When it comes to wreaking musical mayhem, film scores from micro-budgeters to multiplex tentpoles have beaten the band with percussive savagery, raging strings and knife-stab samples. But where these soundtracks have tried be even more murderous than the slashing blades, gun shots and assorted blunt instruments they accompany, Brooke and Will Blair have shown that one can effectively conjure brutality by speaking softly and carrying a big ambient stick.
The Blair’s talent for lethally hypnotic minimalism has been an especially potent weapon in the films of Jeremy Saulnier. Mutually beginning their careers with 2007’s humorously sadistic indie thriller “Murder Party,” the trio got major notice with 2013’s “Blue Ruin.” For this devastating moral fable about two family’s endless cycle of lethal retribution, the Blairs’ often barely perceptible, but enormously effective scoring helped “Blue Ruin” create an unsettling mood of suspense with spine-chilling drones and nerve-tingling rhythm, a sampled approach that that carved a unique style for the siblings.
While the Blairs have brought more interesting touches to their intriguingly soft approach in shorts, documentaries and advertising (even getting their song “Slow Burning Crimes” into the positively sunny Disney film “Prom”), there’s still nothing like getting a killer band back together. Jamming with even more brutally beautiful tonality within the “Green Room,” the Blairs unleash mutual punishment between Patrick Stewart’s White Power Men and rockers who make the big mistake of opening their set with “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” – then further compound matters when blundering upon a backstage murder. It’s the perfect location in skinhead northwest nowhere for Saulnier’s siege film, a slam dance of box cutters, shotguns and throat-thirsty pit bulls whose handling is as cleverly unexpected as the Blairs’ music.
As the punk and metal songs rage, the composers provide a restrained contrast, their drifting melody at first as peaceful as can be, even over earbleed songs. Given the more mainstream story of “Green Room,” The Blairs definitely do raise their voice here, if still not within the level of a typical action-scoring scream. Angry guitar chords, suspended percussion and gurgling samples convey a mesmerizing atmosphere of metallic dread, sustains and samples rising with each inevitable assault. It’s grimly effective, exciting, punk-spirited scoring that looses none of its edge for its intellectual approach as the Blairs try to navigate an escape from “Green Room’s” mosh pit of white power savagery.
Do you think being brothers made you have a natural “synch” as musicians?
Will Bair: Yes and no (I bet Brooke answered “no and yes”). We grew up learning music simultaneously. All of our initial discoveries about music, performance and production were shared and so we developed a musical vocabulary that was very much “ours”. We can quickly call on musical devices or approaches that might require a long explanation for other collaborators. This can speed up our process at times. But we’re also different people with different tastes and ideas of things we’d each like to hear. Often the work we are most proud of is a pretty equal contribution of these individual ideas.
Brooke Blair: I do think that we have a little bit of an uncanny ability to know what the other might play or suggest at any given moment. A lot of that comes from just playing together so much over the years. We’re so intimately aware of each other’s musical comfort zones that we tend to push each other into new areas, and this is when we do our best work, when we are both stretching a bit and taking chances. We tend to agree what the ultimate goal of any composition should be, but we might not always agree on how to get there. Great ideas can come from the friction that happens when we have to work to make both of our ideas fit and gel together.
Did both of you become interested in music, and scoring at the same time?
WB: For sure. We’re a little over a year apart, so music in our household took on a new importance for both of us right around the same time. It was something we wanted to explore rather than just listen to, and I think our mutual interest helped push each other further and at times create a little healthy competition.
I think with that in mind, movies and the importance of music on movies became very apparent around the same time as well. We grew up in the early 80’s, a time when film scores were very apparent, dense and predominate in the mix, (relative to some quiet scores today), John Williams, John Carpenter, etc. Scoring however seemed far less attainable at that age, we were interested in just playing music with other people in a room, and eventually recording and performing. I think that’s a great place for any composer to start.
As far as our scoring work specifically, yes this seemed to occur at the same time as Jeremy Saulnier asking us to contribute music to his short films while we were in college. He included us as a pair, and although we pursue creative things on our own, our scoring work has always been a partnership.
When you teamed up, was there any worry that it would have any effect on your familial relationship if you ran into creative differences. And when that happens, who wins?
WB: Absolutely. We’ve been in bands together and on the road together most of our lives. Pretty much always been in each other’s space, so conflict is part of the deal! We’ve gotten pretty good about working around it and getting along great, for the most part. We’re definitely an unusual type of brothers in that we create and collaborate together, we’ve formed a business with our work together, and we spend holidays together. But we make it work and the advantages far outweigh the bickering.
As far as “winning,” I think we rarely let something go until we’ve compromised or found away to let it go and move on. I don’t think either one of us ever wins or loses. We dig a collaborative approach to both music and business, rather than competitive, and I think that attitude spills into our brotherhood.
What was it about minimalism that struck you? Did you have any favorite composers in that style?
WB: To be honest, I don’t know if we’ve consciously gravitated toward a minimalist approach. We absolutely agree that a singular instrument, with the right tone, played within the perfect space, can speak just as boldly as a large ensemble. We enjoy the music of people like Nils Frahm and William Basinski who might share a tendency towards that general approach. We think there’s significant power in restraint and simplicity. But we never have looked at our scoring as, “this is our music, this is our approach, let’s see where we can make it fit.” It’s always been the movie first. The movie itself, and of course the ideas of the director, not only influence, but directly coerce a certain approach out of us. A lot of projects we’ve worked on, perhaps coincidentally, have very lean casts, minimal dialogue, contained settings. We feel the music needs to match the scope of the production and the story. Of course there could be a decision to juxtapose a densely arranged, complex piece of music, with a simple quiet scene, but for us that’s rare. In other words, we’ve yet to score a big sweeping epic period piece, my guess would be we’d score that much less minimally while still embracing a fondness for simplicity.
What do you think is the key to making minimalism interesting?
WB: The human texture of an instrument. Sonic byproducts of an instrument being played, breathe, f noise, air, mechanics. Unless overdone and distracting, these elements become as big of a part of the overall sound as the tone of the instrument itself. As far as synthesizers go, we build almost all of our sounds and patches ourselves, from a real world sound source. So although the sounds might get significantly manipulated, we try to preserve any performance noises we’ve captured.
How did you first come to Jeremy Saulnier’s attention with “Murder Party,” which is far more of a black comedy than his following films?
WB: We grew up with Jeremy! Our older brother was friends with his sister- our parents were friends. He was the kid in the neighborhood with the Super 8 camera and cap guns as we formed our first bands. I think this is a common story with long-term director/composer relationships. We were sketching music together for his early (even darker/funnier) short films long before “Murder Party.”
Jeremy’s next film “Blue Ruin” might be one of the most powerful micro-budget dramas I’ve seen. Was the musical approach to that film necessitated by how indie it was, and how do you think it played into “Blue Ruin’s” strengths?
WB: Again, to continue on the idea that the film itself (not necessarily the budget), dictates a certain direction to take the score, “Blue Ruin,” the picture, wouldn’t allow for much more music, or volume, or layers than what’s there. We tried an early rough draft score that was much more thick and moving, much more percussion. It wasn’t working. It was distracting and obvious. A big part of the “Blue Ruin” scoring process was having Jeremy in the room with us, reducing. Just removing layers and cues until it seemed to breathe a bit more.
What was it about “Blue Ruin’s” violence that struck you musically? And how do you think Jeremy’s taken on bloodshed enhances his films in general?
BB: The violence in “Blue Ruin” definitely comes out of nowhere in a very brutal, shocking and realistic way. For the most part, the score helps maintain the overall atmosphere and mood of the film, and even when the violence ramps us, the score never fully peaks alongside those moments. We found it far more effective to keep the score restrained and simply let it be the atmosphere of the film, as opposed to having big moments scored tightly to picture. The sound design in “Blue Ruin” did a lot of the heavy lifting in that respect. Those violent moments work so well because you can hear EVERYTHING , and that’s very uncomfortable. We basically tried to stay out of the way of that.
Jeremy’s approach to bloodshed is so realistic and unsettling, and it’s done in a way that’s the opposite from how bigger Hollywood movies tend to deal with violence. There isn’t anything cartoonish about it and it ’s not perfectly choreographed, it’s sloppy and it’s messy. Jeremy’s use of violence is so effective because it feels unbelievably up close and personal.
Were you ever into punk rock before entering the “Green Room?” And if you played in bands, did you ever have a particularly intense experience that you could apply to this score?
BB: I was never fully into the punk scene, although one of my favorite all time bands is Bad Brains….go figure! It was a pretty exciting thing for us to have a track directly after Bad Brains in the end credits for “Green Room,” We tried really hard to include them on the soundtrack release, but no dice.
I can’t say that throughout our years playing in bands that we had any intense, awful experience that might inform the score, and I’m grateful for that. We did get paid in chicken wings one time after playing a show in West Virginia. Most of the folks at the bar didn’t seem to be enjoying our music as well, so maybe that’s our closest “Green Room” moment. There weren’t any machetes, boxcutters or pitbulls at that show, just blue cheese stains on our shirts and not a lot of gas money after the gig.
Given the savagery of “Green Room’s” punk songs, did you want the sparseness of your score to serve as a contrast, especially in one effective musical scene where the song dips out and is taken over by the score?
BB: A big part of what dictated the size of the score was how much space it was going to be able to take up. We did our best to write around the space that the punk songs were taking up. It was important that the score didn’t fight with the punk tracks. A large portion of the score is in the low end of things, which worked well in lots of areas. In the first third of the film however, there’s a lot of music coming through the walls of the venue in to the green room, which translated as a lot of muffled bass sounds. In those moments we wrote parts in higher registers and used sharper sounds that could cut through some of that.
Overall, a fairly stripped down score was what worked the best in this world. It’s not until a very pivotal scene underneath the venue that the score really becomes heavy and dense, and that was a moment that the score had to carry the tension for a long period of time. We got to go pretty big in that moment.
The sparseness of the score also was dictated by how much sound design was going on in the film. Sonically, it’s a very dense mix, there’s tons of music, yelling, guns, fighting, snarling dogs, and a lot of dialog, so we had to keep things simple in order to fit in with all of that. The mosh pit moment where the score takes over is a really special moment for the score. It’s not at all what you’d expect, but once Jeremy explained the intent of that scene, it really made sense to go with something very beautiful, ethereal and peaceful. Everything is in perfect balance, which is the calm before the storm!
How did the far “cleaner” look of “Green Room,” and the presence of such major stars as Patrick Stewart and Anton Yelchin leveled up the film, and the score?
WB: If anything this score got much dirtier, relative to “Blue Ruin” at least. Again, this was an effort to compliment the story and the setting itself. The stakes seem a bit higher, the body count more, the aggression and claustrophobia and tension feel more constant, and all of this is framed by a gritty punk rock aesthetic. So we maintained a dirtier edge to the sounds we used in general. Although there’s bigger names in this film, their characters are dark and grizzled, as is the setting, so we aimed for the score to reflect that.
Given so much hardcore punk in “Green Room,” did you want the score to have an ephemeral, at some times Zen tone to provide a contrast to the mayhem on screen, especially given how peacefully the score starts?
I think the opening of the score captures a band on the road. The freeing, nostalgic sense of travel and camaraderie and music. We lived that life, together for years on the road in bands, so it was amazing to see Jeremy capture that so accurately. That portion of the score came very naturally as we’d literally experienced what we were watching. Fortunately we’ve never been through the latter 80% of the movie, those cues were a bit more challenging. But again, our aim was to weave through the on-screen punk, maintain tension and suspense and claustrophobia, and raise blood pressure without being noticed. Becoming meditative at times wasn’t an initial goal, just where we ended up.
How did you want the instrumentation of punk rock to play into “Green Room’s” score, especially when it came to its guitar chord elements?
BB: We wanted to maintain the aesthetic and feel of punk rock without actually having anything overtly punk in the score. It had to co-exist with the punk music playing in the club speakers for much of the film. One thing Will and I talked about was capturing some of the energy in the space just before a count off of a punk song, right when the guitar player might let go of the strings and catch a few seconds of feedback, hands sliding on strings, a kick drum pedal squeak…. the sounds that fill up those few seconds in pause, that was our focus.
We wanted a roughness and rawness in the sounds, and even though much of the score was laid out keyboards, it had to feel very organic and of the punk rock world. We used a lot of feedback and guitar sounds pitched way down to create bass synths. After turning in a few early sketches of cues that Jeremy used as temp music, we re-delivered new mixes that were “cleaned up” a bit too much and Jeremy had us revert back to the rougher, “demo” sounding tracks. We kept that approach intact as we mixed the rest of score as well. We left things very rough around the edges and imperfect.
What are some of the other elements that give “Green Room” its sound?
WB: Feedback. That moment when you plug in a guitar or microphone and you’re met with a hideous squeal. That’s where the score started. We needed an unpredictable and harsh enough group of tones that could cut through and exist alongside the on screen punk rock, but be harnessed in a way that could be played melodically. Strings or pianos wouldn’t cut through nor match the aesthetic of the film. So we recorded a days worth of feedback in the studio, microphone feedback, guitar feedback, we hyper mic’d a drumset and cymbals and a trombone and a xylophone and got them all to create feedback. An obnoxious tone you would normally try to avoid in a live or recording environment. But here we tried to encourage and create and harness that. These raw samples were then made into playable, chromatic virtual instruments. When under a microscope, they squeal and shift pitch in all sorts of random directions, and to us they read as violent and rebellious sounds, although they’re played delicately at times. Maybe a dozen or so, of these custom feedback instruments make up about 85% of the score. They’re supported by deep bass synths, percussion and a little strings and pianos.
Giving its brooding synth sustains, do you think there’s a “retro” electronic quality to this score that recalls such other classic old-school siege movies as “Assault on Precinct 13?”
WB: The movie itself seems to recall that sort of film, so yes! We can see how that comparison could be made. Jeremy is a big fan of Carpenter’s scores (as are we. However, we all tend to simplify a little bit these days. We’re hesitant to let moments of the film start to play out like a music video. We always want to accompany tastefully, unless we’re directed to write something intended to jump out at you.
Was it particularly tricky to find a tone to the score that wouldn’t turn it into an outright horror soundtrack?
WB: Well with the feedback synth sounds we built- we designed a handful of them to almost read as strings (but with a dirtier more electrified origin of course), so they could do the emotional heavy lifting of strings. High-pitched tremolo and sharp stabs, etc. So by not using what could be considered a sound (high strings) specifically associated with classic horror, we got in that similar range, so we could use them to frighten, in the way that they’re played or arranged. The sounds and tones themselves come from source more associated with rock n roll, guitars and such, so perhaps they don’t make you think of horror as directly when you hear them. That was the intention at least.
How did you want the score to build up the tension, especially when it came to spotting where it would come in, and how layered the score would get?
BB: We wanted the score to feel like something was always about to happen, always moving forward, but it rarely explodes into something. There’s a lot of restraint and bubbling energy in the score, and more often than not, the imagery on screen serves as the eruption. We had to decide when to move out of the way and let the sound design take over. There were two main ways in which we built tension in the score. One was the claustrophobic and abrasive feedback sounds that only let up every so often, almost to the point of having the audience feel like, “I’m not sure what I’m hearing, but I wish it would stop”. The other was the presence of heavy, deep bass and low end that always there, pushing along the procedural type of assault being mounted by Darcy (Sir Patrick Stewart) and his crew on the trapped punk band.
The score starts out as very light and atmospheric, and slowly grows into moments of layered chaos and bursts of distorted impacts, and then it all retracts into low pulses and percussion, over and over again, getting bigger each time. In the beginning of the film, the score has to blend in to the punk rock music that takes up a lot of space in the mix, but once the film moves into the second act, the score begins to grow and evolve and takes up more space, without ever becoming too musical or over the top. Jeremy has always encouraged us to keep the score fairly “invisible” and to blur the lines with sound design. I think this is why people react to his “brand” of tension. It’s super realistic, because Jeremy makes you forget you’re watching a movie. All of the moviemaking magic is kept very subtle and seamless, and that allows for very gritty and raw experience, and the score is a part of that approach.
In general, do you think the hardcore violence in “Green Room” is even more effective when the music is doing less over it?
WB: Yes, less is more. If you watch someone getting sliced apart with a sharp object, in real life, there is not an accompaniment other than the sounds of the attack itself, and emotions. (I would imagine, at least.) So we allow room for Jeremy and his sound team to totally freak you out with the sound design, then we just want to layer in the grossest emotion you might feel while watching that. It’s not melodic or scary or too musical. The intent for those scenes was just to make music that felt entirely disturbing. However, whenever the violence incorporated a chase aspect- quickly fleeing or escaping – we had to take on a different role. We used much more momentum and percussion and relatively steady tempos, again without ever becoming too rhythmic. If someone is chasing you and you’re scared for your life, you don’t feel a four/four electro beat. You would probably “feel” something much more chaotic and random. We hope we helped keep the violence grounded in reality, perhaps making it more effective by not over scoring.
Is there ever a point when this kind of stuff becomes too much for you to watch, or does the very act of watching violent scenes over and over numb you to them?
WB: A little of both. Always seeing it for the first time is a shock, and like anything else there’s a process of desensitizing. But again, what’s amazing is the multiple layers and teams of people that come together to make certain gruesome scenes feel so real. It’s really a collective effort of not just amazing practical effects, but sound (which plays a huge part in grossing you out!), post visual effects, music, color, etc., Keep in mind, that sometimes we start working on a version of the picture without these final elements and we have to use our imagination a bit. The gore factor is not fully there when we first see it. The final experience in the theater, among people you don’t know, after having had a break from it for a bit, is always pretty disturbing all over again.
Do you think there’s a violence in general society, particularly at Donald Trump rallies, that makes “Green Room” particularly nightmarish when it comes to “liberal” punks being attacked by angry white rednecks?
WB: I think watching that sort of violence, fueled by real hatred and ignorance, is far more horrifying than anything we’d see in “Green Room.” Sorry, Jeremy! Maybe in that sense, “Green Room” could be perceived as scarier, because it really happens.
You’ll next have “Live Cargo” opening. Could you tell us how you played human trafficking? And what can we expect with your scores for “Backcountry” and “Diverge?”
WB: The human trafficking aspect of “Live Cargo” is one piece of its sonic puzzle. There’s an implied religious undertone, and a very diverse cast set in a black and white version of the Bahamas. So there’s a lot going on. We looked at more, I’m reluctant to say, “world” elements, but with a much wider range of sounds and instruments than “Blue Ruin” or “Green Room” for example. You’ll hear church organs, and a choir, acoustic guitars, and gritty “sandy” synthesizers.
“Backcountry” was an entirely different approach we hadn’t really done before. (I’m reluctant to go into too much detail in the score as it could be spoily…) But we were encouraged to write from an internal perspective of a certain character. It’s a musical inner monologue that allows the score to develop as this particular state of mind evolves. (Or devolves ). Our instincts were to first start to detail what we see in the setting; winter, snow, vast, lonely wilderness, but our director Rob Connolly kept encouraging us to get back into so and so’s head. We used some very bizarre sounds, I’ll say that.
BB: The score for “Diverge” might be one of our most melodic scores so far. It’s a sci-fi thriller, so we were responsible for a good amount of tension, yet we were also able to explore some really tender, beautiful and ghostly moments throughout the film. The majority of the score features atmospheric synths and organic pads balanced with pianos, bowed guitars and mellotron. One of the more unique and interesting virtual instruments we built for the score was made from four layers of bowed piano strings, all played at different speeds and in different octaves. It gave us this really frantic, jittery sound that felt electronic and organic at the same time. It’s abrasive at first, and then becomes sort of hypnotic as it grows and evolves, so it pulls you in a couple directions. It became an important sound that we kept coming back to for specific moments in the film.
We also had the opportunity to score the end credits, which is always such a fun way to tie a lot of the score elements together into one piece. We were also able to do this for “Live Cargo” and “Backcountry”. It’s always the last thing to get done and it feels like putting a huge period on the score. It’s a great device to leave the audience in the world and mood of the film, rather than cut to a song. When a director is open to it, we like to push for it.
Can you imagine Jeremy’s films getting even more intense in the future, and your music along with it?
WB: Absolutely – I think he’ll make very powerful movies for sure. We’d like to see how our music changes and evolves as his films do. I have a feeling he’ll also shift into new territories and genres perhaps. He’s a very funny guy, with a very dry sense of humor that could work well in dark comedies. More laughs, less blood. We’d like to see that happen and see how we could help support that musically.
In the same way that Jeremy’s broken out of the “indie” world, would you both like to go Hollywood with a more “mainstream” score? Or do you think there’s more freedom with scoring lower budget films where the scoring can be present in different stylistic ways?
BB: We joke that we’re not sure if we ever need to do a big, superhero movie, but who knows? It is a goal of ours to work on projects where the scope of the score is a bit larger. We’d love to add in more string arrangements and possibly some soloists depending on what type of film we’re working on. It’s always fun to be given the opportunity to score moments in a film where the music takes over and moves upfront.
There might be a bit more freedom in scoring indie films simply because we’re beholden to a smaller number of people. We’re usually just working with the director, and maybe a producer or two at the most. It’s hard enough to get a small group of people to all agree on 40-50 minutes of music for a film, and although we haven’t had any big Hollywood experiences I’d imagine that it might be harder to satisfy a larger group of producers and executives. We’ve been very fortunate that all the directors we’ve worked with have had a lot trust in us and protected the creative process. As long as that dynamic is intact, we could see ourselves working on bigger films, for sure. Bigger budgets wouldn’t be a bad thing, that translates into having the freedom to try new approaches stylistically and push the envelope a bit.
Beyond being brothers, what do you think makes you an effective musical team?
BB: Even though we’re brothers, and we agree about many things in music, we have very different approaches to making music. In a very practical sense, we’ve each gravitated to playing certain instruments that the other doesn’t. In a broader sense, Will tends to focus on the bigger ideas, the over arching themes, the big picture stuff. I like the small details; the sounds we use, the mixes and the production of our music. Will tends to map things out and to take his time with his ideas, whereas I like to hit record and jump in and experiment. When things are really flowing for us, all of the differences tend to compliment each other nicely.
Every now and again these different approaches to music making can be in direct conflict. We usually have to push through several ideas to get back on the same page. There are also times where we simply present a few differing approaches for a scene to the director and see what speaks to them. That can put us back on track to focus our efforts on one idea. Ultimately, the director gets a unified vision from us, but what makes us effective is that we can approach the film from many angles, and sometimes they can be polar opposite ideas. One scene in a film can work with a dense and heavily layered cue just a well as a single, thin and brittle sounding instrument. What makes scoring so fun is seeing how drastically music can alter the feel and pacing of a scene, and there are so many ways to do it.
“Green Room” opens on April 15th, with its soundtrack available on Milan Records HERE
Buy the “Blue Ruin” soundtrack HERE
Visit The Blair Brothers website HERE