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How ‘The Sinner’ Turned One Song Into a Terrifying Murder Clue and the Show’s Secret Weapon

Big Black Delta's "Huggin & Kissin" has been as important to the series as any actor. Derek Simonds explains how (and why) they picked it.

THE SINNER -- "Part VI" Episode 106 -- Pictured: Jessica Biel as Cora Tannetti -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

“The Sinner”

Peter Kramer/USA Network

Distill the guilt, pain and trauma of a horrific crime into song form and you’ll probably get something close to “Huggin & Kissin.”

Over the course of seven episodes, the percussive, persistent electronic onslaught of Big Black Delta’s catchiest, eeriest song is one of the secret weapons of USA’s summer hit show “The Sinner.” Though the song has been a part of the show from the beginning, most notably as the soundtrack to the beach stabbing that kicks off the show’s story, Wednesday night’s “Part VII” finally revealed the song’s true connection to the plot.

In the world of “The Sinner,” “Huggin & Kissin” is the creation of Frankie Belmont (Eric Todd) and J.D. Lambert (Jacob Pitts), two characters we now know aren’t just tied by Cora’s (Jessica Biel) memories, but were musical partners in years past. “Part VII” finds “Huggin & Kissin” as the musical undercurrent for another horrifying moment: in a flashback to before the events of the first episode, the song plays as Cora’s sister lies unconscious on the couch, her chest newly caved-in by Frankie’s CPR attempts.

“The Sinner” showrunner Derek Simonds explained in a recent interview with IndieWire that picking this song was a major part of guiding the show, even when it only existed as an Antonio Campos-directed pilot.

We chose that song before we actually shot the scene on the beach in the pilot. We wanted to have a tonal sense of playback when we were actually shooting the scene, for Jessica Biel to respond to as an actress,” Simonds said. “We were making a pilot that may or may not go to series. But we were already zeroing in on that song at a very, very early point. We ended up really cutting the sequence to the rhythms of that song, as well.”

Even though the song has become a staple of the series, a common theme to express Cora’s anxieties over her murder of Frankie Belmont and the various repressed traumas of her past, choosing the right music to express that wasn’t an easy process. Simonds worked with music supervisor Oliver Hild to find the right song for the job.

We were looking for something that was dark and had a sexy quality to it. But we did not want something too dark or aggressive that would be a little too on the nose,” Simonds said.

When that darkness rears its head in “Part VII,” Simonds wanted to be sure that “Huggin & Kissin” would also make sense as the kind of music that Frankie and J.D. would be working on without instruments and an abundance of resources.

“I wanted it to have an electronic element. If the flashback had been in the ’90s, we would have had more guitar-based rock. We wanted to find a song that was believable as something that would be stylistically written about five years ago,” Simonds said. “We were looking for something that had a hook, because the song would come in brief flashes.”

A musician himself (he’s hoping to finish an album of his own within the next month or so), Simonds felt an affinity towards the DNA of “Huggin & Kissin.” Big Black Delta is a one-man outfit itself, the brainchild of Los Angeles musician Jonathan Bates, who recently released a new album, “WHORU812” earlier this summer.

I feel like so many aspiring musicians in their 20s today are working on ProTools or Logic or GarageBand, and while they might be plugging in some actual acoustic live instruments, a lot of people are working with sample-based music. I have a lot of that music myself,” Simonds said. “So I was really drawing on my experience as a bedroom musician making music by myself and thought that electronic textures feel the most current and authentic way to go.”

THE SINNER -- "Part VII" Episode 107 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jessica Biel as Cora Tannetti, Nadia Alexander as Phoebe -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

“The Sinner”

Peter Kramer/USA Network

Along with the wallpaper at the Beverwyck Club, “Huggin & Kissin” is the series’ biggest clue as to why Cora murdered Frankie on the beach in the opening episode. (The cross-cutting between the two major scenes where the song is used isn’t just a big breakthrough for the audience, it’s one of the more terrifying sequences of the show so far.) In addition to the frequent flashbacks to the full-screen shots of the hypnotically patterned wall decorations, the song has been a conscious influence on the show’s score as well.

“In talking to [composer] Ronit [Kirchman], I always wanted to avoid a really traditional string-heavy suspense score, which is kind of always the first thing that seems apparent to do in a genre like this. I really wanted to mix electronic textures with acoustic textures and have the score feel current and have audiences feel that this show was not resorting to usual tropes, even if it’s on a subliminal level,” Simonds said. “I think the Big Black Delta sounds electronically, definitely feels very contemporary and current and has an edge to it that I think works really well in keeping people a little off-balanced.”

It was important for Simonds to include not just the mammoth hook and instrumentals of “Huggin & Kissin,” but the vocals as well. Bates’ voice in the song functions on an extra layer as an additional trigger for Cora, something that also appealed to the team when they discovered the song.

“It has a great mix of an almost danceable, rhythmic, electronic quality but then the vocals are very distorted and have kind of an indie rock feel. It doesn’t feel like listening to EDM music or something totally hyper-compressed and super slick, it still has a rough quality, especially in the vocals and the way they’re processed. That implies that it wasn’t done in a multi-million dollar studio on a major label but that you would believe that an aspiring musician could do it. A really, good one, though,” Simonds quickly adds. 

He’s also noticed that on Twitter, some fans have had some curious responses of their own.

“It’s interesting seeing people’s reactions,” Simonds said. “On more than one occasion, people write, ‘Am I the only one who likes this song despite the creepiness of the way it’s been used?’”

Of course, there’s an occupational hazard in being surrounded by this song for so long, in all the various cuts of the episodes where “Huggin & Kissin” pops up. But Simonds hasn’t developed thoughts of murder — he’s got far different associations with it now.

“Yeah, I definitely have my own psychological response triggers from that song. Usually it brings up the stress of meeting a show deadline,” Simonds said, with a laugh.

“The Sinner” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA Network.

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