Where the Wild Things Are was a long time coming for director Spike Jonze, who worked on the project for more than a decade before bringing it to life last year. Needless to say, part of making that process go smoothly was enlisting familiar, talented folks to help him give the film a complete and cohesive feeling. Enter Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O, whom Jonze knew for several years, and who he recruited to provide a musical backdrop for the adventures of Max and his army of Wild Things.
Jonze's film arrives on DVD and Blu-ray this week. Cinematical caught up with Karen late last year to discuss their collaboration; in addition to talking about Jonze's mandate for the singer-songwriter, she offered a few insights about her creative process, and clued us in on what's happening now and what might be next for her and her band.
Cinematical: When you started work on Where The Wild Things Are, what did Spike ask for you to do, or what did you want to accomplish?
Karen O: Well, basically I'd read the script and he'd shown me some mock-ups of what it was going to look like, which was going to be much more naturalistic than any other kids film. That was going to be sort of a conceptual theme for what he wanted with the music too; he wanted it to feel sort of candid and kind of natural in a way, where one of the big influences was Langley Schools Music Project, that was a recording of a bunch of these kids from the '70s singing pop songs from the time. The sort of emotional honesty and the resonance of children singing these adult songs, that had a melody and sort of pop hooks but emotionality that sticks with you, was pretty much an idea that he thought would be good for the music for the film.
Cinematical: Wild Things seems to be a movie about childhood for adults. Were you creating things out of whole cloth, without consideration for sequences, or did he request certain kinds of pieces for different scenes?
Karen O: Well, he gave me notes and sort of what he wanted for themes, just like emotional themes – "I want a theme for when Max is in his own little world, like when he's in his igloo; I want a theme for the rage and being completely out of control." So initially we started working on it very early on, before he returned from Australia. He sent us over about 20 minutes of raw footage which had just like shots and moments based on those themes he wanted me to work on. It wasn't even really cut together; it was slapped together before they did an assembly or anything like that. So it was really conducive to intuiting what the music should sound like, because it didn't feel like we were coming in on top of the film at the end on a locked picture. It felt like we were going to make music that was going to sort of grow into the film and sort of be seamless with the characters and the story.
Cinematical: Because he wanted you to create music around emotional tones, was this a process that was freer and more intuitive, or did it require discipline to create, say, a cheerful song and then a sad one?
Karen O: It was a varied process (laughs). The kind of interesting thing about how we worked was that I assembled all of these musicians from these bands and friends of mine, and I tried to present it to them as like a think tank – like someone thinking out of the box, and we'd try their ideas. For instance, this guy Aaron who's in a band called The Liars, he came in early on and it was all very intuitive and very free form, but he was like, "oh, maybe what we should do is pretend like we're playing and we should record it on a tape recorder. You know, just play like kids and make kid sounds and stuff like that, and start playing like maybe put a beat to that." We did that, and that approach was how we came up with the theme "Animal," which is the theme where Max is running away from home and when he's being chased by Carol. But it kind of changed from theme to theme, the way we approached it, but it was always trying to approach it in this kind of intuitive way of getting to the emotion however you can – trying to elicit that emotion within us and within myself and then work it out and develop it until it was a theme.
Cinematical: Despite its technological sophistication, Wild Things and all of Spike's movies have a sort of handmade quality. Was it important that the music also possess that same quality?
Karen O: Yeah, it's really the only way I know how to make music (laughs). Because I'm working with extremely accomplished musicians who can do anything with their eyes closed and upside-down, and I'm telling them to simplify, simplify, simplify. Like the first time we were playing, that's what you're hearing in the movie; there are only a couple of examples where we wrote something and recorded it and we wanted to do it over and formalize it or refurbish it. Most of the time it was just the first take of what we did is what you hear in the movie. The importance of that to me was that the feeling is there and sometimes the feeling is there when you're not trying for it and it naturally happens, and then if you're lucky enough to have recorded it, why would you mess with it? It's really hard to get that feeling back after you've already sort of found it.
Cinematical: Did you find that your ideas easily dovetailed into Carter Burwell's when he started working on the score for the film?
Karen O: I think it was important to us and to him that what he was doing, [even though] he was working independent of me, it didn't feel like two completely different soundtracks in one film. So a couple of times on a couple of his themes, I put my vocals on his themes, and we were working towards having a continuity in the music and the feeling of it.
Cinematical: You said that you did this "the only way you know how," but when you're writing your own songs do you discover things as you're developing a tone or melody, or are you rigorous about starting with lyrics and then creating music that suits them?
Karen O: Oh, no (laughs). No, it's just really kind of going with the flow, finding tone and finding the melody, and then letting it sort of reach its potential, I guess. And then everything that comes on top of it, whether it's lyrics or instruments, instrumentation, it's really all towards fleshing out the heart and soul, which is usually the first melody that you come up with.
Cinematical: When I heard It's Blitz earlier this year, I was stricken by the way it has the same organic feel as your earlier material, but it has a different kind of refinement and sort of a more technological sound. Was that a natural transition for you, or was that something you took on as a new idea or direction?
Karen O: It started off very organic because when we start we don't usually bring anything to the table. We just kind of start with a blank slate by jamming with each other and with a bunch of instruments and stuff like that. In that case, in our first writing session, a couple of the first songs that came out of our jamming were both where Nick was playing the synthesizer and the keyboard was something that he brought to the table because he was excited about it. The funny thing about Nick is that he has this guitar sound that people identify him with and with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but it's really evolved to a point where people identify him as this kind of magician with sound, like an alchemist. He can change a guitar to sound like a synthesizer or atmospheric sound and stuff like that, and has more and more ideas how to create these soundscapes and different tones and all of this kind of stuff. And just as a band, it feels like an eternity between our last record and now, and so much happens in your life and in the world around you and the music world as well, but we always try and write music to reflect who we are in the present as opposed to stay in a comfort zone of what has worked for us in the past.
Cinematical: Is it easy to continue to be so open and allow yourself not to intellectualize things?
Karen O: (laughs) I think it is really hard to do that. I don't think anyone's immune to the self-doubt and comparing yourself to other things and even comparing yourself to yourself. The one thing that allows it to be easier for me to keep pressing forward and going towards what feels natural and true is my low threshold for doing the same thing twice – my boredom with repeating and retracing steps, my need to continue forward, always keeping in check that it's for the right reasons, it's not just to be different from the last time. It's trying to reflect, trying to be in touch with what's going on inside and how that comes out in the music. That's the key, just trying to be true to yourself and honest with the music. I think people can really pick up on that because music is such an abstraction itself; if your intentions are skewed or if you're just trying to make a hit, it's immediately boring to them. People can identify and connect with the feeling that comes from it honestly.
Cinematical: Absolutely. What are you working on next?
Karen O: I'm wrapping up this record cycle for It's Blitz and that's all I've got on the table at the moment. I'm going to see how it goes. It's never really up to you in the end, you know, what happens in your life... I have no plans at the moment, but who knows what's going to happen next year?