Interview with Disasterpeace

For one of Hollywood’s rising musical talents, Disasterpeace (aka Staten Island native Richard Vreeland) has a way of energetically reaching into the cinematic past. He’d begin his career in the indie videogame realm with eccentrically rhythmic scores to “Bonk: Brink of Extinction,” “Shoot Many Robots” and “KRUNCH.” But it was Disasterpeace’s bouncy eight-bit “chipmusic” sound for acclaimed “FEZ” that caught the ear of writer-director David Robert Mitchell, who was looking for a composer that could crawl into the 70s and 80’s skin of classic horror synth scores. The resulting, eerily electrified collaboration on 2014’s “It Follows” not only alerted film critics and viewers to the duo’s talents, but also jump started a new wave of throwback computer-generated scores typified by “Stranger Things.”

Having since generated more game scores and performance pieces, Disasterpeace has finally made his re-entry into the cinematic world this year, impressively transforming his expected identity in the process. The first soundtrack to see release is Netflix’s “Triple Frontier,” with director J.C. Chandor (“A Most Violent Year”) subverting what could have been a typical south of the border drug-smashing action picture into a band of military brothers’ morally conflicted quest for the contraband treasure they think is owed them. Disasterpeace brings on furious, war-like drumming (with a helicopter assist from Metallica’s Lars Ulrich) and rock guitar licks for a to-the-second planned heist that of course goes haywire, It’s a dark, gritty score brimming with anger and tension, paying off the percussive demands of musical merc action while accenting the intelligence and emotion that Chandor uses to re-energize a well-worn action genre,

But no Disasterpeace score is as audacious, or as positively old school as the film noir strains that can now be found “Under the Silver Lake.” Where its writer-director David Robert Mitchell drew from classic chain mail horror films for “It Follows,” the cinematic influences in “Silver Lake” are all over the classic map from “Vertigo” to “Chinatown” and “The Long Goodbye” (with a dash of “Repo Man” thrown in) as a slacker turns detective to solve the disappearance of a beautiful blonde apartment neighbor. It’s a long journey down the hipster neighborhood rabbit hole, and Los Angeles at large that has no end of irony as it decodes self-help cults, self-obsessed movie culture and the insane vanity of the rich and powerful, as overseen by a wary homeless figure and a twisted name-that-tune musician.

As his epic, eccentric score goes “Under the Silver Lake,” Disasterpeace channels his inner Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, Miklos Rozsa and throwback videogame love into a rabbit hole of beyond esoteric clues and reversed-record messages, meeting a gallery of Robert Altman-worthy eccentrics to play in the bargain. Lushly channeling the romantic mystery maestros’ styles, Disasterpeace brings his own witty inventiveness to “Silver Lake” with whistling, sci-fi synths and just a bit of videogame love – all adding to a uniquely satiric, hallucinatory miasma that pays as much tribute to classic Hollywood scoring as it does the composer’s futuristic inventiveness. It’s a witty homage that shows a singular musical voice seemingly capable of any stylistic transformation for an always-weird La-La Land.

Tell us about your own musical beginnings, and what drew you to scoring?

It really started for me with a love for making stuff. I spent my childhood drawing, writing stories and experimenting with software. I spent a large portion of my teenage years freelancing, making websites and logos. But I was always surrounded by music. My family was in the music ministry at our church, and I eventually took up the guitar in high school. Everything up to that point had me pursuing a passion for graphic design, but as my love for making music blossomed I eventually decided to pursue that instead. I stumbled into my first soundtrack gig by responding to a wanted ad on a message board, but I never thought that scoring was a possibility until I found myself doing it.

How did videogames like “Hyper Light Drifter” and “”Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake” become the medium to start your career in? And how do you think they made you grow as a composer?

My very first soundtrack gig 13 years ago was a game, and I’m still working on games. It’s a very challenging and fun medium to contribute to. There’s something to be said about the history of videogame music too, and how it evolved from simple, technologically restricted beginnings. I came to appreciate these early stylings, which are sometimes called “chipmusic.” It dramatically influenced my own work. I think videogames really got me to think about music contrapuntally. When you’re emulating a style that limits you to a few voices and simple sounds, everything that remains needs to be quite strong. It also delayed my foray into the production side of things, and got me to focus more on composition. I was able to perform my music live for many years as part of a small but international scene of very enthusiastic people. I could really go on – it was an awesome experience and I owe so much to the medium of games and to many of the smaller scenes in its orbit.

How did the name “Disasterpeace” come about?

I had a habit as a kid of creating fictional entities just so I could make designs. So I wanted to form a band, and I started with a name and a logo. The band never came to fruition but the name has stuck for over a decade. It’s a play on ‘masterpiece’, with the added twist of ‘peace’ to give it a bit of a dual nature.

What do you think it was about “FEZ” that drew David to your work, and made him believe you’d be ideal to score a live action horror movie?

I think he was looking for a sound that had an emotional range suitable for the film. The music in “FEZ” is intimate at times, but can also be very aggressive and menacing. I think having a breadth like that worked well for “It Follows.” In that way there is a fundamental similarity between the two scores, but many distinctive differences as well. I think I was lucky to connect with a film director who is an avid player of videogames.

Could you talk about scoring “It Follows” in a way that replicated the classic synth-horror sound of the 70’s and 80’s? And was that genre of scores something you’d always been interested in?

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.”

What did you think when “It Follows” caused an explosion of retro-scores?

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 retro. 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!

“Triple Frontier” was your next feature score to come out. What drew J.C. Chandor to your work, especially given how different this subject was from “It Follows?”

This score was actually written after ‘Under the Silver Lake.” JC’s editor Ron Patane was fond of my work and shared it with JC, including the music from that aforementioned film. I’m not entirely sure what drew them to me to be honest. I think they wanted something bold and different. They didn’t want it to sound like every other blockbuster movie. For a lot of the team, including JC and myself, this was our first time working on a big action movie. I’m always looking for novelty in my work and I think that’s what brought us together. When you’ve never done something before, it makes it a little easier to do something different.

What do you think separates “Triple Frontier” from the usual mercenary action films, and how did you want to take a different route from the usual electronic-ethnic beats we get from movies set in South America – while at the same time paying off the demands of an “drug” action score?

I’m honestly not entirely sure, as I’m not well versed in action films, mercenary or otherwise. I think it’s probably a bit of a throwback because of the way we used motifs. We had the benefit of working with Suzana Peric, a veteran music editor who knows JC well and brings a ton of thoughtfulness and experience to the table. We figured out early on that it wouldn’t benefit the film to use any overtly South American themes. Focusing on the protagonist’s relationships was the most important thing for the score to do, and so aesthetically the score goes in more of a military direction, as that is their background. The grittiness of the score I think helps to sell that they are ex-military mercenaries who are dealing outside of the law.

You do a lot of “tracking” with the characters’ plans to “professionally” get in and get out. How did you want to map out the infiltration of the drug kingpin’s jungle mansion?

This went through a couple of different iterations but what ended up working best was to have plodding music that left lots of space for the characters’ planning and radio talk. Along the way it’s important to have points of interest in the music, especially when you have something slow and methodical. We leaned heavily on a few themes for this – one that characterizes the soldiers’ backgrounds and identities, one that signals that there is trouble ahead, one that is all about greed and money, and the title theme. The title theme is meant to represent the journey that they are on, but is also tied to the drug lord Lorea, who has his own dissonant version of the theme that is usually played out slowly on a jangly guitar. Once we figured out the pacing that we needed, we interwove the score with these different thematic elements. They help to emphasize moment to moment what’s happening and what’s important to take away as an audience member.

Another terrifically suspenseful sequence is when the group tries to get elevation for their helicopter ride over the Andes Mountains. How did you want to get the idea of rising and falling momentum across here?

This scene is very dense visually and sonically, and so we had to pick our spots with the score. I had written music to carry through the whole scene, but in the mix it was decided to pull that out during the second half of the helicopter’s ascent. We actually stumbled into having solo drums over the helicopter falling sequence. I had delivered a work in progress sketch for the cue, in which I had fully accompanied score up until the helicopter begins to fall, at which point there was only drums. I had yet to get around to writing the rest of the parts for this section, but when we all watched the scene together the idea of just drums clicked really well. The drums build in intensity and tempo as the helicopter spirals further and further down and that rise in energy matches what’s happening on screen.

Usually in films like this, the heroes have no problems killing nameless, faceless natives and drug dealers. But here they take pains not to unnecessarily kill anyone – which they do in spite of their best efforts. How did you want to reflect this unexpected level of morality in the score – and the price that comes from breaking that?

This is anything but a usual action film, and I think JC and the entire team brought a lot of thoughtfulness to the characters motivations and to the genre.

Do you think that living in LA is a surreal experience in and of itself?

It definitely was when I was working on ‘Under the Silver Lake’. To work on a film that is set very near where you live is quite bizarre. To drive by those locations, and to ponder on the story, really got me thinking about where the lines get drawn between reality and the wacky world David created for the film.

CANNES, FRANCE – MAY 16: Director David Robert Mitchell attends “Under The Silver Lake” Photocall during the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 16, 2018 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Were you a fan of the kind of offbeat 70’s films like “The Long Goodbye” that “Under the Silver Lake” references?

My unfamiliarity with noir was pretty severe, so at the start it was a bit tricky to find a good place to start. David and the editor Julio Perez IV recommended I watch some films to develop a bit of a reference point. And so I watched films like “Citizen Kane,” “Vertigo,” “Taxi Driver” and “Blue Velvet.” I haven’t seen that film you mentioned, but just watching a couple of movies really helped me a lot to get a sense of the attitude and aesthetic that was such a big inspiration for David.

How did you and David come up with the approach for “Silver Lake’s” score?

At first we set out to try a new approach. On “It Follows” we worked from a temp score, and I wanted to experiment this time around with writing material from scratch for David and Julio to cut to. This proved to be very difficult, and the amount of material required to find the right fit for all of the different scenes was a very tall order. So after trying a couple of different styles, we had to go back to the method we knew worked. It’s really crucial to have a strong way to communicate with each other about music, and for us, it’s temp music. David and Julio are a great team, and very well versed in films and music. Riffing on their references is fun and enlightening for me. They always introduce me to tons of material I’m unfamiliar with.

There are a lot of scenes in the film that stand apart, and draw from references that are a bit out of the ordinary for the movie. The temp music for some of these scenes was never quite figured out, and so this made the cues themselves difficult to solve. At times it was hard to figure out what was needed musically and there were definitely a couple that we had to iterate on over a dozen times to get right. But part of that process is having long, interesting conversations about the underlying intent of some of these sequences. You really have to get into the heads of your collaborators, while also acknowledging to some degree that the film itself has developed its own immutable properties. Figuring this stuff out is never quite the same, from project to project, scene to scene, or even minute by minute.

Before scoring “Under the Silver Lake,” did you do a deep dive into the scores of composers like Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, Max Steiner and Jerry Goldsmith? And were there any particular scores and styles of theirs that stood out for you in determining this score’s classic film noir tone?

I would call it a shallow dive, but it was really crucial for me to have something to grasp onto. On “It Follows” I had at least a vague familiarity of horror which helped me out, but for “Under the Silver Lake” I would say I had even less familiarity with David’s touchstones, so it only made sense to go listen to some things. Discovering the music of a composer like Bernard Herrmann was one of the great joys of the project for me, and I’ve subsequently gone back to watch and listen to some of his other work.

Conversely, how did you want to bring your own take to an iconic musical style, especially when it came to such eccentric touches as whistling and sci-fi like sounds?

It was important to me to try find fun, odd elements for this score that would set it apart. The film music certainly wears its inspirations on its sleeve but there also a lot of disparate ideas at play. I wanted to acknowledge the eclecticism on display through the music as well.

Scoring “Under the Silver Lake” at The Bridge

The recurring whistle motif was actually something I recorded in the production office bathroom. It had a bizarre feeling of being tonal but atonal, and had a nice reverb to it. Sometimes it can be hard to recreate these kinds of spur of the moment ideas, so I ended up just using the voice memo I took with my phone. There are also sections of the score that are the full orchestra accompanying the whistle motif, but the whistle motif has been omitted. I think it will hard for people to figure out where those are, but it’s a fun little tidbit!

What kind of level of cinematic archness and irony do you think your approach gives to the film, especially since you’ve got young characters watching old movies?

Certainly the music contributes to those feelings. By its very nature of being inspired strongly by older music, but with all of its odd contemporary twists, video game sounds, and so forth, I think we were able to concoct something really unique and fun. Despite the irony of it, I can earnestly say that we were channeling things like “The Legend of Zelda” and Alfred Hitchcock in the same breath. And to have the opportunity to take a musical tour of some of David’s strongest inspirations, filmmakers like Fellini and Lynch, was a really difficult but satisfying challenge.

How did you want to convey the idea of patterns and portentous signs?

I had experimented with weaving patterns into the score, but the visuals do such a strong job of that and so I maybe felt less inclined to force the issue there. What the score does try to do is hint at many of the signs and clues that are going on. There are many subtle nods to things, and something like the musical ideas of the song “Turning Teeth” are littered through the film and the score itself. It was also fun finding ways to have the music participating in the visuals of the film. There are some pretty neat Easter eggs worth finding.

What does Silverlake mean to you as a location, and as music? And how do you think that the score captures the strangeness of LA in a bigger picture?

I haven’t spent a ton of time in Silver Lake, but I do have friends there and live about 15 minutes away. I know that place and the scene associated with it loomed large with David, who lived there around the time the screenplay was meant to take place. It’s perhaps a tough sell to an unaware audience but the film was meant to be a period piece, about a very particular period of time in this neighborhood, not too long ago.

What I love about the film is how it plays with the many curiosities and oddities that bubble up around the culture of Hollywood and entertainment. There’s a very dark side there, and historically a lot of cultish, esoteric behavior. LA is an easy target for commentary because of the absurdity of the place, and how concentrated it is. It’s interesting how people behave when the culture of a place, a culture of entertainment, celebrity and personality, can almost border on religion at times, whether they realize it or not.

How did you want to score to peel away the layers of the film’s mystery, to play the progress that Sam is making? And did you want the score to become more hallucinatory along with his discoveries?

The score wears a lot of hats, which is part of what made it such a demanding project. Some of that was maybe self-inflicted, but I knew I wanted the score to participate in the way that the film reveals, suggests, and just generally does things that feel subversive, or like a slight of hand. The music does a ton of foreshadowing, introducing you to characters and themes, and hinting at the unsettling nature of this world we’re about to enter. But what I love is that we also got to participate in a kind of running commentary. The music oftentimes will play very straight and earnest, which can help to sell the absurdity or bizarreness of certain scenes. But there are other times where the music is audibly melting and warping and really trying to get you to notice that the walls are crumbling, that the line between what’s real and what’s not is being blurred and to ask, “Who knows where we are anymore?”

The hallucinatory nature of the score is generally in alignment with the things that are being talked about or visualized, things that are beyond our typical understanding of how the world works. Things that are esoteric, part of the unknown, or only for a select few to know and understand. But it’s also unclear whether Sam is having visions and nightmares at times, or whether these things are a concrete part of his reality. And to play up those questions, and really lean into those scenes, was a particular joy of mine as the composer.

How difficult was it to walk a tightrope where the music wouldn’t fall into outright absurdity or horror?

It was important to establish the language of the score to help in solving some of the darker sequences. I ended up finding and developing an effect that made the score sound like it was melting, and this became a key ingredient in helping to modulate the score from its more noir default setting into a strange, unsettling soup.

There are also some comically bizarre touches that just seemed to work, where perhaps we had enough of a traditional analog that it wasn’t too distracting. One example is the whistling, which starts as a motif associated with the hobo codes, and eventually turns into the solo clarinet melodies that are thematic to the Homeless King. I thought the idea of whistling made sense for the idea of a hobo culture, as it’s very human. But since it was an idea rooted in the esoteric for Sam, it also made sense for it to be somewhat distant and eerie. At some point though, when the rubber meets the road and Sam meets the Homeless King, to switch to a very concrete and dry instrument, like a solo clarinet, seemed to work really well. The fun and earnest nature of the music also helped to sell the absurdity, and perhaps reflect in some way that the Homeless King felt about himself.

Though it’s not scored as such, a remarkable “musical montage” sequence is where the pieces start to get put together using any number of memorable pop-rock and even score hits. Did you play a part in that?

Yes. This was one of the most challenging parts of working on this film, but we’re really happy with how it turned out. As you can imagine this sequence required assistance from many different people. There were initial workshop periods discussing the songs we could potentially use, and the licensing ramifications associated with that. But also there were story and musical considerations, about lyrics and about how songs could effectively flow into each other. It’s more or less possible to transition from any song into any other song at the piano, but it’s certainly not always easy, by any stretch. We had rehearsals with the actors so that they could get used to pacing their dialogue to the music changes and so that the changes in the medley could be paced to their dialogue.

The Songwriter starts the sequence by playing a very loose and improvisatory rendition of Satie’s “Gymnopedies”, arranged for one hand. This was an idea I had that I thought would be a fun way of establishing the character. The Songwriter is someone who could write or play pretty much anything, and perhaps already had. And so in his private moments he might just be noodling around on some of his old hits, or at least that was the thought there. We also made sure to work in thematic material from the score.

It’s hard to describe all of the complexities of this sequence, but on the day of filming David ended up doing a fair bit of adlibbing, so that we had all the coverage that we needed. We even had the musician on set, who played keyboard for the actor’s in-ear monitors, get into makeup so we had some overhead hand coverage for the piano. An unexpected wrench in our plans was that the prop piano was totally without strings, so he couldn’t play the piano by ear at all! He had to try to remember all the hand positions, and he did a remarkable job.

Tell us about a particularly nifty bit where you do a throwback to old Nintendo music.

There are a few, but the most overt one is while Sam is using the Nintendo Power to solve the puzzle of where to find Sarah. One of my earliest ideas was wanting to use different aesthetic elements to represent different aspects of the rabbit hole Sam finds himself going down. Using sounds inspired by classic video games was a great way to do this, and something fun and unique for the score that we had a lot of fun with. It was also fun to make subtle use of it at times, as opposed to being obvious. This played along well with the role games play in the narrative of the film, particularly the monologue by Topher Grace’s character. It’s about how a generation of kids, through playing videogames, were obsessed with finding secrets.

With each score, you seem to assume a completely different musical identity. Is it important for you not to get trapped by the assumptions of what you might be capable of?

It is. I think I’ve always been motivated by how people tend to over categorize, oversimplify and generally just misunderstand artists and their intentions. I relish the challenge and the opportunity to prove myself and others wrong, to surprise people, to interface with new ideas and to allow a new set of requirements to humble me and send my work in a new direction. It’s really important to me that I’m always trying to push my boundaries creatively, to be a little bit uncomfortable and see where that takes me.

“Under the Silver Lake” was very uncomfortable, and an amazing opportunity. To have collaborators who have faith in you, like David had in me to develop a score for a full orchestra with no prior experience, is a remarkable thing. I think there are those who have succeeded through relationship building and public outreach, but that’s never been easy for me. I’m a pretty private person and I like to keep my social circle smaller. So I think for me to be successful, it has to be about taking creative risks and finding collaborators who trust me to take those risks. I was fortunate to have a remarkable team of collaborators on “Under the Silver Lake.”

Lead Orchestrator Kyle Newmaster and Disasterpeace scoring “Silver Lake”

What’s up ahead for you? And what kind of musical genre do you hope to surprise people with next?

I’m working on a game with Heart Machine and Annapurna called “Solar Ash Kingdom,” as well as a film with the director Joaquin del Paso called “A Hole in the Fence.” I’m also diving into an immersive theatre project that I’m excited about. I’m hoping to work more with the human voice in the near future.

If someone played your score for “Under the Silver Lake” backwards, what coded messages might they hear?

You might hear a thing of two if you’re really diligent!

Plunge into “Under the Silver Lake” in theaters and on VOD April 23, with Disasterpeace’s score available on Milan Records HERE. “Triple Frontier” can now be located on Netflix.

Listen to Disasterpeace’s scores for “Triple Frontier” and “It Follows” on Milan Records HERE and HERE

Visit Disastepeace’s web site HERE