Interview with Disasterpeace

(Disasterpeace, photo by Marlene Mey)

From the retro 8-bit rhythms of “FEZ” to the electro-80’s shock of “It Follows,” the stylistically twisted Herrmann-isms of “Under the Silver Lake” and the blasting tropical heroics of “Twisted Frontier,” the always unexpected music of Disasterpeace marks this particularly self-named composer as some weirdly magic musical creature you might find in a scoring garden of delights. That makes the seeming Silverlake enclave wherein reside “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” as the perfect place to locate his most enchanted score yet. 

The creation of once-married actress Jenny Slate (“Obvious Child”) and filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp (“Superego”), the miniscule Marcel was given birth through a series of shorts where Slate morphed her already distinctive voice into a wee, whimsical creature with its distinctive approach to life, rolling out its philosophy while making ingenious use of household implements in a way that puts The Incredible Shrinking Man to shame. Now the one-eyed, sneaker’d Marcel is all grown up to feature length with Camp both directing and playing an ersatz version of himself as a newly single hipster filmmaker who decides to documentary spotlight the shell. But while Marcel becomes a 60 Minutes media sensation, what truly drives it is the need to find his missing family under the watchful eye of Grandma Connie (Isabella Rossellini). 

Given a wholly unique entry into stop motion that plays like an ingenious Zen-hipster variation of Gumby, Disasterpeace brings a child’s-ear aesthetic to his lovely little score that’s all about making music from a seeming sandbox of tinkertoys – conveying the wonder of a magical world as much as it does the poignance of a little entity lost. Pokey rhythms, circus-like winds, play piano, glistening ambiences and even a wacky miniature band complete a gentle, wonderfully melodic spell to personify a personality as unique as Disasterpeace’s, here having a heyday with an electro-organic sense of whimsy and garden poetry for a film that delights young, old and super small alike. 

(Diasterpeace, Photo by Luis Sinco)

What was it about alternative music that appealed to you, particularly when it came to “chiptune?” How you would describe that for the synth layman? 

Growing up I always loved computers and video games, so when I discovered as a teen that people were not only making video game remixes but using old video game hardware and sounds to make original music, I was totally hooked on that concept. As I delved it into a bit, I also really appreciated how it forces you to focus more on composition than production, because of the limited sound palette. It definitely gave me a sense of counterpoint that I probably would have shunned if I was just trying to make straight up prog-rock tracks, like I was before.

How did you create the identity of Disasterpiece, especially as most musicians hope their work isn’t a disaster? 

I had a habit as a kid of creating fictional entities just so I could create visual designs. I wanted to form a band, but before calling any friends I came up with a name and a logo. The group never really came to fruition, but the name has stuck since 2004. I like wordplay. It was a play on masterpiece. I originally spelled it ‘Disasterpiece’, but in learning about the Slipknot song of the same name, I changed the spelling (to ‘Disasterpeace’). Peace and disaster are kind of at odds as ideas, and I like that. Committing to a name I chose as a teenager could have very easily been a tall order. So I’m glad that after all this time, I don’t think it’s a dumb name. The idea essentially was to create a separate identity from my work projects. But over time, the two melded together. At this point, I still do like the idea of “Disasterpeace” being something that is separate from me, even though that can be a confusing thing to explain to people all the time.

Your breakthrough in the video game arena with “Puzzle Agent” and “FEZ.” How was it coming through the indie side of that market? 

I worked on both studio projects (like “Puzzle Agent”) and indie titles (like “FEZ”), so from early on I had a sense of the distinction between working on smaller and larger projects. I’ve always preferred working with less people on smaller teams. I met the programmer for FEZ at a concert I performed in Montreal back in 2010. They were looking for musicians to work on the game, with the intention of treating the soundtrack as a compilation, and he asked me if I was interested in contributing. But I thought it would work better to have a single composer, and so I suggested I might write all of the music. That project fundamentally changed the trajectory of my career, as it sold millions of copies and had a way bigger audience than anything else I had ever worked on. My work on FEZ lead directly into an opportunity to work on a feature film.

You got Hollywood notice with David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows.” Could you talk about being at the forefront of a wave of genre films that re-electrified the 80’s horror sound? And what was the process of creating that vintage sound, yet making it fresh?

I never spent much time with horror films, and so I came to the project with very little knowledge of the genre. I knew the “Psycho” theme, and I had listened a bit to the band Goblin and dug that. So I think in a way there is some of that spirit in there, but I tried to take a deliberately ignorant approach to scoring the movie. I would only listen to the temp once or twice before writing something new for the scene. In this way I could hopefully build on a distillation of why the temp works, without mimicking it too closely. I think it’s a good practice to try and not be too on the nose. Some of the temp music references were from 80s films, but most of them weren’t. The anachronistic nature of the film was something that I was always sitting with. And the aesthetic of the score was in part a byproduct of real-world limitations. We only had a few weeks to score the movie and the only thing I knew I could do in such a short period was to build a synth score. I learned how to build my own synth patches in college and had refined that ability while working on “FEZ.” I really tried to be deconstructive about how we were being nostalgic, and so it was not my desire for the score to come off as overly vintage. I’m glad if people were inspired by it but I think the characterization is at odds with what my intentions were. But that’s life!

I was really struck by how bold David’s “Under the Silver Lake” was, especially in the incredible number of styles you used for the film’s extensive, but always interesting running time. What was that experience like in symphonically broadening your voice, especially when you’ve got an indie film that really went for it? 

It was (and still is I think) the hardest project I’ve ever worked on. It definitely took a village to make the score come to fruition. I did all the writing and arranging but had a team of people helping me with orchestration and the rest of the traditional pipeline for working with large ensemble. That team was led by fellow composer Kyle Newmaster and I could not have done it without him and the rest of our group. Personally, it was an extremely fulfilling project for me, as writing for orchestra was something I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the chance to do on such a large scale. It really pushed me to the limit creatively. To go from largely doing synth scores to orchestra, I have a lot of gratitude for the director David Robert Mitchell, who put faith in me to write that kind of score.

“Triple Frontier” was the kind of straight-up action film that people might not have expected you to score given your indie street cred. What was your experience like of adapting to that genre, yet making your voice distinctive in it? 

I’ve generally been attracted to novelty in work, and doing a big-budget action film definitely met that criteria. I think “Triple Frontier” was tough – it was fun to occupy a different headspace and focus a lot on percussion, but also came out of the process glad that I didn’t have to work on action films all the time. Writing music for action sequences in particular is probably my least favorite type of writing to do. It’s funny because I do like to write big, bombastic tunes, but there are really high expectations for getting enough “energy” out of a scene, and I find it can really limit what is feasible musically. Add that to the limited amount of sonic real estate you have to share with explosions, big sound effects and screaming characters, and for me I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Art Clokey’s Gumby

What struck you about stop motion movies and shows when you were a kid, especially when it came to their scores? 

I don’t have any strong memory of stop-motion scores, but I was always intrigued by the choppy, somewhat surreal nature of the animation in things like “Gumby.”

How were you brought into “Marcel?” And what did you glean from the shorts before it? 

I had never seen the shorts before, but I had worked with Marcel’s animation director Kirsten Lepore on an episode of “Adventure Time” called “Bad Jubies.” I had a great meeting with both Kirsten and Dean to discuss the film and knew it would be a very fruitful collaboration. Dean already had an animatic for the entire film, but it was very rough at that stage as many of the scenes hadn’t been shot yet. But between that and watching the original shorts, I knew that the subject matter would be heartfelt and funny. The animatics made it clear that the film would tackle more serious life issues, while still trying to maintain the charm of the shorts.

What was the process of finding the surreal, organic sound for “Marcel” like?

The palette came together naturally during the course of writing. I started with a small group of sounds, mostly ones taken from my first few sketches, and slowly added more over time. Dean and I had lots of discussions about the sound world of the film, how we wanted it to sound small but detailed, earnest, organic, simple. It was a bit of a challenge to sort out communication around these aesthetic considerations because Dean has a limited musical vocabulary (which even gets poked fun at in the movie). Sharing music and identifying sounds, discussing them in greater detail definitely helped me to improve my decision making as far as making approvable choices went.

Marcel and Dean

What was it like collaborating with Dean Fleischer-Camp as a director, especially as he’s playing “himself” as the director of the film-within-a-film?

The director being in the film is a bit surreal, for sure – but Dean was great to work with. The fact that he has a deep and personal connection to the film just made things easier. On a project like this I can trust the director to know which way to steer the ship. There’s always a give and take period during a new collaboration, figuring out what the relationship will be like. We ended up scratching quite a lot of music, but I think at the end of the day we’re really proud of what we made.

Tell us about creating the tinkertoy-like percussion of Marcel, and what instruments you used.

The score is comprised of lots of [[FM]] (Frequency Modulation) and [[PM]] (Physical Modelling) synth sounds. These techniques are especially good at creating sounds that can mimic natural sounds in simple and satisfying ways. Pianos were often used in conjunction with Nana Connie’s story, which generally called for a more grounded, familiar, and traditional feeling. We also honed in on incorporating sounds that might literally come from Marcel’s sound world. This is especially true for the credits, which feature the sound of falling spoons, Marcel’s resonating shell, weirdly convoluted brass sounds, and prop cameos.

There’s a lot that went into “Marcel” to make it look so “simple.” Would you say it’s the same case with your score’s sophistication? 

For sure. In many cases, the music is quite simple, but the journey we took to reach that point was not. I often had to simplify my work, making it less emotional and clever in order to serve the film best. There’s basically an entire second score’s worth of material that we didn’t end up using that is similar but more “Disasterpeacy”.

With Marcel searching for his family through the film, how did you want to capture that sense of loss without the music becoming overly morose?

Dean and I talked at great length about trying to make the music somber through emotionally ambiguous music instead of explicit cueing. It’s easy to see an emotion happening on screen and try to reflect that musically, but we really tried to go against that grain as much as possible, to give the audience more room to draw their own conclusions. It was a stylistic challenge for me, having never really worked in that way before. There were definitely times that I didn’t really know what I was doing and didn’t know whether or not Dean would like what I submitted.

Jenny Slate (Photo by Eric McCandless/Getty Images)

Would you say there’s a musicality to Jenny Slate’s voice, and if so, how did that effect your score given that Marcel is talking through much of the film? 

For sure there is a musicality there. I think it lends a sense of fun and intimacy to the film, so in that way, it was definitely an inspiring element for the score.

When scoring a film like “Marcel,” is the sky the limit, especially given your experimental street cred?

The limit generally stops with the director, or whoever is in charge, but I do appreciate collaborators who give me lots of freedom to experiment and explore lots of possibilities in the beginning. Once we land on something we both like, then the possibility space and experimentation naturally start to close in because they’re no longer as necessary.

Given that “Marcel” is going for the kind of hip movie audiences that A24 appeals to, what kind of ironic onus do you think that places on the score? 

I honestly have no idea what this question means. Usually the more I have to worry about the studio or external expectations and obligations, the worse things will go for me. An ideal film for me is one where I only have to worry about the creative opinion of one other person, and they’re the one making the decisions. Of course that is rarely the case in reality. But in my case, I was quite fortunate to work with a wonderful creative team led by Dean.

(Photo by Shane Lopes)

How do you see yourself and “Marcel” fitting into the percussive and piano shells of composers like Thomas Newman, Michael Convertino and Jon Brion, musicians who made this kind of playful rhythmic sound popular for film scoring? And in turn, how do you see your score here carrying it forward, let alone for the stop motion? 

To be honest I don’t think about things like this at all. Once the project is over, I’m thinking about what I’m going to create next. Sometimes I start thinking about that before it’s even done. That being said I do really like Jon Brion’s music.

You’ve got the slasher spoof “Bodies Bodies Bodies” coming up. Tell us about returning to the horror genre with it.

I didn’t want to just start making horror scores after “It Follows,” so I waited and turned down quite a few opportunities until “Bodies Bodies Bodies” came along. As you said, it’s a “spoof”, which I think made it an interesting project to tackle and figure out. It doesn’t naturally fit into a single genre. The opportunity to explore a contemporary sound heavily inspired by trap and pop was interesting for me, since I’ve done very little of that in my career.

Watch “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” in theaters now, and buy Disasterpeace’s score on Lakeshore Records HERE

Visit Disasterpeace’s Web Site HERE

Special Thanks to Kurt Nishimura