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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

June 10, 2009 at 3:12 PM

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Interview: Randy Randall of No Age

Posted by Andrew Matson

When No Age scores The Bear Friday at Triple Door, the sit-down SIFF scene will be a lot less sweaty than the one in this photo of the group in Seattle roughly a year ago.

noage_wedeking.jpg

I caught No Age guitarist Randy Randall on the phone in Los Angeles. He was in the studio, working on a new EP he and bandmate Dean Spunt planned on finishing later that evening, and took a break to explain why The Bear reminds him of Michel Gondry, the importance of making time to selfishly enjoy music, and what exactly we can expect from Friday's live scoring.

Photo by Ryan Wedeking

The first part of this interview is reconstructed from memory and mistyped notes; after making recording errors and then accidentally hanging up on Randy, I called him back, and recorded the rest of the interview successfully. It went long, 23 minutes, and he sounded upbeat and enthusiastic the whole time. In addition to being a great artist, I pronounce Randy Randall a very nice guy.

So whose idea was this, that No Age would perform a score, live, for The Bear?

My idea. I'd been wanting to do something like this for a while. There's a theater here in Los Angeles, where we're from called, Cinefamily, and they sometimes have live music. I've been wanting to do something there.

And have you written the music already, or will the score be improvisational?

It's been written. There's five movements to it. There will be some kind of loose improvisation that'll happen, but there's five themes being cued by different parts of the movie.

At this point I realize the recording is not working, panic, accidentally hang up, and call Randy back.

So you were saying that it's a minimal score as it is, and it's mostly atmospheric sounds of bears in their natural setting?

Yes.

But when I was doing some YouTubing, I was hearing like...you know what one scene where the cougar's chasing the bear?

Yes.

And the bear's making these sounds that are like human sounds. Like really, really scared panting, like he's super nervous. And I was thinking: There's no microphone by the bear's mouth, you know? Is that somebody making bear sounds?

I'm assuming so. I've been trying to do research and figure out how they culled together what sounds are on there, but I think it's fairly obvious that, yeah, there's some people doing these kind of mock bear sounds that were overdubbed later.

The best I can tell you is it's a French director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, and I think it was originally released in French, so I think all the dialogue, at least the hunters, the human dialogue, was replaced. So I imagine they must have had some French voice actor doing these sometimes comical bear sounds.

Dean and I were joking around that it sort of sounded like Danny Glover. There's a real raspy Danny Glover grunting in some of the bear sounds. We've spent a lot of time with it.

We will incorporate some of those elements. We want to keep some of the spirit of the atmosphere. It won't be a bombastic live score by us for 90 minutes. We're gonna let the pace and dynamic range align with what's happening on screen. Because there are some very pastoral moments of the film when you're just seeing bears walking through the forest and babbling brooks and mountains and things. And there's other times when there's lots of action going on, gunshots and fights. It'll be in keeping with that pace.

So the focus, for the audience is going to be on watching the movie, not checking out the music?

I hope there's a good balance of both.

Have you had any interaction with the director? Does he know you're doing this project?

No, not at all. He's a relatively big deal, or at least he was in the '80s and the '90s. I'm trying to recall now on his iMDB if there's anything that he had coming up, and it didn't look like he'd been very active. I believe he's still alive.

He did Seven Years in Tibet, right?

Yeah, Seven Years in Tibet, and he did The Name of the Rose with Christian Slater and Sean Connery. Interesting director. And from what I understand, this was really his pet project, no pun intended.

He'd been working on the film for a long time, and it was fairly ballsy. But I guess it was a hit in France, and a minor film here in the States. I remember seeing it when I was a kid.

There's some really fun stop-motion sequences in the film. There's three of them. There's such a reminiscence of these '80s films that were pre-computers, where you go into this psychedelic stop-animation world. It almost has an early Michel Gondry kind of feeling in some parts.

It's a varied film. I think the images are beautiful and the music we have written will accentuate that, or both will play together in tandem.

Interesting.

Originally, when I was talking to Cinefamily about doing this, I wanted to do Milo & Otis, an '80s animal-centered film about a dog and a cat.

A more lighthearted venture.

Exactly. So I was originally preparing to do that, and I thought that'd be a lot of fun, and the animals' mouths don't move, it's just Dudley Moore doing the most annoying voice performance I've ever heard, so I thought it'd be great to take that off and put all new music to it. But in doing research about it, I came across several websites and articles about the possibility that one, if not 27 cats were killed or somehow passed away during the making of that film, as well as several other animals. It was filmed on a small island off of Japan by this Japanese film crew in the '80s, and there was no American Humane Society regulation or any kind of regulation or anyone on set monitoring...

And they just treated cats like they were disposable?

I can't make any accusations, I'm just telling you what I read online. I went back and reviewed the film with that in mind, and there's some shots where I just can't imagine.... You know, when you see a film, there's that understanding that, "I'm sure somebody's on set, I'm sure they didn't throw a kitten off an 80 foot cliff." After reading all this, I'm looking at it again going, "Yikes!," 'cause it really looks like they did.

Just being an American audience member, we're always under the assumption that, "I'm sure somebody was there. I'm sure it was a movie trick. That couldn't have really happened."

Yeah, either that's an American thing or an '80s thing, that thought that, "Somebody's probably in charge of that."

Right, and the tone is so lighthearted and fun that it never really crossed my mind until I started doing all this research. There were just too many questions, and I felt uneasy about it. I can't be associated with that. It's just too heavy.

Ultimately, I think it worked out for the best. I think The Bear is a much better film and will suit us much better.

Well, you know Bart the Bear became a big celebrity?

Yeah, he was on the Oscars.

Yeah, I just watched that video today. He was presenting with Mike Myers.

It's amazing. There's a lot of documentaries and TV work that emphasized Bart.

Yeah, he did a lot of PR for bears in general. I wonder if all that reversed with Grizzly Man. Bart seemed to improve the public's perception of bears.

Yeah, but I think it's important, though. You gotta keep in mind they are wild animals. And in watching the film, as cute as the cub is, I don't think it ever seems like a good idea to pet a bear. I don't think that's the message of the movie at all. Hopefully people walk away with a respect for that, that these are wild animals and shouldn't be kept like pets.

You know, his trainer lived with him for 17 years, 20 years, had raised him because he was abandoned by his mother. The Bart the Bear story is an amazing story on its own. There's a lot of stuff online if the readers are interested. He passed away, and for the owner it was like losing a son. I think there was no other choice but for him to raise him, it wasn't like he went out and kidnapped him or took him for the circus or something.

The whole concept of being a surrogate parent to something that didn't originally belong to you is a plotline in the movie. What is that instinct? Why do you think some adults take care of kids that didn't originally belong to them in the first place?

Huh, that's an interesting question. I think the idea adoption or fostering kids is a really honorable, respectable thing. Why people do it? I think as humans we do have these paternal or maternal instincts, and for whatever reason, some people aren't able to have children or just don't wanna have their own children.

I worked with a teacher once who only adopted kids. He and his wife, that was just their choice. They didn't want to have their own kids, they just wanted to adopt kids. And I think it's a really respectable thing. I think it's an instinct. And everyone deserves a home, so more power to 'em.

Madonna just adopted her second Malawian child from an orphanage, and I think it's ridiculous, the idea that they wouldn't let her take it. The idea of someone offering a home.... She seems a fit enough parent to her other children, and has enough money.

If money could raise kids.

Yeah.

But still, I think she seems suitable.

Sure. That versus what I can only imagine is a difficult living situation in an African orphanage.

Yeah, or some labor camp or some place where they make you drink hairspray and join a child militia.

Ugh, yeah. Rough stuff. I think it's cool, and I totally respect that idea.

And with the film, there is that respect of nature, too. The hunters do have a bit of a heart change by the end of the film. It takes place in the late 1800s, so it's a different time for the fur industry, frontier living...and the bear lets them live at the end - I don't want to give too much away, you know, "spoiler alert" - but he could've taken a shot and then let's 'em live. I think the film really has a message of "live and let live."

You recently told Pitchfork No Age is going in a new musical direction, doing more sample-based stuff. You think the score will reflect that change?

Yeah, definitely to a degree. We've always had samples in the songs. That was one of the first ways we got around that fact that there's just two of us with our two hands and two feet. Dean and I have always incorporated affected and looped sounds, from guitar, voice, other instruments. We've been experimenting. There'll definitely be samples in The Bear.

Yeah, looping and sounds blended with other sounds has always been part of your music.

Yeah, and we're working on an EP. I'm actually at the studio right now.

You're recording?

We finished overdubbing yesterday and we'll be doing mixing today. So it should be finished by the end of today.

We just got back from South America yesterday at 6 in the morning, and were here at the studio at 2, and we stayed 'til about midnight last night. Then back here at 11. It's the window of time we have, so we're gonna get this EP done and hopefully have it out this fall.

Is there a name for it?

No name yet, but it should have one soon.

I understand you're also involved in making skateboard movies, and I just saw the music video you directed for Mika Miko.

Have you always been interested in the union of images and sound, even before your experiences at the cinema you were talking about in Los Angeles?

Yeah, I've always been a little bit of a movie nerd. Movies were and still are really important to me. I definitely spent my fair share of time shucking popcorn and working at video stores around Los Angeles.

Film has always been important to me, and I dabbled with it briefly in college, and definitely in high school. I'm 28, so anyone in that age range and younger has had that process of being in high school and the teacher saying, "We'll make a film! It'll be a video project!" A friend and I kind of became the go-to video guys, if you had to make a video. We just had fun and wanted to film a bunch of stuff.

Yeah, I'm 27. I never thought about that before. Maybe we were the first generation that had the opportunity to make a video project. Which always seemed like the most fun way to get out of actually doing the assignment.

Exactly. It was always the best cop-out. Say a couple vocabulary words, and the rest of the time you get to run around in stupid costumes.

And they all inevitably involve the special effect of turning off the camera and a person leaves the frame, and when you turn it on it looks like they disappeared.

Exactly. And the computer and camcorder technology that every suburban household is invested in has put that out there.

I've always been interested in making films, and with my interest in music, it all comes together.

Do you know the word "synesthesia"?

Synesthesia.

It means when sounds make you see things, or images make you hear things. Have you ever experienced that?

I can't say there's a direct line, but there are some songs, when we play them live, I always remember what the scene looked like or what it looked like out the window when we wrote it. I have these flashbacks throughout our set, and I don't know if those are memories, or if those are inspirations, or what the correlation is, but I'll be transported back to that place when we're playing those songs somewhere else in the world.

A question that's not related to the screening: I just interviewed Dan Boeckner from Handsome Furs and Wolf Parade, and he cited No Age and Deerhunter as bands whose music he feels captures a feeling of spontaneity. Do you understand his assessment?

I really like Dan. I've had a chance through the association with Sub Pop to meet him a few times. Seems like an awesome guy.

I don't know. Dean and I just try and have fun with what we're doing. Our songs are written, we're not an improvised experiment, but we try to use the energy in the room or the stage. We try and address the audience. We're in the "shoegaze" category, but we try and not look at our shoes when we're playing. We use the audience for inspiration.

Right, but I was curious about recording. Is there any effort to keep things from sounding too locked in or stuffy?

We'll sometimes plan out a measure or place in the song where we'll let the wires go loose, let the strings unravel a little bit, and then we'll tighten it back up. We will plan in these moments of breath, where we'll let it go and then bring it back in. That's really for Dean and I to keep our minds in the music. If it was all pre-planned and we were just going through the actions every night, we would get bored. We like to schedule these moments of letting ourselves go so we have to stay present and it keeps it interesting for us on a nightly basis playing live. So we write it in knowing we'll play it live.

You create yourself a little room to mess around.

And that's out of selfish enjoyment of playing music.

You gotta make time for selfish enjoyment of music.

I think so, yeah.

One more question I forgot to ask before: You said you diced the score up into five distinct movements. How long are each of those movements?

They're kind of refrains. Music cues that can come back, so they come back throughout the film.

Ok, so you won't be playing for pop song-timed snippets, it's an in-and-out drifting thing?

Exactly, yeah. It'll be a dreamy, landscape, atmospheric thing. We've put a couple of these types of songs, or things that kind of move in this direction on [No Age album] Nouns. There were two songs, "Impossible Bouquet" and "Keechie," that were sort of these instrumental, pastoral sound collages. The movements are in that vein, not the "Eraser" pop song.

Sound collages and tone poems.

I like that.

Very sophisticated.

Ha ha. Yeah.

Ok, well thanks for talking with me, Randy. I'm going to try and make both shows.

Sweet, man. It should be fun in that swanky environment. I can't imagine a better way to spend a Friday night.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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