What can one bring to the soundtrack of a film that hasn’t been done a thousand times already?
Better Than Crazy is such an insane little comedy that when it came time for me and the boys to write and perform a musical score, we knew we weren’t going to be able to do things in traditional Hollywood fashion. There wasn’t any money in the film’s budget to think big in terms of exotic instrumentation or anything like that, but the way the film is set up, music was going to play an especially important role, and we needed to deliver the goods.
For those who haven’t seen the flick yet (Editor’s Note: Available on Amazon DVD now!), Better Than Crazy is split up into three parts, and on both sides of these sections are flashback sequences that follow the movie’s characters in different stages of their childhood. To add to the challenge, there is no score in any stage of BTC except within these moments, so our music was going to have to have an immediate emotional impact on the audience.
My go-to source of inspiration for how to approach Better Than Crazy’s score was to revisit the soundtrack Neil Young recorded for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man back in the mid-1990s. The urban legend about this defiantly unique project involves a recording studio that was set up for Neil and his various instruments (guitars and organ mostly), and when Neil came in, he simply watched a fine cut of the movie and improvised a killer score for it right there on the spot. The end result is more feedback drone than hummable music, but it captures the feel of the black and white western perfectly. I wanted to channel that sensibility for this new film of ours.
Alas, Restaino didn’t want me to be so esoteric with Better Than Crazy, so we turned to the one already-locked musical contribution to the movie that had been established during the writing of the movie’s screenplay. Katherine Nellums and I had put together a country/western song called “Occasional Raisin” for Jack (Aaron Daley) and Caroline (Amy Bruni) to sing as the centerpiece moment of the movie’s middle third, and I thought we might use that track’s simple twang as a jumping-off point for the rest of the film’s soundtrack.
The chord progression of the song, when sandblasted down to its simplest form, surprised me – it was more ethereal and evocative than I was expecting. I fooled around with my 4-track in San Francisco a bit and found that if we slowed the “Occasional Raisin” tempo way down, we could build a beautiful panorama. It was melancholy, almost haunting. But I knew there was something more we could do with it before it was safe to invite other players to come in and add some solo flair on top of it.
I remembered a trick from one of my favorite-sounding records of the 1990s, Matthew Sweet’s Altered Beast. As “Dinosaur Act” kicks off side one, a setup is established that Richard Lloyd (from the legendary band Television) would play his electric guitar on one channel while Robert Quine (another great axe man, from Voidoids) shredded on the other. On headphones, as the rhythm section stays steady and center, these dueling guitarists demonstrate their own styles simultaneously, one on the left, one on the right.
I duplicated this, recording separate left and right acoustic guitar tracks for Better Than Crazy, and it worked really well. So it became time to find a soloist.
Aaron Daley from Old Hangtown knew a guy who had a reputation around San Francisco for having excellent guitar skills, so I arranged a time for Bone Cootes to swing by Thaddeus Homan’s Outer Mission Studios to lay down some tracks. It ended up being an amazing slide performance, but what still gets me is how little studio time Bone needed to absolutely nail it. At most, it took an afternoon. We had a few laughs, shot the breeze, talked about what I was looking for, and Bone did his thing for a couple hours. He then Bone packed up his gear and tramped off to his next adventure. We’d spend a lot of time editing and mixing the material, but as far as performance was concerned, Bone was in and out.
What’s been added fun is that as we near Better Than Crazy’s release, I put the finishing touches on a soundtrack I recorded for Matt Gray’s film A Special Place. These two films are dissimilar in terms of tone and construction, but my team utilized the same approach: set up a mood with some background music then construct a sharp theme to cut through that miasma to establish a recognizable motif.
A Special Place is electric where Better Than Crazy is analog – there are guitar tracks in Matt’s movie, but his movie’s otherworldly moments made digitally- constructed sound clouds feel eerily appropriate – but they come from the same source. And it seems to be working – folks love BTC’s distant-horizon score, which is wonderfully rewarding, and our original soundtrack for A Special Place was nominated for Best Original Music at the August 2015 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. If it ain’t broke…
Maybe with our next project we can get Neil Young in the studio. You never know!
– Smokey Coloma, music composer/performer, Better Than Crazy