The Death Waltz Recording Company is shaking up the world of horror movie soundtrack releases. The nerds don’t know what’s hit them.
Founded and run by long-serving Rough Trade man Spencer Hickman, the fledgling imprint has already established itself as the preeminent outlet for handsome vinyl editions not only of well-known classics, but of future classics too: hence Michael Andrews’ underrated music for Donnie Darko sitting alongside John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s legendary Escape From New York in the catalogue, all presented with new, specially commissioned artwork.
FACT’s Tim Purdom spoke to Hickman on the eve of Death Waltz’s latest achival offerings, Halloween II and Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, to hear more about the story of the label so far, his deep-seated love of genre cinema, and his ambitions for 2013 and beyond.
“Yeah, I wanted to put quite a lot out to begin with, because I wanted to establish who we are and what we are.”
And when did the love affair with soundtracks begin?
“It really goes back to when I was a kid, when I was 8; my dad took me to see Star Wars and I was blown away. He bought me the soundtrack, which was a gatefold double with a massive poster inside, and the poster wasn’t a still from the film – it was this kind of rough oil painting, and I always remember listening to the music while looking at that poster.
“I’ve always worked in record shops, I’ve always been involved in the music industry, but my other big love is film; specifically genre film. I used to have a fanzine, I used to organise little film festivals – in fact we did the last film festival that took place at the Scala just before it closed.”
So how did you go from there to actually starting the label?
“I’ve been running Rough Trade for five and a half years now, and I just knew that while I loved my job, I wanted to do something else – something that was more for me. My three loves are music, movies and art…and I was at Frighfest last year and I just had this idea that I’d really like to do a soundtrack label… as you do [laughs]. Paul McAvoy from Frighfest introduced me to Ti West, the director, so I talked to him, sort of pitched him this half-formed idea for a soundtrack label… but I didn’t really have the specifics planned out. Ti had just put out a video cassette edition of The House Of The Devil so I knew he’d just get it, and he was enthusiastic, so I went away and thought about what I wanted to do, and it just became obvious that I wanted to reissue, to begin with, classic soundtracks.
“But I didn’t want them to be the same as they were when they first came out; I wanted them to be a little bit special. Because I’m so into art – I buy a lot of art – I just thought it’d be really nice to sort of mix the two. I didn’t just want to use typical poster artists – I mean, I definitely wanted to work with Graham Humphreys, because you know, he’s legendary… and I knew that he had to Zombie Flesh Eaters for me. And I was a big fan of Candice Tripp who did Let The Right One In, and she works with oils, she’s a fine artist, basically. All these people who I collect art by… I just thought it would be really nice to hand-pick each artist and match them to the project, and I’ve been really lucky that so far each artist has really captured what I wanted them to, there’s been very little back and forth.
“So yeah… I love movie soundtracks and I love movies and I love records, specifically vinyl records, so you know…what else am I gonna do? [laughs] It felt like the right thing to do and it seems to have hit a nerve.”
“I think so, yeah. I mean, Living Dead At Manchester Morgue – that’s a £200 record. I don’t own the original, I couldn’t afford it, and you don’t ever see it. Andy Votel tweeted me a picture the day we put ours out saying ‘check the original…!’ and I was like, you bastard, of course you’ve got it… [laughs]”
Part of the project is putting out new and recent soundtracks as well as established ones, right?
“I really wanted it to be a mix of old and new. I figured if I could get those classics out, it would establish the label as a quality concern, and if people knew it was quality, then I’d be able to do more contemporary things that weren’t as big and weren’t as ingrained in pop culture.
“So now we’re going to do Devil’s Business, which is Sean Hogan’s film, it’s a really small, low budget, kind of Kill List-style thriller; the music’s by Justin Greaves from Crippled Black Phoenix – I mean, he’s got a fairly good following but the movie itself is quite a small thing. But I love it and I love the music. I got Jay Shaw to do the sleeve for that – he loved the movie and I knew he’d love the movie. So hopefully it gives it a stamp of… well, hopefully people will think, I might not have heard of this movie, but I know this is going to be good. It’s not in my interests to release anything that’s bad, it’s in my interests to release things I love.
“I’m going to be doing Room 237, which is that Kubrick documentary that’s screening at the moment. They approached me to do it, which is amazing. They said we’ve done the score to this movie, we don’t know if you’ve heard of it – and I was like shit, I’ve been waiting to see it for, like, six months! So they said here’s the music – and you never know what it’s going to be like, but you think, OK, I’m going to give it a go – and I was like fuck, it’s amazing… it’s like Goblin in their prime. It’s just two guys – Jonathan Snipes and Wililam Hutson – and there’s a really great making-of-the-soundtrack video on YouTube that’s worth checking out. I know that Sam Smith’s going to do the artwork – he does all the Criterion covers and stuff, and he’s a massive Kubrick fan, and I know he’s going to go mental with this. I think that’s going to be one of the first ones we do CDs of as well. I found a guy who does limited, hand-made runs of CDs up to 1000, so they’re going to be a nice as a CD can possibly be – they’re going to look really, really good.”
“It’s weird, because when we released Let The Right One In and Donnie Darko, which was the same day, I was in the pub with a friend, and he said he thought it was great that we were doing new films…because everybody says that there’s nothing new that’s good, that nothing new is as good as the classic stuff from 20 or 30 years old…and that’s just bollocks.”
“These are classic soundtracks… And having it on a record for people to listen to is great. And you know what? Because it’s a fucking record, you’ve got to sit down, put it on, turn it over, spend some time with it – you really listen to it.
“I saw Berberian Sound Studio at Frightfest and obviously the soundtrack, with Broadcast, is amazing, and obviously the sound design is amazing, and also Maniac, the new version of Maniac, played, and the soundtrack on that is absolutely integral to the film. We’ve launched at this point where people – and filmmakers – seem to be taking a bit more interest in original scores again. I mean, the soundtrack for me can make or break a film – which is sometimes annoying, because if I don’t like the soundtrack it’ll put me off an otherwise very good film. We saw We Are The Night a few nights ago, which is this German vampire film, and it’s really stylish, and adult, and really good – but the music’s fucking terrible and it really pissed me off. I loved the film as a whole, but the club scenes were just awful, and the music was this kind of sub-industrial techno dance bollocks.
“Compare that to, say, Let The Right One In…those guys got it so right. They used the Slovakian Symphony Orchestra, it’s really beautiful, subtle, and for me that music’s totally integral to the film. Hopefully early next year I’m going to start doing some music supervision on movies myself, which kinds of make sense.”
It does seem like there’s an abundance of artists who would be capable of creating incredible film scores, but just aren’t being asked. Presumably that’s something you’re looking to address?
“To be honest, I don’t think there are many people out there willing to push their net out further than than the new xx record. There’s so much out there. You listen to Haxan Cloak or Roly Porter or Pye Corner Audio – I mean, Roly Porter could score a movie today and it would be incredible. But it’s getting better. Mondo have put out a couple of good soundtracks, they put the Beyond soundtrack out, and Invada have done the Drive soundtrack…and it does seem to be that people are willing to take a bit more of a risk on stuff again.”
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Drive seems to have reminded the mainstream cinema-going public of how powerful a well-judged, unorthodox soundtrack can be.
“Drive is literally propelled by that soundtrack. They’ve done something comparable with Mania, which is shot in LA, mostly shot at night, it’s really powerful and the music is of that Drive ilk. I love that stuff… that Italians Do It Better release by Symmetry, Themes For An Imaginary Film, it’s amazing… I mean it’s two and half hours long, just Johnny Jewel on his own – he could’ve scored four movies with that! [laughs] It is sad that people go down the same route all the time, but I do think there’s an increasing number of filmmakers out there who are more aware of music, and how powerful it can be in film, yeah.
“Donnie Darko: to me, that’s one of the only examples where pop music is used to amazing effect….Now, whenever I hear Tears For Fears, it’s that scene, where the camera’s rolling around. In the director’s cut I didn’t like the music choices as much, everything seemed to fit better in the other version: Echo & The Bunnymen at the start, when that guitar comes in, and it’s just like… yeah.”
“Richard [Kelly] throughout his three films has always made really interesting music choices – the scores, yes, but also the songs. You can tell that he knows his shit.”
“It’s just nuts! There’s that classic scene with Justin Timberlake miming to The Killers [laughs]. I love the fact that there’s someone out there crazy enough to do stuff like that, and not care. I think Southland Tales is a really interesting disaster – well it’s not a disaster, actually. I really enjoy that movie – I’ve seen it more than once. But anyway, he’s a director who can use pre-existing tracks to affect the mood of a movie, and I think it’s quite a talent to be able to do that.”
I dare say there are a lot of soundtrack buffs who look upon what you’ve achieved with considerably envy. How exactly did you get the opportunity to release such classic scores right from the off?
“The hardest thing was getting the first people to agree, and getting those first releases done. Fabio [Frizzi] and John Carpenter were the first two. Funnily enough I didn’t go through Alan [Howarth] for Escape To New York, because there’s a company here in the UK that own the rights to it and he licensed it from them anyway.
“With Fabio I just tracked down who owned the rights. I was shocked to find it was actually available on CD, and I spoke to them and they said we don’t really want to do vinyl because it’s too much hassle, and it’s expensive, and so I literally just said that I would like to license it for vinyl and they were like, OK, it’s this much money, you’ve got to pay upfront, this is what we want, there you go. And they’ve got an amazing catalogue which we’re carrying on working with.
“With Alan I sent him a few emails and it just went from there. So far everyone I’ve approached has been interested….except for Universal. But that’s Universal for you.”
They’re very lavish editions. Proper collector’s items.
“It was never about wanting things to be expensive for the sake of being expensive, it was always about wanting them to be premium pieces, and that does cost money. We have to pay money for licensing, for pressing, getting the lithos printed, getting the liner notes written… and it all adds up. But it’s important to do things well. And the label needs to evolve too – it needs to stay true to what it’s about, but it needs to change, and it needs to grow.”
“To me they’re all classic soundtracks, the soundtracks I’m releasing. To have Donnie Darko and Let The Right One In sat next to Zombie Flesh Eaters and Escape From New York is amazing. It’s been such a whirlwind, that I haven’t really had the time to sit back and appreciate it. But I have given in my resignation at Rough Trade, to do the label full-time, so it’s definitely long-term for me.”
“We’ve just signed a five-year deal with Hammer. I approached the people that own Hammer’s music catalogue, and the films, and we’d been chatting for a while and we just signed a contract a couple of weeks ago. Our first release is going to be Devil Rides Out, our second release is going to be Twins Of Evil, and we’re going to go from there. Both of those scores – phenomenal, beautiful.
“We’ve done Howarth and Carpenter’s They Live, which is great, I really love that score. I want to do all the Carpenters. What else? Devil Rides Out. House By The Cemetery. We’re going to do something pretty amazing for Record Store Day next year. I’m talking to the guys who did The Raid, because I’d love to put out the soundtrack for that. Devil’s Business.”
Are you optimistic about the current state of horror cinema? It feels like there’s been a recent resurgence of intelligent, low-budget auterism. And perhaps with this we’re seeing a resurgence in intelligent, quality scores?
“I’m a huge fan of Ti West. House Of The Devil is phenomenal. Inn Keepers, I loved that. I just think he’s a really interesting director, as is Sean Hogan, the guy who did Devil’s Business. There’s lots going on. I’m not so much into American mainstream horror… but yeah, the reason I want to get into music supervision is that I just know there are people that should be doing film scores. Jeff Grace, who works for Ti, he’s scored all his films; his scores are very old-school sounding, in a good way, very classic, very evocative of the late 70s and early 80s. They’re great. It’s easy to be negative, especially about the more mainstream end of things, but then certain things come along, something like Drive, that really surprise you. Things are always changing.”