Exclusive: behind the scenes
Alex Somers is an American producer, collaborator and composer who never seems to stop creating. Rising to mainstream awareness with his ambient album Riceboy Sleeps with his partner Jónsi (Jón “Jónsi” Þór Birgisson, vocalist of Sigur Rós) in 2009, Somers went on to do production work for Julianna Barwick, Sigur Rós and Sin Fang, before his eclectic and outlandish composition style was picked up by WGN, scoring the first season of atomic bomb drama Manhattan. Working from Reykjavík, Iceland, the musicians’ glacier-like sound seems to reflect his surroundings.
Somers’ latest project is the jawdropping soundtrack to Captain Fantastic, the Matt Ross- directed tale of a father of six, played by Viggo Mortensen. Having brought his children up deep in the wilderness, a traumatic twist of events leaves him with no option but to introduce his family back into modern society. The film’s premiere at Sundance earlier this year was met with rave reviews over its heartfelt portrayal of struggle and family.
Somers’ soundtrack to the film is like a spider working its web, each fibre delicate and vulnerable. But, orchestrated in the way it is – interlaced harmoniously, calculated meticulously – it hits you with a powerful punch. Beautifully mirroring the film’s otherworldly landscape, it tip-toes to haunt, drawing you in before shattering epically. Here, Somers’ shares an exclusive behind the scenes photo journal, detailing the making of the soundtrack in Iceland, away from the world…
Cecilia Dinwoodie: So how did this opportunity come about?
Alex Somers: I was in Los Angeles in winter 2014, and I had a meeting with Matt Ross. He brought along this really cool homemade scrapbook that he had that [encapsulated] the vibe of the movie – it was photos and words and the script, and he kind of explained the vibe of the movie that he was going for. This was right before shooting, I believe. He wanted to get me composing really early into the movie and go back-and-forth with it, [rather than writing the music] in the last second and cranking it out in a month
CD: What happened from there?
AS: I was really excited about it. We kept in touch for like a year, and then maybe about a year later, I started working on it. I wrote the film to picture, so I was watching a rough cut while I wrote the music. Matt’s an amazing guy – I had a lot of creative freedom. He just wanted me to do what I wanted to do, and support the movie in the best way we could.
CD: Do you find creative freedom elevating, or does it make it more difficult to navigate a musical direction?
AS: I like it. I always like the start, with a blank canvas. I’m less into starting when someone has a really big idea – that’s kind of not as exciting, but I’m really collaborative in that, if I’m given creative freedom, I can do what I want to do, and from that point on, I’m really open to refining it to fit the director’s vision much better – and Matt totally did that, you know?
CD: So talk us through the inner workings of the album. Was it hugely collaborative, or were you doing most of the arrangements and instruments yourself?
AS: I started by just doing everything myself, but then I quickly realised that I really wanted to have a string section, so I worked with my friends, Amiina. I’ve worked a ton with them. They’re one of the few string players who can fully improvise, and who I can fully do a session with, or with no notations. It’s really amazing the rapport we have. I just hum things to them and make weird sounds – we can just improvise and make up parts on the spot. They’re really exceptional. Then my friend Obo came into my studio, and we did three or fourdays together. And Jónsi [of Sigur Rós] and Sinri [of Sin Fang] both sang a bit. In the future, I’d like to collaborate more outside my bubble, but this one was definitely just people who I’ve worked with before, who know each other inside-out and totally get the atmosphere.
“There’s more life in it, and more in the way you can destroy an acoustic sound – it’s so alive, like a captured thing.”
CD: Which instruments did you use?
AS: It’s all acoustic instruments. I tend to treat acoustic sounds really brutally at times. I assemble my music and treat it in a way that’s way more akin to electronic musicians, but I just like the acoustic sound source. There’s more life in it, and more in the way you can destroy an acoustic sound – it’s so alive, like a captured thing.
CD: Well, what with the film’s setting, going acoustic suits it perfectly.
AS: Yeah, that’s also why I was after this style, because it’s about this family who is living outside of society with nature and in nature, and I was mindful of that. When I used percussion, I tried to make it really physical, with mallets on drum skins and scraping on percussion, and toys and boxes and brushes and cymbals
CD: What did you think of the film, once complete?
AS: It was great to see it at Sundance. It looked and sounded better, and had more impact, because often, when you’re scoring to the picture, it’s like a really low-res, and the dialogue maybe isn’t the final recording, and the picture hasn’t been graded, and everything is kind of rough, you know? So it’s hard to get lost in it – you know, you’re doing your best to get there, but it’s nothing like sitting in a movie theatre and having the sound really good and loud, so I actually enjoy it the most just seeing it at the very end.
CD: So what made you choose to move to Iceland? It’s not your typical go-to move, is it – or for most people, anyway…
AS: Well, I met my boyfriend when I was living in Boston, so I kind of just followed him here, and moved in with him basically, and applied to the art school, and went to college here, and just started working here, and, yeah I’ve been here now for ten years.
CD: To me, a lot of your sounds are very haunting – they’re delicate and cold – almost what I imagine melting frost to sound like. Are you inspired by Iceland’s cold climate at all?
AS: Ah, that’s cool! I think it’s just a coincidence. I’m more inspired by just living here and working with friends here, like Icelandic musicians. And I run a little recording studio here, so I’ve been working with a lot of really nice Icelandic musicians, and I don’t think the weather has any influence. I bundle up – I’m not built for this cold! But it is beautiful.
“There’s definitely something about Reykjavik being tiny, and about collaborating…”
CD: You’ve attended college at both Berklee College of Music in Boston and Iceland Academy of the Arts in Reykjavik. Did you find the styles of teaching, and the work of your peers hugely different from city-to-city?
AS: Yeah, they were so different! Yeah, art school in Iceland – I was studying visual art, not music, so of course, that was different. But it was just so different – it was night and day. I was just really into the art program here. It’s really, really tiny. They only accept like 25 kids every year, and it was 3 years, so there were 75 of us in the whole school, and you had so much freedom – you basically just kind of did anything you wanted. It’s just great – you met your professors from 8 ‘til 12 every day, and did classes, and once a week you met the head professors, and you just made work, and talked about it and got critiqued, and you got total creative freedom – and all my peers were making music, and there were a lot of musicians creating there. Whereas at Berklee, I found that everyone around me was a musician and studying music and learning, but the environment felt way less creative, and less kind of DIY.
CD: I wonder if that’s got something to do with Reykjavik’s community sprit? I know you’ve spoken before about how all of Reykjavik’s musicians and artists know each other…
AS: Yeah probably. There’s definitely something about Reykjavik being tiny, and about collaborating. Like, here, a lot of the same people might be playing in the orchestra, and then also be playing in some crazy noise band, and then some experimental bleeps, and then also in a rock band. I don’t know, it’s like everything just goes, and it’s really cool and effortless, and people sit in in each other’s groups, and it’s really cool – I like that.
CD: Did you discover your sound while studying at Iceland Academy of the Arts, or have you always had that signature Alex sound in you?
AS: I definitely have been doing ambient music since I was maybe 18. Like, my brother and I used to make some really long drones, and tape the keys on our keyboards and sit back and listen to it and have it playing in our apartment, like, you know, 4 days… And I’ve definitely been into long-form and that kind of stuff – but I’m always trying to change it, make it different, make it better, work with new people, incorporating orchestrations a lot more the last five years.
CD: What were you like as a child? Were you always creative?
AS: Well, I didn’t do any art stuff – I discovered that late in life, as far as drawing and painting goes, but I’ve always been into music for a long time. And my first instrument was guitar, around the age of 11 or 12, and I was kind of self-taught. And then at some point, maybe at 16, I started taking lessons, because I was curious about music theory, and then I started playing drums when I was a teenager, and piano and keyboards and I remember getting a Tascam porterstudio (that little 4 track tape machine), and a Shure SM57, and that’s when I started to write and record, because I was just freaking out at learning how to turn the tape over, and it would go backwards. So I was always experimenting with music, and playing in bands with my friends, and it’s kind of the only thing that’s been a constant through my life that I’ve always loved, and wanted to be doing in some form.
Cover art by Alex Somers, for the ‘Captain Fantastic’ soundtrack
CD: Your musical and life partner is Jonsi, and you live together too. Are you two always crafting, making and experimenting together, musically?
AS: Yeah, I mean more so in the old days, because I have a studio now that I’ve been in for like four years, so it’s way less in our home now – like us being musical – it’s like, it’s more boring, because we have to book studio time, and we both have to make time for it to come here and write and record and stuff. But before I opened up this little studio, it was very much like what you’re describing – you know, we recorded the album we made beck in 2009, and we just recorded all of it at home, in our house – and even the string section and the choir in my living room, so it was really a home made kind of affair, where the music was always just coming from the walls, and having it on all the time, and it was really nice.
CD: You run a recording studio in downtown Reykjavik… Have you ever thought about starting up a label?
AS: No, I don’t think so – I’m just not that interested in the buisinessy side of things, ‘cause I’m not really that savvy. So I could imagine it would be really thrilling to try and publish friends’ music and all that, but I think that would be really difficult (like, nobody buys music, so that would be a tough spot to be in).
“Jónsi and I sitting together somewhere in Italy in 2004. Taken during my six month residence in Florence.” Photo by Adam Katseff.
CD: Who are your greatest influences?
AS: I don’t know – I try not to let music influence my music too much. It definitely did when I was younger – like I was always digging and listening to lots of cool music, and like under the radar kind of stuff, but when I moved in with Jonsi, he was just the opposite. He’d just only listen to Billie Holliday, Django Reinhardt and Bing Crosby and this old time music, and gradually through the years, that’s kind of my leaning now too. I just really enjoy listening to old time music – it’s just really cozy and kinda lo-fi. But, actually just in recent times, I’ve been trying to get back into digging up new stuff. And right now, my favourite new artist is a kid named Ian William Craig – that’s like the most contemporary thing that I’m into these days.
CD: Well, I was going to ask actually if you had any suggestions for the Iceland music scene?
AS: Well yeah, there’s lots of cool stuff. There’s Sin Fang, who’s my best friend here, Sindri [Már Sigfússon] – he’s always doing stuff, he’s got a few side-projects, and his own. Pascal Pinon, who I produced their second record, and they’ve just self-produced their third, which will be out soon – that’s pretty cool.
CD: In your collaborative projects, and when you’re producing other people’s work, you’ve said before that you end up playing a lot of different instruments and coming up with a ton of arrangements yourself. How many instruments do you play?
AS: I’m kind of a non-musician musician, so like I’m not super good at playing really any instruments, because I never really aspired to be. That inspiration kind of fell away in my teenage years – I got more into sound, and arrangement and stuff. So, I have a lot of stuff in my studio, so I’ve play guitar, piano, harmonium, dulcitone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, kalimbas, a lot of samplers, spring reverbs and tape delays, and you know, I kind of play everything a little bit – like just good enough to be able to create something on it, and then you don’t need to master it.
CD: I heard that when working with Julianna Barwick, she came to your studio with absolutely no material or plan for her album you were producing. Is this true? What happened?
AS: Yeah (laughs), but I knew she would so that. It wasn’t like, “You’re gonna be here with 10 demos,” and she’s like, “I have nothing!” No, we were in contact for like a year before she actually got to Iceland and we started, but yeah, that’s super rare – that’s the only time that’s ever happened, and I haven’t met anyone else who has really done that. I think she just explained how she doesn’t really write songs – she’s not like a songwriter, in the traditional sense, so she’ll just improvise with her voice with her loop station, basically. It’s a really singular process, and then get some grain of something cool. And then we would just, you know, I would give her like an hour every morning just to do that, then I would come up and the two of us would isolate something cool that we thought was in there, and then we would just kind of write a song together around it.
The Captain Fantastic soundtrack is out now via Invada Records / Lakeshore and is available here.