Interview with Imran Ahmad

By • September 9, 2014

When zombie apocalypses are all the rage in every conceivable medium, it seems difficult to come up with a new spin on the undead, let alone a new sound. Yet that’s precisely what Howard and Jonathan Ford did back in 2010 when they switched the usual American-English terrain to the African outback. It was a haunted land to begin with where walking bodies seemed like the natural outcome for the continent where life began. Adding immeasurable atmosphere to their “Dead” was the score by Indian-born composer Imran Ahmad, an unearthly mélange of ethnic percussion, voices and the more recognizable “horror score” elements of gnarled samples, rapid-fire percussion and raging dissonance. But most of all, “The Dead’ impressed in music, picture and emotion as it kept a firm human handle on a mercenary and young boy attempting the impossible task of finding sanctuary, where every sunbaked corner of desert seemed to hold another horde.

Having displayed an epic filmmaking chutzpah with a zombie apocalypse that easily outdid the infinitely bigger-budgeted “World War Z,” the Ford brothers now get back to body-gnashing on another exotic stretch with “The Dead 2.” And this time, it’s one that the London-based Imran Ahmad draws his own blood from, as India becomes the next target for the Ford’s not-so fatal wave of disease. Once again, an ersatz “family” tries to somehow survive, as turbine engineer Nicholas (Joseph Millson) finds himself slicing and dicing far more than wind as he sets off on a s three hundred mile journey to save his pregnant girlfriend Ishani (Meenu), whose home in Mumbai has undead pounding at the door. Accompanying Nicholas is the adolescent Javed (Arnand Goyal), whose bond to a father figure gives “The Dead 2” its emotional power through one viscerally amazing setpiece after the other.

Click Here to Purchase the Soundtrack

But perhaps the most important elemental force to be derived from the land is its soul, as personified by Ahmad’s even more complex score. For a country steeped in mystical belief systems, Ahmad’s melodically beautiful use of India’s vast array of eon-old instruments conveys the Karmic sense of destiny which makes “The Dead 2” moving in a way that few zombie projects are, especially in conveying an unwavering sense of purpose against whatever horrific odds are thrown at our heroes. It’s a sense of vulnerable destiny that’s unique for American-centric horror scoring. But Ahmad’s music certainly doesn’t turn the other cheek when it comes to delivering the ferociously violent goods, as rock guitars and percussion rage amidst wailing, screaming voices, a thrumming beat making the pulse race as the characters try to outrun one wave of the undead after the other. It’s a masala of eerie exoticism and outright terror that gives palpable expanse to what’s arguably the most interesting, and multi-ethnically impressive zombie franchise in the world, with Ahmad’s music an unforgettable tour guide in a land of no Nirvana in white-eyed sight.

Tell us about your own musical upbringing, and what interested you in film scoring?

I was born in London and being of Indian origin I grew up listening to a variety of Eastern and Western sounds, from Indian classical to Western pop. I started playing the piano and later the guitar in my early teens. Later on I became very interested in film music when I noticed how it would make me feel while watching movies. Being a musician, this awareness led me to explore more about how the music was being used to steer emotions and pace the drama to help tell the stories.

Were there any particular genre scores that stood out for you, especially in the zombie arena before “The Dead” came your way?

There wasn’t anything particularly genre-specific as I have been influenced by a wide range of movies and music, from the fantasy adventure scores of Bernard Hermann to the electronic sounds of John Carpenter. I also draw inspiration from Indian and Middle Eastern music. The first film I saw in the cinema was “The Return of the Jedi.” I must have subconsciously absorbed the music over the two hours while watching visuals that were completely beyond my imagination as a child. The exhilarating feeling has never left me!

How did you first team with the Ford brothers for “The Dead,” and what was it about your music that appealed to them?

I met Howard in London at the time he was beginning post-production for sound on “The Dead.” I watched the initial trailer he sent me and was amazed by the visuals he and Jon had captured out in West Africa (shot on 35mm). Feeling inspired I wrote some music and sent it to him. Both Howard and Jon loved the sounds I had used, especially the adventurous pace and spiritual feeling of the vocal parts. They said it was very different for a horror genre score and that is exactly what they were looking for.

Before even jumping into “The Dead” series, did you listen to past scores in the zombie genre? And how did you want to put your own stamp on it?

Howard and Jon had made a visually stunning movie about a road trip journey across an unfamiliar landscape that happened to have zombies in it! I wanted to use sounds and instruments that were unfamiliar to the zombie genre. Our overall aim was to give the audience a very different aesthetic experience in terms of visuals and music.

Could you talk about your musical approach for the original “Dead?” And how did you want to use the original’s theme here as connective tissue in getting across the global outbreak?

The Ford Brothers wanted the movie to be original in every way possible including the score. They were very keen to communicate the fragile sense of hope the characters were left with. Also, in one of my initial conversations with Howard, I described the intended music as arising from nature itself and turning the environment into a twisted and distorted reality. So musically I wanted to develop a delicate sound for the inner journey of the main characters and use experimental vocals and percussion for the natural world and the horror.

The main theme is primarily vocalized and is meant to outline the feeling of being human and not being able to make sense of the world. The zombie outbreak could very well be a force of nature such as a tsunami or earthquake. All human beings rely on hope and perseverance, and the main theme tries to convey the internal struggle that everyone goes through.

Beyond scoring “The Dead 2,” you also helped in its production. What were some of your wilder experiences on the shoot, and were any of them life threatening?

I only accompanied Howard and Jon on the location scout trip to India. As I speak Hindi, I assisted in planning the route and liaised with local people we met along the way to play zombies for our teaser trailer. In total we drove about a thousand miles around the state of Rajasthan (the land of Kings) in Northern India looking for suitable locations. The countryside was captivating as we drove past sunbaked villages, abandoned palaces eroding away and the immense Thar Desert. The only life-threatening situation was the insane driving that we witnessed!

Could you tell us about how the Ford brothers work as a team, especially when it comes to collaborating with you on the music for “The Dead 2?” Were you all going for a “bigger and better” attitude?

The Ford brothers have always wanted to make a zombie movie ever since they saw the original ‘Dawn of the Dead’. This is why they co-directed both of these films. They are creative explorers and always inclined to go off the beaten track when they shoot their films. That is why they find captivating and haunting locations that are not necessarily on the official location guide. I think this combination of passion for the genre, sense of adventure and relentless enthusiasm, led me to create a music score with a more expansive feel.

What do you think the biggest differences, and similarities are between Indian and African music?

I’m not sure that I can comment in broad terms regarding this! India is a subcontinent and is incredibly large and diverse with varying cultures and musical traditions. Africa, on the other hand is a continent with well over forty countries! It’s way too diverse in music styles depending on which part of the land you go to. What I would say about Indian music is that there is a refined ancient system of musical scales (raags) and rhythms (taals) that are still used to this day in both classical and popular music. These are the musical influences I primarily draw from.

Tell us about the ensemble of Indian instruments that you used.

The Indian instruments were primarily the bansuri (Indian flute) with some sarangi (bowed string instrument) that was processed and distorted. I also worked with Indian classical singer, Chandra Chakraborty. Howard and Jon were keen on embellishing a haunting song or lullaby into the film. Chandra and I recorded a Rajasthani lullaby about a woman who lives in a palace and dreams of her husband returning to her. It had relevance to the film’s setting and the yearning that the main characters Ishani and Nicholas both feel.

In the respect of Indian music’s natural, peaceful quality, do you think it affords “The Dead” more moments of tranquility, and beauty that another ethnic musical approach might?

Indian music is one of many languages in which to communicate feelings and emotions. This is the inherent transcendental nature of music. I used the Indian flute for the more tranquil moments and the sound of the flute naturally possesses the qualities of beauty and peace. I hope that the audience will appreciate and absorb any sounds outside their own cultural frame of reference, as we naturally tend to listen more attentively when sounds and rhythms are unfamiliar.

Could you talk about the electronic and rock guitar elements to the score, and how you wanted it to serve the movie’s pace?

These elements are complimentary to the rest of the musical palette. The energy and textures of sounds generated by amplifying rock guitars are incredible in themselves. Elementally they sound like fire and dramatically give a sense of emergency and danger. The rock guitar isn’t communicating anything cultural in the movie. I love using sounds like this in an unexpected context like when I used the Indian flute in an African setting.

When you think of zombies, a moaning, if not outright screaming voice comes to mind for the tortures of the dead, and the damned. In that respect, how did you want to use voices in this movie, for both terrifying and peaceful ends?

For most of the vocals, I worked with a singer called Saba Tewelde who is originally from Eritrea in East Africa. Her voice was what I felt could represent the natural world turning lethal as the outbreak is a force of nature. She has this amazing vocal dichotomy where the higher registers are very beautiful and ethereal, and the low ones sound haunting and foreboding. The higher tones are short and fleeting during moments when the characters are hopeful. The darker tones just stay with the characters the whole time never leaving them alone. I then added distorted screaming as another texture to some of the sections of the score. It’s disturbing and powerful as it is derived from fear. However, we had a fun time recording that in the studio!

You’ve got some particularly unsettling, and outright ferocious percussive passages in “The Dead 2.” Tell us about that quality of the score.

We wanted to propel the unrelenting threat from the zombies. These are the slow moving zombies that were first made popular in George Romero’s movies. The zombies are silent predators and slowly creep up on you without you even noticing. I think the scare factor is amplified than if you saw them running towards you screaming like an animal, as you wouldn’t have any time to react and plan what to do. The percussive passages help to heighten the terror and sense of panic when the attacks occur.

Both movies share the story point of an American hero trying to get a vulnerable person to safety. How do you think the music reflects that emotion?

The emotional core is a distillation of all our worldly concerns down to what actually matters and motivates us to live. Most people become unconscious of what really drives them in life. The hero is himself now vulnerable too as his world is falling apart. The music reflected in the love theme for Ishani and Nicholas is very simple and attempts to reflect the fragility and sacredness of their relationship. If you became helpless and vulnerable, whom would you naturally turn to for help? I think for most people it will be the people that they love and care about the most.

With the hero traversing so much territory, how did you want the score to reflect the different locations?

I think there is cohesiveness to the overall sound of the score and it doesn’t venture into terrain outside the reality of the story. The scenes at night are particularly unsettling. If the main characters are vulnerable during the day, then they are more so at night when they need to sleep! The music has a haunting and ghostly quality in these quieter moments.

In general, what do you think makes horror music scary? And how important is its balance between melody and dissonance for you?

It has been said that silence is the most effective storytelling device in horror. In a silent scene, there is no musical narrative to inform how the audience is meant to feel. That is scary! Our physiology can be purposely built up to a state of anxiety and panic. Other than this, dissonance is important as it can create feelings of uneasiness and simulate sounds generated by animals and humans when they are scared – a vocal expression of our primal fears. The right balance is very much dependent on what kind of experience the Director wants the audience to have. I prefer a good mix of melody and dissonance.

How do you think things are looking with Indian composers making the crossover into English language films, especially when it comes to movie that have nothing to do with India?

I think it’s great. The wonderful thing about composing is being able to experience different musical cultures, traditions and languages from around the world. It’s very rewarding. When I worked with Gambian musician Jali Kebba Susso on “The Dead,” he was the 75th generation kora player from his family! He not only brought his beautiful sounds to the score, he also infused it with the richness of his ancient culture.

Howard Ford is next up to direct a film outside of the horror genre. What can you tell us about it, and how will it be to break away from the zombies for him the next time out?

Howard’s next film is a thriller that is going to be set primarily in Morocco. It follows an American single mother on vacation in a beautiful but unfamiliar land that takes the law into her own hands when her child is abducted. I’m really looking forward to seeing the visuals he captures whilst he is out there.

What do you think makes “The Dead” films distinctive from the wave of zombie pictures, and TV series we’re getting now?

“The Dead” films are austere and laconic in terms of dialogue and the very few characters, similar in tone to the westerns of Sergio Leone. The landscape and indigenous people are very much part of the visual language. I think this makes it distinctive. Also, the Ford brothers want to take the audience as well as the fans of the genre into new locations with people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. I think this creates a fresh perspective for the genre especially with local interpretations and reactions to the outbreak framed through their own culture and beliefs.

What locale would you like to see The Dead series go to next?

There have been talks of the series continuing into Asian countries like Afghanistan or China.

How would you survive a zombie invasion, especially in India?

Indian people are incredibly resourceful and creative. A large percentage of people live and consume well within their means. The people would just know how to survive a zombie apocalypse!

Buy Imran Ahmad’s score for THE DEAD 2 in September from Howlin’ Wolf Records HERE. And visit the movie’s zombie-plagued India HERE on September 16th, or on iTunes HERE

Buy Imran Ahmad’s first DEAD soundtrack HERE

Visit Imran Ahmad’s website HERE

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