Composer Alex Ebert infuses synth and American dream angst with 'A Most Violent Year'
"A Most Violent Year" marks musician Alex Ebert's second feature experience with film scoring. And he's having a blast. The Magnetic Zeros frontman's work represents a different hue and shade of identity for Chandor's films, a lurking, subtextual element that is less about dressing the films than speaking to their thematic undercurrent.
And like "All is Lost," which came with the closing track "Amen" (and earned Ebert a Golden Globe for Best Original Score), "A Most Violent Year" also boasts an original song. "America For Me" closes out the film as a wearied testament spoken from the point of view of one of the secondary characters in the film. It's bold and unique and almost at odds with the tidiness of the film otherwise, but that very conflict is also thematically relevant.
Ebert and I talked about that and a bit more, including the influence of artists like Popol Vuh, Vangelis and the rolling American landscape on his musical awakening. Read through the back and forth below.
"A Most Violent Year" opens Dec. 31.
HitFix: Let me actually start a little broadly. How are you liking film scoring in general after these two films with J.C.?
I'm loving it, man. I had the pleasure to do another one, too. It was a Disney short. It's out right now. It plays before "Big Hero 6."
Yeah. And that was really cool, too. That was different. And the song "America For Me," which I did for "A Most Violent Year" — I don't know if I reached my 10,000 hours or something but that culminated in a bit of a transformative experience for me as far as how I feel about songwriting. I feel like there's sort of a new landscape for me to explore now. Whereas just previous to that I was really just — man, pop music is just so boring to work on because I know exactly where I'm supposed to go for. Every song wants to go the same place. You want the verse, the chorus, the verse, the bridge — it's apparent. But obviously with scoring you get to go wherever you're supposed to go, wherever you need to go. And I think that's a major, major difference and sort of a liberating one. And even if they don't use it in the movie, which almost never happens — because when I write a piece I want it to be an entire piece. I don't really want to write a piece that's just for a scene and then you wouldn't listen to it on your own. So for the album sometimes it's the full version as opposed to what you hear in the theater. But yeah, in general it's just I feel like scoring is sort of liberating in that sense because this is always going to be blank, you know? As opposed to, you know, this sort of template.
Yeah, I've heard that before from those who have transitioned from being rockers or musicians in popular music to film scoring.
I imagine. I imagine it cannot be unique to me. It's such an obvious — it just hit me right over the head as soon as I was doing all these. Like, "Wow, this is just awesome."
So I imagine you're interested in working with some other filmmakers as well?
Yeah, yeah, sure. I mean the thing about film, as you know, is it's such a collaborative effort. It's a gamble. You read the script but you have no idea because it comes down to so many people. So I guess the real key is working with directors that you sort of trust and who trust you. In that sense I got really lucky starting off with J.C. because he's just great to work with. He gives you all the rope you need, sometimes enough to hang yourself on. But I think I probably lucked out beginning this way.
What were some of his first references when he came to you to describe what he wanted out of the music for this?
You know at first he said, "You're not going to score this one because this one's the needle drop. This one's just going to be, you know, songs from that era — preexisting songs." I believe he only ended up using one but then, you know, the shooting process or maybe it was even the editing process, he reached back out and was like, "No, it needs a score." And that's sort of the only preliminary talk we had. I started making stuff and then I would bounce it off him and then we'd sort of refine from there. It was a bit more ramshackle this time. It was more me like sort of throwing spaghetti on the wall. I kind of wanted to do some far-out type stuff and we would sort of have conversations after that about what was working and what wasn't for him.
What was elemental about that material for you? What were you taking from the movie and putting into that early music that you were cooking up for it?
Well, you know, the time period. It's a really cool time period musically. '81 is this amazing transitional period between sort of the organic sounds and the synthesized sounds that were incoming and the new instruments and whatnot. Of course burgeoning hip-hop, burgeoning punk rock, a lot of music was sort of being invented then. This band called Suicide came to mind, and not from watching the movie but just from sort of breathing in the text. I don't think I had seen it yet. And then mixing that and sort of somehow incorporating synthesizers and cold war era angst into the fuel that sort of fired a lot of that punk rock and hip-hop and the general violence and sort of hyperbolic capitalist drive of that era. So, yeah, a bit steely, a bit angsty, and then, of course, I also just wanted it to be beautiful. But I think they're somewhere in the DNA.
The synth stuff is interesting. I was just listening to it again a moment ago and I was kind of reminded of Popol Vuh a little bit. I don't know if that's something you had in mind but...
Sorry, what's the name?
Oh, wait. Did they do...
Did they do fucking Herzog's "Aguirre?"
Oh, how did you know? That is — shit. That score is fucking amazing. That's one of my references. That was one of my references.
Well actually, I must that was not a reference for the film. That was a reference of mine that I think I brought forth for "All is Lost." But I probably had moved on from that reference. But that's brilliant. So is that the only movie they scored?
I believe they did some other stuff with him but I don't know how much they worked with other filmmakers. I mean that's one of my favorite movies of all time and that score is so good.
Oh my God. You're preaching to the choir. He's — yeah that's up there. "Aguirre" may be in my top three or something. I mean it's unreal. It's so good.