Soundtrack composer Jan P. Muchow has a new compilation of his film work and is about to play a special one-off concert.
Musician and producer Jan P. Muchow is a busy man right now. As well as releasing Antagonist, an album compiled from two decades of his film soundtrack work, he is preparing a special performance of that music with the ad hoc group The Antagonists and a 30-piece orchestra at the Soundtrack Poděbrady festival on Friday.
Taking a break from rehearsals, the founder of ‘90s indie icons The Ecstasy of St. Theresa sat down with me this week to discuss his prolific work on movies and more. But I began by asking Muchow when he had first been really grabbed by a soundtrack in his young days.
“For me the first big impact of music together with pictures was with a TV series called Marco Polo.
“At the time I didn’t know who composed it, but I later discovered that it was actually Ennio Morricone.
“I had to tape the theme from the series on a cassette, with my older brother, and I kept playing this main theme all the time.
“It just really moved something inside me, some emotion I didn’t know before.
“I didn’t enjoy the series that much, but this music was something that really hit me for the first time.”
Apart from Morricone, who are some of your favourite film composers?
“There are very, very many: Bernard Herrmann, Angelo Badalamenti, Alexandre Desplat, Hans Zimmer, of course. Jon Brion.
“We could spend an hour talking about them.”
What about your favourite soundtracks of individual movies?
“Definitely Twin Peaks. The series and the film. I think that’s the main one that really, really hit me.
“But then again there’s Psycho, Vertigo, Taxi Driver. Many.”
Of course there are many great Czech film composers. Are there any you have an affinity with, or like a lot?
“I think like everybody, it’s [Zdeněk] Liška, of course. He was a genius.
“But I also like Petr Hapka. Apart from his songs, which he is very famous for, his film stuff is also very exciting.”
Some films use original scores. Others take more of a “jukebox” approach, using pre-existing songs, often hits. Have you got a preference when it comes to soundtracks?
“I have to say it just depends on the movie.
“And he’s always made a perfect connection with his movies. Like, for example, Pulp Fiction was the perfect soundtrack taken out of the film, and it also worked perfectly in the movie.
“So I guess it just depends what the movie needs.
“I did two films where it worked much better with a score.
“But I also worked on other films where when we put a score on them it was too heavy or it didn’t have the right flow – they just needed us to pick the right songs or themes.”
How did you yourself originally get into doing soundtracks?
“Actually, I always was a huge fan of films. In my teens I spent days in the cinema and we went to not just one film a day but sometimes even more.
“So when I was first offered to do something to pictures I was like, Of course, I would love to!
“In my teens I spent days in the cinema and we went to not just one film a day but sometimes even more.”
“So it started one or two years before I was asked to do a feature film. I started with TV ads and student films and stuff.”
Typically what’s your process when you do a soundtrack? Do you look at rough cuts? Or do you just read the script or even get a description of the film from the director before it’s made?
“The most frequent way is to read the script, to have a first impression. Then I sometimes do demos.
“And after I read the script I talk with the director about the way he wants to tell the story, if he has some kind of style in mind and stuff.
“Then I prepare demos for them to use in the editing room. So they actually have their own music, or our music, that has already been made under the influence of the script.
“Then I wait till it is so-called locked, when they don’t move with the edit here and there. And then I start again.
“Three-quarters of the demos are not used, because somehow the film is not the same as on paper.
“But sometimes you get, not lucky, but it melds together with the demo and it works perfectly. And that gives us something to start with, some theme we can use in the movie.”
You’ve done the music for more than 30 films. Which do you look back at with particular satisfaction, or which make you think, I nailed it that time?
“[Laughs] It’s hard to say – you should say that! In a way it’s like as the phrase goes, which of your kids is the… you know.
“But I like the film Normal. It’s one of my favourites, if I should name one. Or Václav as well, actually. Or the Polish film Yuma. And so on.”
Were there any that were especially difficult or challenging?
“Everything is difficult. Even those films that in the end don’t have so much of the score in them.
“Because you have to find what’s right, and what’s too much or where you should not play.
“But the obvious difficult one was Ve stínu, In the Shadow. Because the film was done, it was a locked edit, and my friend [Michal Novinski] and I composed the music together.
“It’s a movie where you have to play a lot, so we composed loads and loads of music. We recorded it and everything was mixed and everything was done.
“And then the producers and the director said, OK, we’re cancelling the premiere, we’re not satisfied, we’re going back to the editing room, we’ve even shot a few more scenes – and we’ll give it to you and then we’ll see it if works.
“We got it after another five months. A new movie. It didn’t change much in the pictures, but the way they told the story was a bit different.
“So we had to redo almost all of the music. Because it was a different way of telling it.
“It was difficult, because you had already done the score once for almost all the scenes and you had to rethink it from a slightly different point of view of telling the story.
“So that was quite heavy duty.”
“Actually not, because David [Ondříček, director] is very, very open-minded.
“And our goal was not to do music based on a timeline. It was not supposed to sound like music from the ‘50s.
“I think if we had come out with a contemporary sound he wouldn’t have told us, I don’t want it to be contemporary because it’s a historical movie.
“But he would have said, Boys, we said we would try to make the score timeless, so why use contemporary sounds and a contemporary way of doing it? We want a sound that’s not stuck in one time period.”
You’ve been doing soundtracks for 20 years or more. How do you feel you have developed as a film composer?
“I think I prefer even more not to play. And even more I think about what the movie’s about, what’s the approach, what’s the thing that the movie’s trying to say, what are the important emotions that the film wants to communicate.
“And it’s not at all about the music – it’s all about the film.
“The film needs to work.”
So the music shouldn’t kind of overwhelm the film, it shouldn’t draw attention away from the film?
“Yeah. Some people say, The music should work on its own.
“But I’m not writing music that works on its own.
“Some people say, The music should work on its own. But I’m not writing music that works on its own.”
“I’m trying to make noise or music or whatever you want to call it that helps the film to tell what it wants to tell.”
Very often you write original songs, as well as the score. Is that a kind of reference to your previous main job as a band leader?
“I don’t know, actually. It’s just because of the films.
“I often work on movies where the requirement is to have at least one original song.
“Of course some producers or directors maybe think that they can also use it as a marketing thing.
“Most of the time I think it’s not a case of, We will make a song because we can do more promo for the film.
“But most of the time they are just movies where songs are required – and that’s why I’m there [laughs].”
On Friday you’re playing a concert at Soundtrack Poděbrady with your new group The Antagonists and a 30-member orchestra, the Pardubice Chamber Orchestra. What’s the appeal of doing that kind of a show for you?
“Actually to have a concert programme just from the film stuff is quite interesting.
“Now that we’re practicing it and we finally have the set list in place and we’re playing it as we want to play it, it’s like a journey through all the movies.
“If you play material by one band often the atmosphere, the feeling of the songs is quite similar. Which I’m not saying is bad.
“But because of this programme, which comes from 10 movies or more, of course the atmosphere keeps changing during the programme.
“Our concert programme is like a journey through all the movies.”
“As I say, it takes you on journey and it’s not the same thing all through the whole programme.
“And we do songs in the programme as well as score, instrumental stuff.
“So it’s quite nice – you should come [laughs].”
And Friday’s performance won’t be the last appearance by The Antagonists, am I right?
“Yes. It won’t be the last but for quite a long time it’s the only one.
“Because we said it would be exclusively at the Soundtrack festival, so I didn’t want to start to arrange other gigs before we played this one.
“So I think the next chance to hear us will be in 2018.”
Maybe at the opening of Karlovy Vary, for example?
“That would be nice, yeah. But we have to ask them first [laughs].”
“I wanted to be just the film stuff. So I didn’t use any material I wrote for TV or theatre.
“Then when I said OK, there are so many songs, I will accent this part of my film work.
“Because it’s not that often that one composer has so many film songs.
“So I chose songs. And then as most of them were sung in English I also took out songs sung in Czech or Slovak, because there just a few of them and I didn’t want it to be too big a mishmash or mix.
“All of the songs are sung in English. And then one-third, or maybe one-quarter, of the stuff is instrumental.”
I thought I knew your music pretty well, but there were many songs, many tracks on the album that I hadn’t heard before. I presume many people will have that experience – people who didn’t catch those movies or didn’t catch the music videos on TV?
“I hope so. It would be quite boring if you actually knew all of it [laughs].
“That’s what I was thinking. There’s one film from Germany, one film from Poland, so how can you see them, actually?
“So I’m glad you say that, because it could be interesting for people who think they know all the stuff I’ve done.
“And hopefully they will enjoy it [laughs].”
Also it’s on Supraphon, which I guess must be the record label of your childhood in many ways?
“Yes, of course, but it’s not so difficult to be the label of my childhood, because there weren’t many – there was just one more!
“But of course it’s nice.
“I like what they are doing now and I’m proud to be on that label.”
And your mum will be happy.
“Oh yeah. I hope so [laughs].”