Interview: Drummer Antonio Sanchez on his first film composition ‘Birdman’

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Antonio Sanchez is a 4-time Grammy winning jazz artist, and part of the Pat Metheny Group. His score for Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s Birdman is his first film project, one notable for being solely composed on the drums, and it’s won Best Soundtrack at the 71st Venice Film Festival, Best Original Score at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards, and has just been nominated for a Satellite Award with possible nominations in the future.

I had the pleasure of talking to him, here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

What did you think when you first saw Birdman?

I was blown away. I couldn’t believe it. Probably a month or so went by from when it opened until I actually saw it. I remember I was in the movie theater with my fiancée and the movie started and we were holding hands and we just started grabbing each others hands really tightly like ‘oh my god this is so cool.’ To hear my drums at that volume in a movie theater was just incredible.

It’s your first film project, how did you get involved?

I used to live in Mexico City as a teenager and I loved this radio station called 96.9 W FM. Alejandro and Martin Hernandez, the guy who does sound design for his movies nowadays, were both the DJs of this station, and the first time I ever heard the Pat Metheny Group was in their show. Then fast forward many years later, I’m playing with the Pat Metheny Group in Los Angeles, and after the show there was this party where I met Alejandro and he told me that he really enjoyed the concert.

I didn’t know who he was and I was trying to get to my dressing room. He said ‘I direct films and such,’ so I asked him ‘anything I’ve seen?’ And he mentioned Amores Perros and 21 Grams and I was like ‘oh my god, you’re him!’ We struck up a really nice friendship since then. Last year in January he called me out of the blue and he said ‘Antonio, I’m working on my next film and I think it’ll be great if the whole score would be just drums, what do you think? Do you want to do it?’ and I’m like ‘of course I want to do it.’

I know you visited the set, what was it about the atmosphere that influenced your work?

Just to see the bowels of the theater and the set. That really explained to me a lot of the color and the character that the film was gonna have. It was all very tight, very claustrophobic, dirty, funky, and old. That informed me a lot about what the sound of the drums should be, why Alejandro wanted drums, and why he wanted something really organic. Like if the drums were almost kind of falling down a staircase. A sense of craziness, very chaotic, and visceral.

What was the most useful direction that Innaritu would give to you?

The session was divided into two very different parts. The first one was during a lot of demos with no image whatsoever. They were shooting the film as we were doing he demos so there was nothing really for me to look at. The first thing he did was he sent me the script, but reading a script is not like reading a book. There is so much subtext that is not there that will be filled in by the actors, the direction, the cinematography, the scenery– everything. It’s really hard for me to imagine it like that. I always say that it’s like if I told somebody ‘here’s my new record’ and I gave them the sheet music.

So we got in a studio in New York and he would just explain the scenes to me then I would just play and improvise depending on what he was telling me. He would make some verbal sounds that were very crude. He was trying to imitate what he would like the drums to sound like, and I had to kind of interpret that and see what I think he’s going for. I have a wide array of sounds in my drum kit that I could grab from and I would say ‘what about this? something like this?’ and he would say ‘yeah yeah yeah,’ or ‘maybe something softer,’ but he’s not really a drummer, obviously.

As you say Innaritu was very specific, was he a perfectionist with every beat?

He was very generous when he needed to be, and he was very specific when he needed to be, which is to me the perfect balance. Just let go and let your people do what they do best, then to also then to also have a lot of focus and direction when needed. At no point I felt uncomfortable or really pressured or nervous because he’s just a very cool guy to begin with.

There were a couple of parts that were very challenging. You will see in the movie there is a drummer who appears a couple of times. Nate Smith, a friend of mine. I had to completely imitate his movements. Alejandro was very specific and he would watch the clip over and over again to make sure that you could not tell that it was not him that was actually producing the sound. Never in my life have I had to do that.

Is there anything you may take with you into your music career?

Yes, actually, one thing that I’ve never really quite done before is over lapping different drum tracks. On certain scenes we must have done like 2 or 3 or 4 different passes on the drums to then overlay them on top of each other. That did something that I can’t achieve by myself just playing with my four limbs, instead you’re hearing sixteen limbs going nuts at once. That’s one recording technique that I think I might use in my next record for some parts.

What projects do you have in the future? Would you consider recording for film again?

Obviously it would depend on the nature of the film. I’m willing to explore anything that will be within my comfort zone and also take me out of my comfort zone. I’m always trying to push my writing one step further every record I do.

I will be recording a new record in a couple of weeks, “The Meridian Suite,” it’s a one hour plus long composition that is one continuous piece from beginning to end. Looking back I think it was influenced by the nature of Birdman. All my other albums have pieces that range from 5 minutes to maybe 13 minutes. It would be the equivalent of a writer that writes short stories and then one day they decide to write a novel.

What are your favorite film composers? Were there any influences?

I couldn’t think of anything to look up to for this film. I always think some of the best films have themes that you recognize throughout the movie. I thought maybe I can apply that to the drums, but Alejandro didn’t really dig because he wanted something a lot more organic. I didn’t want to see anything so that I could have a completely virgin approach to the whole process. But yeah, John Williams is absolutely a genius. I love Danny Elfman, Gustavo Santaollala also; there are so many great composers out there.

Have you seen the drumming-related film Whiplash – if so, how did you respond to the film? What do you think to its ethos about the perfectionism in jazz?

I did see it, and there’s some things that I really liked about the film and then some things that are just a little too exaggerated for my tastes. Being somebody that went through music school and being a professional drummer and being a fan of Buddy Rich, and having had very demanding instructors throughout my life… That just doesn’t happen in real life. To me it’s a little bit like a sports film. I’ve never bled in my life, not one bit from playing. It’s like a fantasy version of things. But that’s the movies, you wanna make it interesting for the audience and I understand that.

Do you have any favorite films of the year so far?

You know, I’ve been on tour the whole year, so I haven’t seen anything. I’m dying to get off of tour so I can start going to the movies and see what the competition is. I’d love to see Gone Girl and Interstellar, looking forward to seeing those two.

Read Editor-In-Chief Clayton Davis’ 4-Star Birdman review here.