“I think my life has been shaped dramatically by my work.”
It Follows, one of the most highly acclaimed horror films of the past several years, is known for Disasterpeace’s propulsive, synthesizer-driven score as much as its beautifully shot, understated visuals. Both the film and soundtrack have garnered renewed attention lately because of the film’s summer video release.
Some have gone on to say that the music makes the film, but the film’s composer, also known as Rich Vreeland, is quick to reject that theory.
“I think it’s unfair,” Vreeland said. “…the film was designed to take on a very forward soundtrack.”
Vreeland and I met up recently at Fanelli’s, the outpost of a bygone era on Prince and Mercer that stands in stark contrast to the posh retail excess that surrounds it. It’s one of my favorite bars in town, not the least because it has withstood more than 100 years of change in SoHo, New York.
As It Follows — released in spring in theatres — has made its resurgence this summer on video, on-demand, and streaming, I thought it would be excellent to meet the man who has made that film’s haunting score and the music of so many expressive electronic soundtracks for video games such as Fez. (Listen to one of the It Follows cuts below.)
It was one of the more inspiring and enlightening interviews I’ve had in a while. We started out talking about the newsiest pieces — It Follows and the upcoming video game projects of which he’s a part — and ended up touching on the ideas of minimalism, impermanence, and the importance of honest, intentional living.
Three Weeks to Finish
It Follows writer and director David Robert Mitchell first caught wind of Vreeland’s work on Fez — and even used some of that music, along with the likes of John Cage and others, as a temporary score for the film. Early on in the process, he sent Vreeland a copy of the script.
“On paper it really struck me as an odd film,” Vreeland said. “It felt anticlimactic to me.”
He wasn’t sold on being a part of the project until he watched Mitchell’s first film, the coming-of-age drama The Myth of the American Sleepover.
“I got a sense for how he treated his characters,” Vreeland said.
The treatment in It Follows would likely be similar: naturalistic and very believable.
“It’s very intriguing to me, that idea,” he said. “To take naturalistic treatment of the characters and inject horror into them… To basically do a character film. That’s unlike a lot of horror films, as far as I know.”
That last clause, “as far as I know,” is a telling one, for Vreeland has seen almost no horror films in his 29 years. That’s not crazy for the average person to have avoided the likes of the genre — I can’t say I’m a big fan of horror — but for someone who has so perfectly captured the nuances of emotion in the genre in a way that maybe only John Carpenter could is pretty astounding.
“The number of horror films I’ve seen I can count on one hand,” Vreeland said.
Although Vreeland got involved in the film project fairly early, he only had three weeks to finish his entire score. Yes, you read that right. It Follows was accepted for a Cannes premiere in May 2014, which cut the film’s production time.
“I started messing around on my piano with some ideas, [but] nothing really messed with at that point made it into the film,” he said. “It was an early, exploratory process. I didn’t really start writing in earnest until I got a cut of the film.”
The serenely horrifying opening scene was the first one he scored.
“It set the bar for intensity pretty high,” he said. “The ending had to be crazy to match up to that. I think it’s even crazier in some ways.”
Vreeland credited Mitchell and his crew for giving him an assist with respect to framing the desired soundtrack mood.
“They put together a really good temp score for the film,” he said. “I was totally on board with the tone… Given that we only had three weeks, it was really useful to have that as a reference point.”
However, it wasn’t an “A/B” situation, in which Vreeland would take the temp score made up of the likes of Cage, Carpenter, Polish composer Krzysztof Eugeniusz Penderecki and Vreeland’s own Fez soundtrack and write exactly to that reference. Although components of his own work did survive the trip, he ended up creating a lot of great parts “on the fly,” he said.
It was about “boiling down the essence of the temp score into adjectives… an adjective for each scene,” he said.
The result is a range of beautiful and intricate melodies to harsh, abrasive soundscapes to synthesizer arpeggios that collude with electronic drums to come awash and fade away. They travel the expanse of the complex emotions of what is likely the least traditional horror film in years.
The film saw a wide release about a year after Cannes and this past summer it made its way to various forms of home consumption.
How He Does It
Before It Follows, his first big feature score, Vreeland was known primarily for his video game soundtracks and for trafficking in chiptune and its variations. Fez from 2012 is, of course, the most popular, and largely eschews the chiptune classification, but there are more than a dozen other games, such as Shoot Many Robots and Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake.
He approaches each project differently, all under the Disasterpeace pseudonym, so each body of art adds some more nuance to the identity of that moniker.
Vreeland described his approach toward making the non-It Follows music as “systems-oriented,” and how over the years he’s developed some software programming ability so that a video-game player’s relationship with a game and the music are interactive.
“I definitely have an academic streak, as far as exploring different ways to generate music,” Vreeland said.
The soundtrack for one of the projects he’s working on, a public transit simulation game called Mini Metro, speaks to the Staten Island native’s left-brained approach.
“When I played [Mini Metro], I thought this would be a great opportunity to create a system that has a 1:1 relationship with what’s in the game,” he said. “Every train line has a persistent note and rhythm, and those change as the capacity of the system changes.”
“All events, trains, and passengers have a musical quality,” he added. “The subway system evolves and changes. The only way to do that without wasting years and years of your life is to create a procedural system using math and logic to determine what to do given the scenario [in the game].”
Keep It Simple
Although Vreeland’s life has changed somewhat as a result of his affiliation with It Follows — not to mention the growing body of work he has amassed by self-releasing albums and making video game soundtracks — he makes a deliberate effort to live life in a minimalist and manageable fashion.
“Simplicity is one of the guiding principles for me,” he said. “I always try to simplify everything in my life.”
One way he’s simplified is by focusing on his work, making it the primary driver of his life.
“I think my life has been shaped dramatically by my work,” he said. “I feel like that’s where my greatest contribution is to be made. It’s also the thing I love to do.”
That doesn’t mean he’s some sort of workaholic.
“I’m trying hard not to get to that point,” he said. “I’m always working on my work-life balance, or my ‘life flow’…”
For example, in his laid-back Berkeley, California, neighborhood, Vreeland keeps a particular routine.
“I stay healthy and active,” he said. “I play ice hockey, do yoga, meditate… I have lots of people that I like to hang out with on a semi-regular basis.”
What placing work at the fore means, though, is that he’s eschewed the search for romance.
“After many years of thinking I needed to be in a serious relationship, I’ve let go of that kind of thing,” he said.
“There are times when that was my mission, but it’s distracting and gets in the way,” he said. “If someone great comes along, great… I love being single, to be honest.”
Another part of keeping things simple is not getting caught up in the post-It Follows basket of high-profile soundtrack offers.
“A lot of it has to do with my own timeline, and my own adherence to it,” Vreeland said. “I try to be respectful of what I have already agreed to do.”
He recently had to turn down a feature, because the offer came too late in the development cycle, he said. Given the four pre-existing games he’s working on, even if he’s excited for the offer “sometimes the timing doesn’t work.”
When those projects are finished, Vreeland wants to take a sabbatical for a year or more to “reassess what I’m doing.”
“I’ve been doing work for hire for 10 years now,” he said. He might record an album, or go back to school. Perhaps he’ll study the piano more comprehensively. Or maybe he’ll visit people, travel, and just write, “because I love it, not because it’s for hire.”
Whatever he does, he’ll do it simply. And when he returns he’ll do that simply, too. Vreeland won’t be hyping or marketing or hustling to get new gigs.
“There are ways that I have to be in order to simplify my life,” he said. “I don’t want to be a part of this culture that is proliferated these days: ‘Look at me, look at me’ all the time. It’s a cultural problem… It’s contributing to a lack of consciousness, and I’m all about consciousness.”