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Dave Douglas: Music, Commerce and Culture Wars

By Published: June 26, 2006
AAJ: Let's talk about your previous big project, Keystone, which was both the name of your last album and the name of the band that toured it. This is, of course, your tribute to Fatty Arbuckle—sort of an attempt to produce a new set of soundtracks to some of his unfairly neglected films.

DD: I wouldn't call a tribute to Fatty Arbuckle. I never said that. It was writing new soundtracks to his films—and in the process learning about his life. I felt like he was a neglected figure. But I don't feel like I know enough about him, or maybe that my music doesn't have enough to do with him, to actually call it a tribute to Fatty Arbuckle.

AAJ: Point taken. In any case, it's really lovely, interesting music that stands alone. There were, in a sense, two different presentations of this stuff—the individual tunes on the CD like "Just Another Murder or "Mabel Normand —and the scores that were performed for the films live that incorporated sections from these tunes into longer live pieces. At a distance of a year or so, do you have any oversights, insights?

DD: Well, you know, the reason that the film scores worked the way they did was that my goal, first and foremost, was not to put handcuffs on the band. Having [saxophonist] Marcus Strickland play a melody is a really deep and specific thing, so when I wrote the themes, for me it was all about leaving enough freedom for Marcus to do his own thing. But the theme had to be strong enough to go along with the moving images as they moved.

And that's a little original for a film score, because I think usually things tend to get very set. The same with [drummer] Gene Lake; I think Gene is one of the preeminent drummers of this day and age, and I wouldn't have wanted to write for him and just ask him to give a rim shot every time there's a knock at the door. So the challenge was, how do you write a music in which everyone can be free to do their own thing from moment to moment and still reflect the sense of the scenes that are flickering by on the screen?

So my approach was to write themes that would be flexible enough to be able to be reinterpreted, to be played a lot of different ways, but that would also work with the scenes as they went along. That's why I felt it was important to record the songs as discrete songs not in relationship to the film, and then to also do a version where we actually played it in real time with the film. I think that was a difficult challenge to set in writing a film score—to write music that would serve the players just as much as it would serve the film.

AAJ: I put this album on recently and hadn't heard it in a while. I was immediately struck by the eeriness of its overall sound. Everything's very close: a small room in the rain. I suppose Jamie Saft's Wurlitzer and DJ Olive's turntables are a big part of its ambience (it was DJ Sundance and Adam Benjamin when I saw you live). Certainly you made no effort to make any self-consciously "period jazz or comedy music. How did you go about inventing this particular style of music for these films?

DD: Well, that's a very generous and huge question. First of all, I think on the record you have to give credit where it's due to David Torn, who did a lot of editing and mixed the record—and the mixing process was a huge one in this case. So a lot of the shaping of the way the Wurlitzer and the turntables sound with the acoustic instruments has to do with his brilliance as a recording engineer.

Now, you're saying that I invented a style, which is [laughing] really, really nice, and I hope that in each recording project, in each book of compositions that I write, I try to invent a new way of thinking about things, and if that comes up with a new style, hey, fantastic. I would never claim that for myself. But in the case of Keystone, I watched these films with the music soundtracks that were on the VHS tapes that I found the films on. And Fatty Arbuckle, being the overlooked genius that he is, was very obscure and hard to find. The first VHSs that I found were at Kim's Underground in the East Village, and they were kind of in the back far corner underneath the X-rated naughty videos. I'm not sure why. And very poorly labeled. And so I would watch these things, just as part of my research—I didn't know that I was going to be working with these films when I first saw them.

But the music really made it hard for me to watch the films and enjoy them, and the reason for that was that it was music that was made later that was trying to evoke what we think of as silent film ambience. This is music that was mostly made in the seventies and eighties, probably during the second or third revival of watching silent films. And so it was, you know, stride piano and old-school, but a lot of rah-rah Yale 1920s collegey-sounding stuff. And taken on its own, wonderful. But for me, put with those films, it kind of did a disservice to both. It just turned the whole thing into a cliché of what we're supposed to be thinking about when we see old silent movies. It was an artifact of neither.

So very quickly, I started to watch these films with the sound off, and then I could sense the films very, very differently. I started to go and grab records from my collection and just play things along with it, and so many things worked. Some things didn't work, but you'd be surprised. So I said, "well, let me see how far I can go, and I would pick the most opposite thing I could think of to play with these Arbuckle films. And I felt like it made the films stronger. They have so much character as it is that they were strong enough to coexist—and if anything, the images got more vivid with the challenge of an unexpected kind of music.

So that was my first inkling that I could write some music to this, because I got this kind of picture of music that, quote-unquote, wouldn't belong—running parallel to the films. And I felt that it could bring the images back to life on some level to have a 21st-century music soundtrack. Then one of the other things that was a spark for me was reading about Arbuckle's process of making the films, which was kind of revolutionary and exploratory. A lot of the technology was new and they were improvising a lot, and I got the sense that he would come to the lot with these new ideas of how they could use the cameras to capture something in a new way. Like, you know, the scenes of him going up the slide backwards, or dancing on the telegraph wires, or falling through someone's roof. And all these falling-down type gags that he found a new way to capture.

So part of what was new was the technology and his experimenting with the technology—and since I was making this electronic score, I felt like I was experimenting with the technology as well. I had gotten ProTools for my own computer. I was building these beds of sound only with trumpet sounds. In other words, I went in the studio and I recorded an hour of just trumpet, and then chopped it up and put all kinds of effects on it—just wanted to mess around with the bare sonic artifacts that came out of those sounds.

And a lot of the tracks on the record are built out of those first experiments. So I saw a kinship on a technological level with Arbuckle. I guess on a very, very surfacey level, I just felt like the movies were cool and I wanted to write a cool soundtrack for him. And have fun—a lot of my music is very serious, so I felt like it was time for me to just do something enjoyable. I didn't realize I was wading into the whole American scandal issue [Arbuckle's career was destroyed by a very dubious rape/murder accusation after the death of actress Virginia Rappe] until after I was well underway writing the music.

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