The Nighttown Boys
by Peter Murphy
Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer give Peter Murphy a blow-by-blow guide to soundtracking The Boxer.
HUNCHED OVER their cappuccinos at the back of Tosca s restaurant, Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer look for all the world like two mafiosi plotting the details ofa particularly tricky hit and not the chartbusting kind, either. But while this odd couple are not renowned for troubling the Top 40, they should be regarded as key players in any chronicle of Dublin s music culture. Between 1988 and 1996 the pair recorded a trilogy of albums for Island Records that, for anyone who was listening, created a new Irish musical identity, re-introducing humour and surrealism to an end-of-the-millennium party previously hogged by po-faced poltroons.
From the ruined pre-war splendour of Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves, through the velveteen aestheticism of Adam And Eve, to the blue-lit exotica of Shag Tobacco, the two men took Joyce and Beckett as their oracle and went hunting for the real indigenous Irish spirit in Europe, soaking up elements of Brecht, Weill, Brel, Gainsbourg and Piaf. The result was a canon of work that had an obtuse but very real influence on everyone from U2 down to Jack L.
In fact, on their most recent album, Friday and Seezer seemed to re-imagine the capital as some Western-European Interzone populated by a madcap cast that included Genet, Cocteau, Pat McCabe, The Diceman, Oscar Wilde, Behan and Bono, all scrambling for last hors d oeuvres in Mr. Pussy s at four in the morning.
Island finally dropped them in 96, but this duo were never going to be another record company casualty. ( You sort of worry about A&R men when you re 20, Gavin laughs. I mean, we re men! ) And with allies such as The Heads, Marc Ribot and Hal Willner, not to mention career breaks like having songs included in Robert Altman s Short Cuts and on the multi-million selling Romeo And Juliet soundtrack, it s clear that these two will never be short of fish to fry.
More recently, under the auspices of director Jim Sheridan (whom Friday had known since the days of The Virgin Prunes and the Project Arts Centre), the pair have become increasingly absorbed in the world of film. Gavin was employed as musical consultant for Sheridan s In The Name Of The Father, with that often stunning soundtrack providing a mad laboratory where he, Seezer and Bono, plus guests such as Sinead O Connor, Jah Wobble, Tommy Hayes and Tim Simenon, could turn Irish music onto alien elements.
Two years later, when Sheridan s next project The Boxer was reaching its final stages, the director again invited Friday and Seezer on board, but this time to provide an original score. The result is probably a more conventional soundtrack album, but a rich one nonetheless, juxtaposing contemporary dance rhythms with stark bouzouki parts (courtesy of Hothouse Flower Peter O Toole) and stately set-pieces. It is an accomplished work, and one that should raise a few eyebrows in cinematic circles.
It s trial and error, Gavin says of the fine art of soundtracking. Jim showed us the first boxing match of the three or four he shot, and his first call was that he wanted it really rhythmic and aggressive. But when we put up rough demos of this against the movie, he just went No, no, no, it s taking over the whole thing.
The mad thing about that was, you d think the boxing matches were the first and foremost thing that could have music, but ended up having none at all, Maurice muses. No matter what we tried, it just seemed to be wrong. I think maybe people are used to seeing boxing matches with just commentary. If you look at all the great uses of boxing in film in the past, very few of them have music. Rocky was probably the exception. It seemed really difficult to get anything that would work, but as soon as we clarified that in our heads it became a lot easier, we started working around it.
Scorsese used all old Italian opera and classical, Gavin recalls. If you look at Raging Bull, it s like an opera. Visually, it s so beautiful, it s in black-and-white with a blue tint, it s all slow motion, and you don t even feel the audience is there, it s like a big stage. I think Jim was really fighting against that, he just wanted the sweat and the kids screaming at the side of the ring.
The most interesting clue he gave us was that slow-motion in movies is so often used to heighten the violence of the moment, Maurice continues. Scorsese did an extraordinary thing with the actual boxing by having strange, slowed-down animal noises. They were really subliminal and heightened the tension. That was an influence.
Gavin and Maurice were renting a small studio around the
corner from Sherriff Street while Sheridan was shooting The Boxer, and the director would frequently call in to discuss his work in progress. However, the last thing they expected was an invitation to write the original score.
Our initial reaction to that was, well, we d never scored a film before in our lives, Maurice recounts. We said, You re in a situation where you can get any scorer in Hollywood. What if we don t come up with the goods? And he just said, If I don t like it, you ll get paid and I ll just get somebody else. So he was very straight from the very start. But the thing about a director is, it s his movie. He can actually tell you that something you ve been working on for three weeks is crap, and to drop it.
Was there pressure to come up with The Hit?
No, Gavin replies emphatically. I mean, Jim is a commercially-minded guy, but I think as the film started developing, it started showing that it wasn t a populist movie. I mean, it s quite stark, so that never really came into it. Really, we were working for Jim to get his vision across, but at the same time we were going, Eh, this is our next fuckin album, Sheridan! We argued with him a lot and he d argue back, but really healthy.
The singer is fulsome in his praise of Sheridan, frequently adopting the film-maker s squeaky inner-city accent in order to embellish a fruity anecdote.
Jim s like a character in 3D, he s like an actor in a movie himself, he continues. He d throw things at you like, The gym is a church, it s religion. I remember one of the first things he did after showing us the rushes in Ardmore was to say, C mon into the car lads. And you want to see his car, man. The fuckin woofers on it! He s decked out like Dr Dre. And he played Murder Was The Case by Snoop Doggy Dogg, and he s like, Can ye get that vibe? And I was goin , Yeah . . . but this is about the North, and we re all white and working-class and it s not LA!
But he d throw you abstract clues like that. One of the most intriguing things was when he said, Write a love theme, but when you re writing it, listen to the water. That s your rhythm, right? (laughs) He s a fuckin genius. But we know him years, and we d broken the ice with In The Name Of The Father.
Ah, yes. Between the thundering lambeg drums, Sinead O Connor s keening and Bono s blue note/sean-nos explorations, the original compositions on In The Name Of The Father were a wild cross-section of Irish, eastern, and even industrial sounds. By contrast, The Boxer is a rather more reflective piece of work.
The bravado of In The Name Of The Father was coming from a totally different place, Gavin expounds. I dunno, we sort of had this thing, like, Let s ban the bodhran. In The Name Of The Father was weird, Jim was going Let s go middle-east cos that s where the Celts are from , all those cliches, but we took it to the extent of getting Maire Breatnach in to do a fiddle solo and then putting it through a fuzzbox amp. So, it s like, yeah, it s a fiddle solo, but it s the spirit of the Gerry Conlon character as Jimi Hendrix.
With The Boxer, you re not in the spirit of a fuckin mad yob out on the piss who then gets into trouble. It s a far more adult movie. One of the first things we were struck by emotionally, and the real thing that I love about the movie, is that it s harsh. It looks like a working-class area, which Belfast is. The people dress like they re from Tallaght. It ain t stylised, there s a quite depressing look off the place, and our initial thing was to put some warmth and sensuality into the characters. So rather than going rock n roll, vibey bodhran , we decided to go for more emotion.
Which, in a way, is what The Godfather does, adds Maurice. It puts these beautiful themes in a very violent situation, which completely counteracts it.
Gavin Friday has long served as U2 s on-tour confidante and reality checker, and his input into the creation of such Bono alter egos as The Fly and MacPhisto on the Zooropa tour cannot be underestimated. Indeed, even on the PopMart extravaganza, Bono seemed to have absorbed an awful lot of Gavin s Chaplin-esque swagger. Such cross-referencing might be no stranger than supermodels swapping make-up tips in the toilets, but surely Gavin finds it a little odd to see elements of himself paraded in front of such vast audiences?
It s a weird thing, he says, hesitantly. It s very complex, y know? I know this bloke for 30 years. We re almost like brothers. I mean, I remember at one stage he just said, Jesus Christ, I don t know who I am, sometimes I m you. Yeah, I can see elements and influences there, but I can t really get into it, y know? What can I say?
I m sure bits of Bono rub off on you as well, Maurice points out.
They do, I can do a great Bono, Gavin grins. I can go into Principle Management and get a car sent to my house like that. There are times we sound like each other when we re talking, and in our mannerisms. Y know, I ve learnt an awful lot from him over the years, and vice-versa. I think half the great charm of any performer is the magpie element, but when you put your suit on, make sure it s your own suit.
The interesting thing is like, y know, MacPhisto was quite influenced by me, I mean I did put the horns on his head, literally, and then when we were doing our Shag Tobacco tour, I had created this character where it was me doing a pun on Mr. Pussy, and I actually started taking elements of MacPhisto. It s a double-barreled thing. I d only be worried about it if we were writing the same type of lyrics and expressing the same music. What is it somebody said? We re one/But we re not the same !! (laughs) Let s leave it at that! I think Hot Press, the next time you re talking to Bono, should ask him about Gavin.
Quentin Tarantino once suggested that compiling a 90-minute tape of songs is much the same as storyboarding a movie. Prior to shooting Pulp Fiction, the auteur reminded himself that if he was going to make a film worthy of following Dick Dale s Miserlou , it d better be an epic.
A lot of people work like that, Gavin confirms. Pat McCabe starts all his books with two songs. The Dead School was Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep and Macushla . I was out with Pat last week, and I met Neil Jordan he s made a new film with Robert Downey Jr in America, In Dreams is the working title. It s a psycho horror movie, and Neil s big into Radiohead, he has all their albums, but he can t put the music in, it d just dominate the film. He s in this dilemma that if you want to use contemporary stuff, you have to shoot with that in mind.
The two musicians readily admit that they would have liked a crack at scoring The Butcher Boy.
I know everyone rants on about the kid, Gavin states, but have you ever seen The Tin Drum? I haven t seen a performance like it since that.
Of course, Gavin and Maurice were utilising film and theatre references long before getting into the soundtrack business.
There s always been that cinematic quality to what we ve done, Gavin testifies. So much of Shag Tobacco was placed in movies without us even writing for them.
As well as absorbing the Berlin cabaret and torch song traditions into the live act, their early collaborations with New York record producer Hal Willner were quite cinematic experiences themselves.
It was almost like working with a Woody Allen who makes records, Gavin effuses. He d say Watch Satyricon or 81/2 by Fellini and then rethink how you approach that song . He s just this encyclopedia of art, music, everything, he s a genius. The first time we ever worked together really seriously was on Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves, and he put together people from Waits band, Fernando Saunders who d worked with Lou Reed, mind-blowing musicians, and he d sit there and go Alright, just play. It blew our minds completely. He ll take three months to sequence an album, he won t let go.
We contributed to his last project, Closed On Account Of Rabies, poems and words of Edgar Allen Poe, a double CD with Diamonda Galas 29-minute version of The Black Cat , Christopher Walken, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Marianne (Faithfull), and we did a poem called For Annie . Hal s getting more and more into spoken word, his whole thing now is a Lenny Bruce tribute. He s also making a dance record for Howie B s Pussycat label called Whoops, I m An Indian. There are two people I ve met in my career who actually sweat talent, and that s Pat McCabe and Hal Willner.
And if that sounds like a recipe for the spoken word project to end them all, bear in mind that there were substantial rumours of a Friday/Seezer collaboration with the Clones psycho last year, based on McCabe s Shagging Tobacco essay ( I dreamt that night I died in Dublin, alone in a city about to come apart . . . ).
It was weird, it felt really contrived and we put it on the backburner for a while, Gavin recounts. The flow of the way Pat writes is a tough one, and it wasn t even as narrative-friendly as The Butcher Boy I mean Shagging Tobacco is pretty much off its tits. We ll see, eventually it might be our sort of Basement Tapes. Pat s a mate, a real friend and an inspiration.
We actually started writing radio plays together rather than going out and getting pissed all the time. (imitates McCabe s Monaghan tones) Ah, we ll have to stop doing this Gavin Friday! I ll end up having a heart attack! So we used to meet for breakfast and discuss ideas and then go back and write. We wrote a great one called Bus Stop At The End Of The World which is set on New Year s Eve, 1999. A bus pulls up outside Mr Pussy s: Flann O Brien s the bus driver, Mr Pussy s the conductor, Oscar Wilde, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, me, Bono, Jim Sheridan. Mr Pussy hates David Bowie and wants to kick him off the bus for being a tramp. Just shite. But y know, the great thing about Pat is, half of you going out and getting pissed is writing stories and ideas, he s a fucking well of inspiration.
Despite some misgivings ( RTE need a bullet up the arse ), Gavin seems convinced that the temperature and temperament of Irish culture is changing.
Jordan brings out The Butcher Boy and it s like opening up the carpet, he enthuses. The Virgin Mary has a Dublin accent and says Fuck . Sinead s amazing, thank God she kept the Dublin accent. It s like a real little bubble has been burst with The Butcher Boy, it s a different Irish movie, as is The Boxer. The thing I quite like about The Boxer is it s probably Sheridan s hardest movie, there s no frills, no big crescendo, it s just this ordinary story about ordinary people in an extraordinary, fucked-up environment. End of story. n