Interview with Ben Lovett

Ben Lovett (photo by Lucy Plato Clark)

In the proliferating transmissions of art horror, a world often used to severe punishment via discordant tunes and viscerally shattered psyches, a composer who’s punching through the void with transfixingly disturbing impact is Ben Lovett. First warping minds in the genre with 2007’s “The Signal” with frequent filmmaker collaborators Jacob Gentry and David Bruckner (alongside Dan Busch), the Georgia-born composer has prolifically mined altered, often insane perceptions to striking musical results. Becoming the sound of maddening American outback air, English black folk magic environs for a monster demanding sacrifice, the full-blooded symphonic roar of a seeming werewolf, a surreal sonic demon in the oblivion between life and death and time-travelling electronics, Lovett’s sound has never failed to draw his visuals and listeners into unnerving realities, expanding the musical palette of indie films as a whole in the bargain. 

Now as Lovett’s unique voice has begun to reach the wavelengths of critically acclaimed studio divisions, the composer shows his ability to reach into the paranoia-filled days when the sound of major movie scores were going through their own experimental reworkings as such composers as Michael Small (“Klute,” “The Parallax View”) and David Shire (“The Conversation,” “Farwell My Lovely”) brought atonal orchestrations, eerily lulling voices and film noir jazz to movies that showed it was madness to go against The System. Here, that sound is configured into the hypnotically gritty and disturbing score of Lovett’s latest, and most strikingly rewarding collaboration with Gentry for “Broadcast Signal Intrusion.” Like such previous hapless heroes as Warren Beatty and Gene Hackman falling into a life-destroying rabbit holes, tech-minded James (Harry Shum Jr.) thinks the disturbing, stage bound pirate signal of a twisted doll masked, gibberish singing woman on a set has something to do with not only his own vanished girlfriend, but a series of disappearances. Ignoring the advice of video-savvy conspiracy theorists to stay away lest he fall into a black hole that’s consumed other concerned self-styled investigators, James’ detective work propels him into a shadow world where he thinks he’s the one being surveilled – his path leading on a menacing road that offers anything but a straight answer.

A prime example of art horror at its challenging best without being pretentiously obtuse, as caught in a weird world between horror and psychological suspense, Lovett’s score for “Broadcast Signal Intrusion” is both spot-on homage and something sinisterly new. Conjuring a thematic nightmare world of synths, private dick brass, militaristic rhythm and overall oppression, Lovett transmits a driven sound that’s both raw and lush. It’s music that’s proud of its intimate canvas while hearing something far bigger, and darker as it gets under the skin and mind. That’s a running motif in a composer’s surreal canvas that only becomes more intoxicatingly nightmarish here as it darkly beams with an impressively immersive, eerie creativity. 

(Photo by Ruta Elvikyte)

Tell me about your musical upbringing and experimentations. Were horror and science fiction scores and films instrumental in you becoming a composer?

I grew up in a small town in Georgia in the middle of nowhere and on the way to nowhere.  My musical upbringing was basically a combination of watching my Dad air drum to Beatles songs on the steering wheel of the car and singing hymns in a small rural church with my Grandmother.  It wasn’t until I was in high school that I discovered punk rock, and somebody showed me how to play power chords on a guitar.  Music had always been a big influence in my life it had just never occurred to me prior that I could also make it myself.  I think punk rock as an entry point taught me that knowing how to play well was less important than knowing what you were trying to say and having some conviction about it, and from there it’s about getting your hands on something, plugging it in and throwing caution to the wind.  

With movies I’ve never thought in terms of genres I just see different kinds of stories.  For me it’s less about a particular interest in the characteristics of any specific genre so much as I just like telling stories in interesting ways and science fiction and horror offer a lot of creative ways to do that.  It’s a bit like how a good song works not matter what style you play it in.  

The first genre film I ever tackled was “The Signal” which is sort of a genre buffet with 3 different directors and a little bit of everything going on stylistically. But everything I’d done previously were dramas and comedies and experimental narrative stuff. When all you have around to make a movie is a borrowed camera and your friends and a free weekend you end up concentrating on the barest essentials of what makes a story work.  Like writing a song that’s just words and melody with nothing but an acoustic guitar or piano… if you can make that stand up and walk then you can teach it all sorts of dance moves once you bring in the band. 

Your first scores were for Jacob Gentry on “Last Goodbye” and “The Signal,” which in its way is the precursor to “Broadcast Signal Intrusion.” What were those experiences like?

Yeah both “Broadcast” and “The Signal” share the common thread of an idea that gets into your head and slowly takes over your ability to think clearly. I think filmmaking is like that, or music or the pursuit of any kind of art, or any process in life in general where you’re slowly rendered powerless to an idea for better or worse.  I guess it applies to everything which is the appeal and why it makes for good storytelling.  

“Last Goodbye” was really the first movie we made that reached an audience outside of our immediate reach, but Jacob and I had already made a couple features and a bunch shorts and art films together in Georgia by that point, so on one hand making that movie felt like a natural extension of what we had already been doing, while on the other there was an awareness this was a different rodeo altogether because Faye Dunaway and David Carradine were in our movie!  I had moved to LA by that point and built a recording studio into a house in Mount Washington we called Sunny Heights, and I think “Last Goodbye” was the first project recorded there.

I really had no reason to be particularly confident about what I was doing at the time but, much to the credit of my younger punk rock ethos, there didn’t seem to be any reason to doubt it either.  When you’re making movies, the pressure is always high, but the stakes are low because, you know, it’s a movie, what’s the worst that could happen?  I certainly didn’t think of myself as a film composer and still don’t, most of my career has been spent learning on the job so I was just excited to make another thing with Jacob and it seemed like a good excuse to bring people into the studio. I never envisioned that film would sit at the bottom of long list of IMDB credits or anything, certainly.

After such heavy films with Jacob, was it fun to do an outright horror slasher spoof trilogy on tv with him for “My Super Psycho Sweet 16?”

Those films really are a particular testament to Jacob’s talent as a director. Or as someone I know recently put it, “Those movies have no business being as good as they are.” It’s not an insult to anybody to say he cleared the bar by a mile on what was probably expected from those projects. MTV was essentially capitalizing on a Halloween spoof concept for their “My Super Sweet Sixteen”reality show and Jacob turned it into a legit movie – three of them!  It was probably a water cooler joke at one point and Jacob turned that into an entire trilogy of successful horror comedies that a whole generation of teenagers grew up on.  They were a blast to make. Nobody pretended it was Shakespeare, but nobody was ever sarcastic about it either. Jacob wanted to make the films as entertaining as possible and so we all did too.  

One particularly idiosyncratic collaboration with Jacob was for the time travel film “Synchronicity.” In that way, did you feel you were going further out there with each score?

Well, I had never done a score entirely electronically before that where I was essentially playing everything myself. I tend to approach film music like making records where you start with an idea then bring musicians into the room and try things. I also learned a lot about analog synthesizers on that project and dove deep into the work of Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis and Wendy Carlos for inspiration. We wanted to infuse the movie with a certain reverence for science fiction films from that era. So yes, definitely I think the motivation stemmed from having the opportunity to try something I had not done before and that’s still my main compass these days. There’s no one specific sound or style that I’m categorically more interested in than any other. I just love making music. All of it. Film is this spectacular vehicle to sort of explore different parts of the ocean because the boat is only so big and you’re fishing for a specific kind of meal, so you can come back with all of these new colors and ideas and motivations but what you end up cooking with is only what best serves the main course – if that makes sense.

With “The Ritual,” you started a new collaboration with filmmaker David Bruckner. I’m a particular fan of this “folk horror” movie that features an especially imaginative monster as part of the sacrificial plot. 

David and I had been making things together for years by that point but “The Ritual” was his first feature film, so that experience was familiar for us but uniquely different than anything we’d done together before.  We first met in Athens, Georgia in the late 90’s… If you were a 20-year-old kid making movies in a college town back then it was inevitable you’d meet everyone else doing that too. We crossed orbits again in Atlanta around 1999 and started making experimental short films on MiniDV.  There was an entire community of artists at that time who were constantly collaborating and working on each other’s stuff. Jacob was part of that community as well, and “The Signal” was very much a result of that particular moment in time.

It was years later that “The Ritual” came along and by then I had a decade-long vow that hell or high water I was onboard whenever Bruckner decided to make a feature. We had to make that movie in London, so I just moved there during postproduction and dove in headfirst.  It was an extremely intense experience and it nearly killed us both, but it was worth it. That score in particular is infused with a special kind of manic energy that was unique to the situation.  I don’t think it would have sounded the same under different circumstances. And yeah, pretty good monster right?  

An especially striking film was the psychological horror western “The Wind,” where a seemingly abandoned female settler loses her mind to the stark prairie. What was the challenge of playing an 1800’s-set breakdown where the sound effects are a major, literal element?

That’s a good question because the premise of a character suffering from the effects of constant wind presents not just the creative challenge of communicating the impact of that on her emotional state but also simply how to reinforce that environment without just having the sound of wind blowing through the whole movie. When you don’t see leaves blowing or branches moving or some visual representation of wind the sound of it just turns into white noise to our brains. I set out to create a variety of textural elements using wind instruments that could keep us swimming in a breathy, air-driven tonal environment that felt like wind but didn’t exactly sound like it. What worked best were some experimental techniques on the bass flute performed by the wonderful flutist Sara Andon that are layered in throughout the movie and became a fundamental element in the score.

“The Wind” was also my first time doing anything period-based which was very exciting.  I had wanted a reason to employ the sound of Nyckelharpa into a score for some time and something about it instantly felt right for this film.  That instrument has a certain spooky, old-world religion vibe to the sound. The opening theme was the very first thing I wrote, and probably why I got the job. The director Emma Tammi sent over an early cut of the movie for me to watch and talk about and I sent it back with this initial piece of music on the Nyckelharpa cut into several key moments. That same recording is in the final film as the opening credits and the first track on the album.  It’s nothing too complicated melodically, the thesis was more about reinforcing that stark, desolate look of the landscape with musically primitive, tactile sounding instrumentation, and contrasting that with the tangled complexity of what’s going on inside her head.  The true villain is the progressive isolation of the character into her own mental space, which was something I absolutely relate to personally and made it a familiar and sometimes uncomfortable thing to explore. ˙

Another important teaming for you was with filmmaker and actor Jim Cummings on “The Wolf of Snow Hollow,” a “werewolf” film that really isn’t one, though the lush score certainly sounds like it is. Was it important to play such an eccentric thriller-comedy for real in that way?

It was, although it took some time to realize that. It was my first time working with Jim and ‘Snow Hollow’ was his second feature, but his first film “Thunder Road” contained virtually no music at all so there wasn’t much of a precedent for how music worked in a Jim Cummings movie.  Jim’s films have a distinct tone that manages to straddle the line between drama and comedy in a unique way and I started out on ‘Snow Hollow’ in the wrong direction entirely. I was making these fun, whimsical little bits that skewed more towards the comedy of the film and after the first music review Jim loved the spirit of it but said “Don’t play the humor though, always play it straight.” As simple a thing as that one bit of direction was it suddenly made everything clearer for me. Oh, don’tacknowledge the comedy.  

Actor-writer-director Jim Cummings

I think the way Jim’s style works and the way he communicates the humor and absurdity of characters and how they react to their situations requires a certain kind of canvas or a baseline reality to juxtapose those against.  His performances are hilarious and painfully uncomfortable at the same time and that’s the formula, kind of like trying to land a joke at a funeral reception… it has to work in spite of the atmosphere, not because of it. 

In our case that reception was a werewolf movie which presented unique challenges for that formula because you’re working in a genre-within-a-genre and need to balance the rules and expectations of all that stuff as well for everything to click. Not to mention that Orion Pictures still expected a horror movie so I had to come up with a musical palette that could tag all those bases. The film was clearly referential to horror movies but was never really going to be “scary” and it was very funny but only when the music doesn’t directly address the humor.  Ultimately, I went for a sort of “micro budget Bernard Herrmann” approach that seemed to convey the “big problem in a small place” nature of the story. Writing in that style juxtaposed another layer onto the canvas that allowed it to acknowledge the severity and emotional complexity of the events in the story but also communicate something fundamental about the overall intention of the film and keep it focused on the idea that it’s not a movie about a werewolf at all, it’s about this guy struggling to get his shit together. 

With “The Night House,” you took a next level up in terms of studio work, as well as critical response with David – with a woman’s breakdown here caused by a demon, or perhaps just her own bereaved mind. What was it like scoring this film, and at that point did you realize you had a thematic talent for psychological studies like this?

Hmm well, I was a philosophy major in college, so I guess I’ve always gravitated towards stories aimed at big questions in one way or another.  I also just have an insatiable existential curiosity and stories are a way to explore all the underlying themes that come along with that.  

That particular aspect of “The Night House” you mention for instance was something I inferred from the script as being an expression of Nothingness itself. As in, if there’s nothing beyond death could you define that nothing as being not simply the absence of everything, but the presence-of-Nothing specifically. And then ask, what if that Nothing had some awareness or consciousness… Is the void where nothing exists, or where Nothing Exists? Proper nouns become important distinctions. In the story we have a character with a near-death experience early in her life, briefly belonging to whatever is beyond that door. What if Nothing is beyond that door, and that Nothing wants her back? 

As a storytelling device to talk about the gravity of depression and grief and the weight and pull of the darker parts of ourselves, it was a really exciting proposition to dive into creatively.  What I eventually discovered throughout each revision of the scoring process was that taking things away was often more additive to the overall experience of the film than simply putting more things into it.  Plenty of melodic content remained but overall I think that score became a largely textural body of work that’s more about negative space and what’s between the notes, than the notes themselves.

Did you listen to the classic 70’s conspiracy scores by composers like Michael Small and David Shire to come up with the “retro” sound of “Broadcast Signal Intrusion?” 

Absolutely.  There was a lot to try and blend into the stew there because essentially ‘Broadcast’ is a film made in 2020, set in the 90’s, investigating a mystery from the 80’s, inspired by a genre from the 70’s.  Jacob had laid out a trail of breadcrumbs for me that sent me down a rabbit hole of conspiracy thrillers like “Klute” and “The Parallax View” and I emerged from that curious if we could blend something about that era of Michael Small and David Shire, Quincy Jones and Lalo Schifrin with a bit of vintage Hollywood noir, but somehow make it all feel right for a movie set in 1999. As a composer your best work usually comes when the filmmaker you’re collaborating has a clear idea of what they’re after but leaves you room to interpret it in your own way. My work on Jacob’s films tend to stand apart stylistically from my other scores because they’re usually extensions of his own unique vision for them.  

Did you look at scores and films like “Videodrome” for inspiration as well, or even watch some of the real, and far more humorous “intrusions?”

I will undoubtedly lose points for this answer, but I have not seen “Videodrome.” I have a very long list of crimes where movies are concerned and not having seen some very notable ones is a repeat offense. I did research the original intrusions which are quite weird, but what left a bigger impression on me was the “I Feel Fantastic” video that’s haunted the web for the past decade  ( It’s so odd and quietly unnerving, and clearly a big influence on the movie as a whole.  People have come up with all these bizarre theories and conspiracies about why it exists and what’s supposed to mean, but I think you can’t understate the nature of the music in the video as being a fundamental part of what’s so creepy about it. There was something about it that I wanted to blend into the score, but it was a process to find exactly how and where.

A jazzy, brass-heavy approach seems an unusual choice for a movie like this, but it makes it all the more unique. Could you talk about this and some of the score’s other interesting approaches from piano to its female voice?

Oh cool, thanks. I think that’s mostly just Jacob and I wanting each movie we do together to feel unique from the other ones we’ve done together.  It was probably also influenced by me having come right off a few spooky movies in a row and just needing to play in a different sandbox for a while. I was channeling the Michael Small and David Shire style, but I also kept hearing that trumpet-driven noir sound in my head and wondered if I could take elements from the era of Raymond Chandler detective stories and throw all that in a blender with the avant-garde, post-jazz vibe of 70’s conspiracy thrillers, but somehow serve it all in cocktail glass from 1999. That was the thesis that emerged, more or less.  Of course, on a small budget the limited means often dictate your creative decisions as well to an extent, and then you add in a global pandemic, and it all becomes the usual game of having to measure your ambitions against what you can logistically achieve. But I felt like the film had a unique quality that was hard to put your finger on and I wanted to give it an overall sonic identity that felt distinct.

Valen (Bong Mines Entertainment)

The singer on the score is an artist named Valen who I’ve known for a few years.  We wrote a song together the day we met that’s on the Lovers & Friends album project I did, which is all songs I wrote on blind dates with other songwriters.  She and I have done a handful of things together since including a cover of “Little Red Riding Hood” that we did for “The Wolf of Snow Hollow.” Val was the only singer I knew with the kind of range and control and sense of adventure to try some of the techniques I had in mind for the score. She’s a spectacular vocalist, all those crazy high notes are all her, no tricks.

What are your own feelings on how conspiracy theories have affected society, and how did you want to put them into this score?

Well I think there’s something pretty unnerving about watching a person work backwards from a conclusion, then completely justify their actions, however questionable those might be, through some sense of righteousness about their cause.  It’s a glimpse of human behavior that feels frighteningly prescient lately. So it felt very relevant to be working on a movie about conspiracies which investigates the idea that the real danger might just be someone prone to believing the conspiracy in the first place, and what that belief might motivate that person to go and do.  I’m sure I don’t need to cite examples for anyone who’s occasionally read the news over the past decade.  I think when you’re desperate for an explanation to something it can become very seductive to start injecting meaning into things for the purpose of then looking for clues to support that meaning.  The way that informed the score specifically was that the music assumes the vantage point of how James viewed the events happening around him.  

Beyond its conspiracy, how did you want to reflect an essentially normal person like James losing his mind and morals?

Well hopefully what’s going on with the character is relatable in the way people struggle with grief, or have ever gotten an itch they can’t scratch, or become obsessed with finding an answer to something that might not have one. James is poking around in things that offer him a distraction from the loss he’s struggling to accept and as a result, the extent to which he might be conflating the details of those things starts to blur for him. What’s on camera doesn’t obscure those details but the score is mostly communicating James’ perspective, so it’s validating his quest in a sense. I guess that’s where the noir element came into play for me, it puts James in the lead role of a movie that’s mostly going on in his head.  It seemed like the right approach because, well, everybody’s the hero of their own story, right? When you look at the information being given to us throughout the movie though, in many ways the audience really should become a lot more suspicious of what James is actually doing the more confident he becomes about what he thinks he’s doing.

“Broadcast Signal Intrusion” director Jacob Gentry

On that note, your music in genre music in general doesn’t go from “music concrete” effects like other outright horror scores often do. Even at their craziest, BSI retains a sense of thematic and melodic coherence as such. Was that important to you?

Yeah though I never thought of ‘Broadcast’ as a horror film, not in any traditional sense. I hope people who watch horror films enjoy it, because those people rule. I do think there’s some really nice moments of palpable tension onscreen but there wasn’t any priority to make the movie scary necessarily, in part because the horror is watching the sequence of events unfolding in front of you but experiencing it through the perspective of someone who thinks he’s the hero. With the music taking the vantage point of the main character’s perspective it doesn’t aim to put him in objective danger to the audience because to James every scenario he’s in is just another stage of this big riddle he thinks he’s solving. The dense instrumental clusters and big blasts of chaotic mania in the score are all fairly melodic lines of music all tangled up like a huge ball of yarn in his brain… everything is puzzle with pieces that all fit together if he could only just figure it out!

I imagine that a big orchestra wasn’t at your disposal given the budget, but do you think that lo-fi sound contributes to the film’s effectiveness?

Oh for sure, the lo-fi thing was always part of the recipe for this one.  On most projects I instinctively want to make the score sound like movie looks. In this one we’ve got landline telephones and VCR’s and Betamax machines and something in all that prescribed a certain aesthetic and tonality right from the beginning.  The score is really just me and handful of very patient musicians. I would send parts out to players to record remotely, then take the individual recordings and put them back together in Pro Tools, then print sub-mixes of different instrument groups out onto wonky old VHS and cassette decks that I bought of Ebay, then futz around with the tracking control on the VCRs as I recorded the music back into the computer.  It was a time consuming and fairly tedious process, but it gave it a sound.  

One of the strangest aspects about music production these days is that it’s no longer very difficult to make something that objectively sounds “pretty good.” Funny enough, I was actually doing all of this stuff back in 1999, and with Jacob nonetheless, and it was always such a struggle getting good looking and sounding things out of the more primitive versions of what we all use now. At the same time there’s a real fondness for the stuff you grew up using when you were just starting out and experimenting and first learning how to make things. I can remember having to live dub the score for the first movie Jacob and I made together onto a VHS deck from a CD player in real time as people were showing up for this big house party for the “premiere” of the movie, and we’re in the back room live mixing the master from one VHS deck to another, with me DJ-ing the cues into the scenes as the tape rolled.  It took several attempts but once we got all the way through to the end it felt like we’d climbed Mount Olympus or something. We were like, “We did it!” Then rewound the tape and ran into the living room to go start the movie for everybody.   

Musician Ben Lovett in NYC (Photo by by Andrzej Liguz)

I’d guess that BSI was scored during lockdown. Do you think that added to the score’s weirdly nightmarish quality, let alone any difficulty in producing it?

I would have to say it did just consider how everything took on a weirdly nightmarish quality at times in 2020. I feel fortunate that so many talented musicians who contributed to this score have really figured out how to record their instruments from home in a professional way.  But more to your question, I think the cumulative amount of isolation I had experienced by the point in the year I began work on the score really had me in a frame of mind which was distinctly more detached from reality than usual. There was also the bizarro quality of making a movie about a guy getting caught in conspiracy theories during all the “election was stolen” and storming the Capitol business, so it took on a weird funhouse mirror quality for sure.

Given that most of the “horror” in BSI is suggested, did that make the music’s sense of dread and creeping urgency all the more important?

Yeah the primary tension in that story for me really centered around the implications of what this guy is doing and how he’s maybe forcing connections that might not really exist between the things he discovers.  I think as an audience we sort of enter that equation pre-programmed to give the protagonist the benefit of the doubt on his actions, which has a sort of meta-quality interest to me in asking how long do we implicitly trust the person identified as the hero? How long are we willing to excuse the things in plain sight casting doubt on someone we would prefer to believe is doing the right thing? And beyond just where that applies to being told a story, what does that say about us?

Do you think a strength of a film and score like BSI is that it covers many genres, yet never quite settles on one – let alone delivering an explain-everything answer? 

I do because an explain-everything answer is sort of antithetical to the whole exercise. There’s a difference between the movie explaining everything and the movie making sense. It makes sense, it’s all there. It just challenges you to engage a little about what it’s getting at. There’s a point of no return with James but I think it’s the sort of thing where he’s passed that point well before we’re aware of it, and we’re catching up to just how far down the rabbit hole we have followed this guy. By the time we’re nearing the end of the third act the music has similarly transformed entirely into something else. 

Ordinarily that’s the part of the movie where the theme would come back or we’d have a climax in the music which ties everything together and makes you feel like the journey makes sense whether the movie has really earned that or not, but I realized, and Jacob agreed, that’s just not the thesis of this whole endeavor. All the fun “we’re off solving a mystery” business is so far in the rearview for James by the time he shows up at the house in Peotone. Across that last act you hear the last remnants of earlier motifs in the score drifting away, getting swallowed into the dark fantasy of this particular pursuit. Once we arrive at that big scene between Harry and Justin Welborn the music is entirely gone, and you’re forced to just deal with that scene and the implications of what’s happening and how you feel about it.

Given what conspiracies have done to society, do you think that “BSI” is a tragedy in its way with how the score ends the film, given the inexorable course that James takes down the rabbit hole?

I do because James never actually confronts the thing he’s trying to solve. He drives past all the exit ramps… he turns down the offer from Nora to hang out and connect with someone who’s going through a similar loss, and to rent a tape from Blockbuster nonetheless! He loses his job, drives away the one person trying to help him because they offer him a plausible explanation other than the one that he wants to be true.  

Obsession can be a destructive path.  And human nature seems to be that we seek out resolution in things unrelated to the source of what’s unresolved, or to try and fix one thing in order to correct or atone for mistakes we’ve made elsewhere, so it’s easy to see how someone winds up in James predicament and gets lost in it, or as Alice puts it in the film, to “spend so much time searching for answers you forget the fucking questions.”

The Beta Test

Tell us about scores for Jim’s “The Beta Test” and Erin Derham’s documentary “Stuffed.” 

My contribution to “The Beta Test” was very small from a volume standpoint.  When Jim showed me the movie he had already “Tarantino’d” most of it with existing music he’d sourced and I thought it worked great, so I just came onboard to fill in the gaps a little and tie a few scenes together.  It didn’t need a lot but I’m always up for whatever Jim is getting into, so I was happy to chip in wherever he needed me. He had the idea to open the film with an acapella vocal piece, so I worked with a singer named Adriana McCassim and recorded a little ‘”la la la” thing that appears in a couple places. I ended up making more than Jim needed in the end, but I enjoyed doing it because I got to dabble around in the Italian Giallo style of composers like Bruno Nicolai and Riz Ortolani.  Very fun stuff.  

“Stuffed” was equally a blast to make.  I love working on documentaries and like most people who watch that film I had no idea how fascinating I would find the world of taxidermy. It’s this unique outsider culture at the intersection of art and science and it was surprising to discover how much the film is really a story about how much these people love animals.  Musically it was some of the most fun I’ve had on a project because as much as I love exploring heavy thematic abstraction and dark introspective narratives, I also enjoy writing fun upbeat melodic music just as much.  I can’t stay interested in one thing for very long, I need to play in every corner of the sandbox.  

Stylistically for “Stuffed,” I got to incorporate some love letters into that one as well, little nods to composers like Jon Brion and Mark Mothersbaugh, guys like me who sort of snuck in the side door of the film world through rock music. On a lot of scores, I realize I’m channeling the personality of the filmmaker as much as the characters in the story, and “Stuffed” is very much the sound of me translating Erin’s enthusiasm and playfulness and reverence for the subject. She definitely has Jim Cummings-level energy and lot of that informed the music.  Beyond that, I also just really identified with these characters who spend a lot of time alone obsessively pouring themselves into the thing they most love to do.  

(Photo by Ruslan Tumash)

How do you think your other career in alt. music, and your own Lovers Label adds to your voice?

It makes me a better collaborator.  I’ve found that having artist projects of my own running parallel to the film work gives me an outlet to satisfy any need to have complete domain over the work. Composing for film is so collaborative by nature and you’re there to be an interpreter of someone else’s material and their vision for it.  Plenty of your own creative instincts go into that process but ultimately your job is to help tell a specific story in a specific way and sometimes you have to serve a lot of masters in that process.  By contrast, I can write a song and make it whatever I want it to be or produce a track for someone in a style I might never get to explore on someone’s film. Lovers Label started as a way for me to put things out into the world that I didn’t necessarily need a label for, but it was also a means to better understand what all that process entailed from soup to nuts so that I could better evaluate the job another label was doing when I put something out with them.  More than anything though, it’s simply that music is my primary mode of creative expression and I have a lot of things to express, so it takes a lot of different voices to articulate them all.

When you look at a prolific career in “art horror,” what do you think makes your music in that particular, idiosyncratic and audience-demanding genre stand out?

If there’s anything unique about what I do it’s probably by accident. Any defining characteristic about my work is likely the result of having never been shown or taught how to do it correctly and just fumbling into my own understanding of it. I think if I did know how to do this job like everyone else I probably would, so I guess I’m glad I don’t. Hopefully those films all contain a distinct kind of mood or quality that feels a little different from everything else, or at the very least, effectively casts a spell on you in some unique way. In this genre specifically my scores tend to be just as focused on the sounds they contain as the music so it’s easy to not even realize a film like “The Night House” has over 74 minutes of score in it for instance. Not realizing that is kind of the point though. I like to say I’m in the business of emotional manipulation, which is something one is best able to do the less you’re aware it’s being done at all.  

After scoring so many movies about outside, and inner forces wreaking havoc, how do you retain your own sanity in the musical process? And what twilight zones do you think these projects will take you? 

Well, jury’s out on whether I’ve managed to retain it at all. I’m pretty sure this job has shortened my life expectancy. Each project is so exhaustive and typically bookended by states of constant panic and anxiety, first when you’re staring at a blank canvas or a blinking cursor and later when you’re sprinting towards the deadline. It’s really what happens in between I guess that has me hooked, the accidents and discoveries along the way.  It’s an occupation for obsessive personalities that I allow to consume me far too often and routinely find that I’m generally powerless against my own ambitions, not unlike James in ‘Broadcast Signal Intrusion,’ which is what attracts me to stories like that.  

Composing for film is an instinctual process for me not an academic one and without some personal frame of reference for what the characters are going through I have no idea what to do. When I did my first movie in college nearly 25 years ago, I was spending all day in class studying Philosophy then all night studying emotions and character motivations and I suppose I never stopped doing either I just combined them into one hybrid pursuit. Instead of going to class I just explore my own existential curiosities in song lyrics and melodies, which is much cheaper. And that’s always extended to scoring films because of a fundamental interest in interpreting the underlying emotions of themes and characters.  More than anything else that’s my main motivation or perspective about the work, because I don’t use movies as a platform to express my musical sensibilities, I use music as a means to help tell stories.  

“Broadcast Signal Intrusion” is now in theaters and on VOD, with its blu ray available on December 7th. Get Ben’s score album digitally and on vinyl from Lovers Label & MNRK Records HERE

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