An Interview with Brian Reitzell
by Adam Budofsky
Though Brian Reitzell is known in some circles as a drummer first, he maintains a “second” career as a film music producer, choosing and in many cases composing and recording soundtrack music to many of the most highly regarded films of the past several years, including Friday Night Lights, Stranger Than Fiction, Thumbsucker, and Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation and Marie Antoinette.
Brian’s latest project–and his debut solo long-player–is the score to David Slade’s modern-day vampire film 30 Days Of Night, which he created at his Through The Park studio in LA. This month’s Modern Drummer features a Woodshed on the remarkable recording space, with illuminating descriptions of much of the gear Brian uses there. Here we talk further with Reitzell about his musical philosophies, technical ambitions, and tips for recording drums.
It’s been a few years now since you’ve entered the soundtrack world. You’ve gone through huge changes in your career in that amount of time.
Yeah, it’s nuts. It just happened. My phone hasn’t stopped ringing since I did Lost In Translation. And I continued touring up until that movie, so I was still sort of a full-time musician while I did my first three movies. In fact, I did most of Lost In Translation on a tour bus.
I don’t think I could have done what I’ve done had I not spent twenty years playing music and touring and recoding and all that stuff. I continue to do that, but creating has always been more interesting to me than re-creating, so I just love this.
What are you working on now?
One of the movies that I’m working on now is The Brothers Bloom, which is directed by Ryan Johnson, who did a movie called Brick. I’m just music supervising, though I am recording a couple of pieces, including a cover of “Sleeping” by The Band. I’m also working on a film called Peacock, which is going to be the best thing I’ve ever done.
At this point you prefer to work on projects where you can do a combination of choosing other people’s songs and providing original music, right?
Yes. It’s a job that that I created for myself, and it took the course of three movies to realize what my role was. Sofia Coppola is the one who coined the title “film music producer” for me. That’s different from the role of a music producer making pop records, because it involves some of the avenues of film producing, which is a completely different thing. What it means is that I will be a music supervisor picking existing tracks, plus I will produce other artists that I will choose to bring in to do original stuff. Often times that means I’ll write with them, though sometimes I’ll just produce them and plays drums, keyboards, or whatever. And then other times I’ll score by myself.
So if I were a producer or director, the advantage to hiring you is that you’re one person doing all of these things, so I’d be getting much more of a sound that works well as one piece.
Yeah. I usually start with a script, before a film has been shot. And with Sofia it’s before the film’s even been written. So the music has a very integral role in the movie, and then in a technical sense, the film production lucks out because I am the supervisor, I am in charge of the score, and I do music editing. That’s three or four jobs right there, and I do all of them. Every director I’ve ever worked with has asked me to do their next movie. Sometimes that hasn’t worked out, and sometimes I’ve chosen not to. But this process that we’ve sort of created, it really works.
Well, it makes sense. It seems wrong that it’s not that way in general.
I know. And, well, most music supervisors aren’t musicians. And music supervisors actually tend to have more power than composers, so you end up with this really weird thing where a director has to deal with all these different departments. When I work with a director it’s just me and him or her.
It’s cool that you’ve found a way to create your own niche by having a combination of skills.
It was a complete accident. But, you know, my love for music has always been outside of the whole ego of being a rock star. It was always about the music. The biggest thing that happened to me–which just magically happened and really helped me to do this thing that I do now–occurred when I was like twelve years old. My mother worked for the United Way, and the big radio station in the town I lived in, Santa Rosa, switched from being a rock music station to being talk radio. And they donated their entire library, which was all vinyl, to the United Way. So all of those records completely enveloped our living room. There were thousands of records, and my mom said to me, “Brian, you can go through them and pick ten, fifteen records and keep them.” I didn’t know what most of the stuff was, and the records were only supposed to be there for a week, but they sat there for like a month. So I went through every single record and ended up keeping about a hundred fifty. I was basically going to music school. I was listening to Rick Derringer and Uriah Heep and Camel and Focus and Joni Mitchell and just everything. I know a lot about music because of that experience–a lot about records. That definitely fueled my love for music–and not just playing it, but listening to it.
Were you playing drums at that point?
Yeah. I started playing drums when I was about six. I had an older brother who played guitar, and I had an uncle who had a drumkit. I remember the very first time I ever played drums. It’s one of my earliest memories. I couldn’t reach the pedals, and my brother propped me up on the seat. The thing that’s interesting about it is that for some reason my uncle had drumsticks but also a bunch of kitchen utensils next to the drums, like a wire whisk and wooden spoons and things like that. I thought, well, I guess that’s perfectly normal, to play with wire whisks and wooden spoons and rubber spatulas.
And we see where that’s gone.
Totally. To this day I’ve got a collection of kitchen utensils in my studio.
You mention in the Modern Drummer piece your obsession with all things spinning, and effects like vibrato, tremolo, delays, and reverb.
I like the science of creating them more than the simulation of them. One of the reasons I worked with Kevin Shields is because that’s how the My Bloody Valentine records were made. Tremolo is a sort of volume going up and down. Rather than just use a box to do that, why not decipher scientifically, or physically, what it is, and then create it by real organic, physical means? That’s what a Leslie speaker is, it’s a speaker that spins. I have every known spinning device known to man to create Leslie-like effects.
The Maestro Rover you talk about in the MD piece is an amazing device.
Yeah, with the foot pedal you can go from zero to very fast, so you can be very expressive with the vibrato. I used it when I did Stranger Than Fiction. There’s a track called “Writer’s Block” that Britt Daniel from Spoon and I did. We have a guitar going through the Rover. So what I thought I would do is just continue this sort of path of experimenting with real live vibrato, real live tremolo, and that’s what the pottery wheel that’s in the MD spread was all about. The “Whisper” model I got is very quiet, which is important for film. In fact, one of the problems with Leslies and with the Maestro is that there’s a bit of mechanical noise.
Besides the “black death tube” and the step sequencer made from cymbals that are shown, what other possible applications did you find for the pottery wheel?
One idea I had was to literally take a recording, something that I would record, and then play it back on a speaker affixed to the top of the pottery wheel. So there you’ve got your Leslie. The only problem is that there’s wires, though my assistant, Richard Jory, and I recently figured out that if you use some of the parts from a washing machine…that’s basically how the Leslie and the Rover are able to spin something that has wires affixed to it. We know how to do it now, but we haven’t done it yet because these things take time and we’ve been busy. By the way, Richard was instrumental in this studio being as functional as it is.
I’m also obsessed with things like glass harmonicas. A glass harmonica involves round pieces of glass that spin. They have a motor and you put your fingers on them and you can play chords and stuff. The old ones used foot pedals like pump organs, but the beautiful new fancy ones cost about $20,000. I thought that when I was doing Thirty Days Of Night I could get all kinds of glasses–vases, crystal, whatever–affix them to the pottery wheel, and then just use bows or my finger or mallets or whatever to get that kind of eerie glass harmonica sound. When I tried to do that, the first thing that happened was the glass spun across the room and shattered against the wall, because the pottery wheel goes from zero to 280 rpm–and 280 rpm is really fast. Think of a modern turntable, which goes at 33 1/3. I tried all kinds of ways of getting things centered, because if they’re centered they’re fine. But that’s very difficult to do. In the end I did get it to work, but I didn’t think the sound was all that interesting.
Drummers seem particularly suited to this kind of experimentation.
I was always into all the kinds of mechanical things you could do with your drumkit. I was obsessed more with hardware. I worshiped Stewart Copeland’s drumkit as a kid, because he had those Tama cymbal stands that looked beautiful to me. And when I saw Mark Brzezicki with Big Country…forget what the show sounded like, it was like, “Look at that piece of architecture up on stage!” It was beautiful. All that chrome, it was amazing.
I wish I had discovered this when I was a teenager, but the places where movie grips go to buy all the weird metal tripods and little fixtures they have…it’s almost like what doctors use to do operations, all these beautiful weird little clamps and things. So I went to one of these places and got a bunch of stuff, and then started mounting things to the pottery wheel, like the corrugated tube.
This reminds me of how The Beatles had to invent a lot of their effects mechanically in the studio; obviously it was way pre-computers.
Yeah. If you want to get a distortion sound you slice your speaker. Or in the case of Kevin Shields, if you want to create lots of harmonic overtones and distortion and things of that nature, you just turn it up as loud as it can go and basically fry your microphone. That’s the real stuff, that’s stuff that cannot be simulated. Because we are human beings, we are very sensitive to the sounds of nature. The sound of an airplane in the distance, it’s like the druggiest sort of sound you’ve ever heard. It’s beautiful. With Thirty Days Of Night I needed to do a lot of that experimentation. I usually do about three months of research before I figure out what a movie should sound like.
Do you generally have that luxury when you are approached with a project and you need to hit deadlines?
I insist on it. With 30 Days Of Night, when you hear those sounds in the movie theater, it’s scary because you don’t have any baggage with those sounds, you’re not connected to them like you would be with, say, a cello. It’s new.
So, that pottery wheel going so fast…did you have any accidents besides the glass flying?
No, but every second that I was in that room and it was spinning, I was scared for my life, because if the stick or something was to fly off at 280 rpm, it would impale me. So I wore goggles and head protection, and then I had a giant Anvil cymbal case that I used to use on tour, and I would hold that in front of me like a shield. I would cower below it while my engineer in the next room was just cracking up. I was really scared, I didn’t want to go back in that room.
Well, there’s a buzz from using a power saw….
Oh yeah, it’s an adrenaline rush, which is precisely the sort of sounds I needed to create, because in the movie I was soundtracking people going through violent experiences.
Besides the pottery wheel, did you ever try a bicycle, turned upside down, to create the spinning mechanism?
I thought about the stationary bike, like on Gilligan’s Island. They always used one to generate electricity. But it always seemed to me that I was going to get too much noise. And I like the things that go a bit beyond the human ability, you know what I mean? The pottery wheel is amazing because it literally has no sound and you can go slow, fast, and everything in between. I plan on doing quite a bit more with it on Peacock. Let’s just say it will involve probably putting up six guitars that are all tuned to different chords, and then affixing picks, and possibly doing the same thing with piano frames. You can do it with drums too.
Anything that can take the shock, right?
Yeah. Who knows what we’ll destroy for the next movie.
In a less dangerous mode, you do a lot with “prepared” drums.
In 1994 I would have laughed at you if you told me that I was going to be playing a single-headed tom with tape or tea towels on top, as quietly as possible. But I’m trying to get different emotional qualities. If you want to get something that’s claustrophobic, the best way to do that is not to just have a dry sound but to actually completely enclose the instrument in something like a tent. If you have good microphones and good engineers…it’s all physics.
Can you usually rely on the physics?
Um, no, but I can take it into consideration. Back when I’d make records with Red Kross–which was before computers had really stepped into the studio–those records would cost a couple hundred thousand dollars to make, because you’d be in this big studio. We’d get this giant sound, but what engineers did was a mystery to me. But over the years, we’ve been able to get good equipment and spend time with it.
The way I started playing drums was I got a snare drum first, and I spent a good deal of time trying to make one drum sound like a whole drumkit, or just getting every sort of sonic possibility out of it. And then I got a bass drum and it was like, oh, okay. So spending time with each piece of equipment to figure out what it does is a big part of the process for me. When I finish a film, I go into research mode for the next one, and I’ll completely re-set the studio, to see what kind of new sounds and new applications I can bring to the project. Sometimes I’ll stumble across something that’s cool, but there’s no film project that I’m working on that it will be appropriate for. So I’ll just save it for a later date.
You’ll really go to great lengths to come up with new sounds and approaches.
I think that if you’re doing something that you’re not scared of failing at, it’s probably not worth doing. It’s about taking risks. When I start a movie, I have no idea what to do. But that’s what makes you work hard and stretch to figure things out. I want to say it’s the same as being a drummer and saying, “Well, I want to learn to play reggae,” but I think that’s kind of a different school, as far as being diverse. I don’t really think I’m that diverse, I think that there’s a thread or there’s a similar sort of color or something that I put in all these movies.
What I will do, though, is bring people in, like Explosions In The Sky for Friday Night Lights, or Kevin or Brittt or whoever–someone who I think could bring something to the project to help me expand on it. It’s like being in a band. I’m definitely not a solo guy; I always like to bring people in to collaborate with, like you would when you’re in a band.
What’s going on in this picture?
That’s recording Thirty Days Of Night, experimenting with a gong. I’m dropping water into the gong and using an underwater microphone to record it. The resonance of the gong was just this insane sound. It’s very, very disconcerting, like somebody squeezing your head. And the guy who you can hardly see there in the shot, that’s Husky Huskolds. He’s an Icelandic engineer who was Tchad Blake’s protégé. Like me, he’s a freak, so he comes over with these weird microphones; he brought over the underwater microphone.
One of the cool things about this studio is that there is a lot of stuff here that you won’t find in a rock recording studio. There’s a lot of film stuff, and film stuff tends to be a little more scientific. You deal with 5.1 or 7.1, you also deal with room simulators and room tones and mic’ pre’s that have no color, and just lots of really interesting pieces of equipment that might be used in classical music or in a science experiment, but not necessarily in a traditional recording studio.
What are your feelings about sampling sounds?
I don’t use any prerecorded samples. I create my own, and then I’ll draw from them if I need to. But I don’t use any drum loops, because that stuff sounds unnatural to me. I’m all about organics.
And how much more fun it is to create new instruments than dragging-and-clicking, right?
Well, you know, one thing about this process of mine is that it’s very expensive. I’ve had to miss out on several films because they couldn’t afford to do it my way. I get paid per project, but I’ll make less money because I choose to spend six months to three years on a movie. You never know if something is going to work, so it’s more expensive this way. You know right away on a computer, but for me it just never has the richness of creating something literally out of thin air.