The New Stuff: A Conversation with Joey Santiago
Interview by Stephen B. Armstrong
Excerpted from FSM Vol. 8, No. 4
In 1985, with his charismatic score for Pee-wee's Big Adventure,
Danny Elfman -- the frontman for the band Oingo Boingo -- showed the entertainment
industry that pop chart musicians, like their classical counterparts, can
write effective film music, too. Nevertheless, Elfman has largely stuck
to traditional scoring techniques over the last two decades, turning out
symphonic arrangements that sound, with their reliance upon strings and
winds, more romantic than rocking.
Recently, however, several composers with rock and roll backgrounds
have appeared, musicians like Jeff Tweedy, Clint Mansell and Cliff Martinez,
who write and record with guitars and synthesizers and other rock instruments.
Joey Santiago -- the lead guitarist for the Pixies, a popular '80s punk
band -- belongs to this group, as well. His music, which frequently juxtaposes
hard and soft tones and fast and slow rhythms, has been winning hearts
and minds in Hollywood since his film score debut in 2000, when he was
hired to compose material for MGM's art house feature, Crime + Punishment
FSM: You've been a musician for over 20 years. How old were you
when you started playing? Which instrument did you first pick up and why?
Joey Santiago: I started out playing a Jordan Kitts 'mall' organ
when I was eight years old. There was a craze back then when organs were
everywhere. Just like NordicTracks now. Anyway, my father bought a Hammond.
I had five other brothers I shared the instrument with, so I never got
to play it without some kind of rift. I never took it seriously. We had
instruction books that were broken down into grades and we would compete
to see who could complete it the fastest. I remember going as far as "Games
People Play," that Mel Torme song. About a year later, I noticed that my
oldest brother had a classical guitar hung up on the wall as a decoration.
I took it down and learned how to tune it. He also had the Velvet Underground's
Loaded on his turntable. I played it and learned the song "Rock and Roll."
It had this soaring guitar at the breaks, very simple, very effective.
That hooked me.
FSM: You're well-known for the way you play guitar. How would
you describe your style?
JS: I would describe my style as being 'angular and bent.' It's
all derived from guitar moments that perk my ears up. My favorite song,
when I was first learning, was "Savoy Truffle" on the Beatles' White Album.
George Harrison played that bent note that I fell in love with and later
milked it for all it was worth.
FSM: Who else would you claim as your most important musical
JS: I listened to a lot of different music when I was growing
up. Our public library let us take records out and I started listening
to the ones that were not available at the bigger record stores. I listened
to Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery. I would read the
liner notes, which usually referred to other musicians who were influential
or played similarly. If I liked the record, I would check them out. It
was so refreshing to hear this music instead of the stuff that was getting
played on pop radio. Later on I also listened to a lot of Hendrix.
FSM: When did you start writing music?
JS: I probably was fooling around with chords early on, but I
did not start writing 'seriously' until I started my current band, the
Martinis, with my wife Linda.
FSM: In 1995, a song by the Martinis called "Free" appeared in
the teen comedy, Empire Records. How would you describe this song? Did
the producers specify what kind of piece they wanted? Were you asked to
write for a particular scene?
JS: The song "Free" is like Mazzy Star meets the Cranberries.
It was already written and recorded on a 4-track, 'demoed' out. David Lovering
[one of Santiago's band mates in the Pixies] used to drum for the Martinis
and he knew Karen Glauber, a music supervisor at the time for the film
Empire Records. She liked the song and thought it would be perfect for
a scene in the movie, where the girl shaves her head. The 'basement tape'
version was used for the scene in the movie and we later went into the
studio to record the soundtrack album version with producer Matt Wallace.
FSM: How does writing score music differ from writing songs for
a movie? And do you find much of a difference between writing music for
movies and writing singles for record albums?
JS: Writing a song for a movie is almost the same as just writing
a song, meaning that the structure of the song is for the sake of the song.
The only requirement is that the lyric content fits in with the subject
of the film. A score's structure is purely for the sake of the visual aspects
of the film and its dramatic events. Many times the score is breaking all
the rules of song structure. It's a very liberating process.
FSM: The Martinis continue to record music, and your wife Linda
Mallari is in the band. Does she help you compose and perform the music
you write for film and television?
JS: Linda is a classically trained pianist. She is very musical.
I bounce ideas off her all of the time. It's hard to work in total isolation.
It's good to have someone check your work before having it scrutinized
by the director. I trust her opinion. She played the harmonica in the song
"Damaged Little Fs" for Crime + Punishment in Suburbia. She also plays
the piano when I need it.
FSM: When did you move to Los Angeles? Did you plan from the
start to write music for television and film -- or is it something you
JS: Charles Thompson [another one of Santiago's band mates in
the Pixies] was recording his first solo album and he called me up to play
on it. I was visiting relatives in Florida when he called and rather than
drive back to Boston to catch a flight, Linda and I decided that it would
be fun to drive to L.A. I lived in Charles' old apartment when he was moving
into a house he had just purchased. One day I bought a couch and that was
it, I lived in L.A. I had no grand plans to get into the film/TV world.
It was years later, in 2000, that Charles got a call to do a film, Crime
+ Punishment in Suburbia. I helped him record the opening title at
my studio, but for some reason Charles could not do the rest of the film.
They then hired another composer, Michael Brook. Weeks went by and the
music supervisor called me to help out on one scene they were having a
tough time with. As I recall, I turned it in fairly quickly and was approved
and they gave me three or four more scenes to do. This was the first time
I did any type of scoring. By the way, later that year, the director, Rob
Schmidt, invited me to attend the London Film Festival and discuss the
music in his film. Through that experience, the Air-Edel agency became
interested in representing me.
FSM: How would you describe the music you wrote for this picture?
JS: Atmospheric and organic. That was all due to the scenes I
had to do. A lot of it was dialogue driven. I couldn't see doing something
melodic over the dialogue. It's very hard for me to watch a movie and hum
at the same time. Most of the sounds came from the guitar.
FSM: Did you have any say in how your music would be used in
the film? Did you work with the sound editor at all?
JS: The music was discussed thoroughly before I played a note.
The director and editor would come over and explain the mood they were
after and that everything had to be written from the main characters' points
of view. I jotted down as many adjectives as I could. From there, I would
sketch some music out for them. We'd have another listening session and
make revisions accordingly.
FSM: Where did you record this music and what equipment did you
JS: I recorded it in my studio with a sampler, an Echoplex, a
guitar-and-amp set-up and an assortment of stomp boxes all sequenced through
Digital Performer [software].
Special thanks to Denise Burns.
For the full story, see FSM Vol. 8, No. 4.