The Aussie composer takes us into the process of creating the Lawless soundtrack – a contemporary bluegrass classic.
Obscenely talented Brighton-based frontman, songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer, occasional film actor and all-round dude Nick Cave has been collaborating with fellow Aussie John Hillcoat since 1988, when he starred in and scored Hillcoat’s directorial debut Ghosts… of the Civil Dead. Since then he’s written music for each of Hillcoat’s four subsequent features with regular partner Warren Ellis, plus screenplays for 2005’s The Proposition and now Lawless.
Away from film, he’s released 14 studio albums with the Bad Seeds, two eponymous LPs with alt-rock group Grinderman, and penned a couple of novels for good measure – the most recent of which, 'The Death of Bunny Munro', began life as a screenplay for Hillcoat. Here, Cave describes the processes and partnerships that informed the making of the bluegrass-infused Lawless soundtrack.
LWLies: What was the initial concept for the Lawless soundtrack?
Cave: Very early on, John [Hillcoat] and I decided that we wanted to do a soundtrack that was based on songs. But we also felt that the very top range Americana-style soundtrack had already been done by the Coen brothers in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Because of the nature of the story we thought we would do something that was much more rough, with more gutbucket performances. And the way we went about doing that was to do the music ourselves; we did our own versions of bluegrass music, using a bunch of people that actually had no idea how to play that kind of stuff. We felt that would give it a rawer feel. Why did you decide to use mostly contemporary songs? We tried to make a point about that fact that a lot of what’s going on in the story still goes on to this day. We also did versions of existing songs. For example, we had the Velvet Underground song ‘White Light/White Heat’ sung by Ralph Stanley, who’s a kind of jewel in the crown of bluegrass music. And we did stuff with Emmylou Harris in much the same way.
‘White Light/White Heat’ is famously about heroin and amphetamine abuse. Was Ralph aware of that?
He wasn’t familiar with the song and I think he had one eyebrow raised throughout the recording. It was very amusing; there were definitely a few times where you could see him questioning his own wisdom in allowing himself to be involved with this. But it turned out beautifully, and Lou Reed actually dropped by for a few days to record some stuff, so that really added to it.
You formed a band for the soundtrack, The Bootleggers. How did that come about?
It’s basically me and Warren [Ellis]. We brought in George Vjestica, who’s a wonderful guitarist we’ve worked with before, and a girl called Leila Moss. Leila came in to demo the stuff for Emmylou, but she blew us away so we ended up using her. It was just a ramshackle band but we were offered all kinds of access to the great session musicians working in LA. But whenever me and Warren work on any soundtrack there needs to be a personal connection to the music, so we often end up playing everything ourselves. Obviously, when we need to get strings and such in we do, but basically it’s just us. I think that gives a kind of intimacy to what we do that you sometimes lose with session musicians.
Did you keep the screenplay and the music separate during the writing process?
Very much together, actually. When I’m writing a screenplay I always like to have the music in my head. It depends on the screenplay, though. The Proposition had musical cues in the script, much to everyone’s horror, because at that stage I really didn’t know how to write a screenplay and so I probably broke a bunch of rules. But for sure we talked a lot about the music while I was writing the script. In fact, there were certain scenes left open because we wanted the music to inform the mood.
Can you give us an example?
When Tom Hardy has his run-in with the thugs outside the bar, the description of how he falls and the way the snow falls around him is quite long and detailed in the script. It’s deliberately lengthy because it gives enough room for a whole verse of that song to play out.
What was the main thematic thrust for the soundtrack?
The main thing was prohibition. Not prohibition as it’s most commonly known today but modern-day prohibition, which we see as the current policy on drugs. It’s widely acknowledged that prohibition of alcohol didn’t work, and we feel the same way about the current drug laws that cause a lot of grief and harm. Initially we were going to open the film with an incredible rapid-fire montage showing prohibition through the ages, starting with Mexican cartels and going back through heroin dealing in New York right back to John Hancock. We wanted to make a point about the fact prohibition has always existed in some form or another. That’s why we have someone like Ralph Stanley singing a contemporary song about drug taking.
Tell us about the actual recording process.
We bashed most of the tracks out in a studio in Brighton owned by Unkle. We did it in a very rough way. There were all sorts of spill problems because we didn’t separate anything; we were just banging away on different instruments in the same room. Some people considered it unworkable; there was a lot of pressure for us to do it again. But we won out in the end. It was just a matter of taste, I think. The way people work on soundtracks is very different to the way Warren and I go about things. We’re always faced with problems because of how we choose to record things. We record quickly and unconventionally. We approach things in a very rock’n’roll way because that’s where we come from. We know what we’re doing but a lot of the time other people don’t know we know what we’re doing. It’s a constant battle, but I think we’re winning so far.