Interview: Globe-Winning Composer Alex Ebert On How “A Most Violent Year” Changed The Way He Makes Music

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes frontman Alex Ebert won a Golden Globe for his debut as a composer for J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost. They collaborate again for Chandor’s followup A Most Violent Year, with Ebert writing an original song called “America For Me.” I caught him just as he wrapped up recording the next Edward Sharpe album, here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

How are you enjoying composing scores for film?

I love it, man. I’m so glad I get to do that. It’s changed everything. It’s just helped out in the sense that it’s a liberated variety of song making.

What do you connect to most about A Most Violent Year?

To me that movie is a character study. A hyperbolic capitalist meditation combined with this amazing sense of morality. It’s this very strange brew, like Scarface meets Abe Lincoln or something. It’s just distinctly American. That’s the part that when I saw the first cut I was really excited to explore, bringing everyone into that world.

Do you know what drew J.C. Chandor to you?

I wonder that myself. I’m not sure how he was able to decipher that that would be something that I would be able to do. He could tell that I worked with layers and he thought ‘if he can arrange and compose music for 10 musicians then he’ll be able to do it.’ It seems that he took a bit of a leap of faith.

Did you intend for your followup to All Is Lost to be another collaboration with J.C.?

No, it wasn’t quite like that. I had taken some meetings with some other things but they didn’t feel right. I did do the score for a Disney short that plays now before Big Hero 6 and that was really fun, it’s called Feast. It’s kind of [Henry] Mancini-esque if you will. It’s sort of this dainty waltz.

What’s your working relationship like with J.C.?

He gives me so much rope that I end up hanging myself.

What do you mean by that?

He likes to see where I’ll take something before he comments at the last moment. In a sense I really appreciate that. It allows me to throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall and see what’s sticking. But yeah, his way with me seems to be using the force in this vague way. The best part is we get to state our cases for why we like this thing or that thing. It’s a nice working relationship where if there’s something that he’s the fence about and I really love I have the freedom to try and state my case for. That’s a good thing.

Is there anything new you learned about composing this second time around?

I wrote this song called “America For Me” for the end of the movie and that did change a lot for me. I played these beat machines with a beat really fast and before writing down any words I started freestyling without any music. Just doing the bare minimum and letting the song mutate as I recorded it. I don’t know if it’s my 10,000 hours suddenly getting plugged in and I advanced all at once but it changed a lot about the way I think about art in general.

In what ways?

What’s necessary. What is the essence of this song or this piece or this writing. Stripping it down to the most essential components and being very weary of adding anything else. Being in a band with 10 people, that wasn’t always my approach. It was just one of those ah-ha moments and I’ve remained that way since.

Have you taken that to your Edward Sharpe stuff that you’re doing now?

Yeah actually, we recorded this album mostly all at once, which is something I’ve never really done. Instead of tracking the basics then adding, we tracked almost everything. A lot of people in the band would just stay quiet and not play which is not something we were normally accustomed to, but it seems like something that everyone understood. Also production techniques like leaving reverb alone and not relying so heavily on it. 

Typically the synth of the 80s in pop is joyful unlike your score. Whose synth sounds were you inspired by?

Yeah, I was thinking of the meditative and darker synthetic sound. I actually didn’t revisit anything or actually even reference anything. J.C. sent me some Jan Hammer and I actually forgot to end up looking at it. I knew what Miami Vice sounded like, in my mind I remember what the score to Scarface was, these sort of dark brooding synthetic scores.

But you didn’t want to actually listen to them?

No, I didn’t end up listening to them.

Did you not want to borrow too heavily, is that why?

You know, I don’t know if that’s it or if I was just being lazy. I tend not to reference. You always feel kind of like a schmuck when you genuinely actually go reference something. I reference The Beatles all the time in my head but I don’t actually go listen to a song because then I’d really feel like an idiot. You know what I mean? I’d feel like I was totally stealing.

Actually for All Is Lost when I read the script I thought of the soundtrack for The Mission. I only remember it because my father loved that score so much. That was the one time I actually sort of referenced anything but it wasn’t to rip it off. The reason I didn’t use an oboe in All Is Lost is because Morricone now owns the oboe because of that score. That’s actually what pushed me to find the alto flute which is sort of now my favorite instrument to score with.

Do you feel that this atmospheric music is more true to your sensibilities than your songwriting work? In the sense that it’s not dictated by any necessary formula.

I think that now I’ve become what I would consider in my own estimation a very good songwriter but I don’t think I would’ve said that last year. I’d say that I have hits and misses but my natural abilities would be geared towards orchestral music. 

Is “America For Me” that moment where you decided you could call yourself a good songwriter?

In a sense it all culminated there, it had been culminating throughout the last year and again I don’t know if it’s the 10,000 hours thing or that I’ve suddenly put in my work. But yeah suddenly with “America For Me” I was able to look back at all the songs I’d written this last year and be like ‘oh okay, that’s garbage, that’s good, that one sucks, I don’t what I was thinking with that one.’

I think clarity is really what’s needed to be a great songwriter, it’s almost all about being able to detect whether or not something is bullshit. When you’re songwriting it’s hard to get your audience and the idea of success out of your mind. You may be prone to throw in sort of a garbage line or something that is just like stock because you think ‘oh well people will like it.’ But since then I feel like, yeah it sounds crazy, but I feel like I’m a different person.

There are similarities to the sparse and bleak tone of your two films with J.C. Do you think that if you were to collaborate again that it would continue this vein or be a deliberate departure?

I was actually trying to push an avant garde jazz score onto A Most Violent Year at the beginning. I’m all for exploration. It’s possible that with J.C. that this sort of tone will generally be expressed with his movies. You know, his next movie is this gigantic sort of end of days scenario with the BP oil spill. I have no idea what that holds in store or if I’m actually doing that score or not, it’s very early on in that process. I think that he has something that he’s working on in general that’s really interesting. He lets the actions of the characters be the story. That’s pretty fascinating to me.

I know that you had aspirations of filmmaking. Do you still intend to direct and write films?

Yes! Yeah, if I wasn’t so busy right now, I’d be all over that.

Are you still writing? What type of films do you write?

I’ve written a few. Couple of satiric sort of looks at the world. But this current one is a pretty stark story about Native America. It’s sort of an updated version of The 400 Blows set in America with an American Indian boy. Yeah, it’s exciting.

What do you think?

Written by Jack Moulton

Jack is a recent graduate of the University of Hertfordshire, UK, with a degree in Film and Television Production. Resident film encyclopaedia, he naturally slipped into film journalism, though has interest in writing and making them himself one day. See his tumblr blog to the side for more film reviews and lists.

Nevada Film Critics Winners – ‘Gone Girl’ takes Top Prize, Dan Gilroy takes Director

Oscar Circuit: Going Home for the Holidays with Screeners