Bresciaoggi (Italy), 3/5/2024

Hi Gary, thanks for your time and availability.

Let's start with the project that you will present next week at the Bergamo Film Meeting: how did the idea come about?

As you know I have been working putting soundtracks to film ever since I was a little boy showing kids 8mm versions of classic horror movies in my parents’s basement in Syracuse New York. And I always have been attracted to horror and fantasy and science fiction genres since my adolescence. I composed my first live film score accompanying the silent film “The Golem” (1920, d. Paul Wegener and Carl Bose) in 1989 for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival and brought in my childhood friend Walter Horn to co-compose the music and play keyboards with me, and it was a big hit. Eventually I branched out and now have about 12 live music and film projects. Not all of them are silent either. For instance, I composed a live score to accompany the famously music-free Spanish “Dracula” (1931, d. George Melford), which has dialogue and sound fx on the soundtrack only. I supply the eerie music. And so it went with “El Angel Exterminador” by Luis Bunuel.

Why Buñuel? Why “The Exterminating Angel”?

I have always loved the surrealists, and Bunuel was their finest film maker, going back to 1929’s “Un Chien Andalou” which he co-directed with Salvador Dali. He was more or less exiled in Mexico for some years after a stint living in the US where his membership in the Communist party came to light. In 1962 he got the green-light to co-write and direct “The Exterminating Angel”, perhaps my favorite Bunuel film. The entire concept of an elegant dinner party filled with rich bourgeoisie who are unable for some mysterious reason to exit the dining room after finishing their meal and who after a few days trapped in the room degenerate into savagery really appeals to me in its dream-like formalism and (lack of) logic. Also the fact that the servants of the house seem to be tipped off at the film’s beginning that something like this is about to happen—and that the first servant to flee is named Lucas 🙂

In what terms and to what extent does “surrealism” continue to be a current concept?

I think the original intent and avant-garde aim of the surrealist movement—which was originally all about scandalizing and shocking the bourgeoisie with unique artifacts that skewered capitalist society, quotidian behavior, religious dogma et. al —does not much operate anymore in the world anymore really, because it's been co-opted and rehashed over many years in various and multitudinous cheap and degraded simulacrums. The original thrust and parry of the movement and its ability to shock and wake people up from the Sleep of the Machine has been blunted in what Walter Benjamin has called the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (certainly digitization has hastened this process). And it is true that the more people have been exposed to seemingly irrational and illogical works of art over the years (and there have been plenty) the more numb and deadened society has become to its effects, which were originally in the heyday of the Surrealist Masters meant to be bracing and intellectually stimulating, to posit another way of seeing the world afresh. Any kid with an iPhone now can make a “surrealistic” short film that defies so-called social norms and values and boot it up to YouTube and TikTok where its desired shocking effect is mainly vitiated in the company of millions of similar clips. What was once thought of liberating and unconventional is nowadays considered boring, ho-hum and conventional. Wyndham Lewis wrote a profound short book on this phenomenon titled “The Demon of Progress in the Arts”, which observed that after a certain point of terminal repetition the entire avant-garde bag of tricks gathering speed goes hurtling off a cliff into a virtual nullity. Happily, this film still stands the test of time—there is nothing quite like it in the canons of both cinema and surrealism, and there never ever will be.

What aspects did you work on from a sound point of view? Who and what did you get inspired by? If you had to describe this job in three adjectives…

I basically am a sonic juggler. I mix up composed themes with improvisation to provide a continual underscore throughout to hopefully complement and enhance the viewing experience, which is primary. There are only two moments in the film where a character plays the piano and in these moments I cease playing. Let's talk about music. It's inevitable not to immediately think of Jeff Buckley: what is the most vivid memory of him that you carry in your heart?

Performing “Grace” onstage at the Knitting Factory club's private 10th anniversary party in 1997 in NYC. We hadn’t played together in a few years, and it was magical all over again. He drowned shortly thereafter—what a tragedy for the world.

How is a masterpiece of the caliber of “Grace” born?

I’d met Jeff at a tribute to his father Tim Buckley, in 1991 at St Ann;s Church in Brooklyn, and the producer the late Hal Willner suggested we collaborate. I invited him overt to my apt. in the West Village the next day and heard him sing for the first time. Wow!! I took him out to lunch and proposed we work together on new songs and we really hit it off. He went back to LA where he was living with his mom and I went off to tour Europe. When I came back to my horror I learned that my contract to make an album with Columbia Records with my female singer had been cancelled and the project dropped. I called Jeff and he said “I’ll be your singer!” The next day I realized I had to now come up with fresh music to give to Jeff to add lyrics and melody to. I sat with my guitar and started passing my fingers unconsciously over the strings until I heard magic notes that gave me a chill. For several days I worked on the composing of two discrete instrumentals I titled “Rise Up to Be” and “And You Will”, recorded them on to a cassette, and snail mailed them to Jeff in LA (there was no internet at this point). He called me after receiving them and said “they’re beautiful! I’m coming to NYC in a couple weeks, let’s work on them when I get there”. He came over several weeks later and said “You know the one you call ‘Rise Up to Be’—now it’s called ‘Grace’.” He asked me to start playing it and he grabbed the mic and began singing “There’s the moon asking to stay….”. That was the first time I heard our new song sung by Jeff. It had slightly different lyrics but that was essentially it. My riffs and harmonic chord sequence was the foundation, he added a top line melody and lyrics to that. That’s how all the dozen songs I wrote with him got done. A day or two later we went into a little studio in Soho and demo’ed the songs up (“And You Will” became “Mojo Pin”). Total magic!! You can hear the original studio demo here.

Except for the one just mentioned, the song and album that changed your life.

“Evening Bell” by Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet). He composed this playing it one time only on piano in a process called “through-composition”. He taped his performance and sent it to me and said “Learn this on guitar!” “Don,” I answered, “you’re using all your ten fingers here, and there are only 6 strings on the guitar.” “You better find another four, man!” he replied. This recording on the last Beefheart album “Ice Cream for Crow” put me on the map as a guitarist.

John Cale, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Chris Cornell, Nick Cave, Captain Beefheart...a flash for each of them, for each of these meetings and experiences.

John Cale called me into a jingle studio in NYC where he was making demos in the late 90’s, and I gave him an original instrumental, which he transformed with editing and overdubs into a track called “Peter Lorre”. It has never come out officially, but it’s really lovely.

Lou Reed and I became pals after meeting hm on John Zorn’s First Festival of Radical Jewish Culture in Munich in 1992, and I jammed with him at his apartment in NYC where he told me “I could listen to you play for hours, Gary”. I later backed him up at a private Christmas show in a big rehearsal studio he performed at every year.

I backed up Iggy Pop on a "Tribute to Don Covay" album my friend Jon Tiven produced, on the track “Sookie Sookie”. I first met Iggy backstage at the second to the last Stooges show in Westchester around 1974. In those days everyone was doing Quaaludes, a kind of soporific downer, and Iggy asked me if I had any. I pulled one out of my pocket and he literally grabbed it out of my hand and gulped it down in front of me. He gave a fantastic performance btw 🙂

Patti Smith was at a tribute to the Velvet Underground’s Sterling Morrison at the new Tramps club on 23rd Street. Sterling was a fan of my Gods and Monsters album, according to his widow. My old friend Lenny Kaye was there with Patti , and we did a wild free improvisation for Sterling onstage, with Patti playing free jazz clarinet.

Nick was in NYC to promote his first book “And the Ass Saw the Angel” and we met literally in a radio station here as guests on John Hockenberry’s National Public Radio show. I knew he was a big fan of Beefheart’s and sure enough he asked me to accompany him reading a selection from his new book. It worked so well he invited me to accompany him a few weeks later at a big festival in Rotterdam, and you can hear the result on my album “Improve the Shining Hour”.

Captain Beefheart—see above

Which current artists would you like to collaborate with?

Joanna Newsom if she starts making music again. Billie Eilish. Van Morrison. Macy Gray.

Are you working on new projects?

Oh yes. I have about 4 new albums scheduled to come out this year.

Tomorrow the world ends, you can only save one of your guitars: which one do you choose?

My 1941 Gibson J-45