Lee Ranaldo on 'Lights Out'

Sonic Youth’s LEE RANALDO takes us behind their soundtrack to the French thriller Lights Out.

Musicians have been scoring movies for years. Recently, Jonny Greenwood’s work on There Will Be Blood and Daft Punk’s recent score for Tron Legacy have attracted nominations for awards alongside more traditional film composers. Elsewhere, ongoing partnerships such as Nick Cave’s work with John Hillcoat and Clint Mansell’s (formerly of Pop Will Eat Itself) long-standing association with Darren Aronofsky are widely regarded as having produced some of the more interesting scores of the last decade.

Sonic Youth are no stranger to providing music for the cinema, having made their debut with Ken Friedman’s Made In The USA, worked with the director Allison Anders on Things Behind The Sun and, more recently, on the French high school thriller Simon Werner A Disparu, released in the UK as Lights Out.

“The director Fabrice Gobert contacted us on a long shot,” explains the band’s Lee Ranaldo from his home in New York. “We were scheduled to play some shows in Paris a month or two after he called us so we met with him then. He brought down a laptop and showed use a bunch of scenes, which we really liked and, pretty much based on that one meeting, we told him we’d do it.”

Shot by long-time Claire Denis collaborator Agnès Godard and with a complex structure where the same events are revisited through the different perspectives of four different characters, the film wowed audiences at Cannes last year.

“It seemed pretty cool,” says Lee, “and it was a film that appeared open ended enough that we could do what we do in an interesting way. We were intrigued by the project and started thinking about the best way to approach it. Fabrice had given us the script, together with some detailed notes of where he wanted music, and what he wanted it to evoke. He wanted different themes for different characters and whatnot, so we read through all that and pretty much put the film onto a screen in our studio and started playing.”

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“Pre-recorded stuff of ours is used quite a bit in films, though it’s a little rarer for people to have the budget for us to do a full score,” he admits. “We’ve done things with Richard Linklater and a few other people, you know, which has usually been pretty fun. Every project is different. When we worked with Olivier Assayas on Demon Lover, we were involved from the script stage. He would play some of our music on the set while he was shooting and send the week’s rushes over to us. We’d watch them, play some more stuff and the whole process went back and forth like that for a whole bunch of weeks, where we’d slowly be getting closer and closer to being on the same page. By the time he was done with shooting, most of the score was finished.”

“With this, the version we had of the film was in French and didn’t have subtitles, so we didn’t always know exactly what the characters were saying to one another,” he explains. “We had scripts with English translations, but when we were playing we’d go with our feelings and the vibes we were picking up, glancing up at the screen every once in a while, but not really playing to particular scenes, more to the overall moods of the film. We spent a couple of weeks recording loosely structured improvisations, maybe forty-five minute stretches, then go back to the film and begin parceling out sections that worked. We’d cut out parts from longer pieces and overdub or rework that until we had stuff to fit all of the scenes. We often work like that on our own music; getting together for stretches of time and developing themes and ideas, from which we’ll whittle down those twenty- or thirty-minute sessions down into individual songs. Anyway, we started sending music over to Fabrice and he responded really positively, and from that original round of us sending him stuff we got 75% of the stuff spot on, right off the bat.”

“We were struggling to figure out how to translate the stuff for a record,” he admits, referring to the accompanying album. “We’d decided it would be interesting to extend some of those pieces as we had a lot more of each piece of music than was used on the film, so the soundtrack is much expanded from what’s in the film. When you’re hearing any one of those given tracks, you may be hearing cues from different scenes that we felt fitted together, to create something that stands more purely as an audio work.”

Words by Kingsley Marshall

Sonic Youth’s 'Simon Werner A Disparu' is out now. Lee Ranaldo plays London in May.

This interview appears in the latest issue of Clash Magazine, out now. Subscribe to Clash magazine HERE.

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