How Jordan Peele's Us composer Michael Abels conjured scares

Every horror maestro knows that the key to keeping audiences on tenterhooks is in the sound, and Jordan Peele wasted no time in crafting a sonic nightmare to accompany his latest psychological scare-fest, Us.

After recruiting composer Michael Abels for his 2017 horror hit Get Out, Peele reunited with the classical musician for Us, making an immediate impact with the film’s first trailer by twisting the ’90s hip hop classic “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz into an eerie, tense, slowed down version that sparked goosebumps.

The effect was deliberate, Abels explained.

“There are times you want to foreshadow what’s coming and other times you want to deliberately not foreshadow what’s coming,” Abels told EW. “Some scares are the type of dread where you know it’s coming, and others aren’t. So we do spend a lot of time talking about what kind of scare something’s going to be, whether it’s a jump-at-you, or a slow burn.”

EW can exclusively debut two tracks from the upcoming Us soundtrack, which comes out Friday ahead of the film’s March 22 theatrical release, part of a 35-song album that provides the suspense and beats for Peele’s new nightmare. Us follows the story of the all-American Wilson family (Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex), who find their idyllic California beach holiday interrupted by a shadowy family who reveal themselves to be their doppelgängers. The clones are known as The Tethered, underground-dwelling figures that are rooted in evil, seeking justice from their above-ground counterparts.

The first track, “Anthem,” is a vocal choir rising in volume over drum beats and chimes, and sounds like a “preparation for battle,” Abels explained.

“The voices are not [singing in] a language, it’s nonsense syllables so you focus more on their feeling and the music – you can tell something’s coming and it’s not good, these people mean business but you can’t tell exactly what it is they want,” he said. “It was important that they sounded like not like any specific culture, they sounded like they were organized and evil but not foreign.”

The voices echo those of children, which Abels says was done purposely, as “it can be very unsettling because of the juxtaposition of the [children’s] innocence and the kind of the angry intent you hear,” and he wanted it to sound like it came from the underground world of the Tethered.

The second track, “Pas de Deux” will bear some familiarity as Abels spins a twist on Club Nouveau’s “Why You Treat Me So Bad?,” a song better known for being sampled on Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It,” a tune embedded within the heart of Peele’s script. In “Pas de Deux,” the familiar beat is slowed down and sharply strung out on violins, building suspense into a crescendo of jarring, discordant sounds.

The use of the violin, a mainstay in horror scores, represents the fiery spirit of Red, the terrifying doppelgänger of Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide, Abels said. But the standout element in the 35 tracks is the choral work, the composer added.

“There are some other tracks where the singing is really out front. Jordan specifically, when we first spoke about the film, talked about how important he wanted the voices to be in the soundtrack,” he said, pointing to tracks such as “Immolation,” which has “really over-the-top singing,” and “Human,” in which vocalists sing “with size of despair that has its own unique ambience.”

Get Out was the first time that Abels had worked on a film, and he said he was thankful for “Jordan’s willingness to believe in me and seek out diverse voices,” adding that he has more opportunities now to be a musical storyteller. But Peele’s desire to find a composer of color to work on his films also led Abels to co-found a group called Composers Diversity Collective, in an effort to open more doors for composers of color in Hollywood.

“When Get Out became so popular, I found young composers of color were reaching out to me and looking to me for guidance and mentorship,” he said. “Since Hollywood has understood that not only is diversity good for the box office, it’s good for the soul and our mission is to be a visible resource for Hollywood for inclusion behind the camera … a lot of times people want to be inclusive but they don’t have the rolodex, so we’re there to help fill that gap.”

Listen to “Anthem” and “Pas de Deux” below.

Related content:

  • Jordan Peele breaks down the frightening first Us trailer
  • Us first look: See photos from Jordan’s Peele’s Get Out follow-up
  • Jordan Peele’s Us first reactions from SXSW premiere: ‘Horror masterpiece’

Us (2019 movie)

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