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Six Strings with… Nathan Johnson [Composer]

I wanted to thank Nathan Johnson for this great opportunity to talk, I cannot tell you how very... very cool it is for several reasons and I am going to share this. Okay not that Nathan is an awesome composer, that is a given... but that this film is still in the theater at the time of the interview. This means I am getting closer to being an on top of current events as I could be... and for me that is extreme... from the help from Beth and Nathan.... I thank you both!!
-Jeremy [Retro-Zombie]

-  How did you get started in the field of music and how did that lead you to composing?

Nathan Johnson: My cousin Rian and I grew up making movies and music together at family gatherings. Whenever we had a vacation, we'd spend two weeks corralling all the younger cousins into a sprawling, impromptu movie or writing and recording songs into our tape decks. Throughout high school I played in a number of bands, and around the time Rian started working on Brick, I was working on a narrative concept album with my band, The Cinematic Underground. After Rian heard that record, he asked if I'd like to take a stab at doing the music for Brick, and of course, I jumped in at the deep end. I was definitely headed down the performing musician track, but Brick sort of opened up a whole new set of musical doors and collaborations, which led to producing other bands, and of course, subsequent films.

- Please tell us your latest score release “LOOPER” with your inspiration, getting involved, best parts of being involved, interesting stories you can share and how much musical freedom did you have?

Nathan Johnson: Looper was different from anything I'd done before. It is a big time-travelling action movie, but it is really smart and grounded at the same time... it's not "slick" sci-fi, if you know what I mean. Rian and I knew we wanted to create a large, atmospheric score, but we wanted to come at in a slightly different way, so I traveled down to New Orleans where they were filming and I spent about a month wandering around the city with a field recorder and gathering found-sounds. Treadmills, industrial fans, gunshots on set, alarms, street noise... you name it. I just sound-stalked the city for a month in headphones.

- If you work with other composers or music artists, whom do you work with and what is the best part of your contributions?

Nathan Johnson: Once I had gathered a library of sounds, I began working with my good friend Ryan Lott, who makes music under the moniker Son Lux. He had been experimenting with creating custom instruments for a while and we began building new instruments from the library of sounds I gathered. Soon after, our good friend Chris Mears came on board as a sort of percussion specialist, and we started working with rhythms and atmospheric beds. This involved not only our custom instruments (some of the drum kits were made from sounds of the guns in the movie), but also a trash-filled studio to evoke the crumbling world of Looper. It is crucial for me to work with a strong team, and I always enjoy discovering the unique voice that all of my collaborators bring to the table. The fact that I'm able to combine a group of really talented musicians into some sort of cohesive team to implement Rian's vision is a real honor. And it's always great working with Rian because he normally has a very distinct idea of what he's aiming for in terms of sound. We have quite a few early conversations to define the boundaries of the playground, and then he really lets me and my team run with it. Someone asked me recently if I was nervous before the premier at the Toronto festival. My answer was "no," but I'll tell you when I get shaky... I get nervous when I first show a new cue to Rian. My whole focus is on creating something that will help tell his story, and I really feel like, at some level, he is the only one I need to satisfy. If he likes it, and if it fits the world he imagined, then I feel like I've accomplished my main job.

- Who inspires you musically and whom do you listen to [composers or music]?

Nathan Johnson: I remember seeing the stage show STOMP when I was in high school and being enthralled by all these dancers making music out of everyday items. That obviously made a lasting mark on me, and you can see those threads in how I choose to make music. Those types of things were incredibly inspiring for me because they opened up music a bit more in terms of what is available from a creative standpoint. I think I'm influenced by visuals just as much as I am by sounds, so to see people combining music and performance in unique ways is really a breath of fresh air for me. Jónsi's recent solo touring show is another great example of this type of hybrid performance. I'm really riveted by storytelling, whether it's through music or sound or visuals, or ultimately, through a combination of them all. I grew up on Star Wars, and I was inspired by Ben Burtt's sound design work and Dennis Muren's ILM team of special effects artists just as much as I was inspired by John Williams score. And then to jump to present day, Jonny Greenwood is pulling things together in a totally different way. It's incredibly exciting to see someone from a favorite band of mine making the kind of film music he's creating.

- Out of all your released work, which gives you the best feeling of accomplishment and why?

Nathan Johnson: I feel pretty happy about Looper right now, but it's hard to say how much of that is based on the freshness. I will say that it is very different from the other things I've done, and that is both an exciting–and at times scary–process. There were quite a few instances when I felt like I was following a thread down a rabbit hole, and I wasn't sure if I was ever going to pull it all together and come back up to the surface. T.S. Eliot has this great quote that I love: "You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance in order to possess what you do not possess."
I think that is one of the greatest quotes in the world about art. If you already know how to do it, then, by definition, you're not doing something new. I mean, it's a great talisman to clutch onto and talk about when you're far removed from the creative process, but damn, if it isn't hard when you're in the midst of The Way of Ignorance and getting a bit crushed by doubt.
But right now, I think you're catching me on an upswing. The fact that we went down this unknown road and that the album emerged this week and Rian likes it and other people seem to like it... Just feels great.

- Walk us throughout a typical day or not so typical?

Nathan Johnson: I'll tell you what's not typical is sitting down to typed interviews, answering questions about Looper! And the past month, I've been cutting together these behind-the-scenes little score preview videos, which has been a total shift of gears, but really a lot of fun. I spent more than a year working on Looper, so in a way, the featurettes and interviews are a nice way to retrace my steps a little bit and put a final stamp on it all. I tend to work in "project mode," so a typical day changes based on what sort of thing I'm doing. It suits my personality well because I like having my hands in a bunch of different projects and I like collaborating with a lot of different people. When I'm composing, I spend a lot of time writing by myself up front, but after that, it becomes really collaborative and I try to bring in people who are really great at what they do, and also really inspirational and fun to work with. There are a lot of days where it's just dawn to beyond dusk sitting in front of a computer and editing. People ask what sports I play... Typing. I'm really good at typing. Maybe that is why I love to get out in the studio so much, and why I try to create these kinetic environments to record sounds in.

And I like to shake things up. I dip in and out of projects with The Made Shop, which is an architectural and graphic design studio that my brother Marke runs. We recently did the cover artwork for Son Lux's We Are Rising album and I love putting these different hats on and reversing the roles... where I'm making visuals for music that someone else has created. So Son Lux (who works with me on my soundtracks) made this amazing record in 28 days last year and we decided to make the album cover in 28 hours to stay in the spirit of the project. Marke and I came up with this idea of gridded smoke bombs photographed from above and so we got a crane and a group of friends to shoot the whole thing. One of our friends cut together a video of the day, and the whole thing ended with the fire department paying us a visit. So, you know, these are good antidotes to the sometimes static computer days, but it's definitely a mixed bag. You can check out a bunch of the things I've been working on recently over on my blog:

- Bonus: You can ask me a question or tell us something you would like us to know about you or anything you want?

Nathan Johnson response was to share some of his work with us all...

Score Featurettes:
Son Lux Video:
Son Lux - Making of: "We Are Rising" Album Artwork by The Made Shop from anticon. on Vimeo.

Bio: As a composer, producer, art director, and songwriter, Nathan Johnson's innovative film scores and hybrid media performances have consistently blurred the lines between stage, screen, music, and narrative. Best known for his unconventional work in film and music, Nathan favors modified, organic instrumentation combined with unique approaches to recording and performing.

His creative partnership with writer/director (and cousin) Rian Johnson started when the two were children and has continued throughout their professional lives. Beginning with the critically acclaimed score for their first feature collaboration, Brick, Nathan and his team used and abused a variety of household implements including dinner settings, filing cabinets, cheese graters, and radiators. Any real instruments that were included in the soundtrack were horribly misused: pianos were bolted and tacked, double basses were beaten with mallets, and tuned wine glasses were re-purposed in place of a string section. After developing this "junkyard orchestra", Nathan went on to produce and compose the scores for The Brothers Bloom, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Morgan M. Morgansen series, and the forthcoming Melanie Laurent feature Et Soudain, Tout Le Monde Me Manque, among others.

Looper is perhaps his most unique score to date, featuring a host of indecipherable instruments along with intertwining rhythms and textures. In preparation for the project, Nathan began gathering a wide range of field recordings and then he and his team created a sort of playable, hybrid found-sound orchestra using those original recordings. The results were combined with live strings and horns to produce deep textures featuring pitched industrial fans, tuned treadmills, and a wide range of intricate rhythmic elements — all looping and cycling on themselves at various speeds.

Nathan continues to compose and produce while fronting The Cinematic Underground, a sprawling artistic collective known for mixing visual art with performance and found-sounds. He is part of the atmospheric pop band Faux Fix, and has produced a variety of independent artists while acting as a concert developer and live show consultant for a number of bands. When he is not creating music, he works as an art director with The Made Shop, a boutique design firm that specializes in graphic and architectural projects.

He divides his time between Los Angeles and the East coast and lives outside of New York. Learn more by visiting


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That is very cool! Looper's soundtrack was good and fit the movie well. Made up of sounds from New Orleans? That is interesting.
And from the photo, I take it you got to meet the stars of the film?
(And yes, it was a very smart movie.)

~Sia McKye~ said...

I love the idea of wandering around and finding sounds and then blending them into something edgy like this. All the normal sound of a place plus...Very cool. Love the glimpse of the finished product. And really, isn't that what creating is all about? Taking the ordinary and making extraordinary? A fresh look, if you will? I think so.

It's a movie I want to see. I'll be listening to the soundtrack and remembering this interview.

Thank you Jeremy and Nathan. Congrats on scoring this one Nathan!