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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 in Suburbia.

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 influences?

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 fell into?

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 use?

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.

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