Interview with Bobby Johnston

By • March 9, 2016

Los Angeles has usually been portrayed in decidedly unappetizing fashion by Hollywood, conveying a city full of kill-hungry zombies (“The Omega Man”), morally bankrupt magnates (“Chinatown”) gang bangers (“Colors”) and corrupt cops (“L.A. Confidential”) – a fictional situation disdainfully summed up by the epic movie documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” However, it’s a documentary that now reverses courses for those fed up with LA’s fictionalized bad taste. For “City of Gold” resets the table in far more optimistic, and melodically fun fashion as it follows Pulitzer-prize winning food writer Jonathan Gold, a self-described “failed cellist” who’s reviews have gone on to inspire cult-like devotion (I count myself as a particular zealot). As opposed to thugs and bad cops on every blighted corner, “Gold” paints a delightful melting pot, beautifully described by Gold as he extolls how cross-cultural food can truly make us all get along.

“City of Gold’s” voice of similar, rhythmic distinction belongs to Bobby Johnston, a true one of a kind in the LA-based alt. scoring arena. Where much of this school of indie quirk can come from strumming a guitar and beating on some African drums to connote eccentric characters, Johnston’s truly offbeat sound goes the extra mile into its own universe of the hip. His scoring career was born in the documentary realm when Johnston created a carnival of twangy, tinkertoy sounds for the Fellini-esque world of background “actors” for 2001’s “Extra: In the Background of a Dream.” Though still unreleased, Johnston’s music made its way to the idiosyncratic NPR show “This American Life” to become part of its crazy-quilt music library. Since then, Johnston has played a host of loveable (and not-so loveable) losers, from a squeezebox afterlife populated by “Wristcutters” to the shuffling percussion of “Spooner,” Mexican rhythms for Larry Clarke’s sexed-up teen wasteoids in “Marfa Girl” and the drunken vocalese of “Crazy Eye’s” match made in hell. Johnson’s talent for tuneful bizarreness has also made him ideal for offbeat horror films, including the playful piano guignol of “Dead Doll” and the rusty saw rhythm of “Mother’s Day.” In particular, Johnson has become an unhinged macabre voice for the legendarily sanguine Stuart Gordon (“Re-Animator”) for “King of the Ants’” march of madness, the sultry jazz of David Mamet’s murderer foretold “Edmond” and the agonized wait of a windshield-embedded homeless man in “Stuck.”

There’s a wonderful sense of discovery to Johnston’s work, all the better to musically introduce us to Jonathan’s favorite food haunts in “City of Gold.” Once again scoring for director Laura Gabbert, “Gold”’s conspicuous consumption provides an ironic counterpoint to their collaboration on the eco-friendly subject of “No Impact Man,” while bonding both scores with the gospel of an intelligent individualist. And if “City” makes you hungry for Gold’s next revelation in non-snooty eating, then Johnston’s score will do much to make you savor the next, offbeat entree from a composer whose originality makes the world beat his musical oyster.


You’ve built your indie career on an uncommonly unique stripped down, and often ethnic vibe. Were you always attracted to offbeat music, and what made you take it down a filmscoring path?

I’m not sure I’m especially attracted to “offbeat” music. I don’t really listen to much music by other people these days, unless I’m researching for a score. Of course, I hear music in the world around me all the time and take it in, but I rarely put music on at home. I think my sound as a composer is more a result of who I am as a musician rather than being reflective of my taste in music. The decision to only use acoustic instruments likely added to that as well. As far as taking it down a filmscoring path, the music I wrote before working in film seemed to have an innate cinematic quality to it and composing for film was always in the back of my mind. So, I decided to go for it and things fell into place for me.


Though the film has yet to be released, your music for the documentary “Extras” essentially put you on the map when it got a record release, whose tunes were subsequently picked up by “This American Life.” How do you think that soundtrack captured the radio show’s quirky spirit as well?

Funny thing is, “This American Life” started using that score back in 2002 or 2003, after I got to know TAL producer Starlee Kine through a mutual friend and gave her the music. It was a great surprise when it began showing up on the show. They’re so good at editing music into the stories and to hear my pieces in a new context is always fun. I’m not sure why the show and my music have been such a good match over the years, but I’m happy about it. I was actually discussing it the other day with a current producer there. He mentioned that they like certain cues because they add some tension, drama or lightness without tipping their hat too far. I guess my stuff fits the bill for that. The CD/LP release for this score happened some years later in 2007, and Ira Glass was nice enough to write a liner note segment about why they use my music on the show. I’m sure he said it better than I just did!

Was it a challenge to go into far bloodier, and just only slightly more conventional musical territory with Stuart Gordon for “King of the Ants” and “Edmond?”

Both of those scores were challenging, but also really fun for me. Stuart has such an adventurous spirit when it comes to music in his films and “King of the Ants” was the first score where I had the ability to record with unlimited, high quality tracks. I had just updated my studio and I remember holing up in there for days on end, going nuts with experimenting and the freedom of non-destructive editing. Stuart was extremely encouraging and essentially taught me how to score bludgeoning, axe-attacks, and immolations during the process for that score. I remember for one scene he told me “Bring in the music as he picks up the axe, Have the crescendo as he draws the axe back – and drop the music out for the chop!” – still good advice to this day. I think “King of the Ants” was my third film and the first chance I’d had to do something dark. I played every instrument on that score and thirteen years down the line, I’m still proud of the result. “Edmond” was a different beast, because it was more of a drama/noir. It was also one of the first times I’d brought in a soloist (Asdru Sierra on the trumpet) and that made it very exciting for me. I remember trying to have the score feel like a sort of live noir, jazz ensemble, accented with very minimal orchestration. Stuart and I talked about classic, jazz film scores like Bernard Herrmann’s “Taxi Driver” and Miles Davis’ “Elevator to the Gallows”. We knew we wanted to use trumpet from the very beginning of the process.

A particular eccentric breakthrough for you was with Goran Dukic’s “Wristcutters,” which has become a bit of a cult film. Could you talk about the experience of working on it?

“Wristcutters: A Love Story” was another case of working with a musically adventurous director, who also put a lot of trust in me and gave me a lot of freedom. Goran has great taste in music and knows what he likes and doesn’t like. He spoke of having the instrumentation reflect the visual world of the film, which portrays a sort of purgatory afterlife for people who have committed suicide. Goran wanted to stay away from recognizable percussion choices and he wanted the music to sound like it was played on broken down, discarded instruments that nobody would want anymore. This was another score where I played everything and I became compelled with the idea of writing simple, beautiful music and performing it on flawed, imperfect instruments – which struck me as being much like people. Goran is a great collaborator and I remember we had a breakthrough with the “Miracles” theme over Christmas weekend, 2005. He and one of the film’s producers/actresses Mikal Lazarev came over on Friday, the 23rd of December. We must have pulled out every crazy instrument in the studio, looking for things that caught their ears and brought the right elements to the scene. I recorded the “Miracles” theme the following day, on Christmas Eve. We were all in a rush because the film had gotten into Sundance and we had to mix by the end of the year. It was a very exciting time. The festival was great because the whole crew made the trip up there with lots of friends and we got to see the reactions of the people who saw the film – which for me is a great part of this job.

What was it like to hear your music on the soundtrack for Disney’s “The Lone Ranger?”

It was really fantastic! To have my music be even a small part of such a large-scale production was surreal. I’ll admit I went to see it at a few different theaters. The cool part is that the scene with my music happened to be one of the quieter scenes in a film full of train chases, galloping horses, dynamite and gun fights. So, my music was front and center for a little stretch, which was fun.

You got to work with “Kids’” Larry Clark on “Marfa Girl.” What was the experience like, given that this movie was as provocative as ever in portraying dead-end teens?

When I started work on “Marfa Girl”, I had just come off of a couple of horror/action scores with 80-90 minutes of music each, which in itself was a new scale for me. Then I got to “Marfa Girl”, which was so sparse and particular in the use of music. For this score I essentially went back to playing everything myself, with the exception of the tres, which was played by Raul Pacheco. The film had some themes that are familiar to Larry’s work, but was set in rural Texas, which inspired us to go with a dark, western sound augmented with folk and Latin elements. Larry was great to work with because he had clear, direct notes and a relaxed demeanor. Since “Marfa Girl” is a Larry Clark film, there are scenes that push your buttons and some that are very graphic, but the key for me, as a composer, is to take stock in my emotions and reactions to a film before letting it inform the music (something instilled in me from scoring several horror films). As far as score goes, less really was more with this film.

If there’s someone who writes like you compose, then it’s Charlie Kaufman. What was the experience of working on a TV pilot with him for “How and Why?” like?

I take that as a huge compliment, as I admire Charlie’s writing so much. “How and Why” was an exciting and challenging project to work on, and it had a great ensemble cast. The plot and story were very unique, especially for TV. It incorporated twists on time and space on the idea of a show-within-a-show, and eventually led into some supernatural elements. It was deeply dramatic, but also so funny in a subtle way, that to this day I often return to it’s humor in my head. Working with Charlie was kind of like you would expect. He’s brilliant, dedicated, funny, and has a strong vision for the music. The best part was that besides working on the score, we also wrote a couple of songs together for the show; him writing lyrics and me writing music. Unfortunately, the pilot wasn’t picked up for series and the world missed out on something really special from Charlie.

You first teamed with “City of Gold” director Laura Gabbert for the documentary “No Impact Man.” Was this collaboration any different, given that it’s about the idea of consumption and good living, as opposed stripping down one’s lifestyle?

I would say those two distinctions could describe the differences in the scores as well as the films. For “No Impact Man”, I performed all the instruments and the score was centered on a foundation of guitar and a bit of piano, as well as some mallet pieces. The pieces were arranged with very minimal orchestrations – just enough to keep them afloat. For “City of Gold” we wanted the score to be much more broad in scope, execution and in the fusion of music genres. Also, there were a number of featured soloists on the score. Another distinction is that “City of Gold” had great energy and range in the selection of licensed songs Laura used in the film, which worked in tandem with the original score. I don’t believe there were any licensed songs in “No Impact Man”. As far as collaboration with Laura, the process was similar in that both films had gotten into Sundance while we were still working on the scores, so they had the same sense of crunch-time against a tight schedule. From a logistical standpoint, a big difference between the two was that Laura was the sole director of “City of Gold” and for “No Impact Man” she worked with a co-director, Justin Schein. The tricky part was that during port-production Justin was in NYC while Laura and I were in LA.

Given that food is far more about the senses of taste, smell and sight, how difficult was it for you to translate the appreciation of cuisine into sound?

I didn’t concentrate on the sensory aspect of the music as much as the poetry of Jonathan’s literary descriptions and the force of his curiousity. We strove to emphasize the humanity in the stories of the people creating the food, and how cuisine adds to the narrative about the true nature of Los Angeles and what it means to be an Angeleno. One thing Laura and I focused on from the beginning, was not having the music be too culturally-literal, as on a cooking or travel show, or overly genre-specific to any of the individual stories.


Were you aware of Jonathan Gold’s food writing before scoring this film? And how important was eating out to you in general?

Yes, I was certainly aware of Jonathan’s writing and his influence on people’s perception of food and culture out here. Like a lot of people, I followed his recommendations and waited for his yearly “99 essential restaurants” list in the LA Weekly. I really enjoy eating out and all types of cuisine, but I don’t get out as much as I’d like to. The last couple weeks have been fun because I’ve had family in town, which gave me an excuse to visit some favorites. Those situations make me realize how many truly unique choices we have out here.

One of the biggest surprises in “City of Gold” is finding out that Gold was a “fail cellist” and a punk rocker that became a music critic before transitioning to food. How did his musical background play a part in your score, especially with its neo-classical use of strings?

His background as a music critic and punk rocker was mostly reflected by some of the needle-drop songs in the film, including rap artists he covered for Rolling Stone and favorites he had written about from other genres. His background as a cellist is the part that had the most influence on the score, in the use of strings – as you noted. The score represents the first time I worked with orchestrator William (Billy) Malpede, who is brilliant at arranging for strings. Billy has really helped to stretch my sound and allowed me to visualize things in a bigger way. We’ve been working together on other projects since this score.

The movie often cuts to scenes of people playing music on the streets. How did those shots, and the movie’s source tunes, influence your score?

I’m not sure how much they influenced the score, but Laura responded early on to that live sound, where you can hear hands on drums and fingers on strings etc… in that way, the source tunes seem to be in accord with my music. Music on the streets is a big part of the everyday soundscape of Los Angeles, so those scenes were an important part of the film’s overall soundtrack as well.

Do you think your quirky rhythm was a good fit for capturing the unconventional quality of Gold’s writing, and enthusiasm?

I hadn’t thought about it like that, but I sure hope it was! One of the interesting aspects of scoring this film was working on the scenes where Jonathan (or other people) is reading his reviews, which are much like poetry. Finding the right rhythms to support the meter and tempo of his writing was very important to me. I do feel there is a similarity in both mine and Jonathan’s “analog” approach to creation, as well as in an enthusiasm for new discovery.

How did you hit on your instrumental ensemble here to capture LA’s cultural melting pot of Los Angeles?

I figured to best way to capture the sound of Los Angeles was to have as many LA musicians as possible play on the score, including: John Krovoza (cello), Raul Pacheco (tres and guitar), Lucine Fyelon (violin), Dan Clucas (trumpet), Brian Walsh (sax/reeds), Jim Lang (piano), Joe Berardi (drums), Billy Malpede (keyboards). Also, being a musician in Los Angeles for 25 years, I’ve been influenced by great music from so many different cultures, so it was fun to be able to draw on some of that for the score.


Could you talk about the Latin jazz aspect of the score?

The Latin jazz aspect of the score is one influence that came out of the writing process. Often times composing for film is reductive process – where you are trying to narrow things down musically, to get to the essence of a story or character. This is especially true when using leitmotif, which I find isn’t employed as much in documentaries. For “City of Gold”, the composing process was less reductive and more about embracing everything and trying to blend musical influences from a variety of genres and cultures – to me, it seemed very similar to what many of the restaurateurs in the film are doing with food.


Percussion, as always, stands out in “City of Gold.” Could you talk about creating its rhythms?

I’m always looking for new rhythmic sounds and techniques and there were some new processes I went through on this score. For the cue “Mole”, I started with a two-minute stretch of multiple Tres Cubano tracks, which Raul Pacheco had played staggered from each other – creating a sort of live-delay effect. I then took those tracks and played the recordings in reverse, which reversed the attack and decay of the notes and turned it into a totally different and more rhythmic loop. I contrasted that with two alternating talking drum notes and had my starting point for the theme.

Another cool rhythm came from me and my daughter messing around with a 6-foot cardboard tube that’s about four inches in diameter. She talked into one end and I noticed how the length of the tube modulated her voice and gave it a sort of electronic effect. I took it over to the studio and set up a microphone at one end. I recorded multiple tracks of vocalizations, mouth sounds, jaw harp etc., which ended up as the rhythmic loop that starts and plays underneath “Guerilla Tacos”. The drum on that piece sounds similar to a doumbek, but it’s actually an instrument I made from four tall aluminum cans that imported Grapa bottles came in. I was in a situation where I had access to dozens of them (that sounds like more fun than it was) and was able to pick out four that had compatible tonal qualities – they are about 14 inches high and 3 ½ inches wide and have an interesting, varied tone.

Much of the “City of Gold” score seems improvised. Was that the case?

There are certainly a lot of great soloists on the score, which was part of trying to reflect the live, vibrant sense of the city. I have a process with the musicians I work with where the sessions start by getting down all the parts I’ve written and need for the piece. Then I like to do a couple takes of them soloing and riffing on those melodies and motifs. “City of Gold” gave me more of an opportunity to use the soloing tracks than I would usually get on a score.

Was it important to have an overall joyful sense of emotion to the score of “City of Gold,” especially when it came to capturing Jonathan’s sense of humor, as well as a “niceness” that’s uncommon for often acerbic restaurant critics?

I think in some ways; an overall joyful sense was important for the celebratory aspect of the film – what Jonathan calls “The glorious mosaic of the city”, and also, as you noted, for Jonathan’s humor. But, at the same time, there is drama to be found in the personal stories of the restaurateurs and their families, as well as some tensely comedic moments when looking at the anxiety involved in a restaurant being visited and ultimately reviewed by a critic. Jonathan definitely has an uncommon niceness for a critic, but it doesn’t diminish from the weight of his opinion or the influence of his voice. I think it gives viewers the sense that his perspective is one of passion and curiosity, rather than power or ego.

Do you think that the nature of documentaries allows for greater freedom from a composer with your style?

I’m not sure if that is the case or if my music just lends itself to the form well. But, for me, having music that sits in the mix without trouncing on dialogue or over emphasizing a message is very important. With narrative, fiction, you are often asked to kind of do the opposite, where you are adding emotion and helping to tell the story. In documentary, I think it can be important not to over-editorialize with the music.


Conversely, for all of the score’s eccentric, fairly short bursts of energy, you’ve got a long, tender cue called “Love Letter” which gets across the theme. What was the challenge of this piece, and how did you want to adapt the score for an album listening experience?

The “Love Letter” cue plays under beautiful imagery of the city while Jonathan recites a poem he wrote about the LA Riots of 1992. So, one challenge was to find the right musical tone to support the scene. Another was that Laura and I wanted to score the scene as one entire piece that would change with the ebb and flow of the poem and culminate with the end of the film. As far as adapting the score for an album listening experience, there were great opportunities to extend some of the pieces because we had recorded lot of cool parts with great musicians. Also, this score seemed to have an overall energy that allowed a number of the cues to stand nicely on their own, even apart from the film.

What was the experience like of hanging out with Jonathan Gold?

Funny thing is that our kids have been at the same school for years, so I’d spoken with him on occasion before I worked on the film, but not usually about food. He is a big fan of music and basketball and id very easy to talk to. One great experience was when the whole crew was at Sundance with Jonathan. A few of his favorite LA food spots came up to Park City to support the film: Guerilla Tacos served delicious tacos after the film’s premiere and Porridge and Puffs catered the “City of Gold” party. One day for lunch, we joined Jonathan at a temporary pop-up of LA restaurant Animal. It was incredible because Jonathan had picked out a variety of his favorite dishes from the menu… so delicious.

How do you think your approach makes you stand out amidst the indie filmscoring scene?

Maybe because my approach is rooted in whom I am as a musician and an individual, but also because it is a bit unconventional, with the emphasis on acoustic instruments. Both of these things lead me to solve problems and find solutions in ways that are perhaps a bit unique. As a film composer, you are often asked to be a chameleon, but I think it’s important to build your voice out of something true to yourself – in the end, the job is about honest emotional projection through music.

What’s up ahead for you?

I am currently scoring a documentary about the sculptor/installation artist Do Ho Suh, and I’m scoring music for a theme park, which is a new experience for me. Also, for the past six months I have been dabbling in screenwriting, which has been really fun. I’ve completed a ½ hour TV pilot, a one-hour pilot and I’m working on feature length script with “Wristcutters’” Goran Dukic.

If you’re music ends up helping to make people hungry after watching “City of Gold,” do you think you’ll have captured that elusive sensory link between sound and food? And how do you think the experience of scoring the film has opened your own eyes to LA’s food scene, let alone the city itself?

I know working on the music for this film made me hungry! I don’t even want to count the number of times I bolted down to the taco truck by my studio during the course of this project. I imagine, with all the amazing looking food in the film, some sense of hunger must have permeated into the music. When I listen to the score, I definitely still have those images in my head. Working on this film has also given me a new list of restaurants I’m dying to try!

“City of Gold” opens on March 11th, with Bobby Johnston’s soundtrack digitally available on Lakeshore Records

Click on the titles to buy Bobby Johnston’s scores for “Extra,” “King of the Ants,” “Edmond,” “Wristcutters” and “No Impact Man.”

Visit Bobby Johnston’s website HERE

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