Sound & Scene
Here you’ll find articles about the intersection between music and the moving image. We have some fantastic interviews with film industry folks, plus our artists talk about their favourite film and TV soundtracks.
Sound and Scene with Chloe March
Chloë March’s ability as a composer and producer sees her create songworlds alive with feeling, shape and colour, and ringing with emotive energy. March’s music inhabits musical territory somewhere between art song and folk, dream-pop and electronica, the ambient and the cinematic and there is no better testament to this than on her recently re-released album Nights Bright Days. She has an innate ability to not only create music that is alive with atmosphere and narrative but to also deftly create room in each work for the listener to posit themselves and become part of the musical tapestry. It’s no wonder then she has been called upon to soundtrack a number of British theatrical works. As part of our ongoing Sound and Scene series Hidden Shoal’s Cam Merton sat down with Chloë to talk about her favourite film soundtracks.
John Harle: A History of Britain by Simon Schama
Chloë: I was blown away by this score when I first saw the series in 2000. John Harle is a brilliant saxophonist and his score features his playing and also includes evocative arrangements of British folksongs performed by singers including Emma Kirkby. This music made a deep impression on me and just seemed to work so well with the material and Schama’s dramatic storytelling style. There’s a lot of symbolism used in the imagery, rather than full-on historical re-enactments and the music works in the same way, with older instruments like pipes, flutes, harp and the fragments of folksong, conjuring these lost worlds and tapping into a kind of communal musical memory. Harle is great at drama, at one point his screeching sax underscoring shots of fires during the passages about the burning of heretics – it’s very eerie! The sheer variety of tone he can get from the sax too is phenomenal and he really plays with that across the series. Another thing I love about this soundtrack is the space in it – the programmes often have silence, both in the presentation and in the score itself – so there’s space to take in the narrative, the facts, the imagery, the emotion of the past.
Cam: Your mention of space here is key to any discussion on film scoring. It is an art and almost an alchemical process to be able to support and grow the narrative and vision with sound and music.
Chloë: Yes – it must be so tempting to do too much and try to impose your own style, when what’s needed is something completely different or even nothing at all. I guess the composer needs to be incredibly sensitive about supporting that vision.
Harle used to work in the National Theatre Music Department early on in his career and I think I can hear that theatre music vibe. A lot of the music that I heard growing up was theatre music being practised by my parents, who were both musicians at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, so I was hearing composers like Howard Blake, Ilona Sekacz and Stephen Warbeck a lot! I got used to hearing music and wondering what scene it was for, what atmosphere it was creating and how it was doing it. Musicians had to adapt to the demands of the productions, like my dad playing fanfares on animal horns instead of trumpets, and my mum, a classical pianist, having to learn the accordion, get her head around the Yamaha DX7 synth and, most entertainingly for the rest of us, the theremin. When I eventually studied drama at uni I wrote a lot of music for productions and really enjoyed that challenge of having to create a particular atmosphere in a very short time. Sometimes I find it’s great to be given instrumental constraints and very short time-frames to compose in, especially if the dramatic/visual material you have is powerful.
Cam: That’s a really interesting point as I think that challenge has drawn a number of artists into crossing over into scoring for film. I can’t help but think of Clint Mansell in this regard, who went from the chaotic pop maximalism of Pop Will Eat Itself to producing the gorgeous, restrained score to Moon (amongst others, of course).
Chloë: Yes, it seems like limitations often bring out amazing and surprising creative results. I wonder if some artists are so drawn to film because as well as the challenge of it and wanting to develop as writers, there’s also this common discipline in some pop music of creating intense imagery and atmosphere. Not that other composers don’t do that, just that in pop you learn to do it within a very short time-frame, so to a pop artist being given a 90-minute film to score would seem like a luxuriously long amount of time to work with, but each cue has to create immediate atmosphere, so it also has that familiar discipline. But maybe also it’s easier in pop to put artists into boxes and not expect them to change what they do too much, so film-scoring would be incredibly liberating in that way too for someone who felt frustrated by that. It’s great also to discover that you can actually compose to a deadline if you’re used to spending years on an album like I am! That sense of urgency can sometimes generate wonderful creativity too.
Harle has also described himself as ‘a romantic, both as a player and a composer’ and I think that’s a big part of why I’m so drawn to his music. There’s a strong modal component to this score, with the plainchant, the folksongs and the sax playing what sometimes sound like virtuosic jazz improvisations – and I’m very drawn to that modality too, it’s how I write my own songs. He uses a lot of pure tones, both with his sax playing and with the early music vocalists who use hardly any vibrato, and I’m really interested in the juxtaposition of these tones put together with lush, jazz-influenced harmony. I also have a strong classical foundation and love jazz harmony and folk melody, so it’s probably inevitable that I love Harle’s music! I didn’t think to try working with saxophone myself until my latest album, when Ted Watson, a superb musician, offered to play for me – so I was finally able to experiment with writing for and singing with soprano sax, which was just fantastic and a lovely new direction for me.
Gabriel Yared: The English Patient
Chloë: I was a fan of Gabriel Yared before seeing this film as I’d fallen in love with the soundtrack he wrote for Betty Blue, which I listened to for years before actually seeing the film. I think maybe the chemistry of Yared’s creative partnership with Anthony Minghella is a vital part of the magic of this score. When I discovered that Yared had been part of the filmmaking process right from the start it really made sense – there’s just a feeling that the music and the film developed together in a really organic way and that it’s all intensely driven by the emotion that’s at the heart of the film. Minghella said afterwards, ‘There was a sense of us being unusually connected’. He was a musician himself and also said that he approached his filmmaking ‘as much from musical form as conventional storytelling’ – which is really interesting. It was Minghella who suggested that Yared use the Aria from the Bach Goldberg Variations and also the incredibly beautiful, haunting Hungarian folksong sung by Márta Sebestyén.
Cam: That kind of partnership between the creative drivers of vision and sound in films seems to be so natural and right it’s almost disappointing that it isn’t de rigueur in the film-making process. That’s not to say most directors wouldn’t have a pure vision (!) for the sonic and musical elements needed for the film, but having that collaborative partnership up front could sometimes bring so much more.
Chloë: I totally agree. It’s been so interesting doing this feature finding that most of the soundtracks I really love have emerged from these partnerships. Joe Wright and Dario Marianelli is another wonderful one. His score for Pride and Prejudice had to begin even before shooting started and ended up being a phenomenally successful soundtrack. I just don’t understand why music is sometimes added during the last few weeks of editing. Maybe it works for some films and for some composers who thrive on that challenge, but it seems like a wasted opportunity to me.
I love the way that Yared uses the Bach, orchestrating it, and writing the most beautiful pastiche that adds a deeply romantic lushness, without sentimentalising it or sounding naff. A lot of my early learning of the piano involved playing Bach, so I feel like that music is an old friend. I’m really interested in pastiche and the difference between writing say a baroque-sounding piece or a piece that reminds you of baroque but also takes you somewhere else. When I was commissioned to compose a score for a re-working of a ballet by Kurt Jooss from the 1930s, the choreographer asked for a contemporary score that would still hark back to that era. I really wanted to evoke an atmosphere that hinted at the 1930s rather than write full-on pastiche, so I tried to get a sense of composers like Weill and Walton into the music by using certain rhythms and instrumentation and then actually used a few chords from Stravinsky’s ‘Petrushka’ – I knew I could never compose like Stravinsky, but using his chords really pushed me to write music that I never thought I could and definitely took me right out of my comfort zone.
Cam: Have you found that this need to conceptualise when approaching score work is something that feeds back into your work as an artist, or is it something innate in the way you approach music as a whole?
Chloë: I’m not sure if it feeds back, or if that’s just how I am – it’s mostly ideas that make me feel creative, so yeah, it probably is the way I approach my music. Except for improvising, when I play the piano to express something immediately and for as long as I want! I’m much more aware of what I’m doing as a songwriter now, but sometimes I’ll write and finish a song in a few hours, and sometimes in months, so it’s a different process every time. I do usually like to have an idea to form the music around though. Usually it’s an idea that comes packed with powerful emotion or imagery and that resonates with what I’m feeling and wanting to express. What I love is to create these self-contained little worlds and atmospheres, so I’m drawn to vivid symbolism and imagery and stories.
It feels to me that Juliette Binoche is the heart of this film and it’s her character who has the Bach theme – I think it makes her character’s experience feel timeless, as well as redemptive because Bach has that spiritual link to church music, but it’s also timeless in its humanity and beauty too. There’s so much suffering and tragedy in the different narratives, but hers has this gorgeous lightness and hope to it. The scene in the church where her lover Kip transports her around the walls on a rope to look at the frescoes with a flaming torch is just so beautiful. At the moment when Kip lifts her off the ground Yared uses pizzicato strings and then brings in his beautiful Bach pastiche in the bowed strings with harp gliss as well, and it’s just perfect for the scene. There’s such joy in that music, but there is also melancholy there and this heartbreaking fragility and lightness, so you know her joy is probably temporary and that it’s come after so much devastating loss. All the strands of creativity going on – the music, Binoche’s utterly beautiful acting, the way we lift off with her and the timing of the scene within the whole film – it just really gets me every time!
Hans Zimmer: Interstellar (contains spoilers)
Chloë: I’m quite surprised to find myself talking about Hans Zimmer. I wouldn’t really have put him as one of my top favourite film composers before, but this soundtrack did really take me over during the film and I found it very powerful stuff. It’s a combination of electronic elements with orchestra/choir/organ and piano. He had no less than six orchestrators working with him on this score and it really does sound like a massive team effort. I felt like I was just taken captive by this film and manipulated and spun off into all sorts of different emotional states – and the music was a huge part of that. It’s fantastically epic but also has a lot of tension and meditative space in it too and underpins the emotional core of the father/daughter relationship with its long separation, sense of loss and also deep love and connectedness. This theme is beautiful I think, a combination of quite cold, slightly threatening soundscape with what becomes a melancholy piano/organ piece. Apparently Zimmer composed the score over a period of two years alongside the director Christopher Nolan shooting/scripting the movie, so it sounds like another case of a strong emotional, creative connectedness between director and composer.
Cam: Considering the scope of this film it seems fitting to have such an involved and long-range approach to the score. You can’t help but appreciate the kind of nuances that can be afforded with such a long-term involvement in the musical and sonic aspects of the film.
Chloë: Absolutely. I wonder if this kind of long-term involvement happens more in TV music where composers are on board for long series and really get to have that intense collaborative process – like Bear McCreary with Battlestar, or Jeff Beal with House of Cards. I really love both those soundtracks and also Frans Bak’s score for The Killing. Even though they’re having to write extremely quickly, these composers are developing music alongside the show with this long development arc – it must be great to do.
The moment in the cinema when I thought ‘this music is just brilliant’ was the scene where Matthew McConaughey’s character is driving his car through the fields on his way to fly the spaceship and the music just rachets up notch by notch until it actually sounds like rocket-launching music while he’s still driving the car – it’s such a clever moment and just got me totally emotionally involved with the film from that point on. I love repetitive patterns in music, used a lot in film scores, and this one is one of the best examples of that kind of rhythmic instrumentation in the style of Reich or Glass, being built on and lushed out, that I’ve heard in a while.
Anthony Gonzalez from M83/Joseph Trapanese: Oblivion
Another sci-fi, but I reckon this film is all about nostalgia and I think that’s probably why I really liked the soundtrack by M83 and Joseph Trapanese. There is beautifully futuristic imagery in this film, but the overall feel is one of almost unbearable melancholy and nostalgia I found. It’s partly the fact that it’s Tom Cruise in the lead, occasionally on a motorbike, giving this nostalgic tilt towards his movies of the ’80s, but it also made me think of Blade Runner. The soundtrack also triggers these references, as it’s so reminiscent of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. There’s pastoralism too, as Cruise’s character goes back to his cabin by a lake on a pristine bit of Earth – it’s this gorgeous contrast with the post-apocalyptic bleakness of the destroyed land and the sharp shiny minimalist sky-pods they live in. Of course, when he goes back to his cabin it has his collection of vinyl records of Tangerine Dream and Blue Oyster Cult and he lies by the lake listening to Led Zeppelin and Procol Harum. It’s not just a yearning in the context of the film for a pre-war Earth-home, it feels like a heartfelt yearning of now for 20/30 years ago.
Cam: Perhaps the Tangerine Dream vinyl was a nod to the Risky Business soundtrack! The temporal mis-match of Cruise’s character’s nostalgic musical yearning is interesting – this would have been the music of his great great great grandparents, I assume. Yet the film-maker makes a choice to work with the audience’s collective musical notions of nostalgia. I guess it’s all part of the beautiful trickery that is cinema.
Chloë: Ah yes, I hadn’t thought of that! It definitely worked on me, anyway! Nostalgia and music is so intriguing – seems that sometimes it’s within the music itself and sometimes triggered by it and all the cultural memories around it. I often actually feel nostalgic for eras and places I never even knew or went to, just through music – which is very strange! It happens when I hear film soundtracks from the ’50s and ’60s, for instance, or even jazz from the ’40s. I don’t really know what’s going on there, maybe that’s a common thing – I’m not sure!
I’m really interested in the way that this synth-driven soundtrack is used as a kind of humanising element in the film – there is a lot of orchestration and piano motifs, but it’s when the synths have full rein that you feel really connected to Cruise’s character I think. Maybe it’s because we now have this long history of synth-centred music and it’s actually a warm familiar genre now and a communal memory for us, rather than the futuristic-seeming sound it was in the ’70s and ’80s. Now maybe it’s associated with a kind of technological innocence, which is a pretty strange thing. When I listened to Tangerine Dream as a teenager I just found it completely hypnotic, exciting and all-enveloping. The first time I actually played a synth was when I was 15 and my sister’s boyfriend left one in our house for a few weeks. I composed this soundtrack inspired by a sculpture that an artist in residence had made at school. It was a fantastic feeling to be able to access all the different pads and multi-track and get these really deep evocative sounds and I think that’s where my love-affair with making electronic music started.
Sound and Scene with Music Supervisor Steve Griffen
While few would dispute the importance of music in film and TV, I wonder how many outside the industry understand the machinations and the people that make it happen? Cue the music supervisor, who acts as a bridge between the vision and the music, and on a more practical level, the label/artist and the director/producer.
Steve Griffen has worked as a music supervisor in the US on such diverse projects as It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, We Are Marshall, the upcoming Mr Robinson (starring the awesome Craig Robinson), and many more. We’ve had the pleasure of working with Steve on the 30 Days In May documentary, which features nine songs from the Hidden Shoal catalogue, and we know he’s an in-demand, busy man, so we thank him greatly for taking the time to answer the following questions:
How did you get into music supervision?
It was actually forced onto me…somewhat. I worked primarily as a music editor in the beginning, and was editing on a television show when the network tried to force all of the shows to start using in-house music supervisors by not allowing supervisors in their budgets. The producers were used to having a supervisor attached to the production and offered me a raise to handle the supervision (since I was already employed as the music editor). There is a lot of crossover between editor and supervisor responsibilities, and the in-house supervisors did the ‘heavy-lifting’ when I called on them, so it made the transition somewhat painless.
What’s a day in the life of a music supervisor like?
The day always starts with reading a lot of emails over coffee. When I have time, I download the new music sent to me and try to give it a listen while travelling. I may have spotting sessions, concept meetings or mixes to attend. Whenever something music musical is taking place on the set, I am usually there as well. The rest of the time is spent auditioning songs against scenes, drafting requests and licenses or handling music editorial, which I also do on most of my projects. I go out to see bands a few nights a week as well in an attempt to stay current. One of the job perks is getting tickets to most of the shows that are happening every night in L.A.
I realise this must vary from project to project, but is there usually a specific point in the production process where you’re brought in? Does the point at which you join a project affect your approach?
It varies with each project, but I like coming in at the scripting phase. That allows me to avoid licensing pratfalls early on take part in a musically creative component of the job. If I get brought in after something is already shot or edited with music attached, the job is more about doing my best to fit the existing music into the budget or finding replacements for what cannot be licensed. Nobody is ever happy having to replace the music they have been living with, so those jobs can be problematic.
What’s been your favourite music placement and why?
For the 100th episode of ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’, they shot an intricate ninja fight sequence. We spent a lot of time trying out different songs for it and really loved “Smack My Bitch Up” by The Prodigy. There was a little back-and-forth with the band initially since they did not know the show, but after we forwarded them some episodes, they agreed. The publishers and label are all great people to work with, and the song worked on so many levels with the obvious nod to ‘Charlie’s Angel’s’. Plus, the song was misunderstood by a lot of people who took offense to it when it was released, similar to how ‘Sunny’ is often received.
Without telling tales out of school, what was your hardest sync?
I’d have to say “Mama Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J. There are a lot of samples in that track and even the samples have other samples in them. The pile of paperwork that it created made me feel guilty of deforestation.
Do you ever have to argue the value of a particular song to a director?
Constantly. It’s rare for everyone on a project to see eye-to-eye on music. It can be a polarizing topic that everyone wants to weigh in on.
I’ve heard it said, partly tongue in cheek, that music supervisors are the new A&Rs, and I know that many enjoy the ability to bring new music to new ears. Has this changed the way you think about your role or your choice of music in any way?
I don’t think my though process has changed because that’s how I’ve always viewed the role of a supervisor. I transitioned out of the record industry into TV/Film and had the chance to see guys like Danny Bramson doing more for the artists I worked with in the 90’s than the A&R department. I love seeing bands break after a great placement in one of my shows. It makes me feel still connected to the record industry in a small way.
How do you find the music you need for a project? Do you scout for music outside of a project to keep things tagged for future projects?
The music comes from all over the place, usually. Raiding the iTunes playlists of the interns on the show, seeing new bands in L.A., temp music from the editors, music scripted into the scene, etc…
I don’t really tag things for the future because that never seems to work out. Same with scripted music. It rarely ends up in the final cut. Producers and directions want to hear options and opinions from others. I have a somewhat photographic memory for songs so I’ll watch the scene down without music once it’s cut and sometimes I just know the song that’s needed. Then we are back to topic #6 above where I have to fight to keep it.
Can you tell us about the upcoming Mr Robinson project? (We’re big Craig Robinson fans!)
The pilot for that was done before I started ‘Hot Tub…’ and it’s still not in production! It’s supposed to be a mid-season replacement for this year so I expect it to start up soon. I can tell you that it’s based mainly on Craig’s real life as a struggling funk musician when he was starting out. He played on the recordings we did for the pilot and I engineered/produced those sessions. Hoping that his music remains a big part of the final show because I would love the chance to utilize my engineering skills regularly. Record budgets don’t usually allow for time in big studios anymore so the only way I get to sit behind a nice recording console is when I’m recording for TV/film projects.
What’s spinning on Steve Griffen’s turntable at the moment?
Literally on the turntable? I think that’s probably “Dark Side of the Moon”, but the turntable is pretty much there as a conversation piece in my office. The top 10 recently most played songs on my iPhone are from Muse, Jimmy Eat World, Tame Impala, The Roots and Jack White. Okay…there’s a Tears for Fears song on the list too. Not sure how that fits into the above list.
Sound and Scene with Drew Sullivan of Slow Dancing Society
Slow Dancing Society is the moniker of ambient composer and sonic wunderkind Drew Sullivan, who’s responsible for some of the most ethereal and compelling pieces in Hidden Shoal’s catalogue. Through six albums over eight years, the evocative textures in Sullivan’s body of work play out like soundtracks to movies that don’t exist. From the nostalgic crescendos of Priest Lake Circa ‘88 to the Eno-meets-Vangelis minimalism of his latest record The Cogent Sea, Sullivan is a master of manipulating mood and emotion through sound. In this new feature on Hidden Shoal, our own Matthew Tomich spoke with Sullivan about his favourite film soundtracks.
DS: In chronological order that’d be the best one, because that was probably my first introduction to really enjoying score music for films. I was always into movies at a young age so I always felt like I was aware of what was going on musically. Because when you’re six, seven or eight, you’ve got your favourite movies, and I kind of tended to watch a lot of adult movies. My dad would watch them with me and I attribute a lot of my love for things of the ’80s to my dad. And my mom – she played a lot of ’80s music for me. I’m 34, so in 1984 I was 4 years old, so a lot of the movies of that time that I really like I should not have ever seen. So dad watching them with me and always saying, “Oh, that doesn’t really happen that way” – it was funny, I had a really good sense of what was real at a young age.
But back to that movie – Danny Elfman I think had a kind of – and still does – a very unique style. He’s kind of ran his course; it’s always the same sound now, but it was this very phantasmic, fairytale sort of sound, and I think I attribute a lot of my ideas for melodies and usage of certain sounds like choirs and those kinds of vocal overtones and bells from him and from that soundtrack. I still love that soundtrack. It’s funny, I had it on tape of course at the time, and they always say you wear it out, but I truly did wear that tape out. But it made me think that if you ever listen to a brand new cassette tape, it doesn’t sound like a warbly tape like all these new plugins make your old vintage music sound like. And I think the reason why people want that tape sound is that if you have an album or favourite music you wore the hell out of, it started to warble, and the tape started to disintegrate, and that’s why we have that sound. It’s almost more about the memory of a sound than the actual quality because tape was a quality device back then. But I loved that soundtrack, I still listen to it today.
HS: When you’ve listened to a soundtrack so much, are you almost listening to it first than watching it – rather than waiting for a scene, you’re waiting for a refrain or a melody?
DS: Yeah. It’s funny – I’m kind of like that with a lot of movies, even modern ones where I know the score really well. I tend to go watch a movie because of the composer, and I’ve been turned on to a lot of movies because of composers that I probably wouldn’t have normally chosen to see. So I tend to be anticipating that next cue in the movie, and it’s a weird way of watching a movie. I don’t think a lot of people probably view movies that way. A lot of composers will say, “If you don’t recognise that my music is playing in the background then I’ve done a good job because I’ve just made that a seamless moment where the music has underscored the scene.”
HS: One thing I noticed with that and with a lot of Danny Elfman soundtracks I’ve heard is the sense of a dark, carnivalesque sound to it – it’s playful, but there’s that eerie undertone.
DS: Absolutely. And it really fits Burton’s vision really well. You see a lot of composers – and we’ll talk a little later about Cliff Martinez, he and Steven Soderbergh have worked so many times together – and I think there are certain directors that just really mesh and the sound of someone’s music just works with their vision. I just watched Beetlejuice last night, it was on TV, and again it’s that quintessential Danny Elfman sound – it’s a very playful but dark sound. He did a score for a movie called Nightbreed which really flew under the radar, and that’s a really good score that no one really talks about. It’s very tribal. The movie is about this tribe of monsters that live underneath a graveyard, which sounds really stupid when you say it, but it’s a Clive Barker story and it’s really good. But his score in that is very good, very nice. Not as playful – it’s much more the darker style.
HS: Listening to Edward Scissorshands and then listening to your stuff afterwards, I was expecting to hear some of those influences, but it wasn’t really coming through, because your music is a lot more contemplative, serious, and for a lack of a better expression, highbrow. Is Nightbreed closer to the tone that you go for or closer to what you take from Elfman’s music?
DS: You know, I was laughing to myself the other day about this, where I have all these influences that I state all the time, and a lot of times they won’t shine through in what I do. One of my favourite albums that I was really passionate about was the Priest Lake Circa ‘88 album and I tell everyone that that was my attempt at making a hair metal album. Probably three quarters of the album was original material that I had sent to Cam Merton [at Hidden Shoal] and he was like, “No way is this going to work.” So when I look back on it, it was a pretty ambitious move to make such an album. So what I did was the typical re-editing and mixing and washing it in reverb and delay and it turned out to be way better than what I initially went out for. It was a perfect thing to happen because when I listen to that album now, I can totally hear hair metal music in it for me, because there’s all sorts of soaring guitars in there that were delayed and reverbed as I’d said, but it takes on the way we remember music as opposed to the way the music actually sounded.
It was kind of like Priest Lake was supposed to be a memory of a time in my life. And it’s going to be like all memories – it’s going to be fuzzy around the edges, a lot of it’s going to be probably wrong from the way it actually happened, and everyone’s interpretation’s going to be a little different. Because when I still listen to hair metal music today, it brings me back to those moments of my childhood, but it doesn’t quite sound as grand and as luxurious or epic to me as it did then. And that’s understandable, but I think that’s what I try to do with most of my influences – take the way they made me feel – and that’s probably where the contemplative tone comes through. You’re longing for those days of when life was just a little bit easier and there were no diapers.
DS: That’s a good example of how I say that I found out about the movie through the people that did the score. The guys that did that – Ashe and Spencer – they’re kind of a unique scoring company because there are like 8 to 15 people for that company. Ashe and Spencer are the two main original guys, but they have these revolving musicians that come through and do stuff for them. It’s a very co-op sort of vibe. They did a movie called Monsters Ball with Heath Ledger and Billy Bob Thornton, and that was a great movie and I really liked that score, and because I saw on IMDb that they were scoring Stay, I went to go watch it one night and that movie turned out to be just an incredibly visually stunning movie, and their music was so perfect for it. The way in which each scene melded into the next scene was like – there’d be a scene where they’re driving by the Brooklyn Bridge and one of the main – I guess I’d say tower portions of that bridge – melded into the next scene, which was a chess board with a Brooklyn-themed chess piece. And it wasn’t cheesy; it was really well done CGI. So the movie is a very dream state movie that I won’t spoil it because the ending is necessary to understand the whole vibe of the movie, but those guys on that movie, their score was so good.
That score was in 2004 and that was right around when I was working on The Sound of Lights When Dim, and so I didn’t really have the wherewithal or I guess the experience to really know how to manipulate sound as well as I’ve gotten to the point now over the experience of time, but they had a behind-the-scenes featurette on that score which is on the DVD about how they did the music, and it was really impressive and amazing how they made a lot of their sounds. Very organic, lack of plug-ins. One particular thing that stuck with me is they took a piano and recorded every single note through an old tape machine, and one of the tape heads was rotten and broken, and they would actually touch the tape throughout each piece. And so then they had every key of the piano recorded, and then they would map those audio files to a MIDI keyboard. Then they played it through a plug-in of sorts or a sampler, but each key would have a very unique characteristic when you’d play a chord, and I guess the piano was kind of – it wasn’t even like a warble, it was just this very otherworldly sounding piano, and it’s just amazing.
HS: That one more so than the Elfman soundtrack, I could hear a lot more of that in your music. And I like how it had that scrape of metal synthetic sound to it. You mentioned the organic approach they took – is that something you try to do a lot of?
DS: Absolutely. I don’t have as much of an ability to do field recordings or record pianos that way, so I probably tend to do it a lot longer – or at least my workaround, for lack of a better word – is a lot longer than it probably needs to be, because I don’t have a piano. I have a VST of a piano so I’ll take notes and kind of record those notes and mangle it a little with plugins that I have, and then put it back into the track. So I may have 15 individual tracks to make one piano chord just to try to make that sound. So it’s a lot harder workaround, but I don’t have the tape machine or the microphones to do that.
DS: That came out a couple of years before Stay but I remember seeing that movie – because it was a pretty big, popular movie at the time – and I remember the very end of the movie, it wasn’t even a Cliff Martinez song, it was ‘An Ending (Ascent)’ by Brian Eno. And that was probably the first time I’d ever heard that song, actually, which is funny, because everyone always assumes as an ambient artist that Eno is a big influence, and I didn’t discover him until very, very late into my musical ambitions. And he still is, but that song is just one of those perfect songs where the melody and the chord progression is amazing. It’s very simple. I mean really, there’s one instrument – I’m sure there are probably a couple of different tracks and layers, but it’s really just one synthesizer. There’s not a lot of layers and I tend to be excessive in layering of music – you know, the whole less is more – but that song is perfect. So that really got me to pay attention to the score and go back and hear it. That was what began my love affair with Cliff Martinez, is that score.
HS: Interesting you mentioned Eno and that minimalistic take, because he composed the Windows 95 start-up sound. He often worked on that microscopic level where you’re dealing with fractions of a second. You said that you work on the opposite to the less is more scale, but do you ever get that meticulous?
DS: Well yeah, because what I’ve found with a lot of my favourite musicians that aren’t influences – just music I like to listen to – is that the more and more, you can always pick up something from a rock band or even a house track in the way it’s produced and the way the sounds work together – that timbre, so to speak, of the instruments. And I find that a lot of times, these sounds that we think we’re hearing as another layer is not so much another layer of music but actually the two tones of each individual instrument playing together, and even that sort of silence in between those instruments serves as an instrument in and of itself; it kind of fills in those gaps. So I try to really approach those minimalistic things and really get back to it. Once it gets too busy, it’s just that – there’s too much going on; you can’t really focus on just the decay of a certain sound. And then at that point when you’ve got too much going on, it’s going to get muddy, everything’s going to start fighting for its own place in the mix, and you’ve just got a discombobulated sound. A good example on that Stay soundtrack is there are a lot of portions in that music where the piano note will just ring and then that note will decay and reverse and pull it back and pan it left. It’s taking one single sound and really abusing, so to speak, the nature of that one sound.
HS: In terms of how soundtracks and composers work – do you ever try and go less for, “I want this to sound like this,” but more, “I want this to make someone feel this way,” in a way that a composer would go for “here’s my visual accompaniment, here’s the feeling that we’re going for.” Do you find an equivalent to that approach?
DS: Yeah. I did a score for an independent film. It was called The Key. I got introduced to this guy by a friend of mine when I was living in Los Angeles and I’m not even sure where you can find it online. I’m sure you could YouTube it, it’s just called The Key, and it’s even on IMDb if you were to search through my name because I am tagged to that movie. So that was a fun experience where the director was sort of new, so there wasn’t really a big vision of what he wanted, which was helpful because I think that would be difficult to have to try to make a sound or a moment based on what you’re watching. Because in that experience, when he gave me the footage, it’s a very odd thing to watch a movie with no sound and no music. You feel very on the spot to create something that works with that, and I think that’s the beauty about a lot of scores – when you watch a movie and you hear the sound, you’re like, wow, I never would’ve thought of that sound in that moment but it works so beautifully. And I’m sure there was a lot of trial and error with that director and that composer to make that happen, and maybe it might have just been a magic moment.
For myself, because I don’t have that experience of working with directors – not yet, hopefully I will in the future – I probably always sit down when I write music trying to evoke a mood. It never feels forced. I think I would probably tend to kind of float in that melancholy, contemplative state as you said at the beginning of our conversation, but a lot of it kind of just develops over time. It’s funny because I’m not a generally contemplative person – of course I think we all kind of long for those days – but it’s almost a catharsis when you do music, when you do sad music or music that sounds contemplative, you’d think you have to be in the kind of doldrums to do it, but really, it’s that expression of it that I think by the time you’re done with it, you don’t really have that burden anymore. I guess I kind of sit down trying to evoke a mood, and very rarely do I ever say I want it to be this way – that I want it to be sad or I want it to be happy – because with anything artistic, you can’t just sit down and do something. It’s usually got to be when inspiration strikes or when you get a certain kind of sound in your mind that you want to go record. And depending upon how you feel that particular day, what occurred, you may have a completely different direction of how the song develops.
HS: You mentioned before on Priest Lake Circa ’88 you were working from a memory and a feeling for a particular time – I guess in a way that is almost like working to a soundtrack, you’ve got a distinct idea of a particular emotion you’re trying to evoke. Has that been something you’ve used as a jumping point for your other albums?
DS: No actually, it’s funny. So for a timeline: The Sound of Lights When Dim was what all artists say: I had my whole life to write that album. That was a collection of songs that had probably been bubbling for years. Then The Slow and Steady Winter and Priest Lake Circa ’88 – those two albums together were actually the album that I sent to Cam as my second that he said no way on because it’s the full-on ’80s hair metal. And so those albums are what I reworked into what they are now. Slow and Steady Winter was actually re-edited over the winter, and I think because of that, that album has a very sombre vibe to it, and I would definitely say that because of being told no, so to speak, that kind of sent me into this sort of – not depressive state, but like, “OK, now what?” I’m in this nuclear winter in Washington when nothing happens, so that album is what took on a lot of that icy, reverbed, lengthy sound. Priest Lake Circa ’88 – those tracks were still ones that I couldn’t quite make as cold sounding, so they still had that very warm, I’d say summery kind of rock vibe, and as I slowly came out of that winter, that vision really held tight and I just worked on it.
But albums nowadays – I’ve noticed the last three albums, I never really have a vision. It’s always one track is what gets created first, and the whole rest of the album kind of centres around that track. Which in a way is kind of a funny – or an ironic statement – because I’ve heard a lot of composers say, when they start working with a director, the director will have scenes for them to view and there’ll be temp music – songs that they’ve used from another film, or they’ll say “I’m looking for something like this” – and then they create this one track where the director says, “That’s it, that’s the sound,” and everything revolves around that. In most soundtracks there’s a common theme or a cue or a certain melody that is built upon or deconstructed, so that’s probably how a lot of my last three albums have worked. And the last three albums have really been a much more dive-into, score-like music, so I guess that’s an ironic twist of fate to how I approach it now. Nowadays there’s one song that tends to be the ground zero and everything else builds around it.
HS: What was that ground zero song on The Cogent Sea?
DS: That was probably ‘Coming Back,’ the fourth track on the album. That was the big one for me. That one really kind of started it, because there’s a sort of just a staccato guitar chime in the beginning, and then the subtle melody notes over it, and that pulsing arpeggio bass in there. And that’s really what kind of sparked the rest of that vintage ’80s sound – it kind of has an almost sort-of cop drama ’80s sound to it, you know, with that menacing bass that typically underscores a very intense moment when they’re looking at a file. I think, again, a lot of those influences come to me from those ’80s films and sounds, but I didn’t want it to be super-sharp staccato bass like in ’80s movies; I rounded it off with a bit of a filter to give it more of that modern, textural quality.
HS: I was surprised listening to The Cogent Sea that you didn’t pick something composed by Vangelis because I hear a lot of that aesthetic in it.
DS: The song ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ with that big, thick synth – that was really prevalent on a lot of the Blade Runner stuff that he did. That soundtrack was probably a pretty big soundtrack over the last two albums in a tone and in structure – because if you look at a lot of my older albums, there isn’t a lot of synth work. There’s a lot more guitars being manipulated, whereas the last two albums, I really started to dive much more into synths that you wouldn’t hear on a lot of those previous albums. For me, I always loved very warm, organic sounds, and I think there’s a sort of giving up that prejudice of synthetic sounds. Which is funny because I love synthpop music, but I never wanted to see that in my music for some reason, but then there was just this kind of turning point for me during the making of Laterna Magica where I started to use very quintessential chime sounds that were from an old Jupiter, and I love those tones now. I’ve started to use them a lot more, and that’s why I think you’ll see a lot more synth work on this new album than anything before.
HS: Are you working on any new material now?
DS: Right now Jarrod from City of Satellites – which is another band I’m in with Thomas – we’re working on the new album for City of Satellites, and Jarrod and I also have a side project called The October Solution and we’re working on that new album, so there probably won’t be a new album from Slow Dancing Society for at least a good year or two. It could be sooner – you know, it’s funny, a lot of times these albums, like I said a moment ago, when you get that one track that’s the ground zero, the rest just falls into place. There’s always that moment of panic when I’m working on tracks and nothing’s coming together, there’s no vision and I’m like, I don’t know when a new album’s going to be ready. But then all of a sudden one track happens and it just explodes. But I do have an EP that was kind of some outtakes of sorts from The Cogent Sea that just didn’t really seem to fit the overall vibe of that album, and by themselves they’re a much more cohesive unit. There are about six tracks which will probably be released late summer, early fall, maybe winter at the latest. The songs are all done, there’s just the matter of a release time with Hidden Shoal.
DS: That’s a great score. That was probably more score-like than the other ones. Traffic was very guitar-based with synthesizer tones and washy sounds. Same with Stay, that’s very much more piano-based with some guitar tracks in there. Whereas Michael Clayton – that’s quintessential percussion, those very filtered deep rumbling bass loops and percussive notes and beds. I saw that movie again too because of James Newton Howard, and I’ve seen a lot of his stuff and I like his big, grand-sounding scores. But that score is really one of those very minimal scores again – there aren’t a lot of big orchestral moments. It’s very otherworldly and it’s got that tension of sorts that I tend to like and that I’m leaning more towards. Because I’d say Laterna Magica was probably a turning point in Slow Dancing Society’s overall sound where it got a little darker and not as ethereal, so that score was really a big influence for that, that idea of tension and a thriller type of vibe.
HS: There’s a great sense of urgency and it’s almost hard to listen to it without feeling a little uneasy. It’s hard to listen to it separately, whereas something like Danny Elfman, you can listen to it separately and enjoy it.
DS: Absolutely. And I love that score. And again, I think the thing too is that a lot of these scores where you mentioned earlier you don’t see it shining through in my music, what I tend to take from music is less about the particular artists and their sounds or style, but the way in which certain sounds sound. If you listen to that James Newton Howard score, the way in which the drums sound very almost watery and filtery, there’s a certain texture to them and I really like that sound, so I try to implement those kind of sounds into say, a song on The Cogent Sea like ‘Reach Out,’ which is really just an 808 machine, but I try to make those drums sound similar to the way they sounded on that score, so there’s no urgency or unease in that sound at all, but the sound in the way in which those sonics were, that’s kind of what I go for a lot of times.
This is not a film soundtrack as such but it feels like the soundtrack to something. Into Forever is the work of Manual (aka Jonas Munk) and Icebreaker International and is one of Munk’s most underrated and hidden albums. If you read the liner notes it talks about – and this is totally a fake story, but it’s such a cool story the way they did this as a marketing ploy – is that there’s some sort of science academy in some far Eastern European country that funded the making of this album, and the album will be played on an infinite loop on this satellite that they’re going to launch into space with the hopes that the sound will travel for eternity into space, that any planetary being that reaches these sounds will hear them. And it was a very cool idea. If you look at the song titles there’s ‘The Countdown,’ so that’s the launching of the satellite, and then there’s ‘The Outer Rings’ and ‘The Inner Rings,’ so it’s like the journey of this satellite travelling through space and it’s a gorgeous, gorgeous album.
People say it’s like space rock and it’s got a definite feel that you’re suspended in space listening to that album. Probably even more so in my opinion than ‘An Ending (Ascent)’ from Brian Eno which came from the Apollo soundtrack and the score to that movie about the Apollo space mission. Because that album with Eno was a little bit more – and it’s probably subject to the time and the sounds that were available – it has a little bit more of, I want to say cheese factor, but some songs just don’t seem to work as well for what’s going on, whereas Into Forever, you can put that on and just completely drift away into another world. It’s an amazing album.
HS: Do you try to work in that narrative sense when you’re sequencing tracks?
DS: The thing that’s funny about that is you would think that the ground zero could either be the alpha or the omega – the beginning of the album or the end of the album, like the finale, or even the arc of the story. But really, it builds less in a narrative sense for me. Sometimes it will build in a narrative sense, I’ll really kind of try to create a story, but the way in which songs flow together is almost more happenstance where, let’s say when working on ‘Coming Back,’ there might be four or five individual tracks within that song that didn’t quite make the final edit, but there’s still something very textural about them that I liked, so those will develop into another song, and because of the way in which they sounded was within the same kind of cadence or even the key of a song like ‘Coming Back,’ that would make it very easy to be the song before or after that on the album.
One trick of the trade for me is I put all my songs once they’re done onto shuffle on my iPod. The Cogent Sea – the funny thing is, the actual tracklisting or order was from a total happenstance randomization on my iPod. It just worked. I listened to probably 30 incarnations of that. First I try to put them together myself, as in, “Here’s how I think they should sound.” Sometimes it feels forced, sometimes there’s a bit of a jump here or there or something doesn’t feel right, but this one lucky afternoon, that album order it played was perfect. So somewhere deep in the macro algorithm of an iPod is how that happened.
HS: What’s the overall feeling or memory that you’re trying to translate or communicate with The Cogent Sea?
DS: I think The Cogent Sea probably for me is the culmination of all styles of music that I loved as a kid and an adult. I have a pretty wide range of musical tastes. And I always dislike when people say “I have an eclectic taste in music” because I think that’s just kind of a little, trying to sound –
HS: It’s lazy.
DS: Yeah. There’s nothing wrong with saying that you like this style of music and only that. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I think people feel that they need to like a lot of different music. For me it’s less about liking all styles of music and more I love sounds and textures and how they work together.
One sound in particular is country music. I can’t stand country singers, but I absolutely love the sound of Fender Telecasters which are a very common guitar used in country music, and Rhodes pianos and steel guitars or pedal steels. I love the sounds of those textures so I like some country music in that sense. But I think with The Cogent Sea, I was trying to make an album – and not even trying, it was really just what came out, actually – of music that I just love and listen to.
I think nowadays, if you look at the last three albums from the first albums, I always feel that an artist’s first couple of albums are them trying to find a place and fit in somewhere. And obviously at the time they’re very much into the music that they’re writing and playing and producing at that time, but it’s always the torturous thing that happens to artists as they get older is that they’re not going to make an album that they did five or ten years ago today. They might, but it might be forced, and that’s where I feel the progression of what I do now musically has really started to show more so into what I listen to. Back on The Sound of Lights When Dim, all I listened to was IDM or ambient music, whereas nowadays with The Cogent Sea and listening to a song like ‘Reach Out’, you can tell that I was probably listening to a lot more Phil Collins or Erasure at the time, probably because I remember those bands. My mom played a lot of music when I was young, she was always listening to MTV or having it on the TV when I was five or six, so again I owe that to my parents a lot – that exposure to those music and those different styles and scenes.