'Antebellum' Composers Nate Wonder and Roman GianArthur on Working with Janelle MonáeSeptember 15, 2020
In 2004, if you had been standing on the steps of the library at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia you might have been lucky enough to witness a pre-fame Janelle Monáe giving free pop-up concerts. This is how Nate Wonder and Roman GianArthur first met her, and the three have worked together ever since.
Raised in a musical house in Winston-Salem by a composer father who dabbled in punk and black metal, the two brothers are members of the Wondaland Arts Society. Wonder is one of the core musical architects behind Monáe’s celebrated string of Afro-futuristic works: Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) (2007); The ArchAndroid (2010); The Electric Lady (2013); and Dirty Computer (2018). GianArthur’s credits include production and multi-instrumentalist work on Monáe’s Dirty Computer, in addition to 85 to Africa and The Chief LPs by Jidenna.
Together the brothers have composed songs for Disney and just finished creating their first major motion picture score for Monáe’s soon-to-be-released feature horror film Antebellum.
I caught up with them over Zoom at their compound in Studio City to talk about the timing of a horror movie about America’s slave-owning history coming out during the current civil rights movement sweeping the country in 2020.
Antebellum will be available September 18 on premium video-on-demand platforms, including Amazon Prime, Vudu, and Apple TV.
Please tell me how you met Monáe at Morehouse in the early 2000s.
Nate Wonder: There wasn’t a strong arts program [at Morehouse] at the time. The Dark Tower Project was for artists at school to really have a chance to get to just be artful. It was loosely based on A’Lelia Walker’s Dark Tower. She’s the daughter of Madame T.J. Walker, the first Black millionaire who used to throw these parties in Harlem, basically a salon where she would have all of her artist friends come and just act crazy, and have fun, write poetry… We set up our thing kind of like that. [Our friend] had met Janelle on the steps of the library. She was doing pop-up concerts. She would just show up somewhere and do a concert. He invited her out to one of our poetry slams, and she became the intermission act for that. And having met her that night, having heard her sing, I was like, “Oh my god, we’ve got to work together.” So, I did everything I could to convince her to come to the studio the next day, and we’ve been working together ever since.
And now here we are, 16 years later, and you’re working on the score for her next feature film. This is your first time creating a score, but you’d worked with Janelle on Disney’s Lady & The Tramp remake before. Did that help prepare you in any way?
Roman GianArthur: You’re facing an uphill battle when you go into something for the first time. But we got the benefit of working with Joe Trapanese at Disney for a year and a half. Also being able to speak with composers like John Powell and Danny Elfman. It was certainly daunting, but there was an openness, they really embraced us as first time composers.
Nate: It was a great opportunity to do the Lady and the Tramp because we got to work with a 96-piece orchestra. That prepped us for the work going into Antebellum in a way, because we had a certain level of familiarity with what the process would be like.
Whether it’s voting rights, or equal housing, economic rights, racial justice in the criminal justice system, all these things—it seems like we’re always fighting this battle to get America, and the right wing, to stop forgetting, stop trying to purposefully divorce the things that are happening right now from the past.”
The filmmakers, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, said of Antebellum, “It was crucial to us that the score gives you something that feels hauntingly beautiful, and leans into the horror of the experience.” So much of your work is about storytelling, and I feel like perhaps more so than a lot of musicians, like, really world-building storytelling is what you guys do with Janelle. On this project, did the act of storytelling through score really challenge you?
Roman: One thing I did learn doing scores is subtlety. You can’t overdo it. I mean, look at old superhero films, like Batman and stuff, where the composer is doing too much, getting in the way of dialogue. I saw Midsommar, and I thought, “Man, this is a really incredible piece,” in terms of just the way that the score interplayed with the movie. I had not been touched by a score in that way before. It really aligned and it created a lot of the suspense.
Nate: A lot of our storytelling has been world-building and we’ve just been chomping at the bit waiting for an opportunity to do this kind of stuff. Janelle made it easy for us, because she’s like, “You wanna do orchestra? Great, that’s what I wanna do too.” She would just be like, “Alright, let’s go crazy.”
How different was the process from the regular work you do on albums?
Nate: A lot of pop music can feel—not oppressive, but it can feel less like you have a really wide space to play in. And we’ve never really had that pressure. Janelle has given us the space to explore in a very real way. That being said, you expect certain things on an album, whereas a score, you really just kind of allow music to do what it wants to do. You get long passages sometimes that really just take their time to develop and you just have to lay back and let them.
The filmmakers said of Antebellum, “We have not seen movies that dealt with slavery through the prism of horror. Horror is not always science fiction, or based on the supernatural, there’s plenty of horror in our history and present day.” The timing for this release could not have been planned for the world to be like this right now. How do you feel about the project coming out at this point in 2020?
Roman: So much of the fight that’s going on—whether it’s voting rights, or equal housing, economic rights, racial justice in the criminal justice system, all these things—it seems like we’re always fighting this battle to get America, and the right wing, to stop forgetting, stop trying to purposefully divorce the things that are happening right now from the past. It’s always “one bad apple,” or isolated incidents—this obsession with forgetting our history. On our side, we see a very strong connection between all these things. I think that makes for a powerful statement with this film.
And that’s what the film is about, an imagined world where slavery never went away. Gerard Bush said, “What we did intend was for the film to force the audience to look at the real-life horror of racism through the lens of film horror. We’re landing in the middle of the very conversations that we hoped Antebellum would spur. So to release the film in this environment is all we could ask for.”
Nate: Some of the things that happen in the film feel very, very close to things that are happening right now, in a disconcerting sort of way. I think if Antebellum had come out without the circumstances that we’re under right now, people may have been more shocked by some of the things in the film. Because of what’s happening now, it feels closer to documentary. It feels a little too close to real.
Let’s talk about your musical origins and your dad’s influence on you.
Nate: When I was born, [Dad] was just starting his doctoral program [in music composition]. So, yeah, he had a band. He had a—not because he’s Black—but he had a black metal band. He had a punk band, he played lead guitar. He plays classical guitar now. We grew up watching him as a composer, writing for television, and operas, and stuff like that.
Roman: I’ve always loved music. I took piano lessons. We grew up in church, so that was always part of my musical education as well, singing in choir. But, I always loved to do other things. Like Nate, I didn’t major in music, I majored in Spanish. I had a scholarship set up to do a Fulbright in Chile. But, through a set of very odd circumstances, I was unable to go. I had been working with Wondaland. I would come down on spring breaks and things like that. It’s weird looking back on it now. It’s like I was always kind of careening toward music. Like, I was directing choirs and writing original music, learning opera. I was directing three different choir groups, and recording an album with another. It was always there, but I was always doing it extracurricularly.
Nate: We come home for Thanksgiving, and Roman would have a whole new opera that he had learned, that he could sing to the family. We’d be like, wow, this is amazing.
And Nate, you had a dramatic turn of events that led you to music. What was that?
Nate: I was a math and physics major. In the middle of a math exam, I had a song come to me. I literally was in the middle of writing down an answer, and I just got up, walked out of the class, went to go write the song. I didn’t pass that class that semester, and it brought my GPA down. I lost both of my scholarships. Dad said that he wasn’t gonna pay for me to go to school, I had two full scholarships, I wasted them. “Maybe you wanna go join the army now? Maybe that’s something that might be for you?” And I was like, “That’s definitely not for me.” After that, I understood more about discipline, and how to focus on one thing. And so, when I did graduate from school with a math and Spanish major, I knew I was going to really focus on music for real.
Where did you grow up, what kind of beer did you drink?
Nate: Winston-Salem. We’re not known so much for beer, we’re known for cigarettes. So, if you want to ask us about cigarettes. [Laughs.] And hot sauce, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Hanes underwear, Sara Lee cakes, and cigarettes. Winstons, Salems, Camels. But beer? I didn’t drink beer until I got grown.
Roman: I did travel abroad to Spain, and kind of went a little experimental for a while. Went to the Heineken museum. That was fun. We visited Amsterdam on a weekend. I don’t remember so much of it. [Laughs.] I don’t drink anymore, but I used to like a pale ale.
Nate: I liked the smell of beer, but I didn’t drink beer. Then I went to Belgium, and I had some good beers in Belgium. They had some interesting ones there, and I was like, “OK, I get beer.” I understand why people like beer now. I like Khonso Brewing, Sankofa Brewing, Crowns & Hops, and Harlem Brewing. And I like Red Stripe. It makes me feel like I’m on vacation.
Antebellum comes out on September 18. Any plans for the premiere?
NATE: We’ll be together here in LA, working on more music and having a good time. We’re living day to day right now.
Roman: We’re just gonna enjoy as much as possible every moment that we’re in.