An interview by Scott E. Weinberg. Originally posted at Cinematical.com. Reposted here partially to indulge my own ego, and partially because AOL/Huffington Post were giant dicks to Cinematical, and I’d rather people read the interview here than give them hits.
Normally I approach “fan-made” remixes (be they audio, textual, or visual) with a grain of salt, a little charity, and a general sense of disinterest. But it took me less than ten minutes of Fatboy Roberts‘ recent release — Geek: Remixed III — before I realized how impressive this stuff was. My first exposure to his music was via the excellent Portland cartoonist / film critic / bon vivant Mike Russell. My reaction? “I love this Mario Bros. track because it’s not ironic.”
Mr. Roberts was truly enjoying the goofy little Mario ditty, and he wanted to make it sound a little, well, funkier. But then he approached movie music masters like John Williams, Ennio Morricone, and Jerry Goldsmith with the same amount of respect; Fatboy’s additions actively complement the already-excellent music that we know and love. This is not an over-caffeinated kid who is blaring noises over the ‘Jaws’ theme, but a sincere movie-lover who also has a real gift for bad-ass beats.
So I told the guy we should chat. And we did.
Harsh critics call this stuff plagiarism. Loyal fans call it a new angle on some great music. What’s your take?
It’s a nostalgia bath, really. Auditory comfort food. At least, that’s how I always looked at it. Both from the perspective of the stuff I’m sampling and the way I’m interpreting it: I’m taking the music of my nerdy formative years, and combining it with the sort of hip-hop production they stopped doing right around 1997, right before sample laws got really harsh and people started making beats that sounded like they were learning on a Casio made out of Tupperware. I can see the plagiarism argument: I’m essentially taking some genius from John Williams / Jerry Goldsmith / Danny Elfman, taking a razor blade to it and then throwing a sack of breakbeats at it. It’s not entirely original. But “originality” and “pop music” don’t necessarily go hand in hand anyway. Ask Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters what they think about Led Zeppelin’s existence, you’d probably get a different answer than the one Robert Plant would give you.
Every track (from all three albums) contains a theme from a film, a TV show, or a video game. Why is popular culture more fun to sample from than the more traditional DJ resources?
I started doing it because I was a nerd, and I thought there were hidden nuggets of unrecognized funk in some of these movie scores, and especially in the TV themes, and as I was learning how to make beats in the mid-’90s, I realized that you can’t just keep going to the same James Brown/Zapp samples. (That said, I think there’s a Zapp/JB/Parliament sample on every Geek: Remixed album.) And honestly, it was fun to play back a tape for my friends, have them nod their heads, and then spring the sample on ’em like “Oh yeah, you were just dancing to the theme from Barney Miller.” “WHAAAAA?” “Yeah, and then for my next trick, you’re going to start wilding out to Unicron’s Theme from Transformers: The Movie” “SHUT UP.”
When you hear a musical score you admire, do you start remixing it in your head right away, or does it take a while before you love something enough to “monkey” with it?
It typically takes a while. I think I make note of the moments when a cue feels like it can be flipped and re-arranged to fit a more typical song structure, but they don’t really make themselves apparent to me until I sit down and start deconstructing the cues into their component parts: 4-bar string rhythm here, big orchestral hit there, melody, bass line. From there, I can start stacking parts of cues like funky Lego blocks, adding and subtracting things until I get something nice and chunky sounding to play with.
For example, the ‘Doctor Who‘ remix I did on the third album; I knew it’d been remixed before, to wide acclaim, both by the KLF and by Orbital. But I didn’t know until I sat down for a couple hours separating out the bass and the melodies that my version was gonna end up sounding like someone stuck the TARDIS on 20″ rims and gave it hydraulics. Same thing happened with the Cobra Theme from ‘GI JOE: The Movie.’ But sometimes, like with “Why So Serious” from ‘The Dark Knight‘ – I know exactly how it’s gonna work on first listen.
Music or movies: you have to choose one. What do you do?
I think I go movies. But it’s kind of a cheat, since some of the most powerful and compelling moments in film are only achieved because of the score behind them. The first 15 minutes of “Up,” for example. But I think the opportunities for storytelling are richer in film, ultimately. Especially if you throw in television — some of the finest storytelling ever captured on camera has spilled out over the course of 10 episode story arcs on shows like ‘The Wire’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica.’
What are some of your favorite film scores and/or composers?
John Williams during his golden period: ’77 – ’85. I know others will say that should probably extend out to around ’92 or ’93. Recently, Bear McCreary’s work on ‘Battlestar’ is just awe-inspiring, and Michael Giacchino is some kind of phenom. Lalo Schifrin and John Barry are two of my bigger inspirations as well. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is probably the best piece of Bond music ever written, and even if the Propellerheads hadn’t perfectly reinterpreted that on their own, I think I’d STILL be too scared to attempt touching it. It took me three albums before I finally decided to try remixing “The Asteroid Field” from ‘The Empire Strikes Back.‘ I mean, I know that I’m not REALLY ruining these songs with these remixes. The originals are still there, and if anything, a crappy remix just makes the original look that much better by comparison. But there are some cues that I just won’t touch. There’s not gonna be some ‘Schindler’s List’ scratch tracks on any Geek: Remixed album.
The majority of your albums consists of music that belongs to other people, so (obviously) you cannot sell them. So all of this is just for the fun of it?
Yeah. I started doing them as a creative outlet for myself when my dreams of being a hip-hop producer were sputtering out and dying in my post-high school years in Salem, OR. So I’d make some beats for my aspiring rapper friends, and then they’d leave, and I’d watch ‘Aliens,’ and then I’d go back over to my set-up, and I’d go “I wonder if I can make an actual percussion section out of just the motion-tracker beep and an Alien hissing?” Just to see if I could do it. You can hear me learning how to structure and arrange on the first album, which was compiled out of about a decade’s worth of squirreling away these nerdy oddities. And it goes back to that whole “You’re never gonna believe what I just turned into a hip-hop instrumental” thing. It’s just fun to watch people reinterpreting / rediscovering the music they had relegated to the background of their memories. As in “You did NOT just make a beat out of Yub-Nub, did you?”
Who are your peers? Any other movie-score-remixers we should know about?
Peers is a strange word for me to use, because I consider what I do VERY basic in comparison to the people who’ve trod the same ground. The Eclectic Method is ridiculously good, on a much higher level than I’ll ever attain, both musically and visually: They don’t just remix songs, they remix the videos those artists produced. From what I understand, Daft Punk’s ‘TRON: Legacy’ score is essentially their film-score remix album that became a legitimate film score. Danger Mouse made The Beatles/Jay Z sound like a film soundtrack, and now he’s like, 21st Century Quincy Jones. Girl Talk doesn’t really do film scores, but it often sounds like the soundtrack to the greatest teen movie never made. DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing,” of course. The first real “Film Score Remix” album I remember being made aware of was “Star Wars Breakbeats” by Supergenius. I heard that after I’d done “Don’t Make Me Destroy You” in 1997 and got MAD, but it’s hard to stay mad when the mixes were so good.
There’s been a lot of examples in regular hip-hop, too: I took my basic idea for “Meatlocker,” my ‘Rocky’ remix from the first album, from a horn loop Brand Nubian used in “Punks Jump Up To Get Beatdown.” I remember wanting that song to go in a completely different direction than where it went when I first heard it, which is a ballsy thing to say considering what a classic it is. Same with “Lothos’ Prom,” which uses a sample of violin as played by Rutger Hauer in the ‘Buffy’ movie. Blockhead, a NY producer, used that sample once, extraordinarily well, and I wanted to take a run at it too. And OCRemix is a site that’s been the hub for all video-game remixing for a very long time now. In fact, part of “Pickin Veggies,” from the 3rd album, is built off a re-imagining of the Mario 2 theme done by a group called Estradasphere. There are some serious minds picking through video game scores for sonic gold over there.
There are lots of others, but we all sort of run into the same “anonymous dude” on the internet. I’ve had mixes of mine assigned to other DJs out there. There’s stuff that’s been put on mix tapes with no attribution, or wrong attribution, but I can’t get mad at that. 1) I’m essentially stealing the music in the first place to remix it, so any claims of ownership I might have are pretty negligible (and arrogant, really) and 2) Half the stuff online is incorrectly named anyway. There are probably lots of people who think if it’s a soundtrack, John Williams wrote it, period. The ‘Alien’ score is John Williams, right? He’s the guy who did the theme to ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Forrest Gump’! That kinda thing.
My remix of “Made You Look” by Nas, with the music from the ‘Kill Bill’ trailer? I’ve seen that credited to at least four different DJs. Same with “The Requiem Overture,” which was my attempt at turning that ‘Two Towers’ trailer music into a coherent orchestral piece. I uploaded that thing to a couple fileshare sites in October or November of 2002, and I think currently about 2/3rds of all Anime supertrailers are using that mix. Also: I apologize to everyone who’s had that cue ruined for them due to its overuse by eager YouTube addicts (and Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’). I’m really sorry about that. I didn’t know.
Can you think of any films that are virtually ruined by a bad score? (I call dibs on ‘Ladyhawke’!)
The most recent example I can think of would be Darabont’s ‘The Mist.’ I love that movie to death, but the moment where the jeep is pulling out of the parking lot, and Dead Can Dance just starts warbling up out of nowhere? I remember thinking “This is some ridiculous Zack Snyder ‘300’ shit right here.” It just did not fit the tone the movie had worked so hard to build. And then the film shrugs off that misstep with THE scene (you know the scene) and then, in the aftermath – the music comes back, and its even WORSE than before. That’s the most vivid example in my mind right now.
What’s the finest compliment you could receive from a recent fan of your albums?
That they want to keep listening to it, that it’s not a one-and-done sort of experience. Of course, the fact they even gave it a shot in the first place is really satisfying to me. I appreciate that people even want to attempt putting this music in their heads. But the best compliment I’ve gotten is from people who tell me that they hear the original versions of the songs, and get thrown off for a moment because they’re waiting for the drums and the bass to kick in.
What would movies be without music?
A hell of a lot more boring and dry. Not to say there aren’t movies out there that aren’t successful keeping the music to a minimum. It took Kurosawa like 70 years before he would let a composer really breathe on his pictures. But so much of what makes movies such a pop-culture drug comes from the music in them. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, I think we, as people, want our life to be scored. Headphones and an iPod can turn a a basic train ride — a boring citywide commute — into a pretty little montage sequence. I know some of my best memories have music attached to them, whether there was music playing at the time or not.
The cliche goes “The Art is in the Artifice.” There’s nothing more artificial than having a pop song start playing in the middle of a key moment of your life — but there’s no way the end of “The Breakfast Club” works without Simple Minds singing in the background, right?
all 3 Geek: Remixed albums available, with sample info and artwork, available at http://geekremixed.com