Keegan DeWitt Discusses His Unconventional ‘Her Smell’ Score

Keegan DeWitt’s score for newly released Her Smell is quite the anti-score, and certainly a departure from his work on films such as Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth and Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud, which were more traditional and melodic (and in the case of the latter, decidedly synthesizer-drenched).

A film like Her Smell — DeWitt’s fourth with Perry and which centers on the life of a 1990s alt-rock star named Beck Something, played by Elisabeth Moss — can’t possibly have a straightforward synth score. And with rock songs already at the story’s vanguard — there are a few fictional bands with original numbers featured in the film — DeWitt couldn’t merely tap into his own rock roots for cues that would hew too close to those bands’ work. Something different was required. In the case of Her Smell, DeWitt has crafted something very different.

The score “pushes the boundaries of what can be considered a musical score and whether or not you know it’s just sound design,” DeWitt told Vehlinggo recently.

Musical themes spew from mono synths, as FM sounds, guitars, and strings are slowed down, screwed up, and flipped around, bubbling temperately from a wash of tape hiss and disarray. Sounds leak steam like an overused pipe, releasing heat from cold containment. Glassy bell synths only speak in low octaves. Drums sludge along, yanked into an insurmountable K-hole before getting a second wind. Noise-laden soundscapes reminiscent of Dean Hurley’s work with David Lynch abound. Abstraction is resonant.

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For most of Her Smell, this organized chaos is righteously suitable: Main character Becky, a revered but troubled frontwoman of Bikini Kill- or Hole-style band Something She, is often high or strung out, and in a generally off-kilter state fighting a host of demons. DeWitt’s alchemy helps the film bring the audience to that discombobulating level, and then return from it as the story dictates.

This compelling score is getting the Waxwork Records treatment. You can pre-order it now. The label, which released DeWitt’s Queen of Earth score last year, is known for the profound care and creativity it puts into its vinyl releases.

For Her Smell, the New Orleans-based outfit has packaged the score as two records — one pink and one black, a dichotomy designer Aesthetic Apparatus carries throughout the show-poster-style artwork. It features liner notes from Perry and Moss and a full booklet. There’s also a 7-inch record of songs performed by the film’s fictional bands, Something She and Akergirls. It’s something to behold. DeWitt says he loves the work Waxwork does.

“They do so much to capture the mood and aesthetic [of the film and music],” DeWitt says. “When something doesn’t get released in a thoughtful way, it feels like it’s suddenly stripped away. Hats off to them for this one.”

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Keegan DeWitt performing with Wild Cub at Lambert’s BBQ in Austin, Texas, in 2014. Photo by Nan Palmero and used here in accordance with the Creative Commons Generic License 2.0.

 

In this conversation with DeWitt, conducted over Skype and phone this week, he and I discussed the motivations and process behind his unconventional score. In doing so we touched on how his own indie-rock background with band Wild Cub and his partnership with Perry and Perry’s editor, Robert Greene, have an impact on the music and the process for creating it. (This interview, which is characteristically lengthy, has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Vehlinggo: Her Smell is nothing like your previous work, such as for Hearts Beat Loud, which had a more colorful and tender synth score. It also doesn’t sound like your previous work with Alex Ross Perry, including 2015’s Queen of Earth, which leaned heavily on glockenspiels, clarinets, pianos and such, and 2017’s Golden Exits, which had piano and orchestral cues.  

Your approach does a great job of articulating the nauseated, wholly unsober state of Becky Something — especially in Act 1.

Keegan DeWitt:  That’s why I was kind of excited about this — for me, I’m such a melody-oriented composer. This was a really cool opportunity to totally throw that out the window, you know? (laughs)

But you have themes in this right? If you think about it, you’ve got all of the elements. They’re just sort of represented differently.

It’s more like little motif things.

Right.

But I think it worked really great in a way. [Perry] and I were talking about it the other night and he was talking about just like some of the funny references that Becky makes like, “smokin!,” and shit like that, and he described it really well. He said, “I know why that’s in there, it’s because she’s got a copy of The Mask in the tour bus and they’ve all watched it like eight times and that’s the running joke at sound check.” But then it’s the kind of thing where now when she says it everybody’s like “yeah, not funny dude.”

Yeah (laughs). That’s about as worn-out a reference as you can get in 2019.

You know what I mean: that’s tired. Move on, you know? So I kind of liked that. She has these ticks. Instead of having a theme like in Golden Exits — every time we see [Jason Schwartzmann] it’s like the same thing that plays again in a different variation. Instead, this is like you hear these four or five different little (imitates sounds from the score). You know, those things. And it feels like aspects of Becky’s personality that are coming back — you’re like, “Oh God, here’s this again.”

Right. It’s very effective.

It is funny, though, to think of a world in which I scored Hearts Beat Loud and Her Smell the same year — and really within three months of each other. But it’s funny because also, when you think about the fact that Alex was writing Christopher Robin at the same time he was writing Her Smell… it’s polar opposites.

One thing I was thinking about with this score and Hearts Beat Loud: Basically, you come from a rock background, in which songs are written in a very constructed fashion. They have hooks and all that. What do you bring from that world to your score work, in general specifically on Her Smell?

I enjoy score work, because I remember somebody saying bands, they just never die. One of my favorite bands is Wild Beasts, and I remember like last year, when Wild Beast was stopping, everybody was like “Why, why would you do that?” They always think that bands have to live forever. 

The thing I love about scoring films is that I get to totally immerse myself for three months into something and then it’s done. There’s really great closure and then I get to totally mutate into something entirely different. And that’s really really rewarding, because the band stuff is more just like this long line that goes on forever.

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Right.

But one interesting thing [Perry] said — he brought it back into my head the other night when we were talking — we made a conscious choice to make sure that none of the instrumentation in the score felt like band instrumentation.

So it’s like Becky throws her guitar down in the beginning, and the score begins with this guitar feedback, but quickly morphs immediately out of that into weird Eurorack modular dystopian craziness.

And then we don’t get back there until the very end again when there’s that guitar anthem and everybody wants her to come back out for one more song. So it’s kind of a cool way where we book-end with it, but never actually use any of those instruments.

But I think that’s important. That’s something I’d thought about when considering your score’s role in the film: the challenges or interesting aspects of scoring for a rock film — in a sense, the band’s songs do some heavy lifting with the storytelling by default.

It’s interesting because, yeah, Hearts Beat Loud was similar, but it was a total different answer, which was let’s make music that just feels like you’re floating, pretty much. Where it was like let’s just have this [music] almost be an exhale moment, where you just get to kind of reflect and see these beautiful B-roll shots of Brooklyn.

Whereas here it was… how do we make this sound like Becky’s memory when it’s being run through a fucking garbage disposal or something like that.

Oh yeah, that’s a great point.

Because I think that that was musically really what we were trying to do. I don’t know if you’ve ever interacted with band people, but it creates these weird 45-year-old adolescent men. You know, because you just get trapped, because you spend all your time — especially back then [in the ‘90s] in a tour bus — and then in a green room and then on stage and then being coddled by your management and stuff. And so it creates these weird suspended psyches or something, if that makes any sense.

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I think the film does a great job of showing that.

That’s why when musicians get home off tour — those like grizzled road hogs — it’s like they don’t know how to deal. It’s like they’ve got a bunch of black curtains and they just hang inside all day and you see them at a grocery store and you’re like whoa, it’s like a vampire or something. Because that vibe only works if you’re this weird transitory musician. For Becky the thing that is also sort of obnoxious about her is that she’s just — she’s locked in this weird rhythm of being a rock star and she doesn’t have any other identity.

Right. In terms of actually sitting down to capture that, how do you even do it? You mentioned a modular synth, but in general what instruments do you use and how do you record them?

I think the first place it started was I was just kind of thinking about the movie and then I was on Instagram and I was going through somebody’s nerdy modular synth world.

And it was literally a demo from a shop somewhere in Chicago and they were like, “Hey, here’s this module that uses FM drums,” which means frequency modulation drums. You take what would be a normal sine wave of “oooh,” and if you modulate it crazy fast it sounds like “rrrrr.” It sounds like almost a buzzer or something. And they had created this drum module… and I thought it was interesting.

“What is the world of this film, and how can we help it feel as thick and dense as possible?”

And then I thought I should get one of these, and I was like no, what would Becky do? So I literally ripped the Instagram video off of my phone of this demo of something and turned it into the first rhythm. And then just pulled that into the computer and started creating all these different sounds. And then I started to take sounds and say, ok, anything that’s an organic sound — like a drum or strings or anything — has to be made to sound like a synth. And anything that’s a synth has to be made to sound like it’s organic. So I took the most modern synths I had and turned them to sound a Mellotron or flutes.

I took anything that was strings or real drum beats and reversed them and put them through weird tape delays.

That’s awesome. It basically alters our expectations in a disorienting way.

I just started messing with that stuff. We had this idea of this weird frantic thing that is so persistent that it just creates anxiety overall.

I think it fits too. In the ‘90s rock didn’t have a whole lot of synthesizer sounds in the sense that we have now, or that we had in the ‘80s. Siamese Dream had a Mellotron on it, but it wouldn’t have had a Yamaha DX7 or something like that. The Mellotron definitely fits the ’90s aesthetic more — as do the noise experiments, really. That’s one reason I think your score blends so well with the rest of what’s going on.

The demos are so interesting, because I essentially started by just sending [the filmmakers] 15 three-minute long ideas. I was like OK, it’ll start with a thing, and then sort of develop to a middle part and then end in something else and I’ll just do 15 of those. And I sent that to them and they kind of temped that into the first act of the film and sent it to me. So obviously this is a mess and you should ease all these transitions and smooth them out, and make it so one flows into the other one. And I was like, “Guys we should not touch this.”

And that’s actually where I first hinted to the idea of the crowd noise. Because I was like the crowd noise will be the through line here — the lubricant to this whole thing. But I loved the fact that, in their cut that they sent to me, it would be like one cue is happening and then suddenly Becky enters and it’s just like hard cut to a totally different cue.

It was so cool, because it just totally captures how she fundamentally shifts a room as soon as she walks. And they were all crazy enough that they all kind of worked together in that way. In the sound design they made it feel a little bit more elegant, but I really like how abrupt and scrapbooky it felt with the initial cut that they sent to me.

So Her Smell is your fourth Perry film. What’s your creative dynamic like at this point? You two are in Cliff Martinez-Nicolas Winding Refn territory.

I think we have a lot of trust and we both believe that the score process is an opportunity to fundamentally change the movie in a good way — to be really surprised and put out of our comfort zone.

“… I was breaking rules you usually don’t break.”

And then I find so often — and I understand it — that filmmakers fight so many battles and get so beat down. And by the time that they get to the score, it’s like that’s the last thing [they want to deal with]. It’s the final checkmark on the to do list. And they’re kind of like “Fuck, no way I’m going to let somebody come in and fundamentally change my movie. I’m almost done; I’ve already argued with everybody till I’m blue in the face. And now I’m this close and I’m going to have some yahoo come in and be like, ‘What if we make it a weird modular thing?’ ” You know what I mean?

(Laughs) I can respect that.

So I totally understand that, but with Alex — and this is true with some of my other close collaborators — the whole thing is about, well, let’s surprise ourselves; let’s see what we come up with.

There was a whole other layer of sound design added by the sound designer himself, too. That was a little bit of a point of debate, because I was breaking rules you usually don’t break. For example, when [Greene] was editing to get the mood, he included shitty Apple loops of crowd noise. When I got it, I thought it was incredible. It oddly glues the mood together — creates chaos. So I got that and I kept it and hid it in my music and gave it to the sound designer. I was already breaking the rules there by including the sound effects in my handoff. He kind of broke the rules, too, by adding tonal elements.

When I first saw his mix of the movie, I was like huh — he added tonal stuff and I had to make peace with it. This is what [Perry] wanted — he wanted it to be impressionistic. So we had a little “battle” along those lines about what’s appropriate and stuff. At the end of the day, I think he’s happy about it and it adds a whole new layer.

How [Perry] and I and [Greene] work… They are the only people I’ll give stems to cart blanche. I gave them stems and they laid it in all over the place — like a collage. Usually you don’t do that with everybody — it takes a lot of trust.

What I love about movies is you’re getting to immerse yourself in this entire universe and get lost and… each film [Greene], [Perry], and I have made together is so unique. We sacrificed vanity for an aesthetic and said, “What is the world of this film, and how can we help it feel as thick and dense as possible?”


Check out these interviews with composers surrounding other Waxwork Records releases: Ariel Loh (The Eyes of My Mother) and Joseph Stephens (Vice Principals, Eastbound & Down). While you’re at it, check out the Vehlinggo Composer Interview Spotlight.

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