19th Century Poetry, The Stooges and Psychedelic Intensity: Composer Paul Grimstad Talks with Nathan Silver
Paul Grimstad is one of the most insanely inspired polymaths I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and his brilliant lunacy bubbles from every song and piece of score he writes. He provided music for two short films which are about to screen in the New York Shorts Program at the 53rd New York Film Festival: my film Riot and Jay Giampietro’s Hernia. His other soundtracks include Frownland (which he also co-starred in), Heaven Knows What, Tired Moonlight, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, my film Stinking Heaven, among many others. Screening information for the New York Shorts Program can be found here.
[iPod dictaphone app begins recording]
Grimstad: Baudelaire died at 46?…
Filmmaker: And what does Baudelaire have to do with music?
Grimstad: His stuff rhymes. Bob [Dylan] rhymes.
Filmmaker: What’s the relation between literature and music for you, as someone who writes songs, film music and prose?
Grimstad: Well, they’re all some kind of writing. For so long I tried to keep my songwriting and composing separate from prose writing. I thought they were totally different things. I guess that started in college. The part that writes songs and plays in a band is the thing you do late at night in bars, and the part that studies Emerson and Henry James and Shakespeare is the stuff you’re doing in a nice sunlit classroom during the day. So the latter is respectable and adult, the former is juvenile and unsavory. But still, I’ve got these deep formative musical memories going back as far as I remember; something like Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” playing on the radio in my mom’s car, or like “Dancing Queen” by ABBA — these remain totally undiminished and vivid audio memories. The other thing I remember doing was…well, here’s the thing, my dad’s brother would get him all these strange and sometimes lavish Christmas gifts, like super powerful telescopes and special gloves for holding a falcon and things that were you know just sort of cool and out there. An early computer chess software set up, some ornate fireplace tools I remember, other things…and one year, it must’ve been like 1982 or so, the Christmas gift was this state of the art mini-“workstation” Casio three-octave synth with onboard drum sequences, like little samba and swing and pop-rock patterns, and inset on the left side, an octave of bass pedals that would do looping ostinatos when you held them down. This was just a completely marvelous machine to me [pause: Grimstad orders plate of French fries and glass of red wine from White Horse waitress].
My dad messed around with it for a day or two and forgot about it and this Casio just sort of became mine, I inherited it by default. And I took to this thing massively, started making up little jams, some of them actually quite long and involved with whole stories and rosters of characters, story songs. I remember one about a vampire who’s deeply into Nestlé crunch bars, another one about a villain called “Teebo” who lives in a hut on a golf course. So that whole world of the Casio was fucking central for me and in a way I have never left it; I still spend hours and hours alone in a room programming drum machines, dialing in synth patches, mixing, writing lyrics out in notebook to metered loops created on a sequencer… another memory, about the same time as hearing Wings on the radio is of my grandmother, Frances, making me recite the “Jabberwocky” while standing on an ottoman in her house in Madison, Wisconsin!
Filmmaker: Holy shit.
Grimstad: Yeah, she was so cool, had a copy of Alice in Wonderland that she got when she was a girl, which means it must be like the 1915 edition or something. I still have it.
Silver: So in the end music and literature are fused together for you…
Grimstad: Yes, they are. You know, it’s whatever throws you into the frenzy of wanting to make something. That’s what counts I think – again, I am trying to see it all as one big thing and not as separate compartments, so if it’s a Lovecraft story that throws you into a frenzy or a riff from a Wayne Shorter record…I think the channels go in multiple directions and there’s no rules or laws about how one thing leads to another. For me, though, the two most important are music and literature, and these days, mostly prose, both fiction and nonfiction. I just reread Michel Houellebecq’s Lovecraft biography, Contre le Monde, Contre la Vie, which is great, and it led me to go back and read a lot of Lovecraft again. Mountains of Madness, which is completely amazing by the way, “The Color Out of Space” a few others, “Charles Dexter Ward,” all of this is just almost unbearably intense shit. There’s a lot of psychedelic intensity in Lovecraft that’s not all that different from, you know, Syd Barrett or The Stooges or something. So that very well may lead you to throw on a record, and the next thing you know, you’ve got the guitar or you’re at the piano and writing a song or, for that matter, working on an essay or a story. The enthusiasm builds up, you get excited, and the way to express it is to get to work on something. Whether you’re reading or listening, you start getting so fired up that the only possible response is to try to make some of it yourself.
Filmmaker: So that would make sense why you would enjoy composing music for films.
Grimstad: Oh yeah, for sure. One of the very rewarding and satisfying things about doing film music is that you’re in this soup of different media: it’s narrative, it’s photography, it’s character, it’s dialogue, it’s mise-en-scene, it’s sound design, actors’ faces, and as a composer you’re mixing in this weird glue, which can make or break an atmosphere. It’s actually almost scary how much power you have. You can essentially define what a scene means. A single piano chord can totally define the mood of a scene. That’s what’s so fun about composing for a movie but you also have to be careful. So much film score work is saying no to ideas and rejecting things, because you just don’t want to do something silly, because a scene can flip instantly from gravitas to farce with a dominant seventh chord instead of a major seventh chord.
Filmmaker: How do you usually work with filmmakers when you tackle the score?
Grimstad: Different projects have been different. Some of what I think of as the most successful work — not just the music, but the overall cohesiveness of a movie — has been when I’ve written to picture. There’s an element of synesthesia there. I actually am a “synesthete” by the way, like in some medically official way. I was called a synesthete when I was eight or nine years old, cause I told an art teacher at my school that the days of the week had colors. That is, the sound of the words of the days of the week that had colors attached to them. I still remember that it’s Monday is green, Tuesday is red, Wednesday is yellow, Thursday is brown, Friday is a darker green, Saturday is gray, and Sunday is white. And that just made immediate and obvious sense to me. Images and sounds go together. So I like writing to picture, because images give me ideas for sounds.
Filmmaker: That’s so funny to hear, ’cause when I work with you, I have you write music before any of the movie is shot. What you do is you help change the shape of the movie, because the compositions you come up with dictate how scenes play out in the edit.
Grimstad: You and I have a different way of working. We’re both so verbal and share so many reference points in literature, film, and music, that we would just have long conversations and that would be enough for me to get an idea of what I should write. In the case of Stinking Heaven and Riot [premiering this weekend at NYFF], that stuff was written out of a sense of a shared conceptual terrain that we’d cooked up out of conversation: Rimbaud, the Ramones, Altman, Fear Eats the Soul, The Crystals, whatever. The “brick” method we devised [the brick: a thirty-minute track that contains a series of timbral and rhythmic variations on a theme] works to facilitate that, because you had so much leeway to pick and choose whatever worked. And you basically get a salad bar of leftover music that you can use for whatever you want. That’s what happened with Riot. You just took a piece from the Stinking Heaven brick. “Brick” like a brick of hash, chunk of opium — I wanted the idea that the material you were given was psychoactive, intoxicating — it was like a magical powder, a potion that you could add to anything and it would make it turn on, light up.
Filmmaker: And that’s what it did for the scenes: we would throw in the music and edit to it, and suddenly the scenes would come together.
Grimstad: Well, yeah, that’s what I mean: the responsibility of the composer is huge, because music is like Uranium 235. If you mishandle it, it could be a disaster. You have to be really careful what you’re doing, because it’s so volatile it could be a fucking catastrophe.
Filmmaker: To give some context, I first encountered you as an actor — I saw you in Frownland. Rather, I first thought of you as an actor. I only learned that you were a composer through Sean [Price Williams] when he played some of your music for me.
Grimstad: It’s far more the case that I’m a composer, I’m really not an actor at all!
Filmmaker: I know, but my first thought of you is the character you play in Frownland, who happens to make music.
Grimstad: Frownland is where doing film music really began for me. Ronnie [Bronstein] and I were roommates in Brooklyn Heights, and we were just sitting around eating noodles, watching Withnail and I and Hannah and Her Sisters and Oh Lucky Man! and a few other movies over and over, and Ronnie was editing on one of those gigantic flatbed consoles that look like some piece of military hardware, and I was making records on an 8-track cassette machine, the wonderful Tascam 688. Literally hundreds of songs done on that thing. Then he began making Frownland, and, of course, he wanted me to be in it and he also had me score it. That was actually my first serious attempt at doing a film score.
Filmmaker: Which came first, the role or the idea of you scoring the film?
Grimstad: I honestly can’t remember, but I think it was always just sort of tacitly assumed that I’d be doing the score. The character in the movie, who is a distorted R. Crumb version of me, is working on a record in this gnome-like solitary way in a dingy room in Brooklyn, which is pretty much what I was doing. It’s actually a bit more complicated: the fact that the person in real life was going to do the score makes it very hard to separate the actor from the composer. They are essentially the same person, but I’ll tell you what, when we sat down to score Frownland, it was a very specific, laborious, and painstaking process of getting those cues absolutely perfect. The inspiration for the Frown score was two things: Goblin in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and John Carpenter’s scores, the music he did for The Fog and Christine, and especially Escape from New York; little minimalist synth things really. It was painstaking work to distill our version of the horror movie score, a bit more baroque, more stylized…but that kind of demented loner labor was entirely consistent with my character in Frownland. I can imagine Charles making that score, even though the fictional character probably wouldn’t have had the chops to do what I ended up doing.
[At this point, Paul and I ordered another round of drinks.]
Filmmaker: Your trajectory fascinates me and I’m sure it would fascinate others. What happened post-Frownland? You’re almost like a musician in hiding. And weren’t you a professor at Yale at some point?
Grimstad: That’s in part because I just don’t tour and I don’t have that much interest in playing live anymore. And yeah, I did a doctorate in literature, took a job at Yale, but during that time in academia I am writing and recording songs and scoring films constantly, and that’s still what interests me is composing and writing and recording. I’ve also never made much of an effort to market or distribute my music beyond friends, never had a website. I am excited by the making of stuff almost to a fault. I love the writing and tracking, from initial sketch to finished master, and then I almost totally forget about it once its recorded.
Filmmaker: The funniest part is that when I first heard your songs at Sean’s apartment, he told me that he has more of your music than you have. And he wasn’t exaggerating!
Grimstad: Yeah, that’s actually true I think. There was a time when if I couldn’t find one of my own songs I’d call Sean up and say, “Do you have such and such song on one of your drives?” And he would have it and send it over. He was regularly playing my stuff during his shifts at Kim’s back in 2003 or 2004 or something, and that was probably the most public exposure my music had up to that point. And then, you know, the stuff circulates a bit in MP3s because friends pass it along, and that’s what happed with Happy Christmas, Joe [Swanberg] heard a track [“Oh-Nine-Nine–Cee-Nine-Oh-One”] from my record Wams & Bams and stuck it in the scene where Lena [Dunham] goes to a party. So, you know, that was a pretty unexpected consequence of something that had been recorded like a couple years earlier. In that case, I didn’t even know I was writing for a movie! It was a completely fortuitous thing, and really fun.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about your ideas on pop music.
Grimstad: Oh I have lots of them! You know, there’s this false idea of “poetry” as like a very genteel and rarified thing that very precious rarified people do, and my sense is that there’s so much raw uncut poetry going on in Little Richard and Chuck Berry, Nina Simone, Dylan, Brian, Prince. Not just in the words but in the way something is sung, a certain inflection — this has to do with microphones and studios, how a voice hits a record. Think of how Lennon sings [Chuck Berry’s] “Rock and Roll Music”: it’s the phrasing, a certain joy and intensity you hear in the delivery that I am aligning with an idea of poetry. That’s where “poetry” has gone in my view, and it’s been there for awhile now. This is just my sense and it might be my own limitation.
When I got excited as a kid over songwriting, it was because my parents were listening to early rock and roll, Dylan, Carol King, Steely Dan, Willie Nelson, all this great stuff, on a hi-fi set up in the living room. It was all about recordings. That was all magical to me and still is. Longfellow and Poe and Elizabeth Browning were like pop stars of the mid 19th century. People knew their tunes. People no longer really know poets’ work outside of university cliques but, you know, The Raven was a hit! People knew it by heart and little kids would follow Poe around lower Manhattan and say, “nevermore, nevermore.” Poe is already some kind of weird Irving Berlin. It’s especially acute with Poe because he was so hyper-aware of a certain kind of incantatory power in the sound of words, of repeated phonemes that cast a spell, a hypnotic refrain that gets stuck in your head — an acoustic effect ringing in your ear. Rhyme!
And that’s of course happening in great songwriting too…what is that? A weird power. And [Emily] Dickinson, with her recurring 4-over-3 pulse, wrote these weird, powerful sing-song poems. [Stéphane] Mallarmé, Poe’s great devotee, wanted to fuse verse, prose poetry and musical notation in Un coup de dés. And later you’ve got Eliot doing his “Shakespeherian Rag” bit in The Waste Land. If you listen to him read it he does this syncopated little jig with his voice when he gets to that part. Eliot heard lots of ragtime growing up in St. Louis and that sort of syncopation stayed with him, and keeps coming back in different ways in his work. Dylan, of course, was keen to link what he was doing to modernism, you know, name dropping Pound and Eliot in “Desolation Row,” but he didn’t need to. That was Bob reading his own press, trying to live up to some fantasy the critics had projected onto him. The deep, conspiratorial, paranoid link between the American technified pop song and 19th century decadent verse is the sense of the mechanical hook — a trick or device deliriously repeating in your ear. Similarly, movies and the more ambitious forms of TV, and now video games, are maybe usurping the novel as the general audience’s preferred form of how to take in a narrative.
Filmmaker: How would you describe your composing process?
Grimstad: I don’t have a single process. It’s whatever works, ad hoc pragmatism. There are musical problems. When I’m in the middle of a project, it’s like, great, I get to wake up today, make a pot of coffee, and tackle a bunch of musical problems. These are technical problems ranging from what octave or key will work best for a certain riff or figure, to what sounds to use, to how much reverb to stick on a sound, to what part of the stereo image a certain track ought to be panned, to any number of other things, it really just goes on and on. I find these sorts of technical problems completely delicious. I love these problems. And so I don’t really believe in theory at the level of composing. It’s all experiment. You test shit out. You throw it against the wall. Fuck theory! It’s all empirical, it’s concrete, it’s practice. If it works, then you know it works cause you have a certain feeling about it, you use your ears and you make decisions — and who knows why you make these decisions! But if it doesn’t work, you know it, you just know. When I worked with Albert Maysles on music for his Muhammad Ali documentary (Muhammad and Larry), that was a case where I worked closely with the EP on the project with certain records in mind — In A Silent Way was one — and just tried to nail some of the electric piano textures you hear on there, ’cause that record just felt so right against the footage.
Filmmaker: There’s something so elusive about how a composer works with a director. I’m wondering if you could discuss the particulars of a few other projects.
Grimstad: Well, another thing that happens is I usually end up devising a secret and esoteric language with directors. For instance, with Jessica Oreck, she would say things like she wanted “fuzzy ice cream” or, you know, a “bit more neon orange” or something. With you, we established a rapport based on our mutual love for 19th century poetry and talked about the music being a “brick of hash” and of feelings and moods reminiscent of [Tristan] Corbiere’s “jaundiced love.” With the Safdies on Heaven Knows What, we talked about “a melting scream for the Femme Brando curtain or bassoon BUHH for Doc Death.” With Britni [West] on Tired Moonlight, she made this Excel spreadsheet of scenes and prose descriptions for each cue, and all of this written language got translated into musical language. Every way of working has its advantages and dangers. The more aleatory method that we use is exciting because in that case audiovisual ideas can be generated out of nothing.
[The waitress brings our bill. It’s obvious her shift’s over and she wants us out.]