Battlestar Galactica's Bear McCreary Knows What Concert Nerds Have Been Missing

Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and a stranger (Roark Critchlow) play "All Along the Watchtower" on a piano in Battlestar Galactica.
An enigmatic stranger (Roark Critchlow) gives Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) a piano lesson.
Screenshot: NBCUniversal

Here’s what you need to know about Bear McCreary, the legendary-in-his-own-time composer for Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, Outlander, and so much more: there’s a part of him that’s bummed he’s not playing a concert right now. Thankfully there’s a fix for that; as io9 can exclusively reveal, he has a new BSG live album, plus the soundtracks for all four seasons of Ronald D. Moore and David Eick’s series have been digitally remastered and will be available on your favorite streaming music services for the first time.

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io9 also got to talk with McCreary about how passionate he still is about the music he composed around 12-18 years ago—you could really hear the enthusiasm in his voice. While you can’t go to a live Battlestar Galactica concert (for now), he can finally bring the concert to you. The live album is called So Say We All: Battlestar Galactica Live—13 tracks of BSG tunes that were recorded at performances in North America and Europe—and he genuinely can’t wait for you to listen to it when it’s released on June 4. Read on for the interview plus an exclusive video of McCreary and Starbuck herself—Katee Sackhoff—performing the famous “All Along the Watchtower” track live.


Rob Bricken, io9: What was your impetus for taking your Battlestar Galactica music on the road?

Bear McCreary: Well, when I started releasing albums for Battlestar Galactica, I realized that I just really loved this music. It wasn’t just a job to me. I connected to it on such a deep, personal level, it was my life! I was in my early 20s at the time and my wife and brother sang on the score, and a lot of my best friends and favorite musicians all played on the score. There was a social aspect to it that I wanted to bring to the stage.

So in season two, we did a little concert for the soundtrack release, and it exceeded my expectations, to say the least—people were packed into this little club in west Los Angeles. That started a yearly tradition where every year we would get together and play the score, and the concerts just got bigger and bigger. By the end of the run, in 2009 and 2010, we were doing really large shows that felt like giant rock concerts. Fans flew in from around the world and we would do signings afterward and interact and talk with people. You’ve got to remember, this is slightly before the era of social media as we know it today, so the ability to interact with fans directly was something that I really valued and I didn’t really have any other way of doing it. And there really isn’t anything else like being able to play the music live in front of an audience and get their reaction. It just became this part of my life that was one of my favorite things to do.

At the end of the show, to be perfectly honest with you, I realized that there was a version of my life moving forward where I could start touring this around the world because there were people everywhere who wanted to hear the music of Battlestar Galactica live, but it would be at the expense of continuing my career as a composer. I chose to focus my efforts on continuing my career as a composer for film and television. As a result, the live concerts kind of went away. I always intended to return to them and find a way to make it possible for fans to experience those concerts again, or experience them for the first time. I can’t believe that it took me a decade, but here we are.

Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McCreary.
Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McCreary is extremely serious about this.
Image: Dennys Ilic
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io9: I know Battlestar was a formative moment of your career, and you’re clearly still passionate about the music. Being able to share it with a live crowd and their energy must have been incredible.

McCreary: I have to say that every venue we went to said they had never seen a crowd like mine. What would happen is, the crowds would come in, people would order drinks, they were super rowdy and loud, and [the band] goes into those mysterious tones of my version of “All Along the Watchtower,” and the crowd would go crazy. It was intense. It was like a rock concert where taiko drums are slamming, and then I would start a track like “Roslin and Adama” or “Wander My Friends”—something that’s very intimate and beautiful, or I would sit at the piano and play the “Dreilide Thrace Sonata” and the crowd would instantly become a classical music crowd. It was dead silent. The managers and owners of the venues came up to me, and they’re like, “What was that about? I’ve never heard a crowd go silent to listen to something that quiet before.” I could tell everybody was on the same wavelength and everybody felt the same way about the music. They wanted that rowdy, energetic, adrenaline-inducing excitement, and then they also wanted that emotion. They just wanted to have that communal experience and that really was amazing.

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io9: What did you feel at the end of those concerts?

McCreary: It was a kind of emotional euphoria that I’ve never felt since. As wonderful as my composing job is, I don’t get to experience the music with you. Even if fans tell me online that the music is meaningful to them, it’s not the same as having that communal emotional experience in the moment. To be able to take something like Battlestar Galactica and say, “Let’s take all our passion and energy and share it together in real-time.” At the end of that, I felt a sense of meaning in my work, a sense of having accomplished something that is beyond what you can get from just writing music for a picture or a television show. And that’s part of my desire to be a musician. I’ve been focused with a Captain Ahab-like obsession on my career but I realized that I really needed that emotional impulse to share music with people in real-time. It’s not a coincidence that now that my career is where it is, that I’m revisiting these old concerts, and I’m preparing new live concerts of this [live album] and other material. I’ve realized how badly I need that kind of live interaction with fans in my life. I need to share music in real-time with people or I’m going to go crazy.

io9: So we have a clip of you playing “All Along the Watchtower” next to what seems like an adorably nervous Katee Sackhoff. Could you tell me a little bit more about this moment?

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McCreary: Yes! Well, spoiler alert for a 10-year-old show. In season four, Katee’s character Kara “Starbuck” Thrace has a sequence where she’s sitting at a piano with a certain character and she needs to play this piano line and something very important happens. I was on set when they shot it and I was coaching Katee on how to play it. I was playing the piano during the reverse shots when you see Colonel Tigh and everyone else rise up, coaxing them out of their chairs with the piano performance.

I always thought it would be a blast to have Katee come and recreate that [scene] in a live performance. She was of course very nervous. She’s not a pianist. She hasn’t taken piano lessons, but she was such a great sport, though. I told her, “Look, don’t practice, don’t be nervous. Let’s just recreate that scene! I will play this sort of figurative role of this other character who sat next to you and I’ll teach you the notes in front of everybody. And then the band will kick in and support you in the way that the score did during that scene.” And the best thing is it’s just like [the scene in] the show itself, she’s nervous and hesitant and confused, and she starts plucking out these notes that mean more to the audience than they even mean to her at first. In fact, all the cast came out at some point or another over the course of the concerts, but Katee was one of the only ones to actually perform with us. James Callis was the other. We arranged a song of his that he sang at the shows we did a couple of years earlier. But this one with Katee was really special because it was recreating [the pivotal scene from] the show.

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io9: On every level, it seems like.

McCreary: Yeah. It also allowed, I think, a more immersive experience for the audience because that piece was the lead-up to our performance of “All Along the Watchtower.” And for fans that have seen the show, they know there’s an emotional catharsis in seeing Katee walk up, play those notes, the band kicks into the cue and then we eventually build into the full song. I think it’s really powerful and there’s a reason I put it right toward the end of the show.

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io9: So what music were you listening back in your Battlestar scoring days? And how did they influence you?

McCreary: Well, it’s interesting because I’ve got to be honest with you, I grew up listening to orchestral film music, composers like Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Danny Elfman, Bernard Herrmann, Basil Poledouris, Ennio Morricone—these guys are my heroes and they still are. Battlestar Galactica [took] a very modern approach, especially for science fiction at the time. It’s hard to appreciate now how bold it was not to have a big orchestral theme with brass and strings in your sci-fi show. When, through serendipity and hard work, I ended up as the show’s composer, I actually thought at the time, “Oh my god, none of my experience has prepared me for this. I grew up listening to the stuff they don’t want.”

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But one of the things I learned from Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann is to always use the colors at your disposal. So I started researching Japanese taiko music and learning how it works—what does it do? How does the band function? How does the music change from section to section? What do the different instruments mean? Not that I would recreate all that perfectly, but that I would understand it, you know. And I listened to a lot of Middle Eastern folk music. There’s an Armenian and Celtic influence that comes from my own heritage. I’m Scotch, Irish, and Armenian. You know what else I was listening to blow off steam? I [was] listening to Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down. A lot.

When “All Along the Watchtower” came down the pipeline and all I had was a direction from the showrunner, Ronald D. Moore, to quote, “Make it sound like Battlestar.” And I was like, “What?”

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“Make ‘All Along the Watchtower’ sound like Battlestar.” That’s all I had.

io9: Wow.

McCreary: So I was exhausted. I had no idea what to do. I went Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, with a little George Harrison with the Indian/Middle Eastern/Japanese influences that I’d been exploring to just see what happens. That’s where all those kinds of influences came together. Even just creating that track was this incredible catharsis for me. It was a liberation. Because I really, really felt, Rob, that I was making a version that would get thrown out even as I sent it in. Like, this will be the one that I’ll know existed and somebody is going to water it down—the studio, the network producer—it’s just too it’s way too weird and bold and loud. And it was just like across the board, everybody loved it. And I’m telling you the demo that I created—where my brother got off a plane and came right over to my studio to record the lead vocal on the demo—it’s indistinguishable from what went on the air.

io9: So recently you were scoring seasons of Outlander, Snowpiercer, Agents of Shield, The Walking Dead, and a lot of other stuff pretty much simultaneously. How, man?

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McCreary: I thrive on multitasking. When I was doing Battlestar Galactica, it was me and a recording engineer. When I say the two of us were doing everything, I mean everything. I was writing the music. I was orchestrating the music. I would stay up all night with my brother printing out the parts and taping them together. I would get to the session early and put the parts out on the [musicians’] stands. It’s all I knew! I was 24! I didn’t know any better!

Then I got a call to do a show called Eureka. This is the first time that showrunners just sort of offered me a job because they had heard of me. I was now somebody people knew and I remember freaking out, thinking, “Oh my god, how can I do two shows at once?” And I remembered something Elmer Bernstein said. I was one of his last protégés, so I knew him very well. Elmer always said to me that getting your first gig is easy—it’s your second gig that’s hard. Only now, looking back, I realize the layers of wisdom in there, but I remember thinking if I turn down Eureka, this might be it. You know, this is my chance to emerge into the business and prove that I’m not a one-trick pony. I can figure out a way to bring on help. I don’t need to orchestrate every cue and I certainly don’t need to print up the parts and tape them together. There’s stuff I can delegate.

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So I said “Yes, I can do two shows,” and I kid you not, three weeks later I got an offer on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and I was like “Oh my god,” but that that’s where it began. Suddenly it was like three shows, and then video games started calling, and then I started doing some small features. But I got into that mindset to look for things that I can delegate, where can I be a little more efficient. Ultimately, I just love my job so much that I just can’t say no to something that I’m excited about. I just kind of figure out a way, even if it means I’m losing a little sleep once in a while to get it all done.

io9: It seems like you would lose all your sleep all the time, given how much you produce at any given point.

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McCreary: There are definitely stretches where I don’t get a lot of sleep. Let me put it that way, but over the years I have just built up an incredible team around me that I trust with my life, and that is the way that I’ve been able to kind of keep my focus on what matters, which is the creative stuff. Really, this job is such an incredible balance between creative, technical, and political skills that are needed 24/7, and I found that I’m thrilled to delegate the technical side because it leaves me more bandwidth to be creative and to help with the politics and make sure that producers and showrunners and directors and studios are happy.

The album cover of So Say We All: Battlestar Galactica Live.
The simple yet clever album cover for Bear McCreary’s So Say We All: Battlestar Galactica Live.
Image: Sparks & Shadows
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io9: Is there anything else about So Say We All you want people to know about?

McCreary: One thing I would love to add is that a funny thing happened over the course of working on these concerts where the cues that I wrote for the pictures started to evolve into songs, and I started changing them more and more to create a satisfying live experience. And over the years, I became quite fond of these arrangements that in many ways I thought were a better listening experience, a more satisfying and fun listening experience, than their soundtrack album counterparts. And that was one of the things that was really gnawing at me over the last 10 years—that those arrangements never got out in the world and that people couldn’t hear them and the shape those songs took on. One of the things that I did over the last few years is return to these arrangements. In a lot of cases, I revisited them in the studio and polished them up, and took another stab at them with my more modern, contemporary self and I think they really rock. I mean, it’s just so satisfying and they’re so beautiful. Like at this point now, the version of “Prelude to War” that I want to listen to is the live one. It’s got so much energy and it’s so intense. Not to take away from the season two track, but I think that’s what’s going to really surprise people. Each one is really dialed in and different than what you heard on the show.

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io9: I imagine, especially to someone like yourself, there’s a vast difference between what is clearly a score and then a concert, even if the bones are the same.

McCreary: Absolutely, and in many ways, this is something that I’ve always tackled when I release soundtrack albums. I always try to present them in a way that maximizes their flow and how easy it is to enjoy them. But in the live concert environment, all the restraints are gone and I could just live with the parts of the tracks that I like the most. I can kind of trim the fat. I can turn ideas and choruses and really create more of a song form. It just makes more accessible because the very specific needs of hitting pictures are removed. With all that said, I do think it preserves absolutely the spirit of those scores. If fans want to close their eyes and still be taken away to Battlestar Galactica [by the music], they can. I mean, that’s what’s so great about it. To me, it’s perfecting the way you get to experience the soundtrack to the show without transforming it into something else.

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io9: I just wanted to say thank you for this interview, and your PR agent said you were an io9 reader, so I wanted to thank you for that, too.

McCreary: I was going to say, I frequently read you! I was asking my manager like, who am I talking to? Can it be Rob? So this has been fun. I’ve been an io9 reader for years, so I am very excited to share this with io9 readers. I genuinely think people who know your site are really going to enjoy this record. It’s made for that kind of genre fan.

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So Say We All: Battlestar Galactica Live will be available on June 4 at McCreary’s Sparks & Shadows site alongside the four original Battlestar Galactica soundtracks, all five of which have been digitally remastered. They’ll also finally be available via streaming services as well. If you want to go the extra mile, a limited number of So Say We All albums signed by McCreary will be available on June 8 over at La-La Land Records.

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Here’s the tracklist:

  1. A Distant Sadness
  2. Prelude To War
  3. Baltar’s Dream
  4. Roslin and Adama
  5. Apocalypse
  6. Fight Night
  7. Something Dark Is Coming
  8. Wander My Friends
  9. Lords Of Kobol
  10. Storming New Caprica
  11. Heeding The Call
  12. All Along The Watchtower
  13. Colonial Anthem / Black Market

For more, head to the composer’s blog at BearMcCreary.com for his memories of creating scores for shows like BSG, The Walking Dead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Outlander, and well as discussion of the music itself.

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For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.

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Rob Bricken was the Editor of io9 from 2016-18, the creator of the poorly named but fan-favorite news site Topless Robot, and now writes nerd stuff for many places, because it's all he's good at.

DISCUSSION

lasttimearound
LastTimeAround

While I know people will come to these comments to post jokes and snark about the ending of the show, I have to say that personally, Battlestar Galactica hit me on a deeper emotional level than anything else on television I’ve ever seen in my life, and while much of that was the extraordinary writing and cast, so, so much of it was Bear McCreary’s just astoundingly haunting, mournful, inspiring, hurting, pleading, epic soundtrack.

I still rewatch the series every few years, and the one thing that sticks with me more than anything else about it is just the mood, and the music was more responsible for creating that unique feeling than anything else that went into it.

I guess a shorter way of saying it before I ramble on too far is that that music made me believe that - as a very logic-and-science-oriented fellow - there’s quite a bit more to our universe than we believe right now.

And surely that was the point.