In which the Pixies
frontman takes a surprising – but not unwelcome – detour in into film scoring.
BY JASON GROSS
In between the ongoing Pixies reunion and his own solo
career, Frank Black decided to take an interesting detour in the spring of 2008
by scoring the classic German horror film The
Golem: How He Came Into the World for the San Francisco International Film
Festival. For the story, a medieval
legend about a rabbi that creates a clay monster that comes to life to do his
bidding (with horrible consequences), FB
was asked not just to provide incidental background music but full songs that
you might hear on one of his own albums.
He took the task very seriously, writing out the songs from the
perspective of the characters and transforming the end result into an extended
music video, which you can see on his YouTube channel.
At the beginning of this year, he released a signed limited
edition box set, including the soundtrack spread over several CDs and a DVD
plus the score and a personalized red wax seal.
Now, he’s releasing a ‘rock album’ single CD version of the soundtrack
plus a DVD of the film including his soundtrack via his official website.
Mr. Black was interrogated by phone while he was at a California café to find
out how this project came about, how he tackled this challenge and how he
burrowed into the head of the characters with his songs.
BLURT: When did you
first see the film and what did you think of it then?
FRANK BLACK: I guess it was two or three years ago when I
first saw the film. I was asked to do
this silent movie soundtrack for a festival in San Francisco. I think I had heard of the movie which is why
I had selected it or at least I had heard of German expressionism and I
thought, “Well, I sort of enjoyed that thing when I was in the college and I was
hanging out in film classes.” (laughs)
Like a lot of
modern people, I was fearful that I was gonna be bored because I was watching
an old black and white silent movie. But
I think that because I had this other reason to watch it, that it gave me some
discipline and some focus to really WATCH it, because I was taking notes, you
know. And so I think because of that, I
was able to thoroughly enjoy it and love it, the way you would in a class, when
you’re forced to observe something, to read something that maybe you normally
wouldn’t pick up or look at. And because
you have that context of the discipline, you NEED to look at this. You need to watch it and you need to pay attention
to it. Then, you can overcome your lazy
boy tendencies where you’re just watching something because you happen to be in
the same room with it.
So I loved it
and I grew to love the actors in it and their stories. And I still love those people. And I still look them up on Wikipedia or
Google ’em and think about ’em from time to time (laughs), think about the arch of their lives and all that, and then
I feel connected to those people.
What did you think of the original music
soundtrack for the film?
The only one that I was familiar with was the version that
was put on in the early 1980s by a German company. I think there was a new score done around that
time, which was sort of a symphony orchestra kind of a treatment. It all seemed perfectly fine but it didn’t
suck me in or anything like that.
that back in the day when this was being shown in theatres, the score would
have been the repertoire of the local band was that was playing at the theatre
along to the film- at least that’s my understanding of that era of cinema movie
houses. I know that sometimes, films
came with some kind of score with instructions about sound effects and certain
melodies. I think more often than not,
it wasn’t that organized. It was just
sort of a situation where you get some musicians in there and they just play. This is how it was explained to me by the
director of the film festival. (laughs)
But obviously you didn’t take that
approach. The festival director gave you
some leeway then, right?
Yeah, I think he was trying to encourage me to not be too…
film score-y in the modern sense, trying to just create the moody atmospheric
film score music. He was fine with me
being a rock musician and approaching it that way. And I’m so glad he told me that because as
soon as he did, I received my permission to just be myself and be a rock
So how did you come up with the idea for how
the songs were going to sound like?
I think probably my reference would have been stuff like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That’s really what I had in mind- kind of
midnight movie 1970’s stuff (ED NOTE: Pixies once also recorded “In
Heaven” from Erasehead). And of course I’m a big fan of that kind of
rock and roll, 70s rock and roll, kind of dry, kind of blown out a little
Also, it’s (the
soundtrack) not far from the epicenter of rock and roll, the 1950’s. You still hear a lot of saxophone solos. People still associate the saxophone with a
rock and roll presentation and so I wanted that. And so we got Ralph Carney (Tin Huey, Tom
Waits) to do horns and put in a lot of saxophones. And so, yeah, I was really trying to tap into
some sort of 1970s rock and roll, midnight movie Rocky Horror Picture Show kind of feeling. Period! (laughs)
With the songs you did for the soundtrack,
were you trying to convey inner dialog of the characters also?
Oh absolutely, yeah.
I was really thinking about the character development of all of these
people, including the Golem himself. But
especially so, the head rabbi, Rabbi Loew.
Of course, there’s a real Rabbi Loew, an historical figure that the
character in the film is based on, back there in Prague in medieval times. And so I was not only able to look at the
film but to go back and to read about the life of this rabbi.
I drew a lot
from that, especially with him. A lot of the stuff is from his point of
view. I don’t know whether or not he was
married but I know in the film, there was no wife but there was a
daughter. So on that note, I imagined
that he was a widower. She was in not in
any of the scenes so in my mind, she was dead.
And so, in one of the songs, he is singing to his daughter and of course
when you look at one of your own kids, you see your spouse. For me, the rabbi was not only seeing his
daughter but he was seeing his wife. He
was seeing a ghost of his wife, just beyond her, just behind her.
there’s the story, if you want to call it ‘the love interest,’ between the
rabbi’s daughter and this gentile messenger guy from the emperor and then also
the rabbi’s assistant who was probably more the appropriate pairing, culturally
speaking. Of course, he (the assistant)
was concerned that she was his girl. So
there’s that kind of love triangle between those three. And so frequently, I’m singing from the point
of the view of one of those three people.
I was totally involved in their lives- both the imagined lives of these
people as portrayed in a film but also to the lesser extent, whatever I could
find out about the real Rabbi Loew from Prague.
Was there was any particular scene in the film
that you really struggled with to try to figure out ideas for the score?
No, not really. I was
sort of pressed for time, which is usually a good thing for me. If I’m pressed for time, I’m really forced to
dig deep and I’m usually hoping for a real geyser explosion kind of burst of
creativity or inspiration. And that’s
exactly what happened. I was in a hotel
room in San Francisco,
getting up very, very early in the morning before I’d go to session and looking
at all my notes from my viewings of the film and just keep writing. I didn’t really struggle at all.
really… (exhales)… liberated, if
you will, by the parameter of story, by the parameter of film, by the parameter
of the length of the film, the length of the scenes. All those kinds of things really helped me to
fit in as opposed to just sort of writing a bunch of music. Sometimes you’re kind of just in space, you
know? (laughs) You’re just kind of
kicking around in the water, trying to find something to latch onto. And so I really felt happy that I was able to
latch on to the film.
I had that once
before with this record I made called Bluefinger (2007), where I had the story of this guy’s life, the artist Herman Brood, to
kind of latch onto. That was the first
time I had ever done that, having a unifying theme. But this soundtrack was even more specific
than that. I haven’t done it since but
with that moment, I was like ‘oh, this is my new method. I have to find some ideas to write music to!’
(laughs) It just felt so
automatic. Everything just sort of
So yeah, it was
not challenging at all. I had been
liberated also by this director of the film festival who told me “don’t
worry about writing a precious film score, just do your thing and write some
rock and roll music.” And so that’s
what I did. And of course because it’s a
silent film, you don’t have to pause and stop because someone is talking. You
become the whole sound so that was great.
I imagine it’s a lot more challenging when you’re trying to write music
to a film where there’s a bunch of sound already. I’ve never done that before!
You were talking about this before but because
you added full songs and not incidental music, it seems to transform the whole
viewing experience for the film where music is just a strong of a focus as the
visuals. Any thoughts on that?
Yeah, I really felt good about being able to tap into, for
example, the anger and jealousy of the rabbi’s assistant. He’s just being driven mad by this gentile poofy-poof
blonde, full of himself, evil guy ’cause he’s working for the emperor. He’s there to tell them, “hey, all Jews
out or we’re gonna kill you!” So he’s so much the enemy! And he’s moving in on the assistant’s sweetie
and sweetie’s loving it.
That’s sort of what I like about her too,
is that she’s not innocent. She’s just
kind of like “yeah, this guy’s a lot cuter than this boring old rabbi’s
assistant.” He rides on a white
horse, for God’s sake. So yeah, that
just sort of turns me on. And I really
like it that she was just kind of like, “forget the rabbi’s assistant, I
want blondie here!”
But anyway, the
rabbi’s assistant was so angry. And my
favorite song from the whole soundtrack is this track that I did of an
instrumental version and also a vocalized version, “You’re Gonna
Pay.” And I really like that ’cause
he (the assistant) actually manipulates the Golem to kill the messenger
guy. He’s the enemy and from his point
of view, he was within his rights. But
it is very violent. It’s like “I
know what to do. Hey, hey Golem, get that guy and throw him off the roof!”
(laughs) It’s like out of a Tarantino movie or
something. So there’s a lot of anger and
righteous anger within that character.
So when I wrote
the song “You’re Gonna Pay,” it isn’t just that he hates the
messenger but who he REALLY hates is the girl!
He’s like, “YOU BITCH!!”
He can’t kill her but “even better, I’ll kill your new boyfriend. And I really liked that.
Yeah, it was
great to be able to have that. It’s really how emotional everybody was in the
movie, all the different characters. And
so I really felt that I was able to wear each guy’s hat and say “OK, this
guy is really angry and this guy here is feeling very romantic and lustful and
this guy here is feeling world-weary and lonely, like the whole world is on his
shoulder…” I’m talking about
Rabbi Loew. Everyone was very emotional
and so yeah, I felt very connected with all that.