Photo: Bill McCullough

Are You Experiencing Any Difficulties?: An Interview with Graham Reynolds

Celebrating the release of Richard Linklater's landmark sci-fi film A Scanner Darkly, composer Graham Reynolds guides us through the soundtrack's casually thrilling creation.
Graham Reynolds
A Scanner Darkly

In 2006, acclaimed film director Richard Linklater gave himself a task that was not for the weak: making a film adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel that was faithful to the book.

Blade Runner gets all of the glory, with Total Recall debatably coming in at a close second. John Woo’s Paycheck was fun, as was Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. But most of the cinematic adaptations of the legendary science fiction writer’s works have to live with the fact that they take a great deal of liberties with the subject material.

Linklater set his ambitions higher for his take on A Scanner Darkly. He assembled an all-star cast of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder, wasting none of them in small, inconsequential roles. For an extra touch of graphic novel surrealism, he applied a layer of animation to his previously-shot scenes to give Dick’s terrifying tale of undercover police surveillance and recreational-drug-use-gone-wrong a haunting twist. When he needed music for his new project, he knew who to call.

“The first piece Rick [Linklater] and I did together was in 2003, a 20-minute short about 9/11 with Speed Levitch called Live From Shiva”s Dancefloor,” pianist and composer Graham Reynolds told PopMatters just prior to the anniversary re-release of his soundtrack to A Scanner Darkly on Lakeshore Records. “Though there were only a couple of cues that were strictly piano, I think it served as a sort of audition for me. About a year later, Rick was approaching me about the ideas for Scanner.”

Graham Reynolds, who occasionally works with his Golden Arm Trio, is a rare talent. He can seamlessly fuse jazz, chamber classical, and Americana without forsaking melody or subtlety. Reynold’s brand of instrumental music cuts through any look-at-me antics and shoots straight for the gut in all its compelling harmony. In other words, he pulls off the composition and recording of complex music without coming across as a brainy blowhard.

But not every note is so sacred to him. When asked if he likes to give his musicians breathing room, we found that Reynolds openly encourages it. “I always try to work with musicians who can improvise, and definitely prioritize providing the space for it. Musicians’ relationships with their instruments are personal, and I love to create frameworks for that. The last night before heading to [Los Angeles] for the mix, music editor Buzz Moran, sound designer Justin Hennard, and I all picked up guitars and messed around trying to find solutions for the opening scene. I arrived at Warner Brothers with a transformed version of the cue, hoping that Rick would approve it. He did.”

The making of A Scanner Darkly was an ever-evolving process. Everyone, including the musicians, just had to be flexible with what was going on between the soundstage and the studio. “We had a long post-production for Scanner due to the animation process, so we were able to explore many ideas for scenes. I got a rough cut early and kept trying new ideas all the way through to the mix. What started out as a saxophone heavy score evolved instead into one geared towards guitars and effects.” By no means does this mean that he felt tethered to one musical genre simply by guitars and effects. “I don”t have any stylistic loyalties. I revel in exploring new styles, genres, forms, and approaches. I love learning new rules and then ignoring them. In the end, I think it’s about the process, which for me requires a range of influences.”

And it’s quite an impressive range, considering that he and his musicians pull from all influences so convincingly. Opener “7 Years from Now” is a perfectly succinct slice of classical-meets-ambient with its ghostly noises and forlorn cello. Just a few tracks later is a countrified “Strawberry Pie” where a steel guitar trades licks with a vibraphone. The mood crashes big time with the sludge-rock number “Sex, Beer, and Pills”, guaranteed to make all subjects in the song title as unappetizing as they are in the film. Right after that is the delicate, pastoral piano motif of “A Farm Near the Mountains”, which sounds like it didn’t even come from the same composer as the last tune, let alone sitting next to it on the same album.

The disembodied saw wavering of the avant-garde cue named “Are You Experiencing Any Difficulties?” should cause any listener to answer with a resounding “Yes!” But some rowdy fun (for lack of a better term) is just around the corner with “Your Move, Peterbilt”, a saxophone-driven slab of sleaze rock. With so many sounds coming from his palate, does Graham Reynolds have a favorite instrument for which to compose?

“I enjoy composing for a variety of instruments — everything from bass drums to cello,” he tells us. “But what I really love is to compose for their players, and to create something that they want to play with passion.”

Press material for the A Scanner Darkly re-release has explicitly name-dropped other film music icons like Ennio Morricone and John Zorn, and Reynolds feels perfectly comfortable working within these giant shadows. “I’m always listening to other composer’s soundtrack work and trying to learn from it. I find it most inspiring when the music works perfectly for the context of the film but also holds up to listening with no visuals, though not every film wants or needs a score like that. I aspire to make music I would want to hear and whenever another composer succeeds in that I try to learn from it.”

It also helps to have a partnership with a film director who is nurturing: “I’ve done more films with Rick than any other director, and as with any long-standing collaboration you learn as you go and develop more vocabulary. I like to experiment early on in the process and sometimes that early material works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it always feels worth trying. Rick has a deep interest in music, and I’ve learned more about his taste, interests, and experiences along the way. I try to figure out where his needs for music in his films and the music he listens to outside film overlap.”

Although an anniversary/victory lap for A Scanner Darkly is a very welcome thing, I couldn’t help but ask Reynolds what he had in store for us in the near future. And just as I suspected, it’s something I would never have suspected: “The non-film piece I’ve been putting the most time into is an opera called ‘Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance’. The piece is scored for two singers and a six-piece band featuring Grammy-winning producer-guitarist Adrian Quesada. The libretto is by Luisa Pardo and Gabino Rodriquez from the Mexico City-based theater company Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol, and direction from Shawn Sides of the Rude Mechs. It was a commission from Ballroom Marfa and has played around Texas but this fall we’re hitting the west coast, with shows in L.A. and Seattle. Adrian is producing the album, and it’s slated for next year.”

Lastly, I’ve always been curious as to who on the set bothers to read the novel. Do the actors? Those in charge of wardrobe? Sometimes it feels like certain directors and producers did little than skim the dust jacket when adapting a beloved book to the silver screen. I was happy to learn that Graham Reynolds took A Scanner Darkly quite seriously.

“One night after a gig Rick mentioned that he was considering doing A Scanner Darkly as a film and was considering me for the score,” Reynolds notes. “I was already a Philip K. Dick fan, so it was easy to get excited about the project. I went out the next day and got the book and raced through it. The incubation period of composing is blurry and indirect in its influence, but essential. When I sit down to compose I want to be immersed in the world the music is supposed to reflect, and delving into the novel definitely helped with that.”

Full immersion — does it get any better than that?