The producer and composer talks through his already iconic soundtrack for the show, and reveals some of his surprising inspirations
Labrinth is a musical shapeshifter – no two songs of his sound alike. Always remaking and reshaping, like a mad scientist of sound, his work as both a producer for artists like Tinie Tempah on hits “Pass Out”, as well as his own solo work like “Earthquake”, serve as unofficial national anthems of the 2010s. He’s an artist who fuses the likes of drones, gospel choirs and psychedelic guitar riffs to craft a kind of electro-religious groove. It’s a style that’s led him to work with the likes of Beyoncé, Kanye West, The Weeknd, and won him a Brit and a MOBO. But in recent years, it’s been his pivot to composing the soundtrack for HBO’s Euphoria that has added an Ivor Novello and an Emmy to that trophy shelf, alongside positioning him as a musical monolith for Generation Z.
Part of his unique appeal comes from the sonic fluidity and cross-genre dexterity he’s displayed over the years. So much so, that to call him a composer doesn’t seem to do justice to his practice: “I just believe I’m a person that loves music, and I know how to translate the emotion that I want to see or hear.” Speaking from his studio in LA, the Hackney-born artist greets me warmly. His audio set-up looks remarkably intricate even on Zoom, with wall-to-wall digital workstations and mixing boards that seem to go on forever. Labrinth – Lab for short – explains, “I’m not technical. I didn’t go to school for this. I’ve literally learned from the ground up just by studying or working things out or using my instinct.” His definition of his sound cuts to the core of the shape-shifting unpredictability often found in Euphoria’s score: “what people are hearing is the art of instinct.”
This season of Euphoria has easily been the most talked-about show of the year so far, doubling its viewership from season one and even setting a ratings record against the Super Bowl. Its eclectically strong soundtrack has been collated by music supervisor Jen Malone and composed by Labrinth since the beginning. “I’m always studying in my downtime, honestly,” says Lab, when asked how he’s developed his sound since the first season. “I’ve spent most of my career studying. I’ll just go online, and I’ll study ‘what is granular synthesis?’, ‘what is voice leading?’ I’ll just do it for the fun of it.” The way Lab excitedly speaks about music is the same way in which a Michelin star chef explains food – it’s all about challenging himself, discovering new textures that resonate on a deeper sonic level. Watching his Genius Deconstructed video on “All For Us”, Lab reveals some surprising and unexpected samples, from Mega-Man glitch effects to distant guitar riffs. It’s clear that there are so many micro-elements that make up the thoughtful architecture of each piece of music.
With such attention to detail, I ask what the hardest part of the process has been for him. “Well during this season, I actually lost my hearing,” he admits. “It was just weird, it happened out of nowhere.” In an attempt to prioritise his health alongside a gruelling work schedule, the injury meant he couldn’t be as meticulous as he had grown accustomed to in the last season. But ultimately, he’s just as proud of the result: “I feel like I’ve been able to say a lot of the things I wanted to say. With this season, me and Sam [Levinson] sat together a lot more.” With season one, Labrinth reconfigured material from his then-upcoming album, and composed some new pieces. With season two, though, there was a larger focus on new composition: “I was actually in the studio, me and Zendaya wrote songs together, me and Sam wrote songs together. It was much more of a collaborative effort as well, especially with the earlier and maybe end parts of this season.”
That collaborative spirit even extended to a cameo for the producer and artist this season: in episode four, he appears as a gospel singer. It’s kind of a meta moment, given Labrinth’s own debut as a choir singer at church when he was young (“when I was standing in the church, I was like ‘flipping hell this guy’s brought me back to when I was growing up, man”). Lab grew up in the church with his family and reverend grandfather: his house was always immersed in American gospel music, the sounds of Kirk Franklin, Hezekiah Walker and Fred Hammond accompanying his childhood. “The style of gospel I’ve been doing on Euphoria is a bit more Catholic Church, especially with the choir boy tone. So I’m like ‘can I go in this Pentecostal Black church and sing this almost classical, operatic song?’ [laughs] But they loved it! People were crying by the end.”
When discussing his other composing influences, Lab flexes his cinéphile taste: “The Home Alone soundtrack was a big favourite of mine, especially for choral music. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Tetsuo the Iron Man?” I excitedly mention that I have. “I just love odd, weird things like that, because they just inspire gnarly sounds or soundscapes for me. When I watched Metropolis by Fritz Lang, I just instantly started making records.”
Perhaps one of his most surprising inspirations was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s “Oompa Loompa” song. “A lot of those sounds from [that film] were kind of primitive, distorted recording; it just instantly gave me ideas.” He also shouts out the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, created in 1958 to create new incidental music and effects for radio and television: “Daphne Oram, who co-founded that is also a big inspiration, [as is] Delia Derbyshire, who arranged the Doctor Who theme song.” He serenades me briefly with his own rendition. “All of those people were like the godfathers and godmothers of electronic music, and so their stuff massively inspires a lot of the work I’ve done and do today.”
Speaking with Euphoria’s music supervisor Jen Malone earlier that week, she mentions the show “going in a very different musical direction” for season two. Labrinth agrees: “Yeah, the direction is Sam’s, really, and the music basically mirrors the expression in the direction. I wouldn’t say it’s massively different, but he wanted to go in a direction that was maybe a little less millennial and a bit broader, with some more genres.” Labrinth himself also shook things up a bit, inviting fellow LA-based artist-producer Brit James Blake to collaborate on “Pick Me Up”, a mysteriously romantic-yet-tragic track that’s yet to debut on the show.
It’s clear from how he waxes lyrical about composing for Euphoria that he’s loving his work, and that all comes down to the constant challenges and ever-shifting identity of the show: “If somebody goes, ‘Hey, Lab’, I want you to use a triangle and an MS-20 synthesizer to make a soulful gospel song,” I’m like, ‘OK! Let’s go, let’s go find a way we can do it!” From the excited look in his eyes, he might’ve just given himself an idea. For Labrinth, Euphoria is him with no holds barred – expressing his true individuality. “Why I like working on Euphoria so much is because I’ll play some of the weirdest shit I’ve ever made, and they’re like ‘We love it!’ and I’m like ‘what, really? Oh, right! You like the stuff that I’ve been leaving in a vault locked up!” What excites Labrinth about composition so much? “You can just be like, ‘Let’s find a sound that will just make somebody’s brain melt.’”
It’s a world away from his glossy pop origins. “That industry is like chorus, verse, chorus, and make sure somebody can sing it by the end,” he says, with notable tiredness in his voice. “It pushes [you to think about] how to write records that are going to work on the radio, and connect with a mass of people. Even if you’re not actively thinking about that when you’re walking into the studio, it ends up finding its way into your creative approach.”
With composition, that pressure disappears. “You don’t feel like you have to think like that, because you’re literally finding the sound for a moment, and it’s so much more expressive. I can go in directions that maybe I would normally avoid. For me, I think that was encouraging and gave me confidence in the weirdest parts of myself as a musician.” So, what’s next for this newly empowered, fearless iteration of Labrinth? “An endless pit of music is coming. An endless pit, in many different directions. So just buckle up!”