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.

 

“Fields” Music Video

My folks were both raised in small, rural towns in Texas, but moved to Houston in the 1970s, where I was born. I spent my childhood, then, living in the suburbs and for holidays, summers, different events, shuttling back and forth out to farm and ranchland and towns too small for grocery stores. I spent a lot of time there.

A few years ago, my grandmother started experiencing rapidly declining health. I had moved to Los Angeles by then, an even bigger city even farther away, and felt tremendous remorse at not being around. I spent a lot of time thinking about the days and weeks I’d spent as a kid with my grandmother — and the self-sufficiency that kids were just expected to have. The here’s-a-dollar-walk-into-town-and-buy-some-candy-or-something-be-back-for-dinner laissez-faire approach to childcare that was so empowering and fun and formative and now has almost been literally outlawed. It’s a shame. The song “Fields” came out of those memories.

As I was working on this album, my grandmother passed on. While I was packing for the trip to go back to Texas, it dawned on me that while the emotional ties I have to that area will always be there, the literal and physical ties were now almost gone. Even now, I could no longer navigate the roads with no names that I drove so many times to get to her house. So I took a camera with me, because I didn’t want to forget those scenes and images that to be honest I took for granted for too much of my childhood.

A lot of footage I shot on that trip made it into this video. Maybe that could seem morbid to some, or too personal, but to me it’s a celebration. This was a difficult song to sing in the studio, something I tried not to shy away from in the video, and it was a difficult video to put together. But this is all very deeply a part of me, and wrapping it in a few bars and pictures and handing it to the world like that felt like the best way I had of sharing it.