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Musical score of Netflix anime series 'Seis Manos' an 'amazing musical playground to explore', says composer Carl Thiel

In a chat with MEA WorldWide, the Austin-based composer talks about the challenge of mixing and mashing diverse musical tunes for the series.

Set in Mexico in the 1970s, a new anime-esque cartoon series, 'Seis Manos', comes to Netflix this October and the composer Carl Thiel caught up with MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) to talk about his experience of mixing and mashing diverse musical tunes for the series. The Austin-based composer has worked with Powerhouse Animation in the past and shares a great relationship with the Austin-based animation studio.

When Brad Graeber conceived 'Seis Manos', he asked Thiel to score a short proof-of-concept clip when the show was greenlit by Netflix. Delving deeper into the storyline of the show, the composer said, "I loved the concept from the start. The idea of having three Mexican heroes with a female leader, balancing the worlds of the Tao, Kung Fu, Cartels and Brujeria was magical to me. Add to that the 70’s Grindhouse vibe, the Blaxploitation elements, and all the other cultural worlds and it just became this amazing musical playground to explore."
The opening sequence brings a spell of fresh energy and thrill. What was your inspiration for the musical theme?
When I scored the original proof-of-concept action scene, I wrote an incidental flute motif as part of the cue. It was really just a passing Chinese melodic line that I wrote without any further intention. But it really stuck with me. So when the time came to actually write the main titles, I decided to build the whole theme out of that motif. It’s that first flute line you hear at the top of the opening sequence.
I knew I wanted to blend Chinese and Mexican elements, so I decided to try using that Chinese bamboo flute line over a huapango rhythm and added nylon guitars. Then I thought “what’s more Mexican than Mariachi trumpets!” so I tried the next couple of lines with those and really liked how it was sounding. But not wanting to lose the Asian influence, I tried adding Chinese harmonies to the trumpets and it worked beautifully. The rest just fell into place after that… French horns and string orchestra to add the epic feel, and of course the wah-wah guitar for that special ‘70s flavor.

Set in Mexico in 1970s, 'Seis Manos' premieres on Netflix on October 3!

'Seis Manos' centers on three orphaned martial arts warriors who join forces with a DEA agent and a Mexican Federale to battle for justice. Did you listen to any popular crime or thriller series before starting the project? Name some of your favorite series or movies that have a good musical score.
I’m a big fan of Lalo Shifrin, Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestry, Bill Conti… all of whom wrote amazing music in the ’70s. 'Enter the Dragon', 'Police Story', 'Chips', 'Rocky' were some of the scores I listened to. Of course, I also had to revisit Isaac Hayes’ 'Shaft' — it’s such a classic! But I really didn’t want to straight-up copy any of them, I just wanted to soak in their music and then create a unique sound for our show that felt like it came from that time.
How easy or difficult is it to intertwine the Mexican and Chinese elements of music? Do you enjoy fusion music or adapting different styles into one?
I love combining different genres to create something new. In this case, I was already very familiar with the Mexican sound, but not so much with the Chinese. So I dug deep into the history, instrumentation, melodic approach, etc. After that, it was all about experimentation… trying certain combinations of instruments… like having a requinto guitar playing rhythm with a bamboo flute playing melody, or having a guzheng playing along with trumpets. Then combining Chinese modes with Mexican rhythms, etc. It was a lot of trial and error at first, but once we got our groove going, it all fell into place.

When Brad Graeber conceived 'Seis Manos', he asked Carl Thiel to score a short proof-of-concept clip when the show was greenlit by Netflix.

Out of the 28 tracks, which is your favorite one and which took the most time to compose?

That’s a tough question! I have a lot of favorites. Of course, I’m too close to them to have any reasonable objectivity, but one of my favorites is 'Be a Flower, Be Nothing'. Before there was any animation I had written a draft for Chiu’s main theme on piano, just on its own as a concept based on his character in the script. When I showed it to Brad Graeber and Willis Bulliner from Powerhouse, they both loved it, so I knew we were on the right track. Once we officially started scoring the show, I knew I was going to use that theme in several places, whenever the Manos were seeking spiritual direction. But when I saw the scene where this particular incarnation ended up, it just felt like it was meant to be. The sequence and pacing fit perfectly with the way I had written the original musical sketch. So I orchestrated it, had the flute play the melody, guitars and harp play the rhythm, and added the string orchestra for depth and grandeur. It was magical. 
As far as the one that took the most time, I’d say pretty much all of the fight scenes. They are the most complicated because there are usually a lot of changes of pace, energy, attitude, and emotion, and you have to work musical acrobatics to hit all those changes but still make the music flow like a cohesive piece. 
You've worked on films 'Sin City 2', 'Spy Kids 4', 'Machete Kills' and TV series like 'Last Man Standing' and 'From Dusk Till Dawn'. Did you bring any elements from your old creations to the new project?
It’s impossible not to bring some of your previous experiences into any new project, whether consciously or unconsciously — it is a part of one’s own development. There are probably some 'Dusk Till Dawn' influences here and there and maybe a bit of 'Machete.' Having said that, my intention was to give 'Seis Manos' its own unique flavor. I had never explored the Chinese musical culture and history as much as I did for this show, and I actually learned to play the guzheng harp and the pipa lute, so I could get out of my comfort zone and try writing from a different perspective.
Created by Brad Graeber and Álvaro Rodríguez, the Netflix show premiered on October 3.