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Part of what gives Z Nation such a comfortably creepy but undeniably entertaining feel is its soundtrack, written skillfully by composer Jason Gallagher. Z Nation, which returns for season 3 in the coming week, has carved out its own space in the zombie film and TV lexicon with its self-referential humor and its ability to be dark and scary without taking itself too seriously, and Gallagher’s music reflects the apocalyptic but campy feel to the show.
The guitar-heavy tracks would be right at home on a mix tape for a long road trip, and given that the first two seasons followed the human survivors’ cross-country journey, the music fit right in. “It’s what we talked about from the beginning,” says Gallagher. “It’s making it this grimy, gritty road soundtrack that’s gonna play in the car and along the way as they travel across the country. Sometimes coming out of Citizen Z’s station up there off his record player or sometimes just being the soundtrack.”
There’s also a wild west feel to Gallagher’s music, which is reflected in the lawlessness and chaos of the show’s setting, spending much of its time in the American South and Midwest. “In the first season we talked about Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack a lot, and a little bit about the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack, and both of those had this ambient reverb,” explains Gallagher. “And I think when you put that electric guitar in there, they end up being pretty western sounding. Everything’s drenched in reverb and sounds like it’s being grinded against some metal tools, so I think that definitely gets a western vibe across with the right instruments.”
But with the band of survivors reaching their final destination on the west coast at the end of season 2, what does that leave for season 3? Says Gallagher: plenty of craziness. “Things go a little bit more off-the-rails in this season,” he says. “It’s not quite the tame, fighting a few zombies, getting murky out west kind of vibe. It definitely becomes a psychological madhouse, if you will.”
Gallagher should know! He’s not just the composer for Z Nation; he’s also been featured in a season 1 episode as zombie Keith Richards. Who’s to say the character won’t make a return? “Look, I’m still alive, guys! Let’s bring me back!” jokes Gallagher. “I was in one episode, and I escaped! Sketchy and Skeezy, those guys end up everywhere, so where am I? Where’s Keith?”
Another Rolling Stones connection of a sort comes with the new version of the Z Nation theme song. Whereas Gallagher himself voiced the original title track, “Have Mercy,” changes are in store for season 3. Gallagher tells the story: “A couple of producers reached out and said, ‘Hey, no offense, everyone loves the title track and you sound great, but what do you think about getting a Mary Clayton type singer?’ … if you remember Mary Clayton from ‘Gimme Shelter’ and the Rolling Stones… So it was great, we totally redid it.”
And that’s not the only alternate version of “Have Mercy.” There was a bluegrass version composed for a specific episode in season 1, and the extended version features the very creepy vocals of New York City-Based rap artist, NOTAR. Gallagher says, “[Mike Notar] had the idea to do the lower octave version, very close-miked, and then pump that up so it had that zombie, dark feel to it.” Definitely worth a listen.
Gallagher plans on continuing to innovate as Z Nation enters its third season. “It’s a cool show!” he explains. “I think people are just very open, and a lot of the ideas that I bring to the table are honored and respected. Often, I’ll suggest things — like the bluegrass version of the theme song… it got by everybody; everyone was cool! I didn’t even hear back, they were just like, ‘Yeah, great!’”