Meet the Composer - Derek Whitacre

5 Minute Read |

Derek Whitacre

How did you get started?

Let’s see... how far back should we go? I guess I’ll start when I graduated from University of Colorado Denver and moved to Los Angeles. My degree was in Music and Music Technology, so I started working at some of the major recording studios around town. In the meantime, I was also in a few bands that focused heavily on playing live instruments with loops and programming (foreshadowing).

I eventually ended up at the historic Ocean Way Recording as a Pro Tools tech and occasional engineer. During that time, I started my long-term music project, The Moscow Coup Attempt, which I continue currently. TMCA was focused much more on cinematic music, and I think because of that project, I really started to hone my skills as a composer and sound designer. I started getting work here and there as a composer doing mostly commercials and a few licenses in movies and television.

After leaving Ocean Way, I connected with Jeff and Greg Burns, two former engineers at Ocean Way that were subsequently composers for “NCIS” (CBS). That was my connection to start getting music placed on “NCIS.” Eventually, I became the go-to composer for the “Abby’s lab” electronic music, and worked on that show for I think 8 seasons until the Abby character left the show.

Around the same time as starting on “NCIS,” a composer I had worked with off and on, Raney Shockne, connected with me about future projects involving television and licensing. It was also around this time in 2011 that I connected with Jonathan Parks as he was just starting ALIBI Music. I’ve been working with Raney and writing for ALIBI ever since. Apparently, I try to keep as many things going on at once as I can.

Please list your top credits.

  • “Queen of the South” (USA Network/Netflix) - Seasons 1-4, currently starting the 5th season.
  • “NCIS” (CBS) - Seasons 8-16.
  • “Debris” (NBC) - Currently starting the 1st season.

What types of genres do you work in most?

I work in a lot of different genres. For a while, I seemed to get a lot of rock and metal productions. Then it switched to mainly electronic. Then, for a while, it ran the spectrum of seemingly impossible diversity. Recently, though, I’ve gotten heavily into string arrangements combined with fringe electronic instrumentation.

The music I make for ALIBI varies quite a bit, though, and can be bombastic film music one week to kids’ games music the next. My television work seems to stay mostly in the bombastic cinematic hybrid electronic/orchestra genres. Overall, you could say I’m the guy you go to for melancholy, tension, hostility and suspense. You could say I’m edgy.

What is your favorite track for ALIBI?

Picking one is difficult, considering I’ve written over 1,000 tracks for ALIBI. I can begrudgingly narrow it down to 3:

- Imminent Intrigue album

- Experimental Drama II album

- Minimal Electro Mysterious 1 album

Who are your biggest musical inspirations?

Again, a tough question, as I have many inspirations for as many different reasons. Sometimes it’s a band, sometimes a composer, sometimes just one album or film score.

A quick list:

  • DJ Shadow
  • Pepe Deluxe
  • Don Caballero
  • Queens of the Stone Age Boards of Canada
  • Ennio Morricone
  • Film score: “The Assassination of Jesse James...” by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
  • Film score: “Donnie Darko” by Michael Andrews
  • Film score: “There Will Be Blood” by Jonny Greenwood
  • Film score: “The Social Network” by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

...and on and on and on.

What makes your work unique?

Regarding style or the way I sound, I think that’s probably a question for someone other than myself to answer. If I really have to pick something, it’s that I didn’t end up in the position of being a professional composer by some plan or long-term goal. I just ended up here by making music the way I wanted to make it. I kept at it year after year. Eventually, people decided to compensate me for it. I’m OK with that.

Tell us one surprising thing people wouldn’t know about you.

I can barely read music, and I’m colorblind. That’s two things, so apparently I can’t follow directions either.

Your funniest/strangest music experience

When you spend as many years in the recording industry as I have, you see a lot of things. And you peripherally take part in a lot of questionable activities. So... let’s just assume that all of the investigations might not be closed.

The funniest and strangest stuff? I will plead the 5th on that one.

Why do you like working with ALIBI?

The thing I like most about working with ALIBI is the people in the company. I’ve been working with ALIBI from the very early days when it was just Jonathan, and I’ve seen it grow to what it is today. And in that time, I’ve never had a bad experience with anyone in the company. They have always allowed me a lot of artistic freedom and experimentation on projects. And the critiques and revision notes are consistently spot on. I have worked with a handful of other licensing companies over the years, and I can honestly say that the differences from ALIBI are vast.

Any words of advice to share with composer hopefuls?

QUIT! (No, not really.) I guess the only real piece of advice I have is to be ready. The old stereotypes about success in Hollywood being more about “luck” and "who you know” are only partly true. There is a lot of “luck” involved. And a lot of “who you know” as well. But when those two things come at you, it’s up to you to perform and be the best at what you do... this is the “know what the **** you’re doing” part. Without the last one, the first two don’t matter.

How can people follow your work (website/Spotify/social channels)?

Share Article: