Music | September 2, 2020 10:52 am

How the Grimy DIY Gods of 2000s Indie Rock Became … Film Composers?

Whether it's playing a house party or scoring a film, Dan Deacon and Bryce Dessner keep making their weird art

"Most albums, if you have a story as a concept, it's almost hidden in the background material" - Dan Deacon
"Most albums, if you have a story as a concept, it's almost hidden in the background material" - Dan Deacon
Mike Brooks/DAL/Voice Media Group via Getty Image

When you’re making a film that looks to tell the story of the world of competitive dog grooming, you need a score that can match the whimsy of the bright colors and unique designs that convert the canines into living, breathing works of art, that can capture the precision of the groomer’s shears and their careful attention to detail, that can convey the anxiety of high-stakes competition.

Enter Dan Deacon.

Deacon is best known by indie music fans for his solo work, which consists mostly of psychedelic electro-pop and unforgettable live shows that feed off of audience participation, but his score for Well Groomed (which was released by Domino Records this past August) is just the latest entry in his lengthy catalogue of film compositions that includes his experimental soundtrack for the 2017 documentary Rat Film, as well as music for the horror movie Twixt and the cycling doc Time Trial. But he’s just one of many musicians from the rock or pop worlds to make that transition.

The trend of rockstars going the composer route isn’t exactly new. Danny Elfman spent time in the new-wave band Oingo Boingo before becoming one of the most sought after composers in Hollywood, and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh has worked with everyone from Pee-Wee Herman to Wes Anderson. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has collaborated with director Paul Thomas Anderson on the scores for films like There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score for the latter. And Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor has worked with Atticus Ross on scores for David Fincher films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl and The Social Network, which earned them an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Original Score.

Yet Deacon — along with musicians like Bryce Dessner of The National, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Sufjan Stevens — comes from a different generation entirely, one that was playing smaller, mostly DIY shows nearly a decade ago. In 2007, the New York Times called Deacon a “sensitive electro-party rocker,” one whose shows were known for sweaty dancing in barely legal spaces; today he’s known a composer. It might seem like a career pivot, but it’s not.

As composer Judd Greenstein, who has scored films like The Mend and serves as co-director of New Amsterdam Records, points out, the lines between indie rock and traditional classical music have grown increasingly blurred in the past decade or so.

“That’s been something that on some level has been a feature since you could argue the ’60s, ’70s, or even before,” he tells InsideHook. “There’ve been people like Van Dyke Parks who have been these kind of hinge figures that had orchestration skills and could kind of bridge those gaps. And you see those people popping up on different artist’s records all over the place and then some people making that move to cross over themselves. But I think in the late 2000s and into especially the 2010s, I feel like there was just a sort of collapsing of genre in general. And it made a lot of sense that indie rock people who were already exploring expanded instrumentations and nontraditional formats would just take a further step into that world by moving into chamber music and more scored music generally….It’s really something where the entire notion of there being strict boundaries between traditionally exclusive musics is a thing of the past.”

For a solo artist like Deacon, writing music for film is a welcome opportunity for collaboration — a chance to shake up his creative process.

“I think it’s easiest for me to talk about it in relation to food,” Deacon says with a laugh. “And with my own albums, I’m putting in all the ingredients and it’s the entirety of the meal. Whereas with a film, I’m one ingredient and it can’t stand out too much. It has to be a flavor that complements all the others. So with my own music, there’s no real limit to density or where it can go. It’s completely open, and that can both be very liberating and daunting at the same time.

For Deacon, it’s all about putting himself in a box.

“I like the constraints of a score, where it has to make sense within the universe of the film. It has to leave space for dialogue,” he says. “It has to leave space for sound design. It can never take someone out of the place where they are, even if the music itself, if it were just absolute music on its own, maybe it would be better if it went in a different direction. But as an element of the score, it has to realize that it’s a part of an ecosystem and that it can’t ever out-step the other parts. And that kind of keeps me in check. With my own music, I’ll have hundreds of tracks and channels and the pieces can be sprawling, all over the place. But with a score, you really have to be like, ‘I am making just the butter to go in a cake. I can’t be thinking about the icing or anything else. I just need to make sure that the butter is the best quality butter it can be for this cake.’”

While he says it was simply “a love of cinema” that initially drew him to film composition, Deacon says he’s also drawn to the work because it provides unique opportunities for storytelling.

“Most albums, if you have a story as a concept, it’s almost hidden in the background material,” he explains. “Some of the most famous concept albums, Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s, it’s not the forefront. It’s not really the concept. It isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, where with a film, the story is the main thing that pops out, and the themes from the score really help to amplify that and drive that home. .. With a film, each piece has to convey a very specific set of emotions and try to put the audience into a different mindset. It just really intrigues me and forces me to think about music differently. I experiment often with it and try out things that I wouldn’t try out on my albums, and then that informs my album writing process. And then that informs the next score and just trying to write this music for as many different mediums as possible. And film is one that I’m most interested in.”

Greenstein agrees that collaborating with a director on a film score can have a lasting impact on his own work, and that’s something that draws him to it. “Certainly when I’ve worked on films in the past, it’s definitely a space where you’re in dialogue with the third party, and that can sometimes free you from your own kind of internalized constraints about who you are and what you’re trying to achieve with the work,” he says. “And when you come out of that, you often have a different reflection on your work and how you see it, which I really like actually.”

As the founder of Kronos Quartet, violinist David Harrington has decades of experience both with recording music for film (including soundtracks for Heat, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain) as well as performing and collaborating with artists across a broad spectrum of musical genres — including Deacon and Dessner. He cites Dessner’s work as an example of the ways film scores can innovate composition as a whole.

“Bryce is a very interesting musician,” Harrington says. “I mean, he grew up playing guitar. He approached his own work and his own instrument in a very individual way. It’s true of his work with The National, and it’s also true of his compositions. What I love about Bryce’s work is that he’s listening to music from so many vantage points at the same time, and you kind of don’t know which of those points is going to be a part of his next piece. His most recent piece for Kronos was influenced by a 12th century composer, Pérotin, who was the music director at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. So this piece that he wrote for Kronos has this sense of inhabiting a very old point in music and a very new one at the same time. It’s really cool. I do notice that on soundtracks, composers are approaching music in that way increasingly, where this sense of what is now is much more complex, much more complexly expressed in music than it ever has been before. And I think Bryce is one of the leaders of that, that sense of music being able to inhabit a wide range of time.”

Dan Deacon (Photo by Phil Kilne)

And while a film score can inhabit a wide range of time, it also presents its own distinct world. After a few heavier projects, Deacon was drawn to the lighthearted creativity of Well Groomed, often using the dogs themselves — their movements, the way a breeze ripples their fur — as inspiration for his sonic palette. Each film he works on presents the opportunity to explore different genres. (“There’s no genre that I wouldn’t want to try scoring in, but there’s certain things that I just wouldn’t watch over again because you really need to watch the film like five or 600 times,” he says. That’s something Harrington knows all too well from his work on Requiem for a Dream: “Watching some of those scenes over and over was pretty wrenching, I have to tell you,” he admits.)

That refusal to be bound by a particular genre — in music as well as film — is something Deacon, Harrington and Greenstein all have in common. For Greenstein, it’s part of a larger worldview.

“As an artist, I just don’t feel like my work is beholden to one history as essential history,” he explains. “I feel like I’m beholden to many different histories, and I want to respect that and have that be reflected in my music and the way people talk about it. And I think that’s just true of composers, not just from one generation. This is a way of looking at music that has been around for forever, really. I think it’s only within certain time periods that you get this really strict ossification and like a strict demarcation of genre that has to do with a lot of factors, most of them really economic when you come down to it. But I think the natural way of thinking about music is much more open than that. And for myself as a composer, that’s how I want to think about things.”

For Harrington, different instruments and genres are all part of a larger palette that he pulls from in his work. “Getting back to films and soundtracks, I think people are using that palette,” he says. “It just has so much in it these days. It’s really cool. The musicians that inspire me most are finding ways to express the inexpressible and the sound that they carry within them, using the widest possible palette. Those are the people that I tend to gravitate towards.”

Those people tend to have an open-mindedness that lends itself well to endless creative possibilities, he says. And ultimately, it comes down to a deep appreciation for all types of music.

“Both Dan Deacon and Bryce Dessner are incredibly wonderful listeners,” Harrington says. “And they’re exploring music in a lot of its amazing plenitude and variety. They’re not limiting their definitions. If anything, they’re opening their imaginations to lots of things that maybe they didn’t grow up with, but maybe they’re discovering now. I love that in music, that we get to continue exploring and learning, each one of us. Like when I talk to Bryce, I mean, he’ll be saying, ‘Well, have you heard this recently?’ He’ll always have something to share. It’s the same way with Laurie Anderson. It’s same way with Terry Riley, in fact, all of the people I talk to…Those things tend to be the most precious, the most amazing, the most valuable that each of us encounters and that’s what we’re sharing with each other.”

There’s a scene in Well Groomed that really resonated with Deacon, driving home how important that sharing a sense of community can be for creatives — whether they’re musicians, composers, or yes, dog groomers.

“It’s the scene where they’re sitting in a trailer during one of the competitions, and they’re all just sitting around, having some beers and eating some food,” he says. “It reminded me a lot of being backstage at a music festival. Everyone’s hanging out, telling stories of the last time they all got together at a festival. It’s like, ‘I’ve done this. I’ve done exactly what they’re doing. I’ve been nervous about the show the day before.’ It just made me feel like, this is their group of artists and they’re making really weird art. They’re the weird artists at the festival that a lot of the other artists don’t like. And I was like, ‘I’ve been that artist. I know that, I know that.’”

Those “weird artists” have a tendency to gravitate towards each other, sharing ideas and experiences and bonding over their collective refusal to be boxed in by tradition. And whether it’s playing a house party, trimming neon lettering into a dog’s fur or scoring a film, they keep making their weird art.

“I started thinking about that in occupations in general,” he adds. “Not everyone has a creative drive, and that’s okay. But for the people that do, they find a way for it to come out.”