Keeping Score: Liars' Aaron Hemphill & Angus Andrews on their '1/1' film score | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Keeping Score: Liars’ Aaron Hemphill & Angus Andrew on Their ‘1/1’ Film Score


Nov 29, 2018 Web Exclusive By Charles Steinberg Bookmark and Share

Welcome to the first installment of Keeping Score, our new column examining film soundtracks and their creation.

A special curiosity comes from discovering that a favorite musician has scored the music for a film soundtrack. It’s like learning that a beloved actor has tried directing (e.g. Jonah Hill’s mid90s - and please get into the music coordinated for that gem), or that a singer you love is also a novelist or painter. For fans equally passionate about contemporary music and cinema, there has been some really tantalizing crossover of late. While Trent Reznor, along with Atticus Ross, has continued to solidify his rarified place as one of the great songwriters and film composers ever, others have tried their hands at the transfer with stirring success. Jonny Greenwood and Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, both could have won the Oscar last year over Alexandre Desplat for their scores to Phantom Thread and Good Time respectively. Mogwai has recently followed up its low-key incredible track record of film scoring (Atomic, Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait, etc.) with its first score for a feature-length film, KIN. Meanwhile, Geoff Barrow of Portishead has alongside producer Ben Salisbury crafted two of the scariest/most beautiful scores in recent years to Alex Garland’s filmic masterpieces Ex Machina and Annihilation. And Michael Stein & Kyle Dixon of the Austin,TX analog synth band S U R V I V E have given us the gloriously retro synth score music to the series phenomenon Stranger Things. In a recent article, Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai relays that the doors are currently quite open to the world of film and television scoring for contemporary musicians, “I think how good – and well received – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtracks have been has opened up the film and TV industry to using more non-traditional soundtracks…From our perspective, after The Social Network more people were willing to talk to us about these things.”

The experimental post-punk-electronic band Liars, formerly a composing tandem of Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill – and now just Angus – took a welcome step over the line this year with their score to the independent film 1/1, starring Judd Nelson and Lindsey Shaw and written and directed by avid fan Jeremy Phillips. The music for the film is an extension of Angus ad Aaron’s intensely visceral, mixed-rhythm percussive work for Liars, pumping blood into the pastiche kineticism of the imagery and giving it the apt feel of a fraught artistic music video at times. The music cycles around in its own plagued discomfort, some of it recalling Trent Reznor’s opening credit music for Seven. Still there are holes to breathe through and contemplative sections that most good scores will allow for. The work not only compliments the tone of the film but can be enjoyed as a stand-alone album listen.

Close fans of Liars will know that ever since Angus was in school at Cal Arts, during which time he met Aaron at an LA record store (I stupidly didn’t ask which one!) they’ve always considered their music highly influenced by and compatible with visual art. Their 2006 album Drums Not Dead, for example, was released with a DVD that contains three full-length video companions to the album. “The reality, I would argue, is probably that the ideas of sound combined with images is the real beginning of the band back in art school,” Angus told me from “deep in the bush” in Australia where I managed to connect with him. “Of course, being in art school meant combining sounds with something visual or tactile. It’s never been a big leap.”

No, it hasn’t. I remember listening to Liars albums like 2014’s incredible WIXIW – which incidentally, Phillips listened to as he wrote the script for the film –through my earbuds during that summer of its release and winding through streets and tunnels feeling like an invisible ninja. Tracks like “Octagon” transformed mundane city traverse into hoverboarding and felt distinctly appropriate for the by equal measure layered and stripped beauty of the landscape that I had long since taken for granted. That cinematic chord is struck and sustained through much of Liars’ late catalog leading up to the pieces of music for 1/1, the last compositions Angus and Aaron would work on together, well sort of together…we’ll get into that. But the feeling that music video lovers know very well, the one of tingling curiosity when one of your favorite songs gets illustration, sets in during the opening sequence of the film, where vibrating Liars drum punches usher the setting straight to your senses.

Charles Steinberg (Under the Radar): I’m particularly interested in this because I have a deep affinity for film music. It’s always been a real obsession of mine and I’ve never had the chance to talk with a composer about their score before, so this is pretty cool. With Liars, it seems the music always had a strong relationship with visuals. For you personally, when was it that you first had the notion to write music for film and when did you first recognize the power of the soundtrack and the moving image?

Angus Andrew: Well that’s a good question. The reality, I would argue is probably that the ideas of sound combined with images is the real beginning of the band back in art school. We were less interested in necessarily songwriting and were just amazed by the possibilities of making sound. Of course, being in art school meant combining sounds with something visual or tactile. It’s never been a big leap. The truth is the reverse, that the bigger leap was when we started to write songs and albums with choruses and verses and stuff like that. That’s more foreign to me. For me personally, I would honestly be happy to just make sounds all day, every day. It’s such a fun thing for me to do. Instinctively, I love to shoot video and photographs myself and most of the time when I’m working on an album, I’ll go shoot things like that and put sound to it just so I can get a sense of how the sound is working, if it can tell me anything about it when I connect it to the environment I’m in. It’s something that I think is very instinctual for me.

So at what point did you decide you wanted to make music for film? Did it just occur to you when this opportunity came around?

Aaron Hemphill: We (actually) made this soundtrack four years ago. It was the last world cup, that’s how I remember it. At the time we felt that we would make music for anything and try anything just to be open. The way we made music was very separate and so in a sense, it was almost like we were working as our own composers. (But each of us was eager to take film composing on.) Especially now, it seems like the logical next step for a band or performing musicians with any longevity is to get into soundtrack work.

Yeah there seems to be more room now for the pallet of electronic or experimental music in film scores than ever before. Of course, there were the early scores of Vangelis and Maurice Jarre and others but it certainly seems to be wide open for that now.

Aaron: I don’t know if it’s so much that it’s opening up more or if that sort of (sound) is becoming a bit more cool. Or rather, more common and popular. For example, I have the soundtrack to Dune from Toto and now when you open an Emerson Lake and Palmer gatefold and see the guys with too much gear, it’s kind of exciting whereas I think a few years ago it seemed indulgent. I think music is going into a phase now where that sort of equipment is popular and I think those particular soundtracks that utilize that equipment are being reanalyzed with a fondness.

I think of the guys that are at the head of the film composing field, guys like Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman and how they came from pop bands first. Were there any cues you took from artists like that?

Angus: You know who I think is the most exciting one person like that, honestly, is that guy Cliff Martinez. I love his stuff. He was like the drummer for The Chilli Peppers or Captain Beefheart maybe. I don’t know [It’s both]. And now he’s just become kind of a mainstay on interesting movies. He’s a good example of someone who has gone in a really interesting direction.

Yes. I didn’t know his background in bands, I only knew him from his film score work. Like for Drive.

Angus: Oh, he did Drive did he? Ok, yeah. I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie Contagion with Jude Law that he wrote the music for. That’s the one when I remember saying “Damn, who did this?” That was one time I remember doing that. Who else… Underworld. The bloke from Underworld moved into doing some movie stuff that I think I like as well.

Aaron: The biggest one for me is Mark Mothersbaugh. I don’t like all the movies that his music appears in but I like all of the music itself. He did the soundtrack to a TV show called Last Night on Earth recently and I thought it was fantastic. And Danny Elfman as you mentioned. You can’t act too cool for Danny Elfman. The Pee Wee’s Big Adventure soundtrack is incredible. Just because it’s not modular synth, you can’t think it’s uncool. Honestly, I’ve never owned an Oingo Boingo record. I really have no interest in it, no offense to Oingo Boingo fans, but (Elfman’s) soundtrack work is iconic. The Batman score, all that stuff is super important. Conversely, it’s odd how you have some of my favorite groups like the (Keith) Levene era of Public Image Limited, who wanted to get into soundtrack work and I think they dabbled in it, but it’s not remarkable.

What did they try? I didn’t know that about them.

Aaron: God, I think some really obscure stuff. And then The Cure had that cassette Carnage Visors where the whole of side two was from a soundtrack they did. I maybe need to revisit it but it didn’t make the impression that for example, the Batman theme song did. Now I really enjoy how whoever is responsible for the music uses already written material in accordance with the scene. For example, Wong Kar Wai did this film In The Mood For Love where he syncs the music so well with the scenes. I think he used the music of Nat King Cole singing in Spanish and it’s pretty amazing. That’s something I think about when I do soundtrack work, rather than watching a timecode on a screen with synth keys set up.

How was it that Jeremy Phillips came to look for your music for the film. Was he a fan of Liars?

Angus: Yeah. He asked to meet us and basically, the first thing he said to us was “I wrote this film listening to WIXIW.” And right when he said that, both Aaron and I were like cool, we can do this then. Because he understands who we are and what we’re doing. It’s not just some sort of random person. He really knew our aesthetics and ideas.

How did he interact with you in the process?

Angus: He really had some interesting ways of inspiring us. Apart from just giving us notes, there was this particular email and it kills me that I’ve lost it, but he gave us some really abstract one or two line directives on the mood he was trying to create in a certain scene and it would be like “I want the viewer to feel like they’re blindfolded and underwater,” for example. Those kind of directives were really the things we went off.

Was Jeremy thinking of particular moods and you introduced other ideas and he said oh yeah, let’s go in that direction or were you on the same page from the beginning?

Angus: Honestly, the first thing you have to come to terms with when you work on a project like this is that it’s not your project. It’s the director’s vision. We made a lot of music for this project and we kind of came to the same question to the one that you’re raising, which is similar to anyone who works in a creative capacity, working in collaboration. The question is how much do you give them? If someone has asked you to come up with a logo for their company, do you give them a hundred versions or do you give them three? It’s a tough question when you’re working in this capacity. From the start, Aaron and I understood that we really just wanted to help Jeremy make what he wanted to make, what he saw in his head. We really felt like he’s the boss here and we’ll make music according to his instruction and he will be the one who decides how much of it gets used. So, to answer my own question, what we decided when we finished tracking was, “Look let’s just give him everything!” Let him decide what to use and what not to. He got really into the idea of using the music and I think that he used more of it than he initially planned to. Because we gave him so much, he sort of started to get excited and see where things might go in other places etcetera. So it wasn’t our choice and I just think that’s a big part of the relationship; understanding that this isn’t our movie. We’re employees and trying to help him as best as we can and that’s really what we told him from the start.

Aaron: It sounds kind of arrogant but I saw my job as making something that he didn’t know he wanted and that I didn’t know would fit. I can’t speak for Angus but my goal was not to sit in front of a timecode and get really nerdy but to make something that I connect with and connect to the film and Jeremy would change the theme to it. Jeremy was thorough with sync times and the mood he asked for and we like working with people who are upfront. So we would think about what he asked for and then give him something a little unexpected. Sometimes I listened back to it and thought “How the hell is this going to work in a film?” But I’m glad I made it. What I realized in this process was (not only) thinking about the footage I saw, but the guy who made it. Because (ultimately) you’re making music to make this person like it.

Did you feel yourself pulling from any of your own experiences for a scene? Like intimacy or partying?

Aaron: It came more from Jeremy and how he would describe a certain scene. I thought more about how he would be. It does sound impersonal or removed but even when I write my own songs, like if I feel sad about something that happened and want to write about it, it never works. There were certain scenes (where I did). There was an intimate scene with some softer music, but I don’t want people to think of me, or at the time, Liars. At the time I had seen some films with soundtracks that didn’t appeal to me because they interrupted the film too much and gave me a picture of the band playing live. I think that can happen with some composers or musicians and I hope that wasn’t the case. If (soundtracks) give a feel or a presence, that’s cool, but not a face. You don’t want three guys in a band to appear when the guy is kissing someone in bed or when a woman is talking to her daughter.

Yeah, I think of scoring as an exercise in restraint, like how heavy do you want your hand to feel. Did you feel that proved to be true in your process and approach? In the film, there are some pieces of yours that are really out front and then there are those that are quite embedded.

Angus: To be honest, between you and me, there are not a lot of times when I really like film music and quite often, the music is too much. Sometimes it’s really interesting when there’s no sound. I think No Country For Old Men had no music. But maybe that’s beside the point.

Aaron: Yes, it is an exercise in restraint and it can also feel very relieving because you don’t need to pronounce an entire world. You have the visual component already there, so you can have one note on a synth and it’s perfect. That can be really exciting and it’s very contrary to writing a song alone. I always worry “Does this make sense, is it clear, is there enough here?” but with a film, most of it is there already and you kind of have to leave it alone almost. It’s like underlining. Underlining a sentence is just a single line, it’s not letters.

I remember a couple of scenes jumped out at me with tension and anxiety. Like the score piece when Lindsey’s character had her nose bleed right after she finds out she was pregnant. That kind of sounded and felt like the opening credit sequence from Seven.

Angus: That’s funny because the aesthetic of the film has a lot in common with Seven’s aesthetic. With the use of photographs…I think musically there’s some connection too. I do remember the intro, didn’t (Trent) Reznor write that? Yeah.

Then towards the end, there’s a turn upward in mood and hope, when the main character is trying for a positive relationship with her mom and to move forward. What was the direction then to move into that palette.

Angus: The most blunt way of saying it is that Jeremy was intent on having the ending sound more uplifting than (the rest) of the movie. I do remember the scene towards the end when there were photos again, (this time) of the whole family. The piece (used there) was called “Beyond” or something like that and it just framed for me this whole change of mood. A push-up. We really wanted the end and the credits not leave you in your seat going “what a bummer.”....I remember having a lot of fun with that last piece, partly because you’re reaching the end of the project and it was asking for something a little bit more fun and it was an extended outro.

It seems to me that it would be both helpful and challenging to work with someone else in scoring because on the one hand, you have another set of eyes and ears, but how you’re experiencing what you’re watching can be really subjective. How did that balance out with you?

Angus: [With me and Aaron] It’s pretty easy in the sense of understanding who’s done something that’s going to work for whatever we’re working on. We both have always worked separately from each other. On this, even though we were in the same house in Denmark, we retreated to our separate spaces and worked on stuff and then brought it to each other. I think the best thing about a collaboration is understanding how you fit together and [appreciate] that someone is offering something different than you and that’s great. For example, we’d both have a shot at the same scene and come together and say “Oh no, you nailed it. The direction you’re going is the much more the way it should go.” That‘s one of the best things about being in a creative relationship. Being able to understand when the other person has got the reigns or when you do.

Are there any composers who you study or emulate. Because you’d like to do more of this yeah?

Aaron: Yeah, I’ve been doing a bit of it in Berlin. My friend Hildur Guðnadóttir used to work with Jóhann Jóhannsson and she worked on The Revenant with Ryuichi Sakamoto. She’s a force and a real inspiration. Now I think I’m more into the Burt Bacharach style where it’s not so drone and it’s more like a character has a theme. I don’t know if people want that type of dramatization any more, but I like that kind of music. (As I mentioned) Mark Mothersbaugh’s work, because he uses traditional instruments like the pedal steel to really great effect. I always like when people are using other instruments than what the current flow is. Right now you can score a film in so many ways and I really like the idea of writing pop songs to score a film. That’s where Bacharach comes into play. Another example is A House Safe for Tigers with Lee Hazlewood music, which is great, or McCabe and Mrs. Miller using Leonard Cohen songs.

What’s next, scoring wise?

Angus: I was in LA for the premiere of this movie and I met with quite a few people, as you do. And one of the meetings was with a guy who’s whole job is preview music (Toddrick Spalding). He was explaining to me how the trailer works as a completely separate entity from the film and how they’re farmed out to trailer houses and each of them pitches their own take of what the trailer’s music should be and the music most often doesn’t come from the film. You’ve just got to come up with it. That kind of blew my mind. I didn’t think of trailers in that way. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s a lot of stuff that goes on in the audiovisual world that isn’t just soundtracks. I think that’s interesting. As I say to a lot of people, I love writing songs but what I can really spend all of my time just making mood pieces. Songs are great but there are a lot of limitations. Working on soundtracks and soundscapes is much more freeform and exciting to me.


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