Nigel Godrich has had no problem working with what some would consider the best artists ever. The real challenge is the acts that never were.
Paul McCartney, U2, Radiohead, R.E.M., Air, Beck and Pavement are just a few of the artists who grace his resume. But the name that was perhaps far more intimidating? Sex Bob-Omb, a pretend group concocted for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”
“It’s always terrible,” Godrich said of movies that contain an artificial group. Action-romance “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” has four of them.
Godrich was entrusted by director Edgar Wright to oversee what would ultimately become the backbone of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”: the film’s original music. There were moments when Godrich couldn’t help but wonder whether he was setting himself up for failure. On one visit to the Toronto set of the film, Godrich caught the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” on a plane. It only made him feel more out of his element.
“I was just thinking about how terrible it looked,” Godrich said. “It just didn’t look like they were playing. This can so easily be awful. My benchmark was ‘This Is Spinal Tap.’ That’s the best-ever realized band in a film. They’re playing, they look like they’re playing and the songs work. That’s something very difficult to do. So is this as good as ‘Spinal Tap’? That was my internal discussion.”
One will certainly have a hard time claiming that Wright’s adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-part comic series doesn’t take its music seriously. Silver Lake’s genre-hopper Beck and Canadian indie-pop act Broken Social Scene were among those tapped to contribute original music, and acclaimed electro-rock act Metric donated an unreleased cut.
Capturing the look was comparatively easy. Michael Cera’s lovelorn Pilgrim struts his musical knowledge at Toronto’s famed indie store Sonic Boom, one of the many real-life locales used in the film. But when the fictional band Sex Bob-Omb takes the stage at dingy dive bars — Pilgrim is the act’s bassist — the actor knew that any sense of rock authenticity could be lost the moment he struck his instrument.
“It can be such a miss when bands are supposed to be good,” said Cera, whose Pilgrim must battle the seven “evil” exes of the object of his obsession, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). “Whenever you see a band in a movie, the music is barely passable.”
The songs of Sex Bob-Omb, six of which are on the ABKCO soundtrack, anchor the film. The sloppy, fuzz-laden anthem “We Are Sex Bob-Omb” opens the movie, playing over an extended credit sequence. The sludgy, self-deprecating “Garbage Truck” scores one of the film’s most pivotal early scenes, when Pilgrim is introduced to the first evil ex. Godrich turned to longtime friend and collaborator Beck to knock out the songs that would ultimately be branded Sex Bob-Omb.
“The problem you see in films about garage bands or fledgling bands is that you can tell how pro the music is,” Beck said. “It doesn’t feel genuine. All I had to go on was the comic book. When I was writing the songs, I was looking at frames from the comic book.”
O’Malley’s universe offered a few clues to the Sex Bob-Omb sound. The band’s lead singer, Stephen Stills (Mark Webber), wails away at an acoustic guitar, which Beck said he took as a nod to the Breeders, whose Kim Deal is known for distorting and amplifying her acoustic instrument.
“Whenever I see the way Bryan visualizes music, they feel like a punk-pop number that people could knock off in 10 minutes,” said Wright, who added comic-book effects to every hit on the drum or strike of a guitar. “When we would describe the effects, I would say it should look like a 14-year-old’s idea of a rock band. If you’re doodling guitarists, the sound always comes out like lightning bolts.”
Beck immediately got the vision. His take on Sex Bob-Omb was sort of an attempt to channel his childhood favorites. In a span of three to four days in 2008, Beck sketched fragments for dozens of potential songs.
“We talked about bands where the sound was so distorted, and the mix was washed out with noise, where you can’t really hear what’s going on,” Beck said. “The first Pussy Galore record was a big record for me when I was 14. Then the first couple of Sonic Youth records. Those were formative records. I’ve always had a fondness for the idea of rock ‘n’ roll taken to an absurd extreme. It’s that sound you have in your head when you’re a kid and pick up a guitar.”
Discussions between O’Malley and Wright inspired much of the music in the film, including older tracks from the Rolling Stones, Frank Black and the Black Lips, among others. That left Godrich to focus his attention on Sex Bob-Omb and Crash and the Boys. Godrich said he even approached Southern punk band Black Lips to play the role of Sex Bob-Omb, but was met with skepticism.
For Beck, who’s long been working on new material and has of late been collaborating with well-known artists to release covers of popular works straight to the Internet, the Sex Bob-Omb cuts may even serve as a reminder to not overthink his time in the studio.
“It was liberating to just go off something,” Beck said. “I take tracks and work on them for months. I add things and take things away, and by the time I’m done I’ve lost the initial excitement of having made it. So this was so quick and unprocessed that it still feels fresh. I wish I could get myself to work like this more often.”
// Notes from the Road
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