Interview Exclusive | Cult Film Composer Paul Grimstad Talks Collaborations, Influences and His Secret Vault of Tracks

Paul Grimstad writes (Paris Review, New Yorker, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Music and Literature), teaches (Yale, NYU, Columbia), and composes film scores (FrownlandHeaven Knows What, the upcoming Jobe’z World and recent ADIFF highlight Thirst Street). But, most passionately and least known, he is a songwriter with a profuse catalogue of 500 plus songs which he’s composed, performed, engineered, produced and mastered himself. This superabundance is constricted, however, to a hermetically sealed musical chamber. Grimstad’s songs play, bounce, and reverberate, perpetually, between the apses and fissures of a near exceptionless privacy.

For several years, Grimstad felt no need to distribute his massive avant-pop song archive, fulfilled purely by his process. But now, he figures, why not share? They’ve been relished as a “cult object” within his auxiliary film community. Why not let more listeners into the vault?

His music is askew-pop that alternates between excitedly invasive, serene, fussily hyper-composed and insouciantly tossed off, filed to a knife’s edge and turning on a dime. It plays with genre like a B-Movie cocktail, but, at its most bewitching, quite often defies categorization.

This signature perversity finds its way into his compositions for film, too. But, as a film score must operate in accordance with the content of another author and medium, it is less unhinged, manic, and obsessive.

In our discussion, his music and process have an open door.

Thirst Street is your third collaboration with writer/director Nathan Silver, this being the most formal of the three. Does the heightened formality affect your end of the process?

Is it three? Man, I hadn’t realized that. And I hadn’t thought about it as being more formal than other things. With Thirst Street the overall musical world started with Sean [Price Williams], who shot the movie and with whom I’m always talking and texting with about music. When I was getting ready to dig in on Thirst Street he sent me some music by the French composer Gabrielle Yared, music from the film Invitation Au Voyage, and a few others, and I completely fell in love with this Yared music.

So this is another way of doing it, you immerse yourself in found music. Nathan’s also in on the conversation, and you start going “Yeah this Yared is really good, let’s try to capture some of this atmosphere, both the instrumental texture and the tunes.” You know, without actually copying them? So, in that case, there was this third party that was like “Here are some recordings that are really evocative and feel right for this Parisian setting”

Thirst Street reminds me of this Polanski film called The Tenant, you know it? There’s an almost occult strangeness to it, like a super dark amour fou. Yared seemed to hit on those different elements. So, in that case, I’d sit down before I start charting things and mess around with the analog synth with the Yared going on the stereo, just trying to get the sounds right. That’s like mixing colors. Its part of composing but you’re not actually writing tunes or parts. What you’re doing is sitting and creating timbres and then saving them thinking you might use them later when you’re on to the tunes.

The Yared influence seems to be most prominent in the beginning and end, and something more electronic tends to take over in the middle.

There really are a lot of cues! We worked hard to nail the main tune, the Thirst Street tune, not the one Lindsay sings, but the tune that plays when she’s seeing people off the plane. And that one’s overtly in the mode of Yared music I think. In the middle I remember eerie, floating patchwork things. To some extent, it’s all electronic. Even the most fussily 70’s sounding analog Yared inspired stuff is going have a certain electronic texture. Although there is one cue, when Lindsey’s sitting around her apartment thinking about Jerome and goes to the drug store, the instrumentation there is basically upright acoustic piano with a condenser mic on it. Nathan wanted a muffled, gauzy quality for it, so I rolled off all the mids. Then I inlaid these digital, sputtering, fireworks over the muffled piano. I like that piece a lot. I don’t think it has a name, but it’s a nice piece. I was trying to do something that was almost parodically French.

Sometimes the film will cut abruptly from your score to diegetic club music, or a desperate knocking on a door.

I think Nathan initially wanted those transitions to feel jarring. I recorded the Karaoke backing tracks to the music Lindsey sings to, one of which is Time Is On My Side, The Rolling Stones. Maybe they couldn’t get the licensing for that tune? Perhaps it was too expensive? In any case, it was very bizarre and fun to sit down and make recordings of cues that were designed to have this stilted lifelessness of karaoke backing tracks. The goal was to make them as cold and generic and square and unmusical as possible.

Why is it essential that, in Thirst Street, the score is driving a cut, or motivating a transition, rather than not?

Man, good question! I’m not sure I have a definitive answer, but that really gets to the heart of what you’re doing writing film music. You’ve got to be careful. I’ll be the first one to say to a director: “You might not want music here at all, it might be better without it.” I did a piece for Joe Swanberg a few years ago called Privacy Settings. This was an example where tension and atmosphere were heightened the less that was there. It’s not that there was nothing, it’s just that what you have is the barest suggestion of music. It’s the thing where you can’t tell it’s there but if it were gone, you would notice. In the case of Privacy Settings, it was a matter of adding this low end, pulse from a Prophet synth, which was perfect because it’s about this voyeur who’s following women around Chicago. It had just the right amount of tension. In the case of my work with Albert Maysles (god rest his soul), I had Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way in mind as a model. Just a gorgeous example of building a complete musical world with the bare minimum of material.

The guy who I think does this really well, who I admire, and that I think most people who’re interested in film music admire, is John Carpenter. The Fog, Escape From New York, and Christine, those are all very minimal scores. It’s not Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Chinatown, you know, which is completely beautiful, but is a lush, enveloping score. The Carpenter score is about how much atmosphere you can get through the smallest amount of musical information. You get this effect also from some of cues Miles Davis did for Louis Malle’s Elevator to The Gallows.

All that said, I would love to try a big, lush, Jerry Goldsmith type of score. Obviously, if you’re doing that it implies that what you’re working on has a large budget! I don’t even know if it’s common anymore. In the 70’s it was. Nowadays the top of the heap, you know Hans Zimmer or whoever, does all of his stuff in his own studio, or at least a lot of it.

I can notate and orchestrate in the conventional way. Though I am mostly self-taught and have little formal training in music. I taught myself to notate in my teens. I would love to do my version of the Chinatown score.

Are you always in on the conversation about whether or not a scene is better off without a score, or less of one?

Well, it depends. The Safdie Brothers have a good idea about how they want the music to sound and where it will go. In some earlier shorts I did for them like John’s Gone and another one called Good As Gold, things were blocked off, and they knew where the music would be. In the case of Heaven Knows What it was like “Tomita will be there, and Grimstad will be here, and then Ariel Pink will be there”. It wasn’t something that we discussed over beers, it was pre-decided.

With Mike Bilandic’s Jobe’z World, he had parts where he thought music would work. Then I did a few cues, and then he got excited about how the cues were transforming the scenes and decided that there were all these other spots that the music could go. So, in that case, the actual laying in of a couple cues led to further ideas of where more music might go.

Can we talk about your collaboration with Lindsay Burdge on the Thirst Street credits song? It’s so abstract to me that the two of you could make something so dependent on rhythm purely through long distance communication.

I had a sort of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet idea in mind, a torchy, sad, creepy ballad, and it ended up being the theme for Thirst Street and Lindsay sang it, as Lindsay, and we put it over the credits!

I cooked up this sort of fake Great American Songbook kind of tune, and after an hour or so I’ve got this Harold Arlen, Somewhere Over The Rainbow kind of song. At least that’s what I had in my mind. It came out strange and idiosyncratic. It’s not a straight-up pastiche of Somewhere Over The Rainbow but it’s in the ballpark. So I got this tune, and then write the words. Every lyric in the tune is taken from the plot of the movie. Everything that she sings, every line is derived from some aspect of Thirst Street and her character’s situation — along with some other Francophile stuff and a few references to other songs. So there’s a little world with the lyrics, very hermetic.

I made the recording in New York, and she’s in LA. So I send her these files, and we’re coordinating with Lindsay and Nathan’s friend who owns a studio and they both get the track. He drops the track in, opens up the mic and she sings it in LA.

I don’t remember if it was too low or too high, but the first pass was not in the right key. So I made a second one transposed up a whole step and record it again and send it back out there. Sure enough that one works, and Lindsey fucking nails it. It comes back, and then, on my end, I get a file of her voice isolated and I drop it into an open track. At that point I built the arrangement around her voice, and that’s what you hear in the film. It was a very strange way to create a piece of music, like building a house by starting with the roof.

Do you think this distant collaboration has made an impact on the finished sound?

What the track does have, which I think is real, is a feel of dislocatedness. Maybe I’m using my imagination here, but there’s, let’s say, an internal distance in the sound of the music and the way she sings. And that does have a technical basis. If you’re a musician and you’re building an accompaniment to a vocal take that already exists, it can’t help but be a bit unnatural and off. So that worked out well. There’s a certain kind of haunted, strangeness to the song that’s due, in part, but not entirely, to the way we recorded it.

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Paul Grimstad (left) helping a Yale student Source

 

With film composing there’s a pre-established impetus, goal, and a director guiding you. What’s the starting point for your songwriting/producing?

It’s so different, a whole different approach. Film composing is a relatively late development in my musical life. I started film music when I was maybe in my late twenties but I’ve been writing songs since I was about eight. Songs are just something I’ve pretty much always done. The process takes lots of different forms. I tend to either sit with a guitar or sit with the piano, and what I’ll try to do, I guess, is trick myself into singing little melodies to go with whatever I’m playing. I got into the habit over the years of carrying a dictaphone around. Because I make my living mostly as a literature professor, I find myself in hotels fairly regularly, and I always try to find the piano in the hotel and go down there with the iPhone and try to get 15 or 20 minutes on a piano. Being in a city or country I don’t know well, in an empty hotel ballroom alone, that’s an excellent environment to write music in.

Lots of times it doesn’t work, nothing happens, you’re waiting for the thing that you think might turn into something. I’ve got 100s and 100s of scraps like that on my phone and on cassettes. I’ve got music jotted down on notebooks and scrap paper. When I sit down and decide to make a record I get into this very intense, hyper-focused, daily ritual, and then I really just hunker down and record. Mysteroid was made like that, over a period of about 10 months. The songs themselves – or at least over the years it’s gotten to be this way – are usually Frankenstein patchworks of different pieces. The verse might be from 2001, and the chorus might be from yesterday. The Instrumental guitar section in the middle might be something from a dictaphone recording from a year ago, the chorus could be something that was strummed on a guitar ten years ago, and then you make up the structures in the course of recording. In that sense, I’m a cut-up songwriter. Everything is pieced together like a collage.

I like playing live too, I think I did 4 shows last year, but I’ve played live less and less over the years because, as you know from filmmaking and being on the set of films, keeping track of people’s egos is impossible. Getting musicians to show up and play at this or that time and at this or that place is itself just really hard work. Without a road manager or a publicist or a big label, you’re doing all that yourself. That’s really like a full time job all by itself! Then again, sometimes there is nothing better than getting in a rehearsal space and plugging things in and sweating a bit, you know? It helps that right now I’ve got a pretty ferocious 4 piece ready to kick out the tunes (Jeremy Blackman on bass, Kirk Miller on synths, Devin Collins on drums) And I should say that I really enjoy playing guitar live, just going out and doing a long improvised solo on guitar in front of a room of people is incredibly fun.

Can you speak a bit more technically about your studio process when making a record?

One of the most crucial elements of the process is drums. I’ve been doing it long enough that I have a procedure I’ve honed over the years. I don’t think anyone else quite works this way, maybe someone does, I don’t know. But what I do is, I will go with my digital recorder to a rehearsal space somewhere in Brooklyn or Manhattan and go around with a drumstick and make individual recordings of each piece of the drum kit. So I’ll grab 10 or 15 samples off the snare. Tune the snare up, hit it again. Tune the snare down, hit it again. Hit the snare hard, hit it soft. Hit the snare on the rim, hit the snare without the snare activated so it’s like a tom-tom. I will do that with every piece of the kit so that by the end of the session I’ll have something like 50 samples.

Then I dump the samples into this machine called an Akai MPC 2000. This is the old MIDI sequencer that was used by Public Enemy, you know, not the early early days of hip-hop, but the MPC was the late 80’s early 90s. It’s just a really good machine for creating sequences from live samples.  Once all the samples are dumped into the Akai I start programming, and the reason for all this laborious preparation is that, while I like programming drums, I don’t necessarily want it to sound overtly like a drum machine. You’ve heard my records. Did it strike you that those were not live drummers?

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AKAI MPC 2000 Source

 

I honestly assumed you had collaborated with a band.

Ah, good! See, I tricked you! Everything on the record, everything that you hear, is me, and the drums are all programmed using handmade samples in conjunction with the Akai. Drum sequences are like song maps, and programming is intensive coding. Once I’ve charted out the whole shape of the song on paper, I clamp that paper to this bench where I’ve got the Akai set up, and I turn on a pot of coffee, sit down, and basically write code for the whole song. Then the song exists more or less as an algorithm in the sense that every part is metrically programmed. I then run five tracks off the Akai through a MIDI cable and into an analogue to digital converter, and finally into the computer.

Once it’s in the computer, I’ll get out the guitar or sit at the piano and play through the song in time with the program. As I play, I am listening for glitches or anomalies. If something’s not right, I’ll go back in and start adjusting things to make it sound more like a live drummer. That’s another cool thing about the Akai – if you turn the quantizing all the way off, the machine actually sort of swings! If there are still artifacts, or unmusical glitches after the kit is tracked, then I’ll go in and try to edit on Logic. And Logic, while it sounds like shit inside the box, is a wonderful program if you use it only as an editing suite. I do all my summing analogue, actually, no bouncing off Logic at all.

So there are lots of stages of revision. I never want to feel backed into a corner, so that if you change your mind about an arrangement well into the process, you still have the option to make changes. It’s never the case where it’s like, “Well I’m stuck with this now.” I really build the house from the basement and the foundation up, which is percussion, usually, unless the song doesn’t have percussion. Then I lay down a metronome, pulses, tempos..

Then there is the whole other dimension of the words, and that rarely comes out in one go. I’ll piece phrases together here and there throughout the process. That’s all happening on a parallel track to the music, and I’m looking for ways to cross the word track with the music track.

When you’re the only one working on a song in this labor-intensive process surely you become desensitized. How do you stay in tune with it?

Huh, yeah, good question. I probably wouldn’t have been able to do this when I was 16, but now I can tell almost right from the beginning if an idea is going to be good. That I’ll be able to work with something through to the end without getting bored. That’s taken time, but I can almost immediately feel in my gut if a song is a keeper. That can be from a title, it can be from a melody, an idea for an arrangement. The idea might be so strong that you might be like “Hell yeah, keep that.” And sure, of course, sometimes you’re wrong! It takes a lot of experimenting to get down to the cool stuff.

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A still from Grimstad’s next film Jobe’z World Source

 

The desensitizing question is not so simple because you could have the greatest idea in the world, and yet still become desensitized to it. And if you work alone, as I mostly do, it’s also a matter of endurance. You have to be tough and see it through. If you know the idea is good, or you’re convinced it is, even if you’re sick of it after working on it for a month, there’s a part of you that has to go “Do the work,” get it done. And once it’s done you can figure out if you think it’s good, and other people can figure out if they think it’s good.

As you’re getting close to finishing a song are you also the one to determine the seal of quality before sealing it off? Or are there other listeners to help dictate that?

I’m the first listener of course. That’s all the way down to the master process, to the thing you hear on your earbuds. Then what I usually do is, when I feel I’ve polished something off, I’ll put it away and work on something else. I’ll start programming drums for something new, or start a piece of writing… Anything else. And when I feel enough time has gone by, 3-4 days, I’ll cue up whatever that track is that I thought was done. And on that reacquaintance I either go “Yup that’s ready” or I’ll go “Wow, I was really down the rabbit hole” the EQ’s really off, or the snare drum is too loud or the vocals are buried. Sometimes you’re so down into the recording that you’ve lost all reference to what things sound like. So it’s good to put it away for 2 or 3 days and go back to it after you’ve been doing something else for a while.

If it sounds good after that, I’ll play it for my wife, maybe my son if he is around. He is still not too judgemental, [laughs] he’s only nine. Then I have a couple of friends, my friend Ronnie who did Frownland. He knows my music really well and going back years and years and he’ll give me very detailed, feedback. Also Sean [Price Williams], he’ll put in the time to listen and say this is great, it’s done, or make a suggestion that might cause me to go back and change something. There are a few other people, the producer Don Fleming, a songwriter named Julian Shore, some of my bandmates, like Jeremy Blackman. And that’s about it, it’s a pretty tight circle of pals for that initial critical round, and then if things get to the point that I don’t feel they can be refined any further, then I save it to a drive and move on and do the next one.

The process is so enjoyable on its own that –. I mean, I love sending my record to you and having a new person hear it who’s never heard this stuff before. There’s something satisfying about that. But I’m actually kind of sad when something’s done. I don’t feel any sense of completion, I usually feel a little bit depressed. Because what I’ve been so addicted to and what’s been giving me so much ecstasy, has been the day to day process of making the thing, and what else is there to do but move on to the next one?

I should say that as a musician I’ve put very little effort into marketing. I’ve done almost nothing. Never had PR. I’ve been on labels. I recorded for Saddle Creek years ago. I toured in a more traditional indie rock presence in college in my early 20s. But that was the moment I realized I didn’t want to be someone on tour. That life is terrible! What I like is composing songs and recording them, and that’s almost where all of my energy is. There is so much backlogged material, at least 500 songs. So it’s weird.

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Heaven Knows What brought Grimstad and directors, the Safdie Brothers, much acclaim Source

 

In that sense, it’s different from the film work. With film work I’m hired by directors, I work collaboratively with them, I give them what they want, and I get paid. And then the music exists out there in the world in the form of the distribution and marketing that surround a given film. So in a way, I’ve gotten more notice for my film music.

I’ve written a hell of a lot more songs, and in some ways the more striking and more personal work is in the records, the songs. But because they’re these islands, they exist because I’ve made them and that’s it, there’s no media presence behind them, no corporate presence behind them, they exist almost as a cult object for people in the film community, which is so strange! I have more fans for my songs among people in the film world because I’ve worked in film, than I do among the music scene. It’s a strange paradox – and it’s not something that keeps me up at night – but I would like to crack the code to get these records across to a broader public.

So my lack of initiative on the promotion and marketing aspects is not diffidence about the material, I just haven’t set myself up in that way. I’ve managed to make my living as a writer, as a teacher, as a film composer, so the idea that I’ve gotta make my living as a guy touring in a band has never arisen in any existential way, and I’m glad for that.

It’s definitely odd. It’s not the conventional way, not that there should be, but it’s not the typical way of someone who writes music. It just ended up as the way I’m doing it.


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