Even if you haven’t seen HBO’s The White Lotus (what are you waiting for??), you may have heard its iconic vocally-driven theme song, equal parts unsettling and this summer’s hottest club beat. This unexpected duality fits the show, a darkly humorous upstairs-downstairs-inspired commentary on affluence. We had the chance to speak with Cristobal Tapia de Veer about how he found the theme.
“I was just jamming with those voices, playing on a keyboard and trying to find a way to make them work into something interesting. And then that pattern came out, which sounded really good with these particular voices,” he explains. “I ended up with this melody. It sounded natural enough and interesting enough, and it felt kind of otherworldly and organic at the same time. To me, that’s the main rabbit to follow.”
Beyond the main theme, to construct the sonic landscape of season one, set in Hawaii, de Veer took a percussion-centric layering approach.
“I did start with percussion, all kinds of percussion. I started jamming with myself, and I think I jammed maybe for 45 minutes or one hour,” he recalls. “I started with a shaker. I did all kinds, maybe a couple of minutes of several different tempos and different ideas. Then I put that shaker on and started jamming on congas or whatever. As I jam with my previous tracks, stuff starts appearing, patterns or things I want to loop, I want to build on. I started adding flutes on top of the percussion. The score, not the theme, but the score in general for the first season, I did start with all percussion, and I added on top a little piano when needed, or a little something.”
Fans of the season one score may wonder how de Veer acquired so many tracks of screaming, heavy breathing, and other less-mentionable vocal sounds.
“Most of the stuff is done by myself. All the screaming,” he explains. “People were talking a lot about the breathing sounds, and that it’s anxiety-inducing, but it’s kind of a byproduct of playing the flute and having the microphone very close…I was kind of out of air, so the breathing is very loud. And somehow, I made it work into the music. So, it’s a bit accidental.”
“When I have a singer, it’s mostly just for singing,” he assures me.
For the second season, set in Italy, de Veer was tasked with reworking the theme to fit the new setting.
“We did speak about some Renaissance sounds, Baroque, Italian opera, harp and stuff like that. I did have a bit of a direction for the second one for the intro at least, but then it goes into this club anthem thing, and that just happened,” he recalls. “I had a hint maybe that techno music could work, as well as all the classical elements. Maybe it’s an influence from watching Paolo Sorrentino movies and shows like The Young Pope. He always has this amazing taste for blending classical music and dance music, electronic music, so that was an influence too.”
The White Lotus theme is undeniably, toe-tappingly catchy, but you won’t find anything like it in the mainstream pop music scene.
“Pop music is very, very comfortable, generally,” de Veer says. “I like bubblegum melodies and stuff that feels very familiar, that feels very pop. But somehow, it’s like you take one leg off the table, and there’s something wrong with it. It’s that place that I like.”
The constraints that pop music imposes feel more like an opportunity rather than an obstacle to de Veer.
“Sometimes pop music can feel restraining. You have this really tiny space, and you have to come up with something that makes it interesting. I think that’s as much freedom as one could hope for. Having all the freedom in the world to do anything, and nobody telling you anything, that’s not the best place for me. It can become chaos, and just random.”
So what does a classically-trained percussionist and multi-instrumentalist with a resume of unsettling, innovative scores enjoy listening to at the moment?
“More often than not, classical music.” He pauses to think further.
“And often, YouTube. I like shorts, I like people jamming, or on TikTok or whatever. I think some of the most amazing music, or more songs that have moved me lately as far as I can remember in the last few years, have been stuff on TikTok. Somebody harmonizing a cat, and they add some piano, and it sounds like trash,” he ponders. “It’s really homemade stuff, just people doing things. But there’s a level of freshness to that, that I just can’t find in mainstream pop, generally…There’s some really surprising stuff. And sometimes it’s inspiring because people are not necessarily working musicians, and they’re not going to go further with an idea. They’re not going to produce that or anything. But just listening to somebody have such a fresh idea, it’s more inspiring to me than anything I’ve been listening to on the radio.”
Rejoice, all those hours spent scrolling TikTok aren’t wasted time after all!
The White Lotus is streaming on Max.