Interview conducted by Christopher Maynard
Phil Mossman is a composer who has worked with artists like U2 and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and he worked on Stephen Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight and Oceans 11. He was also a member of LCD Soundsystem and took part in the band’s legendary final performance that was captured for the film Shut Up and Play the Hits. Mr. Mossman is a very busy man and was kind enough to take part in this interview. I contacted him to discuss his work on the film We Are What Are.
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. How are you today?
I am building a new studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn and have been waiting for the telephone guy. I hope it starts ringing once he plugs it in.
Where are you from?
When did you discover music?
Before I was born my Mum was a mod and she got a job with Motown when they did a UK review. One of her jobs was to lead Stevie Wonder onstage. When I was 4 or 5 she got me one of those suitcase record players and gave me all her 45s. Later I got a reel-to-reel and started recording stuff. I think it all grew out of that.
When did you start creating your own music and what style was it?
I wasn’t until the UK post acid house scene came along when I thought wow, music is in the hands of the people again. I was too young when punk exploded and the 80s were all about big studios and record labels which seemed impossible to aspire to. When Primal Scream’s Screamadelica came out my head exploded. It had elements of everything that I loved about music; psychedelic, punk, soul, dub, and rock. My mate Jagz Kooner and I started making tracks in his parent’s garage and later we joined The Sabres of Paradise, which was Andrew Weatherall’s band. Andrew was responsible for much of Screamadelica so I’ve always been quite in awe of him. He still makes amazing records.
What film composers, if any, would you consider to be an influence on your work?
I’m going to go with the artist who has had the most direct influence on my life and development as a musician, who is David Holmes. We worked together for about five years and did our first film together, Out of Sight, directed by Stephen Soderbergh. David is a force of nature and I miss him a lot. I would work with him again in a heartbeat; he can whip a session into frenzy like no other. I also admire Cliff Martinez; his scores have a lot of depth, soul and imagination.
How were you brought on to do the score for We Are What We Are?
The producer of the film, Nick Shumaker, brought me on very late in the game and there was a Sundance deadline so there was a lot of late nights.
The score is a collaboration between yourself and Darren Morris with Jeff Grace. What was it like to work with two other composers on this project?
It worked out great. As I mentioned, it was an insane deadline so I was happy to share the load with some great talent. Some of Jeff’s cues had been on the cut for some time, I believe that some scenes were actually filmed with his music playing on set. I never met Jeff but his work is outstanding. Darren is an old friend and possibly the most gifted musician I have ever met. I knew there was going to be a big role for piano so it was a no brainer for me to get him involved. I frequently cry when he sits at the piano.
The music you wrote for the film, much like the film itself, is both beautiful and unnerving. The opening theme perfectly sets up the tone of the film. The solo piano, while quite pretty, hints that something is deeply wrong with what we are about to see. Did you have a specific emotional reaction you were looking for with that piece?
I love that cue. Case in point, that’s Darren working his magic at the piano. The temp music was actually quite ominous. I suggested to Jim Mickle that perhaps we shouldn’t blow our cover at the top of the film so we focused on scoring the coming of the storm. The storm plays such an important role in the movie and the way Darren’s playing comes out of the raindrops gives me shivers.
“The Drive to Tire Iron” is an incredibly ominous piece of music that could completely stand alone, but when placed against the scene its truly unsettling. It has this low-pitched drone juxtaposed with a high pitched squeal that feels like a siren. How did you create it? What instruments were used to make it?
That scene is a turning point in the film, where you’re starting to realize that there is something seriously wrong with this guy. Nothing really happens but there is an incredible amount of tension. It starts with an eerie whir that is one of those kid’s toys that you spin around your head and it changes pitch how fast you spin it. The low drone is the OB8 in the DFA studio, which still has character even at such low frequencies. The metallic squeals are a Waterphone which you bow and the water bends the pitch.
“Frank Chases the Kids” had an almost Tangerine Dream or John Carpenter quality that I didn’t notice until I listened to the soundtrack on its own. While I was watching the film it fit the scene perfectly and it in no way called attention to itself but it really was quite different from anything else in the score. Was this by design?
I was definitely channeling Assault on Precinct 13 and Tangerine Dream on that cue. Jim said go big so the challenge was to do that in an interesting way. I was using a lot of analog synths throughout so I used the power of the MKS80 and a real TR909 to shake some seats.
I love the music in that film. Not the best Carpenter film but goddamn it has great music. The Death Waltz reissue of it is beautiful. What are you working on now?
I worked on Mike Cahill’s movie I Origins this year but right now I’m finishing up the sound treatment for the new studio. I need to finish it this week.
You can purchase the We Are What We Are soundtrack here and you can currently stream the film on Netflix.