The Blair Brothers | GREEN ROOM

PrintE-mail Written by Nick Spacek

Brothers Brooke and Will Blair have composed the scores for director Jeremy Saulnier’s past films Blue Ruin and Murder Party, but it’s their work for his latest, Green Room, that’s drawing a lot of attention. The siblings’ music for the punk rock thriller sits side-by-side with the music of the film’s fictional band, the Ain’t Rights, along with underground crusty sounds from the likes of Battletorn and Midnight. The soundtrack release from Milan Records creates an aural journey through the film, and we were lucky enough to speak with the Blairs during a break in recording.

STARBURST: The score for Green Room has a real old-school thriller vibe, but it sounds really fresh. What kind of instrumentation are you guys working with? Because it sounds more electronic than analog, if that makes sense.

Will Blair: Yeah, totally. It’s actually a nice, weird combination of the two. I’ll preface that by saying Jeremy Saulnier, relative to some other people we have worked with – he’s very hands-on. He knows what he likes and what works when he hears it and knows what he doesn’t want to hear and what he might not like to hear, which are those typical - I don’t want to say generic - but often-used thriller elements.

Like, you might find pounding, repetitive drums and things like that in a modern-day thriller, and he kind of wants to avoid those and keep things much more grounded in subtle emotions. So, the focus is always to support the sort of emotional rollercoaster these characters are going through. You don’t have to have seen the movie to know that it gets pretty scary, with aspects of claustrophobia and chase aspects and fear.

So, rather than accompanying what you’re seeing in picture, which sometimes, thrillers do: in other words, if there’s a chase scene, you might hear fast-moving music to keep pushing you through the chase scene. But what we want to do is more like, Let’s look at what are these guys going to be feeling, if they’re being chased by machetes and pit bulls and things’, which is more like an internal adrenaline rush and all kinds of natural responses kicking in. That was the aim of what we should support, especially in the second two-thirds of the movie, when the shit really hits the fan.

In terms of instrumentation, the challenging thing is that there are a lot of things in the screen music already: punk rock that the band themselves perform, which is part of what you’re seeing; there’s tons of background music coming from the speakers on-stage in the background – there’s a lot of pre-existing music already placed there, that is kind of apparent. We had to aesthetically match that, so to speak, in order to weave all of those moments together and – again – support tension, without doing a punk rock score.

Before [Saulnier] started shooting, we sat with the screenplay a good bit, and one word kept popping out at us from the screenplay, and that was ‘feedback’. You know, like you plug in a microphone and it gets too loud, or an electric guitar gets too loud, and it often screeches and squeals and becomes very uncomfortable – and, also, unpredictable. You never know when it’s going to shift or stop. It’s used in the movie very creatively as a deterrent or distraction by different characters at different times, and just with so much loud rock music taking place, feedback tones pop up all over the place. It was literally a sonic element that Jeremy wrote into the script.

In looking at instrumentation, and sort of knowing his likes and dislikes, we recorded a day’s worth of feedback in our studio. Just tweaking guitars, and turning them way up, and microphones, and we got drums to feedback, a xylophone, a trombone and just random things. We were left with hours of just kind of raw, uncontrollable feedback sound. We work with a program in the computer that allows us to take these real-world elements that are recorded in an analog environment, and they were recorded by people in a sort of analog situation, but then, of course, manipulated a layered. We would stretch them out or drop them down a few octaves in pitch, so they were much lower, and kind of become unrecognisable.

Then, they spread out over a keyboard, so that they could be played kind of melodically if need be, but they also maintain this kind of gritty and distorted – without sounding too much like an electric guitar – sort of origins, and they sort of maintain that unexpected nature. Often, things distort and drift out of tune, because we’re not starting with a flute.

Those feedback sounds, we sorted and sifted through, and built virtual instruments. We maybe got a dozen instruments built from all of that feedback, and that makes up the second half of the movie, with maybe 80% of the score based on those feedback instruments. Underneath that, for more weight and doom, so to speak, there’s deep bass synthesisers and a little bit of percussion for big impacts.

The first part of the movie – without spoiling anything for you – is lighter. There’s this nostalgic sense of a young rock band on the road, travelling and poor, and my brother and I have sort of lived that for quite a few years. So, that emotional, excitement, comradery, and that sense of freedom from being on the road, playing music with your friends, we supported at the beginning of the movie with a whole different set of tones. More pleasant, for lack of a better word. People are describing them as ethereal and atmospheric and pleasing.

How do you get drums or a xylophone to feedback?

Good question. It’s like hyper-mic’ing or over-mic’ing something in a way that an engineer or a sound man in a club would, of course, try to avoid. You’re trained to avoid this, but it’s as simple as turning up the microphones really loud, on the verge of feeding back, and as soon as a sound comes through it, it creates an over-active loop, resulting in sort of squealing feedback.

So, to answer your question: if you imagine two microphones, instead of speakers, one is capturing the xylophone that is turned up way too loud, sent through a speaker. The second microphone is then recording what’s coming out of the speaker, rather than what’s coming right off the xylophone. One loop is creating the feedback, and the other is kind of recording the byproduct of the feedback.

What we find really kind of interesting is that you mentioned at the start is that you started work on the score before filming had even commenced. So, does that mean that, rather than work with specific licensed songs, you’re working more with the idea that ‘there will be heavy music playing’?

Well, a little bit of both. Again: having known Jeremy for a little while, having worked with Jeremy, we have the luxury of hearing about the project from a really early stage, before there was even a script, so we could start brainstorming. And then, there was a screenplay, which arrived in plenty of time for us to explore some approaches. He encouraged sending along rough ideas and demos before filming even started, so he had some ideas kind of bouncing around while he was filming.

Jeremy does get – this has happened on several of his movies – attached to some of those very early ideas. Just a handful of them, but they end up making it in the movie, and they weren’t intended to. They were quick demos. We’ve often pleaded, ‘Can we go back and do them better?’, but ultimately, we’ve agreed with him that the first approach without thinking too much, and that first gut instinct tends to work. He’s edit those sequences to the music we’ve provided, but that took place in just a couple of scenes, maybe. The majority of it is after the picture is tightly edited. He’s been pretty proactive about getting these songs early on, so after he started editing, he said pretty early on, ‘Slayer is going to be in this movie, no matter what, so here’s a Slayer song. I don’t care what it takes, Slayer’s going to be in it’. We got a pretty early sense of the songs he was picking.

The cool thing about the band songs – the Ain’t Rights’ songs in the movie – we grew up with Jeremy, and those songs were written by friends of Jeremy’s. Some guys who were just a few years older than us: those guys’ high school bands. We grew up tagging along, and kind of going to those shows. They recorded those [songs] in basements, and they would have a cassette tape that they would float around. The songs themselves were re-recorded for the movie by – I don’t wanna say session musicians, but another group of musicians in Portland, Oregon, where they shot.

But, the composition of the songs, every single note was preserved, and they played them – recreated them – specifically from these early demo tapes that are now 25 years old or something like that. Those songs, we’ve heard since our childhood.

Did you have any input into how everything was sequenced for the release of the Green Room soundtrack that Milan has put out?

We did. Milan is really great. It’s two guys that put everything they have into this. They’re very supportive of what the composers – but, almost more importantly, the director – wants the soundtrack to flow, or how it’s to be presented. We went back and forth a little bit. The general idea was to stay chronological with the movie. We veered away from that, slightly, just to make things kind of flow better; but generally, the soundtrack starts around the beginning of the movie and wraps up around the end of the movie.

One thought was whether it should be score lumped together in one big chunk, followed by all of these songs, or vice versa? We realised it might be kind of an odd listening experience, bouncing back and forth, listening to a bit of score, and then a song, but we were all on the same page. Milan gave the thumbs-up and Jeremy personally fine-tuned the sequence of that album.

In terms of flow, were there any edits made or were there they the cues as the appeared in Green Room?

I would guess that 99% of film soundtrack CDs that you get are a different final mix than what makes it in the movie. We would deliver different elements – not every single instrument or every single track, but groupings of instruments. One cue might be made up of a couple dozen instruments, so we would group them into like, six manageable like groups of instruments or items for the guys who mixed the film to have some control over that.

They mix that based on what fits into the picture, based on dialogue and sound effects. Once you remove dialogue and sound effects from the equation, we’re just trying to put together a listening experience. Some of these would go on for five or six minutes, non-stop, within the movie itself, and we realised it would maybe be more impactful to get them down to three or four minutes. It’s not music inspired by the movie, but music from the movie with an emphasis on a somewhat reasonable listening experience – or as reasonable as it can be, when it’s really just a lot of feedback.

Given that Green Room has been in the can and playing festivals for a while, we imagine you have some new things. What do you have up next?

There’s a film called Live Cargo that is a black and white drama. It sort of centers around a young couple and a tragedy in the family and they get tangled up with a human trafficker in the Bahamas. The director’s name is Logan Sandler, and he’s a first-time director, but a graduate of AFI, and he made a really cool movie. There’s a little bit of a religious subtext that’s implied, so we got to work with that a little bit, and work with church organs and there’s a bit more guitar. We got a small choir to sing, and there’s also plenty of that atmospheric tense stuff we’ve become familiar with.

Your brother kind of alluded to the fact that the beginning of the film with a young band touring and being poor is something with which you’re familiar. 

Brooke Blair: Oh, yes. [chuckles]

We were curious as to how the two of you brought that experience to bear on that particular music.

That was actually probably the most fluid part of writing the score. For us, in the way it worked out, we had a nostalgic approach to those scenes. Even though in the film, they’re happening in the here and now, we kind of have a lighter – not necessarily melancholy – but you get a lot of beauty and tenderness and longing in those moments. It kind of puts you in a place where you begin to care about these characters. So, for us, it was just kind of pulling on those moments: where you’re in a small van, bonding with your friends, and sleeping on other people’s floors.

All that in the film looks like that’s a lot of fun, and it is a lot of fun. That was just kind of the approach: keep it light, so that when it all shifts, it feels heavier, because you’ve got this band getting along together. They’re all buddies, they care about one another – they’re not just a bunch of actors shoved in a van, pretending to be punks. You kind of buy it a bit more, and the music’s maybe a part of how that’s sold to the audience.

In terms of the concept of feedback for that music that comes along later, it seems that you really avoid the standard horror/thriller mood changes. It switches, but there aren’t abrupt turns: the changes seem more natural.

Yeah, a lot of that was definitely intentional. I think that the big focus was just to keep things moving and that something’s bubbling or about to happen, but there’s never any big shifts or climaxes in the score. We kind of held off on that, because that happens on screen. We’re not really accentuating any of that – we’re just laying the groundwork for all this and keeping the atmosphere tense. Never a four on the floor action cue, you know. No ‘here’s intense high strings!’ that would indicate horror or anything.

We’re trying to be more invisible, you know, while still trying to push the story along and keep the tension at a certain level. There are a couple of minutes where it does get fairly big in scope, but it never really takes over the film. It’s always kind of meant to be underneath everything.

Green Room is out this week in the United States and opens in the UK on May 13th. The Blair Brothers can be found online at blairbrothersmusic.com.


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