Interview: Composers Roahn Hylton and Jacob Yoffee Reveal Process Behind ‘The Wonder Years’ (2021)

ABC’s The Wonder Years television series launched earlier this month. Inspired by the hit show of the same name, The Wonder Years is the coming of age story of Dean Williams, an African-American preteen growing up in the 1960’s. Dean’s father, Bill, is a professional musician. That emphasis on music within the show provided Composers Roahn Hylton and Jacob Yoffee with a unique challenge. Awards Radar had the privilege to talk to the duo about their process for putting together the score for the show. In the interview, Roahn and Jacob revealed the circumstances that led to their involvement with The Wonder years. They discuss the balanced the needle drops and traditional score of the show, and revealed the collaborative engine behind their work with one another throughout this project. The transcribed interview is below.

Benjamin: So, you guys have been working together for the past five years. How has the dynamics changed from working together on that first project so many years to working on The Wonder Years reboot this year?

Roahn: I’ll tackle this one. five years ago it was my first show with Jacob, who’d worked on several shows before. I was coming from the pop, R&B, radio world, so my ideas around music and music creation were based around 3 minutes and 30 seconds. In in that world, you can spend two weeks on finding a the right sound, whether it be a snare, kick, or synth. And I found out quickly that in film music you can’t be as precious. It’s so fast. And luckily, that first show wasn’t a network show, which allowed us to get the process down, and allowed me to learn the differences between a television show and producing a song. So now for The Wonder Years, we are making a show a week, often working on multiple episodes at once. Compared to 2017, our process is much tighter. It’s an assembly line approach so we can get things done very quickly. And in five years, I’d like to hear that question again, cause I think in another 5 years we will have mastered the fusion of our great strengths together.

Jacob: It’s really interesting. The more we work together too, we can reference our own work together, and as a result, many of the filmmakers we’re working with have a back catalogue of ours to talk about. And because the pace is so quick on a lot of these shows, the picture editors will start and ask for us to send us a couple hundred tracks to them so they can start temping. And when we start working on something, it’s our own music we’re hearing for reference. And that allows us to get a better sense of which musicians we should bring in for the project.

Benjamin: Building off of that, what was the process you used for The Wonder Years? How did you come up with the sound, with the groovy beat that drives The Wonder Years?

Roahn: We owe a lot of the sound of The Wonder Years to the pandemic. In 2020, we were just kind of wondering what was going to happen. Production had halted, and the project we were working on that was supposed to end in 2020 went dark. We heard nothing, and to avoid going insane, we had to find a way to stay creative. So we put our brains together and decided to put together an album, regardless of whether it would get likes and licensed. It was a heart project that just happened to be 60s music. A few months after we finished, our agents hit us up and told us of a general meeting with Fox. When Fox informed us that they wanted us working on The Wonder Years, we were ecstatic! It just so happened that it was set in the 60’s, and by coincidence, we had 25 songs already done for that era. So we sent those over, they sent us a brief, specifically for The Wonder Years. So when the pilot was actually being shot, we got to use our music as temp tracks. And while we had to conform it to the picture and make it work, we were blessed enough to get in early so that we could establish the sound with our temps. We are very fortunate that this is how it typically works for us.

Jacob: And there’s also a new thing happening with all film and television, where the difference between needle drops and score has been blurred. In the past, such as the eighties and nineties, it was very obvious when the music was a needle drop. And when the score started, it came with a very distinct sound. There would be strings and and piano and it would be mixed very traditionally. But now, modern audiences have gotten accustomed to the musical soundscape, so a deliberate effort has been put into making everything seamless. With The Wonder Years, we’ve had a few friends of ours reach out and ask if there was any score in the pilot. And we’ve told them there was a whole lot of music in the pilot. It was just blended in with the needle drops. I mean, to be honest, our idea was that the score of the show would be performed by Bill’s Band. Since Bill, the father in the show, is a funk soul jazz musician, we thought it would be neat if the entire score could be performed by his band. So that’s the sound world that we wanted to live in.

Benjamin: I was going to ask about the needle drops because there are a few in here from green onions and step back did you guys have the option to choose them or were they preselected and you guys have to work around them?

Roahn: We’ve been asked for suggestions to certain things throughout the show. Specifically, there’s a great moment at the end of the pilot with Change is Gonna Come. There were many ideas thrown out for that ending, and while we wanted Change is Gonna Come, we were asked for other references just in case. That’s how it works, in that we don’t pick the needle drops. Rather, we have got to shout-out our amazing music supervisor Amani K. Smith. He’s been amazing at picking the best choices for all the needle drops and licensing. It’s a cool little trade off because he’ll tell us what he’s planning for the needle drops. And then we get to create seamless transitions in and out of them, depending on the scene. So we don’t pick them, but we have been asked what we think about certain options. Which is a cool collaborative effort.

Jacob: Yeah the music supervisors on the show will pitch a lot of different options for needle drops, and specifically the desired style or mood. They sometimes will provide with a playlist of music from the 60s or 70s, and we then will try and match the mood with our own pieces of music. Many of those are a collaborative effort, with the actors performing on camera. It’s a real collaborative team effort combined with the filmmakers direction.

Benjamin: What is your role when it comes to shaping the music and the sound of the on-screen performances and original songs created for the show?

Roahn: It’s all encompassing, and as Jacob said, it’s a very collaborative effort. We have gotten to record Dulé literally singing these songs, and he will ask for feedback for his performance. Likewise, myself and Jacob are giving suggestions, or asking what Bill would do. That back and forth style of collaboration permeates the production of The Wonder Years. We don’t want to give any spoilers away, but it’s definitely an all hands on deck approach. It’s really cool being able to make these songs, some of which were written for a female voice, come alive with a male voice. And the feedback we receive once we send them off to production are encouraging and full of different suggestions on different things we can try. Its been a real cool collaborative approach.

Jacob: And there are a lot of on-screen performances were Dulé, or some of the other actors in the show are playing instruments. For those performances, we actually created little tutorial videos for them to the show them how to play the instruments. Whether that was focusing on hand positions, the feeling of using the instruments, or how to stand, it was important to help the actors get ready for their own performance. We want them to be able to get into the character their playing, and not be bogged down with things like “how am I supposed to hold this thing”. Some of them have a lot of musical experience. EJ is taking lessons now because the show is very driven by music, not just in the soundscape, but also in the story. Music is integral to the storytelling, and you will see that as the season plays out. Its written very smartly by Saladin K. Patterson, and you can tell it was written by someone who grew up in a musical family. The stories he comes up with couldn’t be told, and wouldn’t be told, unless you had a personal experience with it. It’s literally a dream gig for us, because it’s like, we are able to do things that never happen on other shows.

Benjamin: Speaking of Character headspace, how did you balance the music of both Deans youthful energy and naïve worldview as a kid, with the mellower reflection that accompanies Don Cheadle’s narrative lines?

Roahn: We’ve been asked a lot of questions around how difficult was it to make music centered around this space. Since The Wonder Years centers on a Black family growing up in the sixties, with the racial, social, and political components, that are challenging to navigate, and I think the same answer can be applied here: You allow the picture to tell you what it needs, you allow the relationships on screen to tell you what they need. and you make it as simple as it can be; whether it’s about a boy with his childhood crush, or about a boy with his dad, or about a boy with his best friend who he feels crazy feelings about. You try and focus in on what the picture is telling you, and you stay there so that you don’t do too much or get so lost that you can’t help the story come across. 

Jacob: I think one major driving force behind this is making everything feel urgent and present. Even though the narrator is voicing this from the future and looking back, the show is in real time. We are experiencing this in the present with these characters, so musically we wanted to draw on the instruments, chord progressions and rhythms of that era. But we didn’t want to get stuck in the past. Its not written to feel like a memory, and that was a big moment that changed how we approached the score. Some of our original approaches didn’t quite work because the picture is set in the present. It’s not a tale of someone saying “a long time ago”, it’s got a very in reality feeling to it.

Benjamin: You mentioned this was a dream project. How did it challenge you as musicians, and where do you go from here?

Roahn: That’s a good question. The sheer speed of the project was a big challenge. We are challenged by how much writing we have to do. The cool thing about this, I think God knows what He’s doing right, the cool thing is that we are writing music we actually like to listen to and make. I can’t stress that enough, because when you are working on 5 episodes and you gotta make sure the process is going according to plan so we don’t get lost in what cues we are doing or what story we are trying to tell and what theme we are trying to convey, I think it’s challenging us to make sure our process is tight and that we are delivering not only timely, but at the highest level we can, and that we are pacing ourselves cause this is a marathon, we plan to be talking about this show for a long time. So in order for us to do that we have to ensure that we are taking care of ourselves as humans, and then taking care of the story as the amazing piece of art that it is. In 5 years, I want to be asked this question again, because we see ourselves doing many more of these and features. We obviously are still working on many more projects, the main one being the Nicki Minaj documentary, that will be dropping shortly here, and throughout the whole process of wonder years we’ve been working on other projects as well. So being able to juggle while being able to deliver at the highest level is where we take our careers. 

Jacob: I’d say that the big challenge here that I was surprised about was the handling of comedy. For anyone in the industry, Comedy is really difficult from a music perspective, and has to be decided on for a long term project like an episodic show. Do you mark the comedy? Do you “Mickey Mouse” the comedy; having music emphasize the punchline? And there are a lot of shows, like The Office or Modern Family, that have no music. Other shows, like Thirty Rock, have music everywhere, marking each joke with flutes, clarinets and trumpets. It’s the polar opposite of Modern Family or the Office. And both approaches are valid, so at the beginning of the show, we had a lot of exploring to do to figure out how we will deal with it. In truth, the show is a dramedy with a lot of heavy topics discussed, which mirrors real life. And as it’s about a black family in Alabama in the 60’s, which has a hell of a lot of serious issues taking place, so handling the comedy musically has, and still is a big challenge since some moments are just hilarious, and when we accentuate it with music it sounds good, but we are constantly asking if we really want to put music there. It’s an ongoing discussion that grows me as a filmmaker and a musician. 

Benjamin: I hope to be able to ask you guys that question again in 5 years. This was a blast, thank you for you’re time!

Roahn & Jacob (in unison): Thank you!

You can view the whole interview here.

The Wonder Years is airing on ABC, and available to stream on Hulu.


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Written by benjaminwiebe

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