads.
So I spent the next three years doing little ghosty and arrange-y things for James Horner, Pat Williams. I produced the score to Commando. Wrote, arranged and orchestrated two cues for Cocoon. I think James Horner recommended me to the director of a movie called The Principal which was my first feature. Then about three years later, the phone just started ringing in television and I never looked back.
Do you have any sense that success comes differently for young composers who are just starting now than it did when you were starting out?
It’s a really shifted paradigm, a combination of things I think. The massive amount of venues now where you can do a score, that’s the good news. [But then there’s] the kind of s***ty way that payment for composers has devolved. And you know, more power to ASCAP for being on the front lines of figuring out how to get us paid for things. It’s a little bit of the wild west with that.
I think just the sheer numbers that are now in the game has complicated things, and I think there are some incredibly gifted younger people coming up with a massive amount of chops, but you’ve also got this whole contingent that thinks they can score a movie on Garageband, and probably a third of them can, depending on what’s asked of them and the language in the score that’s needed. So it’s a complex answer. I think it’s in many ways harder, and maybe in some ways easier to get going. You know there’s the catch 22: you need a gig to get an agent, and you need an agent to get a gig.
Two of your kids are successful music creators themselves. What’s your philosophy on raising kids who appreciate music and respect the craft behind it?
For me, the gut feeling about it was “don’t force anything.” Try to do s**t by example. And that has everything to do with instilling the concept of work ethic, instilling the idea of caring more about the art and the craft than the stardom component. [That] this is a privilege to get to do this, and how you figure out how to do it the rest of your life, if that’s what you want to do. So there were never any forced lessons, though there was conversation about it.
You know, both Barbara and Ethan, both singer-songwriters, stopped and started lessons. Barbara took violin for six months and she just tortured herself because the first six months of a string instrument, if you can't play it in tune and you have [her] kinds of ears, you’d rather jump off a building. So somebody very wisely suggested that she was tactile, and she started picking up orchestral percussion in fourth or fifth grade and never looked back. Same thing with Ethan, he wasn't interested in piano lessons, so I taught him a few guitar chords.
I think the key is to try and have your antennae out about what the lean is and just try to be patient. Once they were old enough, then they might have had questions for me. I would love to sit here and share “Here’s what I did to make that happen.” But you know what? They show up pre-wired, and my philosophy is “Don’t f**k it up.”
What kind of musical irons do you have in the fire, aside from Supernatural’s 15th season?
TV wise, it’s been a little bit of a wind down. I did two seasons of this Louis CK & Pam Adlon series called Better Things. And then of course he got fired and it all changed. Pam’s terrific, got along with her great. Did a bunch of all-live music with a quintet in various styles.
Also some songwriting. Wrote a song a few months ago with a Canadian artist named Marc Jordan. He’s a killer singer-songwriter. And then working on a musical project with my wife. who’s a really good writer. I’ve had a good run, I still have music to give, but I’m not that interested in chasing a way to give it. So now if the phone rings, I’ll happily be of service, and then I’ve got my own love projects.
Care to offer a nugget of advice to any young music creators reading this?
Humility is as important as your musical chops and your compositional evolution. Because humility will keep you in a place that’s open to early positions that aren’t necessarily in your game plan, but you don’t know enough yet, whether that’s going to lead you somewhere right. And even your worst gig will teach you something.
Find out more about Jay Gruska at jaygruska.com
Watch episodes of Supernatural at https://www.cwtv.com/shows/supernatural/