Only the most talented can describe ordinary human events through composition or see the bones of a song when it is insulated with layers. American composer Michael Andrews can do both.

Michael Andrews AKA Elgin Park is best known for his arrangements of ‘Mad World’, a cover of the 1982 Tears for Fears original, that was performed by singer Gary Jules with piano by Andrews, and which was featured in the American film, ‘Donnie Darko’. The evocative ballad was a number one single in the UK in 2003.

‘Mad World’ was written by Roland Orzabal, but the other compositions on the ‘Donnie Darko’ soundtrack were Andrew’s own and each one was drenched in imagery and emotion and the titles were poetic and dreamlike.

He didn’t set out to score film, but Andrews got his first taste when, while performing with the Greyboy Allstars, he was asked to work on ‘Zero Effect’, which was Jake Kasdan’s premiere. He also wrote film music for ‘Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story’, ‘Bridesmaids’, ‘Cyrus’ and has worked frequently with director Judd Apatow.

His first solo album, ‘Hands on String’, was created six years ago and now he has completed a new album, ‘Spilling a Rainbow’, which is all about growing up and savouring life’s fleeting milestones. With the exception of a tune by Roy Harper, Andrews has composed original works that incorporate minimalist sound bytes, celestial harmonies and provocative themes.

Andrews, who lives in California, talked to Pennyblackmusic about juggling art and family, the process of film scoring and finding happiness.

PB: I noticed that you had worked on the films ‘Nothing’ and ‘Donnie Darko’ about the same time. They both became cult films. Were you surprised at the outcome?

MA: Well (Laughs), ‘Nothing’ has a very small cult. Director Vincenzo Natali is really a sweet guy. I know when the films came out it seemed like they were happening at the same time, but ‘Darko’ was maybe a year before ‘Nothing’, and actually I worked on a film before ‘Nothing’ which Vincenzo called ‘Cypher’ in 2002 and that was closer, actually in time, to Darko.

‘Darko’ has been continually surprising over and over and over and over again in many, many ways. When I was working on it I thought this is probably going to do pretty well, but it went through all kinds of permutations after we finished it, taking it to Sundance and all of that. We thought it was going to sell and it ended up not selling as it came out in September 2001 and at the time of 9/11, and it was a movie about a plane crash. There was sort of a weird confluence of events that led to its demise.

And then it came out in England and did fairly well, and shortly after that ‘Mad World’ became a single and a hit over there, which was obviously a surprise, so that song and the movie has had so many different lives. It’s been really great. That was my first film that I actually did on my own, so it’s been an interesting ride.

PB: Some of the other songs on the soundtrack like‘Manipulated Living’ and ‘Slipping Away’ had very interesting textures, but ‘Cellar Door’ and ‘Liquid Spear Waltz’ were especially piano-driven. What is your preferred instrument when you are offered a script?

MA: So many of these movies that I work on – they’re collaborations. So, ultimately, it’s not really my movie. It’s the director’s movie. I’m there to facilitate…

PB: Their dreams?

MA: Yeah, their dreams. When I met with Richard Kelly who directed ‘Donnie Darko’, he told me he didn’t want any guitar on the score, so I said, “Okay. I’ll just do a keyboard score,” but I’m not really a keyboard player.

I’d never sit down at your house party and play tunes on the piano. I’m really a guitar player, but I’ve been playing since I was very young and I’ve been involved in music my whole life.

So I said, “I’ll do a piano score.” At the time my facility on the piano was very limited. Keyboard – I feel comfortable writing on it, but it’s not necessarily my instrument, but I enjoy a challenge.

In many ways these film directors continue to redefine me as a musician with each project that I become involved in.

PB: My first exposure to ‘Mad World’ was your version, so when I heard the original by Tears for Fears I wondered how you came up with your version, which was so different. I couldn’t decipher the lyrics from the original, but yours showcased them.

MA: I’m a fan of the older composers of the 1960s and 1970s and even earlier. They did all of the music in the film, all of the scores, then maybe they’d collaborate with the songwriters or they’d write songs for the movie. The whole palette of the movie had a similar feel. So the idea was to take the palette of the score and superimpose a song on top of it.

‘Mad World’ is really one of those Darko score cues with a vocal on it. There’s a cue in the movie where he comes back to see that the plane is crashed and that the motor has fallen into his house. He wakes up on the golf course. and then he walks home and sees that there has been an accident in his house.

‘Mad World’ is really, very simply, a vocal over that idea of a cue. It was basically trying to sing that melody over the score and incorporate all the textures and things like that just to sort of wrap it up.

It is funny, but that song was originally recorded for the end title of the movie because they wanted to use a U2 song over the montage, but they couldn’t afford it so they slid that over the montage and it became sort of a centrepiece of that movie. Again it was a very surprising turn of events.

PB: Some people think of ‘Mad World’ as scary, because they associate it with the movie. Does that disturb you as a writer?

MA: No, not really. I think anytime you are fortunate enough to have people have an awareness of your work is a good thing (Laughs), so I don’t really complain. Gary Jules and I did that song so quickly - I’d been working on the score for months and I came up with the idea to do it, and basically the next day we did it in a little over an hour or something like that. Anything that happens with any kind of interpretation from the public is, for me, just an afterthought really.

PB: My twelve-year-old came home from her guitar lesson with ‘Mad World’.

MA: Yeah, it’s weird. It’s like a musical cockroach. It keeps coming back.

PB: Miranda July’s ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’ from 2005 is such a cool, but quirky film. I know you used unusual sound effects for that one.

MA: The idea for that one was to use pedestrian instruments, like keyboards you can buy at Radio Shack; unemotional instruments.

PB: Why?

MA: The idea was to write emotional music on unemotional instruments; very sort of pedestrian and naïve. That was sort of like a musical line art. It was very minimalist, sort of like, how little can you get away with and still be emotionally effective.

PB: Your piano playing reminds me of Chopin because some of his piano melodies, and yours, are very simple, but beautiful and melodic. Sometimes I think there’s an advantage too to composing on an instrument that you did not study formally, or that working on an alternate instrument brings out more basic feelings.

MA: Again my facility on the instrument is fairly limited, so it’s all the idea and I never studied piano.

PB: That’s sometimes a blessing.

MA: It’s turned out to be okay. At the end of the day, it’s just what’s the tune? I’m just trying to perform it without playing any huge mistakes (Laughs). Really, I’m not incredibly limber on the piano.

PB: Let’s talk about your more recent film projects.

MA: ‘Jeff Who Lives at Home’ and ‘Five Year Engagement’ are my two recent films that have been in theatres, but I’ve done a film since then that’s actually mixing right now with Mira Nair.

PB: Does comedy influence your writing?

MA: Not really. My approach to comedies is to find the heart and stay there. Unless a scene needs energy or something like that, then I can just have fun, remind the viewer that this is a fun movie and then I get to play some funky stuff. But I’ve been playing soul and boogaloo since performing with my group, the Greyboy Allstars, so it’s been like twenty years now.

PB: Getting back to ‘Nothing’, the tag line is: “If we sit around doing “nothing”, we’ll die.” What is it like for the writer dealing with that kind of jargon? Does it leave you with a huge palette to fill?

MA: Vincenzo is such an interesting guy. That movie was an incredible micro-budget movie, and I did that score in ten days. That was a very quick score. I just enjoyed working on that particular film so much. Andrew (Miller) is so great in it, and just the idea of wishing everything away and then suddenly realizing, “Oh God, what happened”, really happened

That movie is awesome because, first of all, very few people, I think, have seen it, but it’s very intellectual and it has a great heart and it’s funny. Just as far as dealing with concept, I did that movie so quickly. I was primarily just dealing with the physical logistics of the film and the cut and the feelings.

PB: When you work with a director several times, do you develop your own language?

MA: Sometimes. I think Jake Kasdan and I have a fairly close relationship, and we don’t need to do a lot of talking about it now. I’m always trying to sort of flip my own script, so I don’t really like doing the same things over and over again. I think sometimes being too comfortable in a style is not a good thing, so I’m constantly trying to reinvigorate the dialogue with the director even if I’ve worked with him over and over again.

I did sort of a ‘Pet Sounds’ instrumental thing for ‘Orange County’, which you’d never know unless you’ve heard the score outside of the movie. It’s boring to do the same thing over and over again. That’s why I enjoy scoring music, and that’s why I’m not making my own records all the time because I feel like musical artists in the traditional sense – songwriter type people – they seem to do the same thing over and over again. It’s boring.
And if they don’t then people think, oh, a person doesn’t seem to know who they are.

It’s weird. When you think about Joni Mitchell, she makes these cool, folk records but if she tries to expand her palette then everybody hates her.

It was the same with Neil Young and David Bowie as well. People want to hear the same thing over and over again from an artist. It’s a branding and I’m not into branding.

PB: You mentioned ‘Pet Sounds’ and I noticed on your new album, ‘Spilling a Rainbow,” that on ‘Dentist’ you also have some gorgeous harmonies.

MA: Because my film work has been a consistent flow, really since ‘Darko’, I haven’t had the time to make records. and so if I’m going to make a record it really has to be something that flows out of me. I don’t have time to labour on it.

The concept of the album is really very simple. It is to enjoy making music. Sometimes scoring is work. It’s wonderful, but it’s work and I have a lot of people asking me to redo things and I’m tailoring it always to other peoples’ things – which is good – it’s like being in a band where there’s a major collaborator in the room, even if they’re not in the room, and the dialogue is obviously like the lead singer and you have to get out of the way - and so this record is really a celebration of where I’m at in my life, right now, with my wife and my child. and experiencing a sort of wonderment of his discoveries and how they sort of work their way into my life and illuminate certain things that I’ve always thought about or never thought about.

It’s a full circle album. It’s kind of about what it’s like to be an adult. I know that really doesn’t sell very well, but it’s really about me being a dad and about my parents being old and trying to figure out where those relationships are, and how can you be creatively free and also responsible and happy. These are basic challenges, but strictly musically to just have fun with it and not worry about what it is, not worry about who is going to hear it and who’s going to care about it. It’s basically like a fun zone for me.

PB: How old is your son?

MA: He’s three years old now.

PB: You’re in the thick of it. ‘Music for Cell Division.’ Was that written in his honour?

MA: It’s an instrumental. I scored my son’s ultrasound. That’s a very abstract piece, probably more reminiscent of my score work than anything else. It’s actually a very long, ambient track.

PB: It’s interesting that you would think of that phenomenon as musical.

MA: Well, it is if you see the little guy floating around in the womb. It’s like crazy and now the technology is so crazy. It’s like a 3D thing. You can see him spinning around and it’s really amazing. We’re thinking, what’s he going to look like when he comes out and he looks just like he did in the ultrasound.

PB: ‘Waiting for You to Wake’ and ‘Breathing His Last’ – how are they related to fatherhood or childhood?

MA: ‘Waiting for You to Wake’ is about waiting for him to wake up and hang out with him and sleep deprivation, and all of these things that come along with fatherhood that turn up the volume on your senses. I wrote that song as quickly as I thought of it. It took me ten minutes or something. That was just a quick jot down of expression, sitting there with my guitar, watching him on the monitor, waiting for him to wake up and hang out.

‘Breathing His Last’ is just the same kind of a thing. In the morning, waiting for him to wake up, a bird crashed into my window and died, and I was just thinking about when you don’t expect what’s going to happen. You don’t really know how close you are to your fatality. I was just having fun with that idea.

PB: ‘Forever’ was more like a jam.

MA: ‘Forever’ is actually a cover of a Roy Harper song that my friend asked me to perform at his wedding. After I sang it, I recorded it for them to have. It was a little piece of memorabilia for their wedding.

He’s actually a great friend, and he turned me on to the song that I did on my last record, ‘Just a Thought’ (which is originally by Cross Country, an American trio formed in 1973-LT). It was covered in the 1970s a couple of times and I showed him some stuff from my first record, the track ‘Observer’ and he’s a fan of similar stuff so he gave me the song.

PB: ‘My Warming World’ really modulates. Is that significant?

MA: Do you mean in a literal or metaphorical way?

PB: Either.

MA: That’s just like a pretty, pure love song. I wasn’t in an incredibly happy state when I did my last record. That was a song that welcomed my wife into my life, and how she sort of turned up the heat on my life for her.

PB: So on that first album you were dealing with some very solitary issues?

MA: Absolutely. I was just being ready to be happy, I think that it takes a second, especially as an artist to find a place where you’re creating something from a place of happiness, rather than sadness. This record was an awakening of that side of my songwriting. It is more of a celebration in an introspective way, but still a celebration of happiness.

PB: That’s a great reason to do a recording, isn’t it?

MA: (Laughs) Yeah, but you’d be surprised. So many people spend their time on their songs being sad and I think it’s valid, it’s totally valid, but, for me, it was a challenge to say, how can I capture happiness in a way that isn’t trite and challenges me and makes me feel good about my writing and my lyrics?

PB: You sound like you’re enjoying being a father.

MA: It’s a challenge. It’s funny. It’s really hard. As much as I celebrate it, it is. We had our kid and after spending so much a part of my life, in fact, decades, thinking about myself and my own pursuits and what not. You have a kid and – oh, yeah, this is the other part of life. It’s very universal, but as you’re going through it it feels unique and it has a profound effect and will. It’s a real shifting of priorities.

PB: So what do you see happening for yourself artistically after this point?

MA: More of the same. I’ll continue to work on movies and continue to make records, and collaborate with people I care about and think are good (Laughs). Pretty simple stuff. I’ve got a couple of movies in the works, and I just try to stay productive and aware and open to changing and collaborations. You know, good times.

PB: Thank you.

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