A Burning Ember to a Grove of Trees

A Burning Ember to a Grove of Trees CoverHere we are, less than ten months after releasing our album Dust Among the Stars, with a surprise EP. It combines new recordings and previously released singles in one collection, most of which share a message of (cautious) optimism despite our current social calamities, and it was important to me to get this out before the 2016 Presidential election. These are our most political songs, and I’m sure I’ve never written an “important” song, but these are probably as close as I’ve gotten.

The EP kicks off with a brand-new song “In the End,” which was written in response to the constant howl of this election season, and recorded the first week of October. So that was, like, last week. It was the unexpected chance to jump in the studio and record this song that made the EP possible.

I’m basically a folk singer, and I felt like I had to get something out there about all this noise. Because the thing is, the votes are going to get counted and one of the candidates is going to go away, but we’re still going to be stuck with each other, and I think people have lost sight of that. I’m not a political party kind of guy, I care about human beings. I care about empathy and I’m terrified at how easy it is to lose that for other folks. You know, Woody Guthrie wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitars, but Pete Seeger wrote “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” on his banjo. I think that second one is the sentiment I was going for the most.

To go along with the track, I also made an immersive, 360-degree music video shot inside the studio, showing four of me performing all of the instruments. This’ll probably hurt your head:

Lyrically, “In the End” focuses on all of us bearing some responsibility for how we treat each other, and the fact that when people are hurting, we have to turn *to* one other, not turn *on* one another. That sentiment ties the track to two previously-released songs on the EP that come from the same emotional place – “Just to Win the Fight” and “A Mile of Ground.” Both of those were released in slightly different forms in 2012 and remastered for this EP. They focus on the human aspect of struggle and conflict, and the human cost.

Two cover versions of folk standards “Goodnight Irene” and “House of the Rising Sun” round out the EP. Our take on Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” is being released for the first time, and was recorded during the Dust Among the Stars sessions.

The title of the EP, which has more words in it than the release has songs, is a metaphor for fear, which we could all do with a little less of, and is adapted from a line in “Just to Win the Fight.”

Score!

The independent superhero comedy Spaghettiman made its theatrical debut in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and is now available on VOD from all the places (iTunes, Amazon, etc). It’s about a self-centered, lazy, and generally repugnant slacker named Clark who gets the ability to shoot spaghetti out of his hands, then uses that ability to fleece crime victims out of some cash. It’s a legitimately good movie, and I have to tell you, the music is pretty kick-ass.

And I’m not just saying that because I made it…

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I want to give the credit to director Mark Potts (who also made the wonderful Cinema Six), because he had the vision for what the score should be, and I was happy to be able to execute it. Mark and I have a mutual friend, and after I saw Cinema Six, I reached out to Mark to let him know that if he wanted to use any Sci-Fi Romance songs in future movies, I’d be happy to make that possible. He responded that he was actually about to start shooting a new movie in a few days, and they were looking for a composer, if they could afford one. So we went to get drinks.

Mark wanted Spaghettiman to be a ridiculous send-up of superhero conventions, but played totally straight. No winking to the camera, no broad slapstick or direct parody, just everyone taking these absurd things happening around and to them seriously. The script was written by the Heckbender comedy team, Benjamin Crutcher, Winston Carter, Brand Rackley, and Mark, and I read it and loved it. I totally got it — in spirit, it had a lot in common with Return of the Forest Monster, the horror comedy I made over a decade ago.

Mark pitched the idea of a big, rock and roll score. Very sort of self-serious, like the characters in the movie. Not rock songs, but a legitimate film score, just played by a rock band. I told him I was pretty sure I could do that, and I came aboard.

I tried to apply film score “rules,” as best as I understand them. So for one, I created character themes.

Here’s the “Spaghettiman Theme,” which plays when mild-mannered slacker Clark goes into Spaghettiman mode:

Dale, Clark’s deliriously supportive roommate, also got a theme:

Both of these themes evolve over the course of the film as the characters change. There’s also a minor theme for the movie’s other main character, an ambulance-chasing freelance videographer named Anthony. His theme weaves in and out of other pieces of music to subtly indicate his presence, and his ultimate importance to the movie.

I worked very, very late at night and recorded all the instruments into my desktop. It was kind of amazing to be in the theater for the premiere and remember things like, “Oh, I remember doing that at 3 am and the cat started meowing and blew the take…” I’m happy it turned out as well as it did.

I did make a vocal version of one of the songs, and the video is below. It’s written from the perspective of the character, so this isn’t an indication that I’ve turned my back on my usual sort of cautious optimism about humanity. For about $6, you can buy the whole score on Amazon, Bandcamp, and iTunes, even though Apple seems to be hiding it for some reason…

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Out front of the Vintage Los Feliz 3 in LA for the premiere

Film Scores, Inspiration, and Whatnot

I’ve had some conversations this week about inspiration, and finding yourself in unfamiliar artistic waters, and it reminded me of something I’d written earlier this year, but never got a chance to share. Infectious Magazine wanted me to write a guest piece about film scoring, and instead I gave them a shaggy dog story about how an unconventional piece of music changed my musical path. They didn’t really go for it, so I gave them another piece they liked better.

But I liked the first draft, too, and I thought it was a nice look at how opening yourself up to things outside of your regular artistic focus can have wonderful repercussions. So here goes…

Without a doubt, the single piece of music that has had the most tangible impact on my life is Moussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and there’s a bright line between me seeing that performed for the first time and all of my film composition work. Many years ago, while in college, I was playing drums in a progressive metal band, and our cellist was in her campus orchestra. They did Pictures at an Exhibition, which I’d never heard, and my seat was right up front, in front of the double basses. I watched them for most of the performance, and, even though I’d seen orchestral music performed before, this was the first time for me that an orchestra stopped being a unified wall of music-making, and I was able to recognize the disparate parts, and begin to recognize how much or little the different sections played, and how these many pieces fit together.
I don’t know that I’d ever written a song at that point, and I’d only ever played drums — maybe I was just starting to pick up the guitar — so the idea of creating melodies was not something that I’d ever really entertained. But after that night in San Marcos, Texas, I downloaded a modular software synth and started exercising a totally new set of muscles.
 
I was also a filmmaker. A few months later, I was directing a short film with a big surrealism element, and I happened to find a harpsichord abandoned in a dark hallway (different story for a different day). I thought surrealism and harpsichords would go together just like melting clocks and barren trees, so I wrote a four-minute piece for solo harpsichord to go with the movie, and bam! I was a film composer.
 
Over the years since, I wrote quite a bit of (mostly) electronic music, trying to learn more about different voices, different textures, and just overall composition. Some of that music was specifically for film projects of my own or for friends’ projects, and some of it I just wrote and it later found its way into films. So with film composition as a sort of sideline hobby, I started paying more attention. Requiem for a Dream and Amelie came out about the same time, and both totally changed how I thought about film music. A year or so later, maybe, Turner Classic Movies hosted a Young Film Composers Competition, giving burgeoning composers the opportunity to score classic silent films. I watched everything I could about that, and learned a lot about traditional approaches to scoring — things like character leitmotifs. As I got more tuned-in to that kind of thing, I started thinking of film music as a way of communicating information, in addition to enhancing onscreen emotion. There’s a great example of the score actually telling a joke in Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, when a little kid of dubious parentage walks into a room. And Bernard Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock is legendary; in the moment in Vertigo when James Stewart is at his most emotionally fraught, and the music is swelling, suddenly there’s somebody just raking their fingers across a harp. You’ve never heard anybody do that to a harp, and even if you don’t consciously realize it, your brain registers that we’re in a new, terrifying place in this person’s psyche.
 
I don’t know that I’m qualified to give anybody advice on film scoring (or, anything, really), but my own path has involved 1) knowing and meeting people making films, 2) consciously trying to evolve and try new things as someone who writes music, and 3) learning how to play more instruments…or at least learning enough to screw around on more instruments.
 
Over this past summer, I was asked to score a complete feature film for the first time, and I think we took a pretty unique approach to the idea of a film score. The director asked if he thought I could do a “rock and roll score” — not songs, but essentially a traditional film score played with loud-ass guitars, distorted bass, and booming drums. After years of playing drums in rock and metal bands, playing guitar in a couple rock bands, writing and recording some 30+ songs with my band Sci-Fi Romance, and whatever on-the-job training I got from working in the world of short films…well, I was sure as hell going to find out if I could.
 
And if you think about it, Pictures at an Exhibition is really a film score, even though it was written before there was such a thing as film. Modeste Moussorgsky attended an art gallery showing of works by a friend who had recently died. Afterward, Moussorgsky wrote a piece of music for each painting on display, and connected them all with a Promenade theme, which evolves and changes as you move through the temporal experience of the show. It’s putting music to picture. And maybe nobody’s ever done it any better.