If an alt. rock band has captured a spirit of ethereal, Earth mother transcendence, then the gentle, drifting melodies and angelic voice of Iceland’s Sigur Ros could be considered the equivalent of one-ness with the woods. Two vital parts of a sound that’s drawn a cult-like following around the world are Alex Somers and Jón “Jónsi” Þór Birgisson, otherwise known as the band Jónsi and Alex. Having met when both were students at Berklee’s College of Music, the home of so many composers to be, Somers would travel to lifemate Birgisson’s frost-covered home, creating art and albums that were as much a part of Sigur Ros’ hauntingly blissful alt. rock worldview as much as their own lyrical voices.
Now after venturing into soundtracks with music-centric director Cameron Crowe for “We Bought A Zoo” and “Aloha,” then the atom bomb making-of series “Manhattan,” Somers takes his first solo feature scoring credit with “Captain Fantastic” crafting a beautiful tone poem very much in tune with his past Zen naturalism. That’s all the better in capturing the unlikely spiritual force of Viggo Mortensen’s back-to-nature, now-single father, whose way of bringing up his brood as hyper intellectual Rambos makes his extended, sadly civilized family think his parenting skills leave something to be desired. This PC Peter Pan takes his ersatz wild boys on a bus out of the wilderness to make sure his deceased wife’s funeral lives up to her last will, leading to a reckoning of just how far his grand experiment will take him into a modern, uncivilized world his brood is socially unequipped for.
As directed by actor-turned-director Matt Ross (best known for his role as the odious Huli guru of HBO’s “Silicon Valley”), “Captain Fantastic” is an emotionally affecting film at once funny, pointedly political and a deeply felt meditation on dealing with death and leaving an incredibly sheltered, savage nest – a spirituality beautifully defined by Somers’ lyrical score. Touched by an uncondescending modern hippy spirituality, “Captain Fantastic” is a mesmerizing wash of thematic melody, an angelic voice, tender piano, soothing strings and ethereal spirituality flowing through a score that handles its wellspring of emotion with the most delicate of touches. It’s the definition of heavenly grace whose religion is human nature, creating a captivating dreaminess that fans of Sigur Ros, and Jónsi and Alex will find to be an unbroken line from their work outside of the movie frame.
What was your musical upbringing like? And did film scores play any part in it?
My brother is a musician. My parents are fairly musical. My musical upbringing was more about learning to play guitar, drums, and keyboards… and making noise with my friends. I didn’t get interested in film scoring until around the age of eighteen. It started to interest me how music could have less shape and how music could have such a meaningful impact when married to picture.
How did you help develop your gentle, alternative signature, what kind of emotion did you want it to convey?
There’s no singular emotion I was trying to convey in “Captain Fantastic,” but there is a common melodic and sonic thread I was going for. That thread is to keep feelings of hope and wonder in the darker moments and keep darkness in the more optimistic moments. The story of this family living out there in the middle of nowhere and creating their own paradise is a beautiful thing. But as perfect as it seems, it crumbles and they have to start anew.
What do you think it was about the music of Sigur Ros that’s touched audiences and made it such a popular band?
I’m not sure! It’s pretty unlikely that a few guys from Iceland, singing in Icelandic would ever reach so many people. I think that’s beautiful.
What was it like to go from alt. rock to scoring with Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought A Zoo” and “Aloha?” And how do you think his own background as a music journalist helped you to grow as composers?
Working with Cameron on those two movies was so fun! He is a true music lover. He has such a vast knowledge of music and musicians and his passion for it just flows from him. He was very encouraging of Jónsi and I to experiment, make weird sounds, and collage it all together with orchestra and more traditional scoring. It created a nice effect.
What was it like composing for the a-bomb series “Manhattan?”
Really fun! We wrote and recorded lot of music. It may have been more work than we initially anticipated, but it was such a great learning experience to have to create music for an hour-long episode each week. That was definitely a challenge at times, but it made us dig deep and keep going. We had a really nice relationship with the show’s creator Sam Shaw and the primary director Thomas Schlamme. I’ve always wanted to work on a period piece and it was such a treat to go into the world of 1943. The costuming, set design, and atmosphere of it all was beautiful and eerie.
Tell us about working with director Matt Ross, and what his vision was for the “Captain Fantastic” score. Did you find his other, best-known occupation as an actor playing a part in his musical approach?
Working with Matt was a dream. He’s so clever and insightful and has a good sense of what is working and what could be better. Sometimes as the composer you’re too close to the music to hear and see things objectively. In those cases Matt was invaluable. His vision for the musical component to the film was just to create something organic, melodic and moving, but always unusual and as untraditional as possible. I was all for trying my best to end up with music that functioned as a traditional score, but sounded and felt very different.
How did you want to capture the “hippy Zen” nature of the characters?
Well I didn’t really have to try to hard in that regard. I’m pretty into a lot of ideals that may fall into that category!
How child-like did you want to make the score for kids live a wild boys existence out of Peter Pan?
I like the peter pan reference! Maybe it falls somewhere between Peter Pan and “Lord Of The Flies?” There were times where I was using my dulcitone and Matt kept saying, “I like that sound” So I tried to incorporate the childish moments using dulcitone and other bell instruments. Because of the old crusty sound of these instruments I felt like it never became too precious or overly sweet.
There’s a powerful, gently spiritual quality that fills the score. How do you translate one’s belief, whether it is in God or nature, into a score?
I think it’s difficult to translate that feeling into anything… It’s so fleeting.
How important is the outdoors to your own creative process, especially given your residence in Iceland? And did nature play any part in your youth before then?
I loved climbing trees and playing in the forest as a kid. It was such a wondrous place to be. Everything changes. The light becomes dim. Kids invent another world to temporarily exist in. It’s magic! I live in downtown Reykjavik. And even though the air is good and you can see mountains in the distance I wouldn’t really say the outdoors has much impact on my music. It’s always just out there and I know it’s close by, which is nice I think, but when I go into my studio and close the door I could be anywhere.
How did you want to conjure the wilds that these characters inhabit? Was it important to show their travel into the modern world?
I did want the music to reflect how wild and untamed the kids in the movie are. It’s just such a cool element in the story! They are these really mature kids who live in the middle of nowhere in a beautiful forest. I tried to let the music embody their spirit and their attitudes. As the family goes into the modern world my score introduces darker themes. That’s because world outside of their self-made paradise is more complex and upsetting.
“Captain Fantastic” has particularly beautiful and haunting use of wordless vocals. How did you process them, and what did you want the voices to represent?
Jónsi and Sindri sang some really nice parts through out the score. I’m so grateful to have them! Some of the vocals I recorded through a vintage SM-57 into a Moog filter, analog delay, and eventide reverb. Most of Jónsi’s vocals were recorded through a U-47 and treated in the box. I used everything from reverbs, delays, and granular synthesis to dubbing to microcassettes and re-recording the tape.
Conversely, why goes the electric guitar has an especially gnarled sound in “Captain Fantastic.”
I think you’re referring to all the blown out distortion stuff right? That’s not electric guitar, but something called the Culture Vulture and using it’s bias control to fuck up the sound. And it’s also the sound of dubbing to micro cassettes and some heavy in the box processing as well. I love to control sound. Sometimes I like to destroy sounds. I like to push them and hear them brake in a beautiful way. It can feel like I’m playing the sound as an instrument sometimes.
How did you want the string / orchestral presence to work in “Captain Fantastic?”
I love recording strings. Strings have a way of transforming simple melodies and themes into something more. Especially arranging string parts with Amiina. I can’t say enough good things about those girls. They are amazing! It’s so rare to find musicians who can improvise so tastefully and melt into the atmosphere so effortlessly. For this score, I wanted the strings to be able to really lift up some of the more intense moments and to create beds of drones for the more subdued moments. I just followed my ears.
What are some of the other instruments you used to give “Captain Fantastic” such an ethereal presence?
Other than the strings and voices we used the piano, dulcitone, harmonium, mellotron, bowed vibraphone, tuned gongs, guitar amplifier choir, guitar, sub bass, sampler, drums and percussion. It’s often about how you treat the sounds, either during recording or afterwards. I love to manipulate sounds and turn them into something else. You can surprise yourself when you start toying with sounds to make them what they’re not.
What’s your own opinion about the appropriateness of how Ben is raising his kids?
I’m pretty into most of it. I’m not into the hunting element personally. But most of it is really cool! Who says kids need to go to a school and be miserable inside a depressing building all day? There’s no right way to learn and grow.
“Captain Fantastic” often walks a fine line between comedy and drama. How important was it for the score to keep that in balance with it’s overall “quiet” approach?
I never attempted to score the funnier moments. Because the humor is kinda dark and sarcastic we all thought it was better to have those moments play dry. Thank God, because I don’t think I could make music for a comedy!
The death of Ben’s wife, and the possibility of injury to his kids because of his lifestyle are themes that loom over “Captain Fantastic.” How did you want to capture this idea of acceptance, as well as danger?
I think it goes back to me always wanting to have a tiny sense of hope in the darker moments and a sense of darkness in the more optimistic moments. There was one scene where one of the kids falls off a roof. It’s very suspenseful and then you’re shocked and scared when she does fall. I tried scoring that scene and it never worked. We all agreed it was more intense to use silence and let your mind go to a place of worry.
What do you think that “Captain Fantastic” shows about the possibilities of alternative film scoring? And how can you see your “Jónsi and Alex” sound developing with future film scores?
I hope my sound is always evolving and I’m continuing to follow new musical threads. I really hope to do more film scoring and collaborate with interesting filmmakers. It’s great to have music and sound working hand in hand in unusual ways. Look out for Bill Morrison’s next film “Dawson City: Frozen Time.” It’s a silent film documentary. I have been writing and recording for a while now and am pretty excited about it. It’s made from old found films that were buried under ice for 100 years…
“Captain Fantastic” is now in theaters, with Alex Somers’ score available from Lakeshore Records HERE
Visit the Jónsi and Alex website HERE