We’ve just finished mixing our first soundtrack, for a documentary called Beyond Clueless, directed by Charlie Lyne. It’s a rather unusual film: Charlie took footage from hundreds of films from what he considers to be the second golden age of teen cinema, from Clueless to Mean Girls and, using a script (narrated by Fairuza Balk, who played Nancy in The Craft) and all-new music from us, created a contemplative and often beautiful meditation on the themes and psychic underpinnings of the modern coming-of-age movie.
We’ve known Charlie, who is probably best known in the UK for his influential film blog Ultra Culture, for several years. He’s come to several of our gigs, and we’ve been to the screenings he’s put on in London. We’ve become close friends, and being great lovers of cinema, we immediately said yes when he asked us to create the soundtrack to his film. He’s so talented that we knew it would be brilliant, and we’ve always wanted to create music for films.
It’s not the first time we’ve composed original pieces for projects outside the band (we’ve created soundtracks for documentaries on BBC’s Radio 3 and 4, as well as the usual complement of remixes and odd production bits), but it is the first time we’ve created an entire full-length feature film score. When it comes to our music, we’re lucky enough to work with a manager and label who pretty much let us do whatever we want. In the past, we’ve sent them potential tracks in batches of four or five and, taking their advice and comments on board, gradually pieced together an LP’s worth of material that we all agree is as strong as possible. Their feedback is invaluable; when you’re working on a song, it’s easy to get caught up in the process and lose all objectivity. They’re really good on song selection — sometimes you just need someone to regretfully inform you that they don’t think the song is up to par, other times they might urge us to finish up some half-assed idea that we didn’t realise had potential.
However, they don’t really impose creative limits or constraints; they’ve never asked us to focus on a particular sound or lyrical approach. We’ve had to find that direction ourselves. Theoretically, we could do a concept album about Barack Obama’s dog. Or Jeremy could play a two-hour guitar solo as Elizabeth reads recipes penned by Nigella Lawson. Through Auto-Tune. That’s a good thing, right? As an “artist,” isn’t it a wonderful freedom to be able to really explore what you want to say?
No, it’s not. It’s terrible. OK, not terrible, but creating something from scratch without any kind of brief or anything to kick against is sort of a nightmare. “Oh great! It can be anything we like!” is very close to “Oh, fuck! It can be anything we like.” That’s both tremendously liberating and an enormous burden. We don’t fit the cliché of the writer possessed by the spirit of art, words and music flowing from them like rain from the sky. Like most creators, we have to knuckle down and really work at it, and finding a starting point is often the hardest part of the process.
Which is probably why we loved doing the soundtrack so much. Before we started, we sat down with Charlie and went through the script, scene by scene, to figure out together what each segment needed, what the mood should be, what kind of “soundscape” to create, and what the emotional arc should be. It was the opposite of our usual writing situation, even to the point that we often even knew how long, to the second, each piece of music should be. Music and film complement each other in such an unusual way; that you see film differently depending on the music you hear is well known, but we were surprised to find how differently we heard the music once it was set to image. It was like having a multi-million-pound, Hollywood-produced, Alicia Silverstone-starring music video, and all we had to do was plonk some synths on it. Sorta.
One element of songwriting that we’ve always found difficult is that you never really know if it’s good. Or even what “good” means. Loads of songs that were critically considered “good” at the time made no dent in the annals of music history. That forever-elusive connection you want the song to make with the audience, the intangible element that makes one particular composition top the charts, while millions of other songs fall flat… well, it’s completely out of your control. Once again, that’s not a problem when you’re doing a soundtrack. For a start, the word “good” means something definite for once; it means the director likes it, it means you’ve fulfilled your brief, that it works in the context of the film. And for once even you, yourself, can see that. Watching music we’ve made score a piece of film, we feel like we can almost experience it from the point of view of the audience. You actually can tell objectively whether or not it works (hopefully).
But, of course, right now we feel a little regretful about this — a film soundtrack is not an album. It’s an accompaniment to something else. It’s important, sure, but it’s a part of a bigger vision. Maybe that’s another part of why we liked doing it so much: there’s less pressure. You can hide behind the director, and point at them if people don’t like it. And while you still invariably put a lot of yourselves into the music, the message you’re sending isn’t solely your own. It’s still a wonderful way to work, though. Perhaps from now on we’ll pretend every song we write is for a film. A film about Barack Obama’s dog doing a guitar solo.
(Beyond Clueless will premiere at SXSW on March 10. More information about the film is available here.)