Andy Grush and Taylor Newton Stewart, known collectively as The Newton Brothers, are film and television composers who can be heard in the Netflix limited series The Haunting of Bly Manor. They discuss what has motivated their work as composers including the instruments they play, their early motivations, and continuing work with Mike Flanagan, the creator of The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Awards Daily: Combining images and music has been a goal for you guys for a long time. When did you know that was something you wanted to do?
Andy: Both of us have wanted to be doing what we are doing for a long time. I think there’s such a wonderful explosion of feeling when you experience music and sound to picture, story, dialogue, cinematography, acting. We have always been moved by a confluence of all those things. It’s been a fun ride, and we hope to keep being on that ride.
Awards Daily: In the current show you’re doing, The Haunting of Bly Manor, you are creating a suspenseful / creepy atmosphere. What goes into creating that kind of mood?
Andy: Interestingly enough, we flew out to the set where Mike (Flanagan) shot the first episode. We were there for episode one and the beginning of episode two, so we got to see the statues and the set and meet the actors that gave us a good sense of what was different about it from season one. But a similar aesthetic to season one, and it kind of gave us a good idea, which for us really translated into a sonic pallet as to how we were going to tell the story. We had long conversations with Mike Flanagan, the showrunner, early on so we knew specifically where we were going. This particular season I would say is much more traditional than the last. We used very little synthesizer. We did use atmospheric stuff for the lady in the lake but, for the most part, it was heavily relying on tons and tons of reverb ground onto the piano and an orchestra that we painfully recorded, one by one, because of COVID. So I think that’s more of what we had; we definitely did have some atmospheric stuff, just not as much.
Awards Daily: You have worked with Mike Flanagan on several projects now. What is it that has worked creatively between the three of you to make that work so well?
Andy: There was a funny experience we had, not funny but something that sheds a light on that question. We were over at Mike’s house a few months ago, and Taylor and I were going through Mike’s vinyl collection and Mike’s vinyl collection is almost identical to ours. (Well, Taylor has the vinyl collection between the two of us.) But as far as the albums we share a very similar interest in music from a fan standpoint – of scores and of songs as well. Taylor and I will sometimes go with the if-you-think-you-stink model that comes into play with music; if you over-analyze things too much, which we do all the time because we want to do a good job and bring all we can to a project. We will do our homework and a lot of research and everything we’re working on, and learn pieces of music, understand what’s going on and just have a deep knowledge of what we are attacking. But then at a certain point if you think you stink, you have to take all that information that you have, the piano lessons from when you were young, the theories, the recitals, the concerts and the live shows, and it just comes down to playing music.
At the heart of that is a stripped down version of appreciation that we and Mike and obviously millions of other people enjoy exchanging music we all enjoy as well. I think it’s helpful in projects when we are boiling down scenes, we will need to strip down a piece of music to just a piano, or just a simple horn, or string, or melody, or arrangement. The fact that we have a background of love for the more style of music I’ll say (though it spans many styles)—mixing with dialogue, we’re able to just get to a place where we understand each other musically. And sometimes not: there are times when it needs more dialogue and it needs lots of versions. And other times it lands exactly where it needs to land.
It’s a fun process and it’s nice that music is a universal language that everyone understands even if we are not able to convey to each other what we like about it. If you go to a concert, whatever the concert is, you’re at a show with one hundred to forty thousand people all energetically infused for music. So it is a certainty that we are all affected by music; it’s nice that we share that aesthetic with Mike. At least I think we do.
Awards Daily: Looking over your filmography, you have a lot of variety but you have done a lot of horror. Is there something about that genre in particular that appeals to you guys as composers?
Andy: I think the thing that appeals to us about it is that it can be multiple genres within a genre. It can be sci-fi, it can be a drama. A lot of people are feeling—and I’d agree with them—that The Haunting of Bly Manor is more of a Gothic romance; it’s a love story intertwined with a ghost story. As Mike so eloquently points out how loss and love—to be haunted by these things quite literally, and how it relates to a ghost, or what we think of as ghosts, it’s interesting. The really fun part for an artist or composer is you’re going in thinking you’re going to have this dark scary music, but when you sit down and you have all this melody and these themes and it is more beautiful and pretty, it’s a nice change to shift into. Don’t get me wrong, I love having over the top disturbing and crazy, and you can’t switch it up like that in a straight drama or in a comedy. What I love about horror is that it has that sort of flexibility that it can keep morphing into something else, and I think it expands the genre, which is great for the fans.
Awards Daily: I read that you both play multiple instruments. How do you think that has affected you as composers?
Andy: I myself most of the time start with the piano; that was my first instrument and I started playing guitar a few years after the piano so I feel very comfortable with both the piano and guitar. But the piano for me encompasses percussion, bass, melody. I really enjoy the piano. But being able to then step aside, move to guitar or the clarinet or saxophone (though I am not great at it) and a few other things. It’s nice to go to those things and be able to pick them up and play them and hear whether or not the idea is working with those other instruments. Because there are so many instruments that arrangement breeds such a different quality and it’s nice to be able to try that, and get away from things that are easier for me. I can sit here at the piano and compose something and not branch out. I like being able to just grab the clarinet or an electric cello that I have in the studio. Taylor has a cello at his place as well. It’s nice to grab those other instruments and play around with sounds and textures and figure out how it translates. Plus it’s just fun! It comes back to the playing of music, it should be fun. While it’s difficult under the guise of schedules, deadlines, creative direction, the bulk of it is fun. I actually inherited the clarinet from my grandfather, who learned to play it in World War II, so I always enjoy that when I am picking it up—there is a story behind it for me. I think everyone has a story behind whatever instruments they have in their studio, whether it’s their first instrument, or something they’ve just picked up along the way. I think we all have a story particular to each instrument we own and play. It just takes you further down the rabbit hole.
Taylor: I remember when I got the cello in my studio, and I was getting lessons and Andy came over one day and he was like, oh cool, cello, and he just picked it up and started playing it. I was, like, woah, have you played the cello before, and he was, like, no. He just started playing it and I was, like, wow, because I find the cello, or any sort of string instrument, takes practice because of the intonation and how quickly it can go out of tune while playing it. So I was super impressed by Andy’s flexibility, but that’s how he rolls. And I agree with everything he just said, except for there’s one other element that’s really cool, is that if you’re working on a score, say it’s an action score and you start with a percussion idea, or you start with a guitar idea or bass idea, I start feeling real results if you didn’t start out with those instruments. I feel like they can inspire other things. Symphonically a guitar has a certain thing; what would Beethoven say about a guitar, that it’s a mini symphony. It’s funny how instruments, even if you don’t play them perfectly, evoke other ideas. We worked on something called Pawn Shop Chronicles, it was like this quirky weird sound, we had banjos going out of tune, then slide guitar, then slide whistles, really weird things. Then we did Extinction. We had a brass section of twelve trombones and French horns playing on both sides. It’s whatever gets it done, but it’s inspiring to get out an instrument that hopefully gets you to want to play or write something in that song.
Awards Daily: Did you say untuned banjos? How did that come about?
Taylor: Because the characters are slightly drunk. And they are on meth, and they have a meth lab, so what we did is we had banjos that were in tune and we would play them and then we would also detune the banjos, do recordings of them out of tune, then we’d have live recordings of them in tune and then play the detuned recording depending on the scene. It was very tedious to go deliberately in and out of tune like that but it was fun.
Awards Daily: So this is my fanboy question: what was it like working with Danny Elfman?
Andy: It was great. It was nerve-wracking to record at his studio, but obviously he’s one of the all-time great composers. There was a moment of fear because you’re working with a great and we have had the great pleasure of working with a handful of people we really admire. So having this experience we felt really lucky to do that. I mean you know all the things he’s done, he’s done so many great things, he is such a talented writer, it was really just a great experience to be able to work on that and be around his world for a few moments in that project. It was really great.
Awards Daily: I read that you both apprenticed under Hans Zimmer how did that come about and how did that experience help you as composers?
Taylor: I apprenticed under Hans Zimmer.
Awards Daily: Oh, sorry.
Taylor: No, it’s not your fault, it’s kind of out there. I forget how it got out there, and we tried to get a change but we couldn’t. Because it’s just one of us, and we always try to keep things super straight when we can. But yeah, it was great. When I was working for Hans, just like Danny he’s one of those great composers, he’s super into technology, and super into advancing music with technology, combining the two. I am a big fan of that and I’ve a natural sort of attraction to that so when I was working for him I got to experience that hands-on and just the thinking, which is much the same as my thinking. Because I find that you have these great composers that have been playing their instruments for years and years. They’re super talented and sometimes they move on to be composers, which is great, it’s awesome, but it lends itself to a certain style of music that they write and it would be more traditional of that pedigree. Then you have the other guys who come up who are DJs, or synthesizer guys, or electronic guys, and being raised in that environment and they think very differently, they think with more sonics and tones and things like that.
What was cool about Hans is he thinks in both ways. I always found that that is the best way to think for me and I admired that because it’s not limiting and the greatest scores that I gravitate towards are the ones that feel to me something unique, something special, something memorable about them in addition to the fact that they were in this film. It doesn’t even matter how traditionally they go or hybrid they go but the blend of the two, in the creativeness of that, I always found is an extraordinary feat. I got to learn that when I was there and he gave me more desire to learn even more, so it got me started on that path. And Andy was already mixing crazy stuff to begin with, he was doing The Mothman Prophecies, and The Rules of Attraction and working with some other composers, so he already had a lot of that background, and then when we joined forces I was obsessed with it, so it became a thing that we would mix the orchestras with crazy, strange things and that was what we ended up doing.
Awards Daily: Anything you want to leave our readers with?
Andy: Just, if you’re a fan and you’ve been watching The Haunting of Bly Manor, thank you for tuning in, and if you’re a musician, keep writing.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is now streaming on Netflix.