Psychocandy and Vertigo: An Interview with Jóhann Jóhannsson

Posted by on February 5, 2015

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Jóhann Jóhannsson has built a staggering body of work that lends itself a certain freedom that many other modern classical composers are either too “academic” or “dry” to achieve. Through film scores, music for stage work, and albums on various experimentally-minded labels (such as Touch, FatCat, and 4AD), Jóhannsson creates massive but delicate pieces that are as grandiose as they are subtle. Johannson’s latest film score for The Theory of Everything (available now via Back Lot Music), James Marsh’s historical biopic starring Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, is a sprawling and flourished work of uplifting sorrow, perfectly capturing the best qualities of the Icelandic composer’s ample hand. I caught up with Johannson a mere handful of days before receiving the Golden Globe award for Best Original Score for The Theory of Everything to chat about his earliest musical obsessions, balancing composing for film/stage/TV, and a few of his dream collaborations.

What was the first piece of music you became obsessed with? And also, the first film score you became obsessed with?
I think it may well have been the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. The album had a huge effect on me – I was 16 years old when it came out and I remember listening to it many times every day for weeks. I eventually formed a band which was very influenced by the album, recording demos on a reel-to-reel four track overdubbing layers and layers of minimal guitar noise.

In terms of soundtracks, I think it was really Bernard Herrmann who first made me realize the potential of film music. One of the first film scores I really got into was his score for Vertigo. I loved the film and I obsessively studied and analyzed the score, the structure, orchestration and the harmony he was using.

Your early albums were issued by Touch, and later works with 4AD and Fat Cat, which both have ties with the experimental music world but not so much as Touch. What was different with working with these labels? Also, did you feel a difference in reception to you work issued by each label?
The difference is not really huge, except that 4AD gave me the funds I needed to record my first orchestral albums, IBM 1401, a User’s Manual and Fordlandia. I would not have been able to record those albums with Touch, so the move to 4AD was a necessity to be able to realize those projects. I’m still in contact with Touch and I have a film score collaboration with BJ Nilsen coming out on their sister label, Ash International very soon. Fat Cat are amazing curators of music and I loved working with them. I’m not sure about the reception, I don’t really read reviews or think about them too much, so I can’t really answer that.

How do you balance composing film/TV/stage work with your more album-oriented work?
It’s a challenge, as the film score work keeps coming and I do love scoring films. But I also have a lot of my own projects that I want to do so I try to carve out space in my schedule for the album-oriented work. It’s been quiet on that front for a while, but there are quite a few new projects of mine that will see the light of day next year and the year after that.

How do your film projects fall into place? And how many projects do you accept or reject?
Usually the filmmakers get in touch with me or my agent. It’s quite common that they have come across my solo albums and subsequently make contact. I try to pick projects that combine a great script and solid concept with a great director who has a strong vision. You never know how a film will turn out, but if those things are in place, chances are the project will work. I’m trying to even things out at around 2 films a year, maximum, so I have time to focus on my own work as well. Unfortunately I have to turn down many excellent projects, because there simply isn’t enough time.

How much does the film subject matter affect the projects you take on, and subsequent writing and recording process?
I think the central idea or concept of the film is very important – it has to resonate with me somehow, otherwise it won’t work out. Every film is different and has different requirements. The trick is to find projects where you can keep your individuality as a composer and maintain your voice within the collaborative process of filmmaking.

Are there any film directors you’d like to work with in the future?
I’ve been lucky enough to work with very good directors so far and I’d love to be able to continue doing that. If I had to name some names, I’d say Wong Kar-wai, Ang Lee, Bela Tarr, Philippe Grandrieux, Jonathan Glazer, Lars Von Trier, Joshua Oppenheimer, David Fincher, Shane Carruthers, Fred Kelemen, Tomas Alfredson to mention a few off the top of my head.

Depending on the score or album, your use of electronics varies greatly. Can you define when you do/don’t source electronics for a project?
I think many of my works combine electronic and acoustic sounds and sometimes the electronics are quite transparent, so you don’t really hear them as electronic or processed, even though they are. So appearances can be deceiving. Theory of Everything is one of my most acoustic works, most of that score is just an orchestra playing in a studio, with few or no overdubs. I also recently wrote a film score with Theatre of Voices which was written for just 4 singers and nothing else. But it all depends on the nature of the project, there are no rules, really.

How do you view the state of modern classical music, outside of film score composers?<
I think there are some amazing composers around today and some of the younger ones are doing some great work, like Caroline Shaw, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Nico Muhly, Richard Parry etc. The new music world is getting less insular and more open and there is less resistance to ideas that cross borders between genres and art forms, which I think is a very positive development.