Collaborations between filmmakers and composers are nothing new, but the appearance of a noted rock band on a soundtrack is usually a special event, an awkward cross-promotional backscratch or chance to show off a director’s eclectic record collection. What’s remarkable about the partnership between Britsh band Tindersticks and French filmmaker Claire Denis is its depth and length, with no less than 6 full film scores over more than a decade.
Tindersticks’ music, spacious and atmospheric, was a natural fit for Denis’ films, which favored place and impression over plot and exposition, and their scores are vital connective tissue for the films. Late last month, this body of work came out (much of it for the first time) as a box set on Constellation Records.
At Length spoke with founding Tindersticks member Stuart Staples about the origins of this rather unique partnership, how it has changed the band’s non-film work, and why you won’t see the band’s name in the credits of the Avatar sequel.
Listen below to a sample of what you’ll find on the box set, or visit the label’s website to download several tracks.
TINDERSTICKS – Claire Denis Film Scores BOX SET PREVIEW by Constellation Records
At Length: So I guess the first question I have is how did the band first get involved with Claire Denis?
Stuart Staples: Claire came to say hello after a show in Paris in 1995, I think, when she was just writing Nenette et Boni. Our second album had just been released and I think she felt a connection with the music, with a song called “My Sister,” and I think more or less she just wanted to see if we wanted to be involved in the film, and the conversation progressed into us making the whole score.
AL: So what was the creative process like for that first film?
SS: It was such a new experience for us, and looking back now, you know, it was about pressing buttons on VHS machines and starting to play. Its so different to the accessibility you get with playing music with images that you get with technology now. It was another era. So it was kind of making it up as we go along. [Laughs.] But I think at the center of it, it wasn’t so different from working on White Material, the last film, which was so much more sophisticated. It was still about finding a palette of sound and tying it to the images. I think because of Claire’s connection with “My Sister” and that she filmed the dance scene centerpiece to our song “Tiny Tears,” it kind of gave us a framework to start from, and it became very much about vibes, glockenspiels and brush drums and that kind of a light playfulness that runs through the film. Whereas with White Material the sound was quite dark and abstract, with harmonium and electric guitar feedback and things. So I think its just about letting the images get inside you and see what kind of emotional response you have to write you know.
AL: How involved was Claire in your work on the score? Did she provide direction throughout the process or did you just present a finished product to her and she ran with it?
SS: Well I think in working with Claire in general, she always provides us with the script and if the script’s in French she has it translated for us, and when she’s filming we always gets stills and dailies of what she’s doing and once she gets into the editing room we might get a three-minute montage or something, and then there’s a point when we get a very rough edit. And I think everything that goes before kind of leads up to that point where we are being faced with the images and the feeling of the images and the speed of the editing and things and that’s when – if something happens for us and we have something to present to her as an idea of the starting point, I think that’s when the conversation really begins to get to the end point, if you know what I mean.
SS: With White Material, until we were able to get inside of the rough edit, we were thinking, “well how are we going to do this? It’s a film that’s set in Africa.” But when we were actually confronted with the images, I think we gradually felt that the music was in the earth and the soil, and that has a kind of a pain of its own. And it was in the trees and it was almost enveloping the story. And through finding that point, I think is a way to then step forward and step into that space and feel comfortable exploring within that space.
AL: African music has begun to have a significant influence on popular music over the last decade or so. Did it occur to you guys to experiment with those sounds for that film?
SS: No, I don’t think it was ever an option, and I think it was the furthest thing from Claire’s mind as well. I think if she had wanted something like that in the film, I think she would have looked for something more authentic in that vein. It was never really under consideration.
AL: Did your working relationship with Claire change over the years? Did you get to the point where you were able to understand one another on a more automatic level, for example?
SS: I think from working through Nenette et Boni and Trouble Every Day and to a certain amount with Vendredi Soir and then making L’Intrus on my own, I think when we actually got to work on 35 Rhums and White Material, with Claire more or less making those films back-to-back, it was as though we had reached a kind of flowing space, with more understanding about what we both need, without actually talking about it and defining it. I think working on those two films, even though one was kind of easy and one was very difficult, there was a kind of flow in the work and the conversation and what we needed from each other. Whereas working on Nenette et Boni or Trouble Everyday or L’Intrus, it could be more convoluted and a little bit more frustrating for both of us.
SS: I think that that when we reached the last two films I really saw a kind of natural flow in the conversation.
AL: It isn’t unusual for a director to use one composer over and over again for their films, but I don’t know of any other examples of a director using a rock band in that way. As Tindersticks’ own history shows [founding member Dickon Hinchcliffe left the band several years ago], it’s hard enough to keep an entire band full of creative personalities together when they’re just playing their own music. Adding in the personality of a film director must create an entirely new strain.
SS: I think it is a strange thing. When we first started with Nenette et Boni, it never occurred to me that this relationship was going to carry on and grow, but I would say the same thing about the band. Looking at the band in 1995, if some researcher had asked us “where do you think you are going to be in fifteen years time?” I think my answer would have been that I’d have a proper job somewhere. [Laughs.]
SS: I think the work we’ve done with Claire has kind of punctuated our little journey as a band, and it’s forced us to look outside of ourselves and to discover different ways and to be challenged in a different way. I think that once we’ve done that, we turn back to our own work and we feel kind of changed and like we’ve grown in some way. Now, with the release of this box set and playing these shows, I don’t know if its dangerous but I find that I’ve had to consider all of these things I’ve never had to think about before.
AL: Right, right.
SS: I think it’s been a key factor in why we’re still here, and why we’re still working and why we’re still hungry to work, that along the way we’ve been presented with these that we didn’t necessarily know what we needed to do.
AL: So why are you releasing the box set now? Is your relationship with Claire changing or did this seem like a natural stopping point?
SS: We feel that some of our best material was in White Material, and we wanted to get that released. And I think that once we took that step, we kind of progressed and thought maybe we should release that together with 35 Rhums, and then we thought that L’Intrus was never released, so I think it just kind of grew from there. And then with Constellation getting involved, they had such an enthusiasm and belief in the idea that it just kind of grew into the notion of “lets just make this complete.” So maybe just for the fact that we have to talk about it, maybe changes everything you know. [Laughs.]
SS: With Claire, and us, maybe we’re in the situation where what we have had to talk about it, you know, and maybe that might change everything for the better or for the worse or whatever, but maybe that would be a good thing, in general.
AL: I had known of your work with Claire on Nenette et Boni and White Material, but I think I had lost track of just how many years and how many films you had done together. It’s interesting to me that you start doing something like this and then suddenly find that you’ve spent more than a decade doing it without really even being too aware of it yourselves.
SS: Every film has never been a given, that this is what’s going to happen. Claire wanted us to be involved with Nenette et Boni, but I think she asked us in a way of maybe using bits of “My Sister” within the film and it was our enthusiasm for scoring a whole film that made it happen. From the initial conversations about Trouble Every Day, which I think is a film about kissing and why lovers like to bite each other, Claire guided us in a specific direction. I think that we ended up with this kind of very romantic soundtrack set against this very extreme film that I think is quite special. With, say, Vendredi Soir, I think as a band we got so far into it and then it just collided with writing our album Waiting for the Moon, and I thought the album would be compromised if I got too far into it, so that was something that Dickon was able to finish on his own.
And so every film has had its own story. I don’t think Claire ever imagined us being involved in 35 Rhums, but when I saw the opening montage, I heard this music that David was working on a week before and when I put the two things together it was just kind of perfect, and it kind of said it has to be this way. So it’s never been a given. The next thing that Claire might do she might not imagine us being involved and I wouldn’t see that as a negative thing at all. All we can fundamentally try and do is to help her find this thing that she is reaching for. I think when we are working and other people get involved that’s the best feeling — to bring different ideas and to heighten the whole thing.
AL: I know that Dickon Hinchcliffe has gone on to compose for film full-time [including last year’s Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone], but do you ever consider either Tindersticks or you yourself working with other directors and doing other scores?
SS: Definitely if we were presented with an inspiring idea and you meet somebody and you click with them, then I can imagine it happening. I wouldn’t like to make a career out of it — I wouldn’t like to be looking out to the next year and thinking I have got three films to score.
SS: I think really it’s about balance. In fifteen years we’ve been involved in scoring five films, and that kind of feels that we’re balanced because we’re driven by what we need to make. It’s great to have time away from that and feels rewarding for our lifeblood, and our own ideas and our own desires and needs creatively. I don’t think that they would be able to be satisfied by working on other people’s movies all the time. And saying that, the thing drives us, drives me is very much about Claire. It’s working with somebody with a unique, uncompromising voice and that’s inspiring in itself.
SS: But even though she’s uncompromising, every actor she has worked with every editor and cinematographer will say the same thing, that she is a joy to work with because she gives you freedom to express yourself.
SS: She knows where she’s going and because she has a kind of surety, deep down, she has the confidence to let people be themselves.
AL: That’s not necessarily the normative way to work in the film industry. You can’t imagine somebody like James Cameron, with such a singular controlling impulse letting a band like the Tindersticks have that much freedom.
SS: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s a different world, and not a world that I remotely aspire to you know its, I have to make sure that kind of, I have to make sure that work on more kind of traditional things that are controllable.
AL: Were you a fan of Claire’s films before you guys got involved with her?
SS: No, but it was the first thing what we did after we got home from meeting her, which was to get ahold of Chocolat and watch that. You know, we were so young and I think we just felt that this has something and this means something to us, and having a deeper understanding of it. They were just small steps into this world, and that’s how we worked into it.
AL: Tindersticks released one of their own records a little over a year ago, and I know that you’ll be very busy supporting the box set for a while, but I was wondering if either the band or you, personally have anything else that we should be looking out for this year.
SS: We’ve got a string of shows planned through the summer, but we have so many young ideas that are half formed and this summer we have time to explore them. That is the most exciting time in a way, and so I’m looking forward to that, to the time of being together and taking ideas that have been growing gradually over the last year or so and just see what they are going to. So hopefully it will bear fruit and lead us on to some new, exciting things.