Making the transition from Beefheart’s Magic Band to other, more conventional bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers must have required major readjustments.
By the time I got out of the Magic Band, I was pretty jaded, and nothing seemed to be very interesting to me. Then the punk rock thing came along, and that did interest me. Punk rock, I knew, had to be loud, aggressive and Neanderthal; the Chili Peppers was like that, except funneled punk rock energy into a rap/funk style. Flea and I both were punk rock scholars – I had been playing with The Weirdos, he was playing with Fear – so we both had that in common, and initially the punk rock thing was a big influence.
You’ve had a longtime interest in MIDI percussion instruments and drum machines.
For my film scores, I often use the drum KAT MIDI percussion controller, but I don’t really try to play the “drum set” sound per se, because it doesn’t sound quite the same. But I’ll play a lot of melodic things or other percussive things. I love playing pitched things with drum sticks. That’s a lot of fun.
Along with gamelans and other non-traditional “real” instruments, your film scores often feature steel drums, which you’ve used in almost every score since Solaris.
I’ve got 18 of them in the house, in three different rooms.
But you’re using the steel drums in odd ways, often to the point where one couldn’t identify the source of the sound as a steel drum. How are you processing them?
My favorite thing to use on the steel drums is the filter delay, which makes the lines and rhythms more complex, and creates a harmony as well, like the Edge does with his guitar work in U2. I have bass steel drums, too, and sometimes I’ll EQ one of them a little bit differently to bring out the metallic sound, and I’ll emphasize the bass so it has a warmer, lower frequency. Other than that, I don’t like to disguise the steel drums with too much processing, because they’re organic instruments. I do a lot of stuff with electronic instruments, like soft synths, so when I do use something that’s a genuine acoustic instrument, I like to leave it fairly exposed as an acoustic instrument.
You mentioned the unfamiliar harmonies that steel drums produce with electronic filtering. Does the gamelan offer similar effects?
The gamelan is often shaped something like a vibraphone or tubular bells; I have one with round bars and one with flat bars. I use the gamelans a bit more to outline melodies, and I process them a lot more than the steel drums. One of my favorite tricks with the gamelan is to electronically take off the attacks, so all you have is the ringing tone; I mike them very close, remove the transient, and get an ethereal, sustaining texture. I used that and other effects in my score for Solaris.
How much freedom do you have to express your individuality in a Hollywood film score?
A great deal, I think, although oftentimes the style or approach is dialed in by the director or picture editor who has cut in other music to edit the film to, because it’s very difficult to edit a film with zero music. Soderbergh, though, always challenges you – he’ll cut his film to the music of John Williams, and then ask me to do John Williams in my own way. Or, like with Contagion, he put in Don Ellis’ score from The French Connection.
So many film scores are literal-minded, as if the goal is simply to amplify what the images onscreen are conveying. How does a film composer avoid that redundancy?
It depends on what the film seems to need. Sometimes you do just magnify what’s there, if what’s there isn’t convincing or isn’t believable, or isn’t there in the right amount. If you’re trying to do something that’s intended to function as suspense and there isn’t enough suspense there on the screen without the music, then your job is to emphasize that intention.
But film music is more interesting when you don’t need to be repetitive, when the images are sufficient to convey what the dramatic intention is, and the music gets to do something different. Spring Breakers is a good example of a film where I used the music to create contrasting intentions or emotions. A lot of the scenes in Spring Breakers were intended to be shocking or threatening, and I used the music to iron out that threat or even remove some it.
You and Skrillex collaborated on the Spring Breakers score. While you wrote the more ambient, moody instrumentals, Skrillex did his trademarked electronic freakbeat type of thing. Did your individual styles rub off on each other?
We collaborated on several levels. Skrillex was brought in to contribute to the score before I was, and he had several songs that were signature pieces in the film, such as “Scary Monsters And Night Sprites,” one of his more well-known pieces. When I heard that in the opening scene, I thought, That’s the blueprint. So I took some of that song’s chord changes and melody, and scattered them throughout the score that I did. There were a lot of scenes that Skrillex scored on his own, and there were some scenes that I scored on my own, but we both had to keep in mind that we were trying to make not a schizophrenic soundtrack but a cohesive one, that stylistically all the material had to complement the other material.
You’ve recently scored Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep. How much input did he have with the film’s music?
Robert Redford was very hands-on and very astute about the music, as you can imagine, being the icon of filmmaking that he is. I’m a big fan of his movies, one of which was All The President’s Men, which Steven Soderbergh actually referred me to as a reference point for Contagion. I watched All The President’s Men, and [laughs] there must have been, like, ten minutes of music in the whole film, and I thought, That’s so Steven. But shortly thereafter I met Robert Redford and I asked him about that score, and he said, “Oh, that was such a shame, I really wanted more music in it but I didn’t have enough time to work with the composer. So he did it all on his own, and when it came time to mix I didn’t feel that much of it was appropriate, so there wasn’t much music that ended up in the film.” But Redford and I worked together very closely. He flew me out to Santa Fe for three or four weeks running, where they were editing the film, and I would bring about a half-dozen pieces of music and we would go over it. Then he changed the base of operations to L.A., and I was thrilled to have him come out to my house here in Topanga and we would get together once a week.
You’ve used your drummer’s unique facility for hearing and playing new timbres and tonalities to create film music that sounds gloriously unclichéd. Could it be your drummer’s ears that have pointed the way?
The most important thing I got from playing drums that I was able to bring with me into the world of film composing is the mindset of an accompanist: There’s no great band in the world that has a lousy drummer, and that the drummer’s job is to make everybody else look and sound good. And that’s how it is with film music: The music should not draw attention to itself; the music is supportive of the story. Some people never get that through their heads [laughs], but I did right away. That’s probably why the music I do is so stark and minimal, and leaves a small dramatic footprint.