Supernatural From Script to Screen: Composer Jay Gruska
"I've worked on a couple of semi-long running and big international kind of hit shows, and this Supernatural family that has developed eclipses all of them. It's been a wonderful experience and it's a genuine moment, isn't it?"
– Jay Gruska, Composer
Along with classic rock songs, Supernatural has a wonderful original score with many recurring motifs that fans instantly associate with a broment, or the Impala or a gory death. Like the show itself, the score also expands to cover many genres be it rock, folk, big band or a tribute to old monster movies.
Jay Gruska, along with Christopher Lennertz, are the composers who have been responsible for Supernatural’s original score for all 13 seasons, and has won three ASCAP awards for his work on the show. Jay has a long history in composing for TV and is also a song writer having written for famous artists including Jermaine and Michael Jackson, Better Midler and Chicago.
Jay has created some of Supernatural's most instantly recognisable music such as "Americana" which most memorably accompanies Chuck's narration in Swan Song, which also contains the motif popularly known in fandom as the Winchester Family theme.
You can check out a selection of pieces written by Jay for the show over 13 seasons on his website. You can also buy the original music from the first five seasons of Supernatural as well as the songs from the 200th episode Fan Fiction.
I recently spoke to Jay from his studio in L.A. about his work on Supernatural.
Jules: The Supernatural season 13 finale has just aired. It’s an amazing achievement – thirteen going into fourteen seasons.
Jay Gruska: It's remarkable. I've been doing television for a long time and the longevity of this show and the absolute loyalty from this audience is unlike anything I've been connected to. I've worked on a couple of semi-long running and big international kind of hit shows, and this Supernatural family that has developed eclipses all of them. It's been a wonderful experience and it's a genuine moment, isn't it?
Jules: The show’s had an amazing run, and you’ve been there since the beginning. How did you get involved?
Jay Gruska: Eric Kripke, the wonderful and brilliant Eric Kripke, who made this possible for all of us, was college roommates with Christopher Lennertz, my esteemed partner in crime on this.
When Eric Kripke had this pilot picked up 14 years ago, he hired Chris to do the score to the pilot. Eric, being a new person to the television scene at that point was assigned an experienced co-show runner, Robert Singer, by Warner Brothers Television. Bob Singer and I had done very many projects together – starting with Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman back in the 90s. That’s how far back I go with Bob Singer and Phil Sgriccia as well; two absolute wonders of writing and directing and producing television shows that I've been honored to work with for that long a time.
When Eric and Bob were having meetings about music for Supernatural, Eric said, "I've got the guy that I want to do the music", and Bob said, "Well, I've got my guy." So, the agreement was a very simple one, which was because Christopher Lennertz would do the pilot, Bob said, "Let's have Jay come on for the second episode." I think the unwritten agreement was that whoever they liked more would be who did the music for the series.
Certainly, to my pleasure, and I think Chris' as well, they liked us both. It's very unusual, honestly, for it to have that kind of a happy ending. I absolutely could have gotten my 'Dear John' letter after the second episode.
Chris and I have been alternating episodes for 13 seasons now, and there's a wonderful mutual admiration society there between us. Chris has his musical identity and I have mine, and yet somehow, we've managed to have a connective feeling between our scores while maintaining our own identity, and that is special and, I think, appreciated.
Jules: It's interesting because that musical relationship mirrors the relationship that Eric and Bob had in the beginning, where they were both bringing something very different to the table. Whether it's Jerry Wanek, or Phil Sgriccia or Andrew Dabb or Jared and Jensen, creative people with strong visions have been part of the show, but all your contributions have a synergy and come together to make a greater whole.
Jay Gruska: That’s the best-case scenario, and the very definition of any film or television series that works, because it is absolutely a collaborative world. You cannot be in your own artistic bubble working on a show that's successful because at the end of the day we are all serving the picture, and we are all serving the story.
Jules: Was there anything particularly about the show that attracted you to the project and obviously has kept you with the show over the years?
Jay Gruska: Well, initially, what attracted me was who I was going to be working with. I didn't know much about Eric, but if Bob was excited, I was excited by osmosis!
On a musical level, what was thrilling to me was the variation in musical style. There was always going to be a scary other-worldliness component. That is a joy to write -- to sort of lie in wait to give you all a good fright at the proper moment. But also, the varied geographical nature of being in one episode in the southern United States where there maybe guitar-oriented scores and next time an urban environment with the vintage Rock and Roll underpinnings.
Over the years, it developed to getting to write songs for the show such as the that wonderful hysterical episode “Changing Channels” where I got to write the sitcom theme with Jeremy Carver, who wrote the lyrics, or the one that I did last season with Robert Berens with the metal song “The Bloody Messiah”, which was just a blast to do with Rick Springfield. That's just been icing on the cake for me because that's sort of where I started in my musical journey.
I have to say that 200th episode, “Fan Fiction”, was a real high point.
Jules: Whoever thought -- Supernatural the Musical?
Jay Gruska: It was thrilling and terrifying. The thrilling part was because of the songwriting component and building a little mini-musical within the show. So that was thrilling, and I have certainly had a foot in that arena. The terrifying part was just the whole notion of walking the plank and going, "Are we insane? Is this a disaster waiting to happen? Are people just going to think they've surely lost their minds?" But in Phil's hands as the director, that was already going be our safety net.
They did a wonderful job casting-wise of these women that were not only wonderful and funny and fun but a handful of incredible singers.
I was asked to go up to Vancouver and record all their vocals and bring them back including the song Christopher Lennertz wrote - Single Man Tear.
I've been up to Vancouver like two times to visit the set, hang out a little bit with J squared as you guys like to fondly call them. Two fantastic, wonderful guys, hard workers, but that was really, really special.
The process was interesting because we were asked to walk that fine line of being cool and fun and hip, but not too beyond what a really, good high school production might be.
I was always determined, and so was Chris, to make them sound legitimately good. They had to be rhythmically fun and they had to be harmonically interesting and melodically catchy. The lyrics by Robbie Thompson were so fantastic and funny.
It was an interesting fine line to walk, and all the songs had to be basically designed, not finished in terms of production but written, the chord structure, the melody, the lyrics, before shooting, because they needed to film and sing and lip sync to what they had recorded.
Jules Wilkinson: It was incredible that this was all done within the constraints of a normal episode, within a season. It wasn't like a one off, "Let's give you a whole lot of time and extra time and money to do it."
Jay Gruska: That was interesting, they did give us a few months before they shot the episode to develop it, but yes making the episode was part of the normal timeline of the season.
I know that we did a couple of the vocals in my studio here where Phil came over, and it was one of the first times I met Robbie, who came to the studio and he was just ear to ear smiles through the whole process. He had never really watched something evolve like that. His first pass at the lyrics were wonderful but a little unstructured. So that was one of the first stages of development me going: "Hey you know what? If you turn this into a verse and this into a verse, and let's do this as a chorus, maybe you could make it a little shorter." He was just brilliant as was Bob Berens last season in terms of people that were screenwriters but who immediately responded to song form.
There was just a wonderful collaboration. I feel like I'm gushing too much but this episode was really, really fun and I have to say that the fan response was just beautiful. Just beautiful.
Jules Wilkinson: The other thing that you've got to do is several episodes that are an homage to a particular film or genre of cinema. The first one that really stood out for me was in season three with “Monster Movie”.
Jay Gruska: “Monster Movie” is in the top three of most fun I've had in my entire musical life! It was cut from such a different cloth than a usual episode. It was inspired by '40s and early '50s monster movies, and Bernard Hermann scores, work by incredible composers, and so I got to sort of find that in myself. I only had a week to do that. I hardly slept but, boy was that fun. Stylistically, it was like nothing we had ever done. Or ever again.
Jules: As someone who loves the old monster movies, it was just so evocative! We also had the recent episode “Unfinished Business” that was a Kill Bill homage. With an episode like that, when do you first get the heads up that this is going be something a bit different than your normal Supernatural episode?
Jay Gruska: The composer is given a rough cut of the film. It’s not a final cut yet, there's no sound effects, there's no visual effects. There's not even finalized looping in terms of some of the dialogue, which is when the actors need to re-record dialogue because maybe a plane flew overhead during a scene.
Sometimes I’ll get the heads up from one of the producers or sometimes the writers like Meredith Glynn – and I have become so enamored of her work - with this episode. Several weeks before the show in the office Meredith walked by and said, "I have some thoughts, I have some thoughts", and I said, "I'm all ears." So, there is some of that discussion that goes on.
One of the things that the editors, and especially Phil Sgriccia, are expert at, is doing the temporary scores for the episodes. Often, they will use our own, Chris's or my Supernatural music, and often they will use scores from major feature films or other things, that are appropriate and indicative of the place they want us to go on a given score. We will watch a rough cut and there will be music there.
The beauty of the whole environment is that nobody micromanages anybody on this series. You're allowed to be the artist you are. At the end of the day, of course, our bosses are our bosses. So, if they say, "No, we really want this direction”, it’s end of conversation. But we are certainly allowed to express, "Hey what about this? Can we try this direction or that direction?"
On that episode, they did attempt it with some Kill Bill stuff and just the general Tarantino-esque approach – Flamenco or the old style 70's Disco/R'n'B kind of treatment. As I said earlier, what makes it fun is when you get to just go to this new landscape, and that's what keeps it interesting. It's not so easy to keep 13 seasons of a show musically interesting if you're doing the exact same thing every episode. So suddenly, an episode like that pops up and I'm just in my playground.
Jules: Going back to those first couple of seasons, you developed some strong motifs that have reoccurred, such as one of my favourites, which I think of as the family theme.
Jay Gruska: I wrote that as a function of a bigger piece called “Americana”, and fans have dubbed it Dean’s family theme, or the Winchester family theme. I do only try to use it when it's an appropriate familial scene. The only time I've ever been given a bit of a hard time about it was when I used it in an episode a few weeks ago when Sam was talking to Gabriel and Sam's speech involved the line, "your family needs you...we need you.” I am very careful about using it and I felt like that was an invitation in that moment, to use it. But I had a couple of people come back at me and say, "Why did you do that?" It was what I felt in the moment, and I was "Please, don't be offended." But I heard that. I thought, "Let me consider what they're saying, because they know more than I do." At the end of the day, the handful of people that contacted me acknowledged that it was an artistic choice, but [laughter] I took note. I took note.
I also try to make it have different musical approaches. Sometimes the melody is piano, sometimes it's cello, sometimes it's oboe, sometimes it's flute. I just try to serve the moment. I had no intention for that lasting as long as it did but it sort of evolved on its own, as has the fan appreciation of it, and that’s what I live for.
Jules: Just hearing the first three notes of that and most fans will have tears welling up. You’ve created a Pavlovian response in us!
Jay Gruska: That's a beautiful thing and that's why I really try not to be manipulative with it and try to be selective. Sometimes it is only three or four notes of it that does a 15 second moment justice. What's interesting about that theme is it's rarely around long enough to have a B section. I'm waiting for that. I want to write a B section to that. We'll see if that happens in season 14.
Jules: I've mentioned some of the episodes that I associate with you, but are there episodes were particularly memorable for you over the years?
Jay Gruska: There’s always at least two or three episodes a season that from a musical bubble are highlights, either the different scope that is represented, or a particular funny show. Some of the shows that I thought were hysterical I didn't even do, like “The French Mistake”, one of the most hysterical things on the planet. And of course, Dean in lederhosen in “Monster Movie”; it doesn't get more classic than that.
Just from this most recent season "Scorpion and the Frog" was really fun to do. Also "Wayward Sisters". I really tried to give that a Supernatural foundation, but in my mind, I was going, "Oh, this is going to be so much fun to find its own musical identity for these incredible women and what they represent in this.” I thought Andrew Dabb and Bob Berens just crafted it beautifully with this future potential, and then Chris scored the episode leading up to it and then I did the "Wayward Sisters" episode itself. By the way, this petition [by fans to get the series picked up] is remarkable.
So those two episodes stood out this season. What else? Well, “ScoobyNatural”! Talk about an island of musical identity, which had to be Supernatural meets Scooby Doo musically.
That was one of just a handful of shows where Chris and I, even though we wrote our separate music, ended up in the same studio together. My daughter, Barbara Gruska, played all the drums and percussion. She's a wonderful drummer and percussionist and has been professional for a long time. We had a small orchestra at Capitol Studios, and a small rhythm section, and it couldn't have been more fun.
Chris and I had one good conversation saying, "We must pay homage to the stylistic approach of what Scooby Doo was." I never heard one note of what Chris wrote, and he never heard of one note of what I wrote until we were at the session, but I would venture to say that it would be hard for anyone watching the show to go, "Oh, Chris wrote that, or Jay wrote that."
Other than “Fan Fiction” the last time we did an episode together was "Time After Time", the '40s episode. It has an interesting little story to it that you may or may not know. Phil Sgriccia came to us, and we were told we were going to divide the score up of that, and that he had found this wonderful band that played '40s style music of their own. Some of them were professionals, but others were just out there in the early part of their career. Talented yes, but they weren't studio musicians. It turned out to be really fun. We wrote for them, we did it with them, and then we sweetened it with a couple of studio musicians. And watching that episode, I went, "Wow, who did what?" When you're asking that, I think we've succeeded in our work.
- TRADUCCIÓN: SuperWiki entrevista a Jay Gruska, la música de Supernatural Spanish translation of the interview by SinCitMexico
Interview by Jules Wilkinson, Supernatural Wiki Admin
Many thanks to Jay Gruska for his generosity in doing this interview.
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