The Interview: Alex Somers
Alex Somers is something of a renaissance man. Perhaps best known for his collaborative work with Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi, he has spent the past decade quietly carving a reputation as one of the most unique producer talents currently working, in addition to working as a visual artist and cookery show host (no, really).
Originally from Baltimore, but now based in Reykjavík, Somers’ career has seen him collaborating with the likes of Damien Rice and Julianna Barwick in addition to working extensively in Iceland’s music scene. His pursuits also extend to the art world, having worked closely with Sigur Rós to create artwork for several of the band’s albums, many of which he also produced.
Following the extraordinary Riceboy Sleeps, a collaboration with Jónsi, Somers’ work on Captain Fantastic, directed by Silicon Valley actor Matt Ross, marks both his debut film score and solo release. Building on an already distinctive body of work, the end result is an understated and achingly beautiful collection of melancholic and ethereally ambient compositions.
Paul Weedon caught up with him to discuss his work process, inspiration and his passion for collaboration with others – as well as some listening recommendations.
Congratulations on Captain Fantastic. It’s an extraordinary album. Talk me through how you came to be involved with the film. Did Matt Ross approach you first?
Yeah, Matt got in touch a pretty long time ago - like, two and half years ago, or something - and we just met up for tea and he brought this really cool kind of oversized binder that he had made, I guess. ‘Moodboard’ is kind of a cheesy phrase, but collagey cutouts and some really nice words and pictures and he had been doing that as he’d been writing the script and starting the casting process to get a vibe out. It was cool to look through it.
We talked about the film and we talked about the cast he was assembling and it sounded really up my alley – this kind of harsh story and the nature and hippy stuff. And he wanted the music to be really melodic and really organic and different – not just a traditional film score… and it seemed to be a good pairing. I didn’t start until over a year later, so that was our first meeting.
How far in to production were they when you actually started work on the film? Had Matt shot the film at that point?
Yeah. I think Matt’s dream was that the music and the film would actually be made at the same time. He didn’t want to do the classic thing where you shoot it and you’re pretty much at the final cut almost and then you hire a composer, which is how it’s traditionally done. I think his dream was to not do that and just always have music and the film being created hand-in-hand but that didn’t end up happening. And I hope I end up getting to do a project like that at some point. But yeah, I didn’t really start until they sent me some picture. It wasn’t locked picture or anything like that, but it was the first draft of the edit. And yeah, then I started right from the beginning. I started writing some themes and did the first scene of the film.
It must have been an interesting process. At that stage, having seen all that early material beforehand, I assume you were mulling over ideas in the intervening year?
Not really, no, because I didn’t know 100% if I would be on board or not. It seemed like it, but it was always up in the air because with this kind of work you never really know if you’re doing something until you’re really doing it, you know? You could change your mind or anything could happen really. So I wasn’t actually writing anything yet, but as soon as I started it came pretty quick – playing the piano and coming up with themes and stuff like that
In terms of overall production, how much of the score was live composition and how much of it was electronic?
It’s kind of all live actually, like 99%. Sometimes I’ll use some sub bass, like a Moog, to ground the chords. Like in this score, for example, there’s no upright bass, so a lot of times I’ll slow the string section down so the cellos get kind of deeper. I’ll use a Moog for deep bass, but other than that it’s all live.
And is that your preference?
Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I would never use fake strings. I’m just in to recording real strings and I have a Mellotron for that kind of weird sampled sound. I really like using samplers for… I’ll have sounds of flutes and slow that down and play that, or sample my voice or play the piano and record that in to a sampler, so you can get these kind of weird sounds that sound like electronics through organic means, which is my favourite thing. Because you get mistakes, you get things that, if you’re just using synths, you might not come across - these kind of weird quirks. So yeah, I like to bring that element, but it’s usually from acoustic sources.
That’s really interesting, because from a layman’s perspective whenever I’m chatting to people about your work, I think there’s an assumption, erroneously it turns out, that a large portion of it is electronic.
Yeah, it’s really fun. It doesn’t always sound like that in the room. I definitely relate way more with electronic musicians than classical composers. I think that’s the kind of headspace I kind of fall in to and I thrive in, but I like the palette of acoustic instruments. I’m not a synth guy. So yeah, it’s always a case of finding that space between the two that I kind of enjoy.
And who do you look to in terms of electronic influences?
I guess I was more influenced by music and stuff when I was younger. These days I don’t listen to as much stuff. I don’t follow music as closely. I think in the last ten years it’s less that there would be some music that will directly influence what I’m doing. It’s more like the philosophy and the attitude and stuff like that, like growing up and listening to Aphex Twin or Autechre, rather than being in to classical stuff.
But I could name one person that I discovered two years ago whose music is amazing and has probably influenced me and that’s Ian William Craig. He’s pretty under the radar. He’s amazing. He’s really cool. I was definitely inspired the second I heard it, the first second on the first song. I was like, “wait, what’s this?” That definitely has stayed with me.
I’ll have to check him out. I just Googled him and the third hit is a Guardian article ‘The 101 strangest records on Spotify’.
[Laughs]. Yeah, that album ‘A Turn Of Breath’, that record is really special. It’s really cool.
Captain Fantastic obviously isn’t the first time you’ve composed for the screen. You worked with Jónsi on composing for the first season of Manhattan. How did the experience of working on a series compare to working on a feature like this?
It was such a good learning process. Every time I do something to picture I come away understanding it better. Specifically, I guess when I first did any work to picture about five years ago, you’re tense because I come from more of a pop song structure world than writing hour-long orchestral stuff. I feel most film composers come from that world, whereas I don’t. So I feel like you just write music as you would and then you have to kind of chop it up and make it make sense within the score. But the more and more work I do I feel like I’m getting closer to actually scoring picture. The music moves along with the picture and it’s not just a song or a deconstructed piece where you try to make it fit.
The two work together.
Yeah, so that’s the main thing. I’ve gotten better at that and also working with collaborators. At first I always think you have to play everything, engineer every sound, mix everything, but over the years - it’s still only a few people - but when you get stuck you can call on a small circle of friends… and when you feel stuck you just call a friend and they come over and start playing piano or vibraphone and it just opens your mind again and you just go, “of course, I should be working with my friends,” not as much composing, but with overdubs and trying new instruments. So yeah, I think you learn little bits along the way. Patience and having to re-write a scene a million times… [Laughs]
I can imagine there’s a lot of re-writing that goes on.
Speaking more generally, there’s a very distinctive sound to both your solo work and your work with Jónsi. What is it about that haunting kind of melancholic sound that you find so appealing? I know you can do jubilant – Jónsi’s Go album, which you produced, felt very much like a reaction to the slightly more introspective sound of something like Riceboy Sleeps. Do you have a preference in terms of style? What is it that draws you to that melancholic sound?
I don’t know. I’m still wondering that myself.
I think I’m always kind of drawn towards that… Whenever you’re writing anything, you never really want to think about anything, at least for me. It’s not super conceptual, so you just do something and kind of after you write the spark of it then you want to kind of mould it and think about it and try to do cool arrangements and instrumentation. But I don’t know. I’ve always been drawn towards that sound and that kind of feeling – slow moving stuff and I just connect to it a lot. But I definitely don’t want to be stuck in the same old thing and expand and try new things.
Hopefully I manage to do that. I’ve been doing a lot of producing with other bands and other artists and stuff and I always feel like that’s really healthy because you get to be in the studio with someone else and you’re learning their tricks and sharing your tricks and seeing how they build songs… You take that on to the next thing you do. So I’ve kind of learned to have a wider scope from that.
Funnily enough, I wanted to ask about your collaboration with Julianna Barwick on her album Nepenthe a few years back. That has a very unique sound of its own, but you can detect your stylistic touches on that album. When a collaboration like that comes about, does an artist kind of cite previous work you’ve done as something they’d like to explore that’s similar?
Actually I don’t think that’s ever happened where somebody names a song or an album that I’ve worked on and they’ve wanted to go in that direction. That’s never happened to me, but I think that’s fairly common with a lot of producers. But actually I reached out to Julianna Barwick originally. I had just been really in to her stuff and thought we’d make a good team and kind of expand her palette and try new things, so I just wrote to her and we emailed on and off for a long time. And then I met her in New York and we just had a really good chemistry. I invited her to my studio in Iceland and she came and we did the record in maybe two and half months. And she just let me go wild on it, you know? Of course, all the vocal parts are hers, but she was just really in to surrendering and trying something different, so her and I played most of the instruments and I got a few of my friends to come and play some other instruments and, yeah, it was a super fun project. We’ve been friends ever since.
It sounds like a freeform process. Is that quite rare?
Yeah, the record that we made together was totally different from anything else I’ve done. Before she came to the studio in Iceland I was asking her if she had any demos she wanted to send, which is usually what happens because when I work with foreigners they kind of prepare before because it’s kind of a big trip, but she was like, “Well, I don’t write songs. I don’t do that.” So she came with zero material and we were in the studio on day one and had no music, so we just did it all from scratch. We wrote and recorded as we went. So that was totally different. That’s totally unusual.
From a musical standpoint, I guess that was also quite risky. I take it that there was no imperative from a record label there putting pressure on things, so I guess you had a greater sense of freedom?
Oh, yeah. Totally. I think she was even in between record labels. When that record happened she was switching labels. There was zero direction and we just did what we wanted. It was super fun. We had a really nice routine and became really good friends. We have lots of inside jokes from the process of making a record. [Laughs]. I’m sure we’ll do something together again at some point.
Changing tack slightly – and excuse the slightly indulgent question – but Happiness from Riceboy Sleeps is one of my favourite pieces of music. I’ve always been fascinated with an expansive piece like this, which is about ten minutes in length and has this kind of dreamlike quality to it. At what point is a piece of music like that finished? When do you get a point where you can step back and say, “Okay, this is done now’?
I think for all of the songs on that record, it was such a domestic album. Our old little home studio was in our kitchen and we recorded most of the instruments in our living room, so it was on all the time. So that song was written… the birth of that song was in, like, 2004, or something, and there was no string section on it. And then later we added something and added something and then we thought, “Oh, let’s re-do it completely from scratch with strings.” And then we had that version. So it was always brewing and changing for so long that I think… we used to have it playing so much and then you just… It just kind of settles.
I remember pretty late in the stages of making that album we changed the whole intro and made this little ambient beginning so it didn’t just start. And we slowed it down. The entire song was slowed down so the strings are lower and slower than they were as we recorded it and then at some point, yeah. It felt pretty good… You never know. It’s just a judgement call. There is no right and wrong. That’s a good thing to remember.
I’ve always wondered about that aspect of creating something. It must be quite an empowering notion to say, “It’s done”.
Yeah, but usually you don’t really feel that empowerment until you’re right at the end, because normally it’s a lot of anxiety! You’re like, “Oh, fuck!” and everyone’s really stressed and tweaking the mixing and even during the mastering you’re asking, “Is this even any good?” I think, even great records, there’s a lot of self-doubt throughout the whole process.
On that subject, when you’re doing a film like Captain Fantastic you’re creating music specifically for that project. When you’re creating an album like Riceboy Sleeps, the music is very music intended to be enjoyed in isolation. So I’m curious about your thoughts on directors using your work elsewhere. In particular, Paolo Sorrentino used Happiness in This Must Be The Place. And I wondered, from your perspective, how interesting is it to see other artists using your material in their own way?
I think it’s cool when the right integrity is behind it. And when music can spark a scene, I think it’s really exciting and really cool. It’s different to having it on a McDonalds commercial, obviously. There’s nothing cool about that. That would never happen. But yeah, I think it’s really cool to make a piece of music and have someone add this different dimension or feeling to a scene and wanting to use it. I think that’s great.
When someone comes to you and asks to use your material, how much involvement do you have? Do you get to see it used in situ, or do you kind of relinquish that control?
I don’t know how it is for everyone, but I know Jónsi and I are pretty picky, so we always see everything, just to make sure we like it. And if we think it’s a bad edit, or anything like that, we’ve always been treated really well. We can make a different edit or suggest something. It’s always been really easy and friendly.
As an aside, in addition to production, you’ve also designed the album artwork for a number of Sigur Rós albums. Given your close relationship with the band, as an artist working on a project like that, do you develop ideas as the album is evolving? Does the music itself ultimately influence the artwork?
I guess it depends on the band. The album covers that I’ve done in more recent years have been a case where someone would give you the final thing and ask you to do a cover. So then you just listen to it and get some kind of vibe or aesthetic from it. But if you’re talking about Takk, the Sigur Rós album… yeah, my friend and I had a little studio where we were screenprinting and making stuff when the guys were mixing and writing and recording. So we were listening to it as it was happening.
Actually, I’ve never even thought about that. Maybe that influenced what happened. I remember we had so many different designs - like, sixty. And then I guess that we all maybe assumed that something would become the album cover, but we didn’t really know for sure. We were just doing stuff and doing some limited edition merch. And towards the end of the record when everyone said, “We need a cover,” we just collaborated with the band. I mean, Sigur Rós, the guys, the band are always really involved with everything they do, so they were working on it and we were working on it. Yeah, that was definitely the most collaborative kind of wholesome album art project I’ve ever worked on, outside of doing something on my own.
Of all of your creative pursuits, what do you personally find to be the most satisfying and fulfilling outlet that you have?
Music, by far. It’s the one thing that’s been a thread through my whole life. It never ceases to move me – good music. And the feeling when you’re working on something and you spark a new idea? That excitement and that inside feeling – nothing can touch that. And then building up a new piece of music is so fun and inspiring, and if you’re collaborating on something, to share that with someone is… it’s really hard to explain. I don’t think there’s anything else that has that. And I think that never dies, because music is so universal.
And how do you feel about the end listener’s response to your work? Do you ever look at the way people have engaged with your work?
I feel like I’ve released so little that there’s so little of that in my world… but I guess as more and more time goes by and more and more things are online and more people are using the internet in their daily lives, I guess it becomes more in your face.
Yeah, it’s definitely a bonus if you do something and you read something nice about it. And it definitely sucks if you read something negative about it [laughs]. But at the end it doesn’t really matter. You’re connecting with someone, and that’s what you want.
Captain Fantastic is available to order from Invada Records now, with the CD and Digital release from Lakeshore Records