Interview with Electric Youth and Pilotpriest

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The 80’s ghost in the synth machine has never been more alive than in a soundtrack explosion exhumed from the likes of Charles Bernstein’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s “Prince of Darkness” and Michel Rubini’s “Manhunter.” It’s a tone that can be both rhythmically aggressive and ethereally haunting, particularly when used in the next-gen genre likes of Disasterpiece’s “It Follows,” Survive’s “Stranger Things” and Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s “Ex Machina.” But perhaps no composers are taking this realm to the next, visionary level of REM sleep like the teaming of Electric Youth and Pilotpriest for “Come True,” a spectrally mesmerizing fusion of synths and strings that turns night terrors into musical things of beauty. 

As envisioned by Canadian writer-director Anthony Scott Burns, “Come True” continues on the theme of his 2018 debut film “Our House,” whose machine promised to bring back an inventor’s loved ones but ended up tapping into a far darker supernatural force. With his new movie, Burns takes on more of a real-world idea of channeling dreams into tangible pictures, in this case those emanating from the sleep-tormented teen runaway Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone). But as is the case with genre dreams come true, a nightmare is lurking within science fiction’s best intentions. 

While the shadow men of “Come True” might put fear into even Freddy Krueger, what distinguishes and significantly elevates a well-trod realm here is the otherworldly imagination that surreally powers between the machines’ Pixelvison-like realization of the subconscious, the Quay Brothers-meet-Kafka sleep visions and the cold, Cronenbergian colors of our world, until all planes of existence merge into a hypnotic tonal miasma of voice and symphonic-like music. As “Come True’s” Gen-Y romantic scientist sums it up, it’s music that has “a haunting sadness to it. This stuff will make you think.” 

Filmmaker Anthony Scott Burns (“Pilotpriest”)

It’s an apt description as to how singularly, and expansively the voices of Pilotpriest (aka director Anthony Scott Burns) has joined with Electric Youth. It’s a band that’s also the ever-evolving bond of Canadian musicians Austin Garrick and Bronwyn Griffin, who’ve grown into avatars of the Synthwave movement. For Burns, music was another creative outlet to add to his visual effects and filmmaking work, one that’s touched not only his own projects but other artists’ visions as well with the XXX sensuality of “Girlcore” and the sinisterly trippy “Flashback.” For Electric Youth, it was a seat aboard the “Drive” soundtrack with their LA river cruising song “A Real Hero” that propelled the duo’s distinctive sound to become stars of their electric-centric arena. 

Electric Youth (Austin Garrick and Bronwyn Griffith. Photo by Howard Gordon)

Yet in an often beat heavy genre, Electric Youth’s focus on score-like melody made them creatively stand out, and the perfect collaborators for Burns to approach for “Our House.” While the ultimate score result was a rude awakening in post, the experience made Burns, Griffin and Garrick determined to work together on “Come True” from its inception. The result is a truly organic, otherworldly score whose seamless fusion blurs the lines between synthesizers and symphonic conjuring. It’s music that puts listeners into a trance state as effectively as Burns’ filmmaking – a score that’s at once part of the retro past as it is looks into film scoring’s inventive, hallucinatory possibilities. 

Did your desire to be a musician coincide with your filmmaking ambitions?

ASB/Pilotpriest: I began writing music at a very early age, and so the desire to write music came first. Out of necessity, I began scoring my early short films, not because I was the best for the job, but because I had no budget. Then, the two arts became intrinsically linked – now I need to score in order to capture exactly what I’m looking for.

(Photo by Anthony Scott Burns)

Were you both into music when you met in middle school? And how much did music unite you from that point? 

Bronwyn: I always dreamed of being a singer and Austin was a child musical prodigy, so we were certainly both into music separate from one another. I first fell in love with Austin when I saw him play in the school jazz band for an assembly in 7th grade. So in that sense music brought us together, but oddly enough, music didn’t play a big part in our relationship until much later. We both had our separate musical worlds. It was never something we both thought we would do together. Little did we know, we had a long collaborative career ahead of us.

On that note, where did your musical tastes converge, and how did they differ? Did film scores play a part in them?

Austin: I’m a first generation Canadian, and the majority of my childhood I lived with my grandparents from my mother’s side and was raised by my Polish-Russian grandmother and Greek grandfather, who were both teachers and educated me and my siblings about art and only listened to classical music. Then at the same time, my father who’s a drummer from the small Caribbean island of St. Vincent, taught me the fundamentals of being a musician from the time I was a baby, which lead to me becoming a working musician by the time I was 6 years old. At 5, I taught myself how to play “Nadia’s Theme” from “The Young and the Restless” on piano and that began my love affair with strong melodies. From there I began composing pieces of my own. 

In high school, Bronwyn and I would start each weekend together at our local video store where we would rent 3 movies for $5. That’s when our deeper study of cinema began and where film scores started to play a bigger role in the converging of our musical tastes. We’re both attached to the same emotional content, so we tend to differ very little with our tastes. The film composers whose work we loved growing up are still who we relate to the most now: Pino Donaggio, Thomas Newman, Dave Grusin, Clint Mansell, John Barry, Hans Zimmer, Vangelis, Ryuichi Sakamoto, John Williams, Fabio Frizzi, Goblin, Giorgio Moroder, Ennio Morricone, Danny Elfman, Bernard Hermann and Jerry Goldsmith.

Could you talk about developing your sound as Electric Youth and as Pilotpriest? 

Austin: Electric Youth started in the Myspace music era of the late 2000s, though I’d been writing and producing records for other artists for years by that point. We were sort of in a self-imposed artist development stage for the first few years and uploaded a few demos to Myspace that were sort of musical experiments. Those demos started to catch on a bit, on the music blogs of the time, and that eventually lead to our collaboration in “Drive.” That was a turning point in feeling like we had arrived at something musically, something that resonated with us and resonated with audiences. We feel like with every release comes a new research and development opportunity, to refine and improve on what we do. I think there’s an “Electric Youth sound” people who know of our music can think of, but it’s something forever expanding with each film and with each album.

Pilotpriest: Pilotpriest came from the love of a music style that, when I started the project, had not been made in years. I wanted to create modern compositions that were draped in sounds from our collective memories.

EY: Tell us about your breakthrough on “Drive” with “Real Hero.” And what do you think the importance of that film was in giving new energy to a retro synth sound that’s now become the rage?

Bronwyn: Nic Refn and his editor Mat Newman are real music guys. They discovered “A Real Hero” on the music blogs, then crafted the scenes of the film it appears in around it. It proved the emotional impact our music is capable of in cinema, it was the first time our music had been used in its intended context, within a film, and it changed our lives. Prior to that point, we would always write and record our music to previously existing films for inspiration, so it was a natural fit waiting to happen.

Austin: The funny thing to us about how “Drive” has influenced a retro synth sound is that we had no intention of making something people would perceive as “retro,” and I think that the music it has inspired from others tends to have a completely different intention than we did then, or we do now. With Electric Youth, we never sit down to work and say, “Hey, let’s make something that sounds 80s or retro”. We have no interest in recreating the past, we’re always aiming for something timeless, for the now and for the future. For lack of a better description, much of the material from our studio albums can be classified as synthpop, in the literal sense that it’s music with pop song structures and heavy use of synthesizers. But there’s no intention of making something retro within that for us, nor does it apply to much of our score material thus far. So we’ve never identified with that retro synth stuff we sometimes get lumped in with, nor with most of the “inspired by the Drive Soundtrack” music we’ve heard. It tends to misinterpret the intentions of what we were doing. We understand how that misconception happens, because to an extent we’re a synthesis of our influences, many of whom were active in the 80s, and synthesizers play a big part in our sound. But we’re not into modern retro synth music and don’t see what we do as part of that beyond perhaps having influenced some of it. We’re always doing what we can to contribute something new to the landscape of music and film and aren’t particularly concerned with genres.   

Would you say that creating instrumental works in your musical genre was effectively like film composing?

Bronwyn: I think anything with musical substance and value, made for a film, is film composing, regardless of genre. We’ve seen pieces of ours that consist of nothing more than an acoustic piano or a string section be categorized as synth music before, so I think some of it just comes from pre-conceived ideas the listener brings to the music.

ASB: You made your Pilotpriest scoring debut with the female-friendly sex series “Girlcore.” What was it like composing for that particular genre?

Pilotpriest: I wish I had a more interesting story, but the wonderful director of that series, Bree Mills, reached out and asked for permission to use some of my music, and I simply said ‘Yes’. It is an honor to have people want to use your music in the creation of their art.

Could you talk about your first project together with “Our House.” As Electric Youth, how much of a learning curve was it to actually compose?

Austin: Working on our first project with Bronwyn, nearly 5 years ago now, it was an exciting time during production. Prior to it, Anthony had directed a number of shorts, we had scored a number of shorts, but it was the first feature length film for him as a director and us as composer. Bronwyn and I came onto that film through Anthony, and much of our work on it was built out of the shorthand communication we have with him, which comes from how much we see eye to eye with him creatively and personally. I know we and the actors signed on for Anthony’s vision of the film. As postproduction carried along though, it became clear that Anthony and the producers were at odds with their vision of the film, this resulted in Anthony leaving during post, and fortunately we were able to follow him after we saw what the film had been turned into out of his hands. As far as a learning curve with composing, I’d started so young, so I’d been composing for over 20 years by that point, though now it was to picture on a bigger scale than we’d previously experienced. Where we did learn the most was in observing the process of that film going from script stage to release and how much the initial vision of a film can be destroyed in the edit, if control is taken from the individual with that vision. 

Though your score wasn’t used in the film, it did get a release via Milan as “Breathing.” When divorced from a movie, what kind of new life do you think that gives to the music?  And did the experience make you more determined than ever to do a project where that wouldn’t happen again?

Bronwyn: Releasing the score gave us an audio relic of the film that once was and allows the music to find new life in other projects. So far cues from it have been used as score in the TV series ‘Riverdale’, as the score for the Hulu VR show ‘A Curios Mind with Dominic Monoghan’, and much more to come. I think the experience of that film ended up being a great strengthening exercise, for both us and Anthony. And the great thing was, “Come True” had always been the film Anthony planned to make first, we had been discussing it for years before it went into production. So we already knew we were going to roll right into that opportunity to work together again, under conditions more favorable to him seeing his vision through.

Pilotpriest: With “Come True,” we structured the production so that no outside interference would ever happen again :)

 Julia Sarah Stone as ‘Sarah’ in Anthony Scott Burns’ COME TRUE. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

How did you want “Come True” to expand on your idea for a ghost in the machine? 

Pilotpriest: I truly believe that we, as humans, know nothing of our true existence. “Come True” is just another window into my subconscious trying to make sense of the world we share. In both “Our House” and “Come True”, the ghosts within the technologies are there to reveal a tiny bit of the mystery and awaken a morsel of enlightenment.

Like “Our House,” did the idea of technology giving us a look into our dreams make it an especially appropriate score to be done with your computer-based sound? And how did you think you could expand upon it here?

Austin: On our first film with Anthony, the majority of the sound of our score came from acoustic instruments: Piano, Strings, Voice and a children’s toy instrument called a Five Tone pipe. For the sound of “Come True,” there is less piano, more voice, the string section again and then the use of digital synths, in addition to a bigger use of analog synths. As a director, Anthony is very specific with certain details when it comes to his vision for a score and both these palette guidelines were laid out by him. And we love working within set parameters, the limitations can inspire interesting ideas we wouldn’t have arrived at otherwise. So we make a good team. And like us, he is often working from feeling, on a visceral level whenever possible. So while some of those palette choices come from conscious decisions, much of it is intuition.

Have dreams ever played a part in your creative process – and more so here? In the case of “Come True,” how did you want to capture the sound of a dream?

Bronwyn: As much as I’d like it, up to now, any musical idea I’ve ever had in a dream hasn’t ended up as a keeper when I’ve recreated it. 

Austin: It’s the same for me too. Though some of my best musical ideas to date have been in my head, fully realized, the moment I wake up. So perhaps those are unconsciously fostered in a dream. In the case of “Come True,” I know a number of the visual ideas for the nightmare sequences came from actual nightmares Anthony has had. So we made a decision together with him early on, that the greatest visceral connection for the sound of the dreams would come from him scoring those moments himself, so he did.

Pilotpriest: I have definitely dreamt music, and in a couple cases: scared the hell out of my wife by hopping up out of bed and running to my workstation to capture a melody. I felt the dreams in “Come True” should be built of truly organic sounds, the idea being that these spaces would be resonating from within the skull – muted and void of too many high frequencies. I employed a lot of bizarre sampling techniques, along with granular synthesis to achieve our soundscape built of voice and resonance. The human body was the main instrument.

 Julia Sarah Stone as ‘Sarah’ in Anthony Scott Burns’ COME TRUE. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

How important was it for you to pre-compose the score before you started production? And how did you want your respective sounds to synchronize for this score?

Austin: There was a piece I’d created and sent to Anthony while he was still writing the script. He finished the script around it, and it sort of became the musical DNA much of the rest of the score was built from. Then the versions of two of the songs that appear in the film in big scenes were made before production started, as well as an incredibly emotional piece from Anthony that appears in the finale of the film. I think much of our respective sounds synchronizing for this score came naturally from how much we tend to be on the same page. 

Pilotpriest: Music, for me is 80% of the emotional experience of a film. Both EY and myself created tracks before production and throughout, and I played them on set. The actors made playlists, and we all shared music to capture the feeling.

Julia Sarah Stone as ‘Sarah’ in Anthony Scott Burns’ COME TRUE. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

What makes “Come True” unique is its merging of horror and science fiction, while not outrightly going for either “sound” as it were. How did you want to pay off both genre’s conventions (particularly when it came to the ‘Boo!’ moments) while also musically showing this film as being distinctive?

Austin: For our part, it was a lot about writing to the heart of the film, to its universal core, which transcends genre. I think some of our favorite horror and sci-fi scores have helped bring a distinct and memorable identity to their respective films, by not being overly considerate of their genre’s conventions. When it came to the scares in “Come True”, much of that came in those nightmare sequences, which was Anthony’s domain.

Pilotpriest: I think it all came down to sound choice for me. We looked for sonic qualities that evoked both a classic/familiar analog palette and mixing those with a modern otherworldly quality really matched the ideas we were working with in the imagery.

Julia Sarah Stone as ‘Sarah’ in Anthony Scott Burns’ COME TRUE. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.”

Could you talk about the instruments and technology that went into “Come True?” And how does your “symphony meets electronics” approach work here?

Austin: An array of digital synths for some of the pads, an array of analog synths for basses, our Yamaha CS-80, Anthony’s Moog One, Bronwyn’s voice (both naturally and manipulated), and a string section. The foundation of the symphony meets electronics approach on this came out of that initial piece I sent Anthony while he was still working on the script. It set a tone that sort of naturally embedded those elements into the film.

What gave you the idea of using Shriekback’s “Coelacanth,” which was most famously used in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” here?

It was Anthony’s idea. We’d both always found that piece so effective in “Manhunter.” We kept coming back to the ancient quality of that piece, something mystic and it really felt right within the world of “Come True,” particularly surrounding the dreams and the ancient, unknown origins of these shared visions. It was so exciting to have it in one of our favorite scenes of the film and a privilege to cover it in another special scene ourselves.

“Come True” has the kind of “cool,” cold color scheme that links it to the work of David Cronenberg, a director who also frequently takes a look at technology. Do you think more outré Canadian films share that visual approach? And do you think that made the score’s style appropriate as well?

Austin: Coming out of Toronto, David Cronenberg is very much our hometown hero. The classics from him were some of the first to show that really embracing the visual environment inherent in certain Canadian cities like Toronto and Edmonton could yield great results as a backdrop for the sort of stories he tells. A cinematic identity distinctly our own. In a very natural way, Anthony carries on that tradition. It’s one of the things that first drew us to working with him and it creates an appropriate landscape for the score’s style. 

(Photo by Anthony Scott Burns)

Where some “retro” scores have quite of bit of crazed, direct-throwback energy to them like “It Follows” and “Stranger Things,” or can go for hallucinatory dissonance like “Possessor,” “Come True” has a transfixingly ethereal and hauntingly melodic tone to it that makes it a quite beautiful listen on its own. How important was that quality as opposed to going for an approach that could easily have been more tonally confrontational?

Austin: For our part, I think it comes down to intent. I think the most distinct difference stems out of the fact that with what we’ve done, there are no “retro” intentions. We’re aiming to create something timeless. “Stranger Things” is a period piece. It’s something made in the 2010s that takes place in the 80s, so generationally speaking, it’s the equivalent to something made in the 90s that takes place in the 60s. So by nature, the thinking for score is going to be different there. We’ve seen parallels drawn between things like “Stranger Things” and things we’ve done but ultimately there’s a very different intent at play. I think part of the way that difference manifests itself is in the emotional and contextual contrast that results, which may be that difference in energy you’ve picked up on. For us it’s about the emotion and creating things that can be defined by the emotion. For us, the instruments are only a means to an end, rather than something we seek to define the work by, whether it’s piano or voice, synthesizer or orchestra.

Given your band’s title, how do you think a movie, and score like “Come True” will capture a younger, hip audience to genre films and scores?

Bronwyn: We see youth as a mind state that can stay with you throughout life if you let it and it’s something that informs our creativity. With anything we do, we aim to have something inherently human and universal within it that connects to as wide an audience as possible. As viewers, we got into genre films at a young age ourselves. We’re still connected to that feeling of falling in love with genre films for the first time, a feeling we hope young audiences will have with “Come True” for decades to come.

Tell us about working with Ryuichi Sakamoto on “Asynch Remodels.”

Austin: To us he is one of the greatest to ever do it, so we were honored to be asked to be a part of a project of his. His melodic sensibilities are so incredible, and we’ve been a fan of every stage of his career, from the early solo albums, to YMO, to his scoring work, to his humanitarian efforts. It was very inspiring working with ideas of his.

(photo by Secret Secret)

How do you think that “Come True” has advanced your work, and how do you see your collaboration evolving?

Austin: We talk about the fact that, as long as we’ve been around and as much as we’ve done so far, we’re really still just getting started. Each project is an iteration of which the value is irreplaceable. So we’re very much looking forward to how our work continues to evolve through the years to come. 

EY: How has the quarantine affected your work? And now that there seems to be a light at the end of this bad dream tunnel, where do you see your live performance work going? And where do you think you stand now in your musical arena?

Austin: We’ve been fortunate that it’s resulted in a very productive time for us. For a duo that also releases studio albums, we’re a bit unusual in that touring has not been a huge part of our business over the years. Our work in the studio, maintaining the ownership of our rights and its use on our albums, in film, TV and commercials has been the thing. That being said, we had 2020 tour plans that were cancelled, so we really look forward to performing live again once the time is right. As far as where we stand in our musical arena, we’re starting to feel the positive effects of having been around for some time and always choosing quality over quantity. Our initial breakthrough with “Drive” will be 10 years ago, later this year. We’re fortunate to still be creating on our own terms. We relate to the dynamic of Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream in the sense that they had a presence in both the world of releasing studio albums as artists as well as scoring films. And we’re looking forward to this next chapter for us, starting to take on more films. Danny Elfman was the front man of Oingo Boingo during his early films, Clint Mansell was the front man of Pop Will Eat Itself, Cliff Martinez with The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Trent Reznor, even Hans Zimmer was with the Buggles before scoring became his primary focus. We’re experiencing that sort of natural progression for ourselves now.

 “Julia Sarah Stone as ‘Sarah’ in Anthony Scott Burns’ COME TRUE. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.”

Movies like “Come True” always have a message of being careful for what you wish for. Do you think being able to visualize dreams is a good idea? Or in an era where everything is revealed, do you think the subconscious should be the last domain of truly unbreakable privacy?

Austin: I think as long as it’s a controllable choice, being able to visualize dreams is a good idea. I think if we want to take part in certain things, we have to be aware and accept that there are sacrifices of privacy that may come along with them. We’re easily made to feel obligated to be a part of whatever is the way of the masses. This day in age, it may be social media or the latest tech, but it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that by and large, we can still choose not to take part. I would hope that similarly, the privacy of one’s subconscious would remain a choice in the face of an option to reveal it.

Watch “Come True” on VOD and in theaters, and get Electric Youth and Pilotpriest’s soundtrack on Milan Records HERE

Visit the original, “Breathing” musical foundation of “Our House” on Milan Records HERE