‘Dahmer’: How an ’80s Pop Soundtrack Contrasts a Haunting Score, Story

The period-appropriate ’80s pop hits assembled for Netflix’s “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” by veteran music supervisor Amanda Krieg Thomas provides a welcome contrast to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ eerie, otherworldly and ominous score.

Thomas, who has worked with Ryan Murphy and his production head Alexis Martin Woodall on “Pose,” “American Horror Story: Apocalypse” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” as well as his first two Netflix projects, “ Ratched” and “The Politician,” credits the writers for several of the notable needle drops. Over the course of the 10-part series, you hear cheery Top 40 radio fodder of the time like KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Please Don’t Go,” Chris Rea’s “Fool (If You Think It’s Over” and Chris Norman & Suzy Quatro’s “Stumblin’ In.”

Some songs were in the original screenplay, providing a delusional “happy ever after” fantasy yin to the serial killer’s inner torment yang. Often the placements literally comment on the scene’s action, such as “Please Don’t Go” accompanying Dahmer cuddling in bed with his stolen mannequin; Pretty Poison’s “Catch Me I’m Falling,” during a scene where he accidentally drugs himself or “Stumblin’ In,” where the killer picks up an unwary hitchhiker who will turn out to be his first victim.

“My job is to bring that vision to life by securing the songs and never settling for a ‘no,'” says Thomas of her role. This was especially true on this latest Murphy collab, where songwriters expressed reluctance in having their music used in a project about a mass murder. Donovan refused at first to allow “Sunshine Superman” to be used during a scene in which a young Dahmer collects roadkill with his father to dissect in their garage, presaging the empowerment that would fuel his later murderous spree.

“I had to explain that the goal of the project was to expose the dark origins of Dahmer’s behavior to the daylight, to provide a context,” Krieg Thomas elaborates. “Only when I explained the idea was to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again, did he agree to let us use the song.”

Thomas also researched Billboard dance and radio charts of the ’80s to help provide the songs for the gay club scenes, using tempo and thematic concerns to pick an eclectic list that runs the gamut from Al B. Sure!’s “Nite and Day” and Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman (La Da Dee)” to Patrick Crowley’s “Menergy,” Sade’s “Hang on to Your Love” and NOEL’s “Silent Morning.” She was even tasked with acquiring Laotian pop songs for an episode.

The music supervisor credits the writers for balancing the dialogue scenes and the tense, haunting score with moments of release that almost serve as comic relief. Longtime collaborators Cave and Ellis, band members in the Bad Seeds, have done several well-received film scores, including director Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” as well as “The Road, ” “The Proposition” and “Hell or High Water.”

For “Dahmer,” Ellis says finding the tone of the series was the most crucial aspect. “Making the music wasn’t as evident as it would seem. It’s easy for us to become romantic or show empathy in our music. This was an amazing challenge, to avoid generic dread tones seemed important.”

To that end, the pair used different instrumentation to achieve the effect of tightening the knot of suspense, foreshadowing the evil which was to come.

“There are a lot of sounds where I don’t even know what they are,” says Ellis, referring to the “whale cries” that Dahmer listened to so he could get to sleep in his lighted jail cell. “We are mostly generating sounds based on the way they sound and for that, you must throw yourself with abandon at the sonic elements.”

Although the score makes use of traditional instruments like piano, vibes, violin, flute and synth, Ellis explains the whale sounds “were morphed through electronic loops and atmosphere using whatever was at hand. … There are no notes pertaining to the sessions as to how things were done. We are more concerned with maximum workflow. I think we made about four times as much music than appears in the series.

“It was one of the most efficient scores we have ever done considering it was 10 episodes. I think we completed this one in four sessions of three days each, since cues were repeated thematically, morphed and arranged which made it easier.”

The actual work process is largely spontaneous, according to Ellis. “Nick and I just sit in a room and start playing,” he explains. “That’s how we’ve always worked historically, whether on film scores or Bad Seeds albums. We create a kind of meditative space where the sound directs the choices made. We improvise a lot — seeking the accidents that happen serendipitously when you place the results with the image. We listen closely to the notes given to us and are happy to take advice on board. The whole team was amazing and professional. Trusting the creatives makes a big difference in the process.”

Likewise for Thomas, being a music supervisor is a “very collaborative process,” she says. “We provide different options and let the producers and showrunners decide which they want to use. … Picking the songs is the easy part. The hard thing is getting the permission, the clearances and rights to use them. Fortunately, we were very successful at it.”

In fact, Thomas claims KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Please Don’t Go” is now starting to make noise at TikTok. Just call it the latest example of the Kate Bush “Running Up That Hill” effect from its prime placement in “Stranger Things.”

“I just bring it all together,” adds Thomas. “The goal is to make everyone’s dreams come true.” Or, in the case of “Dahmer,” their worst nightmares.

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