Composer Ludwig Göransson On 'Black Panther', 'The Mandalorian', The Oscars, And More [Interview]

34-year-old Ludwig Göransson made Grammy history this past weekend, becoming the first person to win both best score and song of the year with projects that have nothing to do with each other. A longtime collaborator of Donald Glover/Childish Gambino, Göransson co-wrote and produced the explosive track "This is America" and composed the score for Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, the ninth highest-grossing movie in history and a current Best Picture contender at the Oscars.

Göransson's Black Panther score is nominated for an Oscar as well, and I jumped on the phone with him this week to talk about crafting the music of Wakanda, his work on the upcoming Disney+ Star Wars TV show The Mandalorian, and much more.

Ludwig Göransson Interview

First of all, I want to congratulate you on your recent Grammy wins.

Thank you man, and thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I'm so happy. I'm in a dream state.

You're nominated for an Oscar for your work on Black Panther, which is unlike anything I've heard in a movie before. A big part of the reason for that is because of the research you did in Africa and the performers you incorporated into the score, and I'm curious: before you went there and immersed yourself in that music, did you have any early, gut-level ideas for what the score might sound like?

It's interesting that you brought that up, because when I was 20 years old, I studied music in Stockholm and I took a month off and moved to Gambia for a month and studied the music of four different tribes. That's where I got my first glimpse of just how complex West African rhythms and the music language are.

Interesting. Those rich, untapped sounds really helps make this movie feel lived in, and having watched a lot of the behind the scenes featurettes and stuff, it frankly seems like a whole lot of work. (laughs) Were there any musical shortcuts you could use along the way? Like, did you ever say, "OK, this movie is about a king, so I need to use a lot of brass to convey the idea of royalty," for example?

(laughs) I wish there were some shortcuts, but it was quite the opposite. The most important thing for me and [director] Ryan [Coogler] in making the music for this film was to have the score rooted in traditional African music. That was the number one most important thing. I actually went to West Africa right after I read the script. I told Ryan, 'The only way I can score this movie is to go to Africa and do my research and immerse myself in the culture.'

A couple of months after I spent my time in Africa, after I saw the film, it was a four hour cut with no music in it. It was incredible. It was such an experience. I called my wife and I was crying and I told her, 'This is the Star Wars of our generation.' I was so moved by it. But after I saw it, I immediately understood that in order for me to really make the music work, I need to use this traditional African music and all of these instruments, but I also need to put the elements of that cinematic sweep of the orchestra, and also modern hip-hop production. So the most difficult part was to figure out how to infuse that traditional African music with an orchestra, but still keep the music sounding African. did you do that? (laughs)

Oh man. (laughs) I wish there were shortcuts to do that, or books written about it. What made it work for me was that I had time. I got started very early in the project, so I had time to experiment. In western classical music with an orchestra, you focus the orchestra on melodies and harmony. In African music, the biggest focus is on rhythms and counter-rhythms – the complexity of rhythms. So what I realized after a while of experimenting was, OK, I need to totally reconfigure the way I write for orchestras. I had to throw everything away and relearn how to write for an orchestra.

So what I did was, instead of just focusing on melody and harmony, I kind of used each different section of the orchestra as a different rhythmical element, as a different drum. For example, in an African drum circle, there's djembe, there's the dunun, there's the bara drums, and they all have their different parts. They all have their different rhythms that they play, and together they make one composition, one song. So I kind of used an orchestra as an African drum circle.

That's cool. You seem to really enjoy mixing foley sound effects into your scores. Where does that desire come from?

I think it's something I learned from Ryan. It's something that me and Ryan talked about very early in our relationship, even after he made Fruitvale Station. We started talking about, 'What's a way we can use sound in your film?' Because after reading Fruitvale Station, so much of that movie takes place at the BART train station. So we wanted to get that into the story of the music, so I went out to the BART station to record the train sounds, and I manipulated those sounds and made them into musical elements [to use them] in the score. That's something we've just experimented with on all of our films.

From a musical perspective, do you ever find yourself falling back into the same chord progressions again and again, and if so, how do you avoid that and find new areas when you sit down to write?

I think that's a problem everyone has – you just fall into the same rhythms. I think for me, a way to really come up with new ideas and come up with new ways of writing music is to create a unique sound palette or soundscape for all the films I'm working on. Like Fruitvale Station. Or for Creed, I went into a boxing gym and for two days with a boxer working out – him breathing, jumping the jump rope, hitting the speed bag – and took those sound effects and made them into beats. That's, in a similar way, what I did with Black Panther, but that was on a whole other level.

So the environments of the movie dictate a new sound for you.

Absolutely. But in Black Panther, it was like a whole new language of music. I had a little bit of experience having been down there for a little while before, but it was something I really needed to learn. I found so much inspiration.

I just looked this up: I've been a fan of yours since August of 2010. That was the first time I saw you and Childish Gambino in concert, at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles. Do you ever think back to those early days and think about the trajectory of your career since then?

That's the first concert we did in L.A. Wow. I think we did two nights. Were you there the first or the second one?

I think I was there the first night. I loved that show.

OK, that's crazy. I'm sorry, I totally forgot what the question was.

I loved all of that early music that you guys were putting out, and I was just at the "An Evening With" show you did at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, and Elvis Mitchell was asking you about those early Childish Gambino songs and you were talking about how it's sort of tough for you to go back and listen to those now. But I was wondering if you ever look back at those early days and look back at the trajectory of your career.

Yeah, sometimes. I wish I did it more often. But sometimes you realize, when you're thinking back on the times when you were struggling and wondering, 'Are we doing the right thing? Am I doing the right thing?' Most of the time, I'm just looking back, like you said, to the Bootleg Show, for example. We're still kind of doing the same thing. We didn't change anything. We're not doing anything different from what we did on our first album to "This is America." We're not really doing anything different from Ryan's first student films to Black Panther. I feel like for me and my collaborators, we're still working with the same intensity and inspiration and ideas of wanting to do something different.

I know you first met Donald Glover when the two of you were working on Community, which is one of my favorite TV shows. You've previously said that that series was great practice for the film scores you'd eventually do because the nature of the show meant you were able to play around with so many different types and styles of music. Looking back on that experience, was there one musical moment that sticks out to you the most?

Oh, there are so many. The ones that I really remember are the ones that I did with an orchestra, because I had never done that before. I'd had an orchestra playing my music, but I'd never really done it in a professional way. So I think the one that sticks out to me is, there's this one episode where everyone is in the Kentucky Fried Chicken bus and it's a kind of space simulator. I remember we were trying to do a little bit of Star Wars, John Williams-inspired music, and I got a chance to record with an orchestra professionally for the first time. It was just a huge thing for me.

I just discovered that you created the music for Hasan Minaj's Homecoming King, which might be my favorite stand-up special ever, and the theme song for his weekly show Patriot Act, which is a total banger that gets stuck in my head every Sunday night. How did you get involved with those productions?

(laughs) Hasan just reached out to me. He just emailed me and said, 'Hey man, I'm doing my comedy special and I'd love for you to write some of the music for it.' I was a big fan of his, so I was stoked to hear that he liked my music. That was a really fun thing to do. It was the first time we worked together, and it worked out really well, so when Patriot Act came up, he told me about the scope of the show and I thought it was so interesting. So I wrote like a 30 second intro and they ended up using in the show.

It's pretty great. It sort of reminds me of an early Gambino song, almost like "Bonfire" or something with those horns and that propulsive beat.

Thanks man. I think there may be a connection there. (laughs)

You're working on the score for The Mandalorian, so that means you're one of the few people not named John Williams who will have scored something in the Star Wars universe. What's that process been like for you so far?

Oh man, I'm so excited for it. I'd say for a film composer, Star Wars is kind of like the holy grail of film music. It's probably the best film music ever written. So the Star Wars universe, for any composer, it's like one of the most exciting things you can work on. I can't really talk about a lot of the details, but what I've seen – Jon Favreau is creating the show, and it's in a new format. It's an episodic, live-action Star Wars show. So it's completely different, something you've never seen before, and the way that Jon's shooting it, the way he's working with technology – I've never seen anything like it. For me to be a part of a Star Wars show that's doing something – it's a new format, so I think for me doing the music, hopefully I'm really inspired to put my signature on it as well as obviously honoring the legend, John Williams.

I know you can't tell me much about it, but how would you describe the mood or vibe of the music you've created for that show so far?

Well, I'm very much in the process still. Right now, Jon is really encouraging me to just really write music that I really love.

Lastly: what do you think about the Academy's decision to hand out some of the Oscars during commercial breaks and then broadcast a version of the winners later in the telecast? I'm not sure if you've seen the news about that, but as an Oscar nominee yourself, I was just wondering what you thought about that.

I just read about it yesterday. I don't think they're meaning to say that some of these awards mean anything less, but it kind of comes off like that, unfortunately. I guess I was a little surprised because I think most of the categories [affected], it's like, 'Well, these are actually the most important categories of filmmaking.' I think that's what I was kind of surprised about.

Yeah, hopefully they'll end up walking that back. Well, it was great talking to you and thanks again for speaking with me. Good luck on February 24 at the Oscars.

I really appreciate it. It was really nice talking to you as well, and thanks for the support.