Had a chance to catch up with keyboardist and composer John Medeski, who composed and performed the original score for the Showtime series, The Curse, created and written by Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie. Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, a regular collaborator of show co-creator Benny Safdie, served as the executive producer of the album, which was recorded and mixed by Randall Dunn.
Photos Courtesy of Randall Dunn, The Curse Recording Sessions at Circular Ruin Studio.
Synth History: When did you first start getting into music and what kind of stuff were you listening to?
John: I started playing piano when I was maybe five or six, studying classical piano. I don't even know what I was necessarily listening to, I liked the theme to The Lone Ranger. I took lessons and then I listened to some of the stuff my parents listened to and whatever was on the radio at that time. In fourth grade I was playing playing bassoon and percussion and in marching band. So, I was kind of involved in music in a lot of ways. I was part of an after school community children's theater and I ended up being kind of the piano player guy. I would just accompany a lot of people in that realm, you know, musicals. I wrote a couple musicals in high school.
Synth History: So you grew up playing classical, what was your relationship like with jazz?
John: I think my dad was sort of into big band stuff and I heard it. But then, I had a neighbor, one of my best friends when I was young, his older brother was a drummer. He brought me into his room and had this amazing stereo. He played me some jazz records and it was kind of one of those universe altering moments, you know? Like, holy crap! These songs that I sort of knew, or were familiar to me, could be played this whole other way. I was probably 10 or 11. I got really into it and found a jazz piano teacher and started studying jazz while I was studying classical. That kind of music was always a big part of my life.
I ended up in a band when I was like 16 with older, more professional musicians. We would do our own version of jazz-like stuff, but definitely more contemporary and modern. It wasn't that hard for a 16 year old to get into a bar at that time in Fort Lauderdale, that’s where I grew up. So I would go to play with these guys at country clubs and play dance music and cocktail music. There was more live music in general and as a piano player you could get work. So, I started working. Then I went to music school in Boston, the Conservatory of Music, originally as a classical major, but switched over my second year there after realizing that's not what I wanted to do.
Synth History: Can you tell me when you first started to incorporate the synthesizer into your music and about your first experience with a synthesizer?
John: Well, the first experience was at my high school. I mainly thought I was going to be a piano player, but I remember messing around with a Moog. I would use it and have fun, but I never really thought that's what I was going to end up doing so much of. I had another older friend, a peer of the guy who introduced me to jazz who had some keyboards like that, organ and some synthesizer stuff, and I’d check them out. I didn't really know if that was ever going to be a thing for me. I guess in high school I had a Rhodes and I had some effects because I wanted it to sound weirder, but I only did that because there was no piano at some of these clubs. Then I discovered the B3 Hammond organ. The first year I discovered it, I was like, Oh, wow, this is like a whole thing! I started getting into that, ended up playing seven nights a week with a blues band, learning more about the organ and starting to explore the sounds. For me, it was really kind of about adding other colors rather than other musicians. It was cheaper as a trio.
Synthesis kind of used to terrify me because it was such a universe, but it was in so much of the music that I loved, I just started incorporating things like that. I got a Minimoog and started messing around with it. It was just part of the evolution of searching for sounds. I felt better making music with analog synths, with something where the sound was inviting me to create.
Synth History: So you worked with Daniel Lopatin on the score for Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie's The Curse, can you tell me about how that came together? How did you meet those guys and how did that start?
John: I work with Randall Dunn who's an engineer, we produced and he mixed this record called Dark Wave, where I played a lot of synths. Randall and Daniel had worked together before. I guess Benny approached Daniel about this soundtrack and gave him a little bit of what his concept was. Daniel, who I had yet to meet, for some reason, thought of me and Randall, called me up and said, “Hey, are you interested?” He told me, “This is Benny Safdie whose movies, they're amazing.” And then, of course, Nathan Fielder, who I knew from watching his shows. I knew of Daniel, but hadn’t checked out his music a lot at that point. As soon as we did this, I checked it out, and it's amazing. So I said, “Yeah.”
I ended up talking with Daniel about it and he gave me the concept. The amount of involvement of who was doing what wasn't really defined at all in the beginning. They just asked me if I would compose the music and then we would work together in pairing and editing it and producing it for the show. Then I talked to Benny and Nathan separately and they were both excited about it. We all actually got together in the studio before they started shooting and did a session, just creating some music and atmospheres around the sort of original concept, they were really attracted to this Alice Coltrane song that's in the show. There's something about the feeling of it. So we recorded a whole day's worth of stuff that they then took, and while they were shooting, they started checking the music out with the scenes. Then, they started sending me the dailies so I could get more familiar with the actual look and vibe and pacing of it.
I think we really didn't end up using a whole lot from the first session, because part of the concept really was that the music… they didn't want the music to be like the kind of soundtrack that tells the audience what to feel. I mean, the show's a tad uncomfortable, you know, and relentlessly. It made it really fun for me. The music was almost like another character, like another perspective on the scene, almost more contemplative and not really feeding emotions of happiness or sadness, but just like another parallel entity.
That was fun and that’s basically how we approached it. I think there was just something about the nature of it that led us to more and more synthesizers throughout, which was great for me. Originally, I brought in some weird organs and things and we recorded some of them because the Alice Coltrane track was her on her Wurlitzer organ, but I think as they shot and as the show started to have a life of its own, what was necessary in terms of the music kind of changed.
I think the way those guys work on this is very organic. They would meet people in town and then figure out a way or rework a scene or create a character for these people, because it was very personality-based. I mean, they had the script, they had the main characters. But then a lot of it evolved according to what was available and what was happening and the music kind of ended up being like that, too.
Synth History: That's pretty interesting and very cool.
John: Yeah, I ended up giving them - I was talking with Randall and Daniel - there are probably two more records of material that never got used. I gave them a lot of options. When you talk about perspective, there's a lot of different ways to look at something.
Synth History: Do you think you'll ever release that stuff?
John: I hope. I mean, Showtime owns it, right? So, I don’t know how that would work. We'll see. I hope so, because there is so much stuff, it is cool! It is very different, you know.
Synth History: Do you remember some of the particular instruments that you used on the score?
John: Oh, yeah. I can remember all of it. I mean, there's obviously some Hammond organ on it. A real prominent keyboard that I used more than I ever would have imagined was a Korg Delta, an old analog synth, which is very cool. I used a real Mellotron quite a bit. I used the digital Mellotron a little bit. I mean, piano was not the right thing because every instrument is sort of like a signifier of something. Piano can just create this… it has a character in it. When paired in a film, sort of sentimental, the instrument does something. So that was kind of part of it, how to use these instruments in ways that didn't recall too much in the way of genre and signifiers. That was part of the challenge and part of the fun in doing it, really trying to use these instruments creatively and not in a way that was reminiscent of something, creating a new landscape of sound with them.
I also used the Korg MS-20, Ensoniq Fizmo, ESQ1. I used a Korg Polysix. I think the Jupiter 6 was on it. Some cool delays. An UDO Super 6 was used for some of the sequencing stuff.
Synth History: Do you have any favorite pieces of score or moments from the show?
John: There's a scene where Whitney ends up kind of walking by this ashram. What ended up happening was, they were all singing in there. This was actually a real ashram and they were singing. And it was kind of fun because I used the Mellotron and some other synths to sneak in under their singing. It became these Mellotron voices and I started to bend the tape. A Mellotron has a belt and spins and pulls these tapes across tape-heads. It's actually very mechanical. So opening it up. I like to do this a lot by touching the wheel, you can change the speed and that's the sound of the tape. So, I enjoyed that one.
Synth History: Do you have any favorite memories from recording it?
John: I mean, just those guys in the studio, it was really fun having them there. Especially the first session, it really created the foundation, all of us hanging out, getting to know each other around music. Those guys coming in and then the second session that they came to, which we did in New York City, Daniel and I playing together. I don't even know if any of that was used, but just hanging out with those guys and getting to know what their aesthetic is. Being able to talk about what we don't get to hear, like what's working, what's not working and getting to know their vision, those times were fun.
Synth History: If you could pick one record that you think everybody should listen to at least once in their lifetime, it could be anything, what would it be?
John: Oh, that's a tough one. Let me contemplate that for a minute.
I mean, it's a hard call because you say one thing, you're leaving out another. I don't want to try and be too clever and come up with something obscure. On a basic, simple level, I would have to say John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.
Synth History: That's a good one.
John: You definitely need to have heard that, I think, to be a human on planet Earth.
Synth History: If you could give aspiring composers one piece of advice for approaching a score, what would it be?
John: Well, I guess my advice is to really be yourself and find the music from within you. But it's also probably bad advice because you'll never get much work if you do that.
Synth History: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I really like the score a lot. It's so cool and one of my favorite parts of the show!
John: It means a lot because, as with most things I do, I can't really make music that isn’t personal. For me, that's important, and when it's personal, it's hard to have a perspective, an objective viewpoint of it. Because yeah, I don't know, maybe it's good, but, you know, maybe it sucks.
Synth History: Well, I think it's really good.
Synth History Exclusive.
Photos Courtesy of Randall Dunn, The Curse Recording Sessions at Circular Ruin Studio.
Interview conducted by Danz.