Robert Millis and Jeffery Taylor are the duo behind Seattle-based musical outfit Climax Golden Twins. Masters of atmospheric audio collage and obsessive collectors of voices from the past (in the form of obscure 78rpm singles), they’d seem to be the perfect choice to score a horror movie … which is exactly what they did for the 2001 film “Session 9.”
Don’t remember that one, you say? Well, that’s what Netflix is for, I reply. In this humble horror fan’s opinion, “Session 9” boasts one of the most interesting soundtracks to come along in a while. A score that knows it’s a score, that builds a sense of place through layered sound and that forwards the narrative rather than sells companion CDs. It’s one of 10 horror soundtracks we’ve listed as need-to-hears for the ghoulish season.
Millis and Taylor were kind enough to talk with me about scary movies and their experience in composing the music for “Session 9.”
Erin Chapman: Are you horror fans yourselves?
Rob Millis: Somewhat. I more like old horror stuff, the black and white classics. So, monster movies more than the contemporary stuff. I do appreciate the genre, though. There’s lots of great sound being done there. When I was a kid on Long Island there was always the 4:30 Movie that would show, basically, movies geared towards occupying kids after school. There were theme series weeks with things like all-Dracula, all-Frankenstein, all-Godzilla. And there were radio DJs that did stuff like that, too.
Jeffery Taylor: The first scary movie I remember seeing is probably “The Amityville Horror.” I read it when I was a teenager and it scared the hell out of me. Foolishly, I then saw the movie, which also scared the hell out of me. Prior to that it was the black and white stuff like “Dracula.” When I was 6 or 7 I was really obsessed. I don’t think those movies scared me, but I was fascinated with them.
Chapman: You’ve scored several films, as well as theater and dance projects — is there any difference between those and doing a horror movie?
Taylor: Those were mostly live accompaniment situations, so working on “Session 9” was slightly different. We were working on visual cues that the movie offered. There were definitely parts that would be improvised, but when you’re looking at something it’s feeding you some kind of information and therefore you react to that. It was a very natural process for us.
I think one of the reasons that soundtrack was successful was because it’s not clobbering you over the head, it’s not a pop song that someone licensed and threw in. It was very considered in how it was going to work in relation to what you’re seeing on the screen. We were sculpting sound to fit what happened there. It doesn’t seem like a lot of people work that way. It’s like you’ve got to get a popular band and throw their song on so people will buy the soundtrack. Subtlety is lacking in a lot of sound tracks. They just clobber you over the head with scary sounds.
Chapman: Did you read the screenplay or see footage beforehand?
Millis: We were scoring to the footage. We’ve done abstract films before or stuff for choreography, but we weren’t used working within the Hollywood idea — which is you compose stuff and then you make it work to picture lock. So, we were getting pieces of the film before that and scoring directly to it. Layering it bit by bit.
Chapman: To me, so much of a good horror movie like “Session 9″ is about creating a strong sense of place. Were you thinking about that when you were composing and recording? Where were you?
Millis: Well, we did some field recording. I wanted to be able to go to the actual building [Ed. note: “Session 9” centers around an actual location -- Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts], but that wasn’t in the budget. Usually there never is anything in the budget for films like that. So, we’re based in Seattle these days and that’s where we recorded most of the material. I was working in an art gallery at the time with creaky wood floors and there was a four-wheel dolly we pushed around. That was one of the first sounds I recorded. I don’t know if it even ended up in the film. It was an empty, echo-y gallery space.
Taylor: For most of the process we were in a cavernous old cement warehouse. I can’t say it got very spooky.
Chapman: Were you thinking at all about the conventions of the horror soundtrack genre, like leitmotifs?
Millis: No, not at all actually. I love soundtracks of all different kinds, but my record collection tends to be different than soundtracks. We wanted to approach “Session 9” much more abstractly and ambiently. Really this was about this building [the Danvers Hospital] first and foremost … echo-y sounds in the distance. So, in prepping for the movie we recorded weird, squeaky wheels going down hallways like in an old hospital, a gurney rolling along creaking wood, closing doors, heating ducts, low drone-y stuff.
Chapman: Sort of the musique concrète thing?
Millis: Yeah, that’s what we came out of. [The horror score] lent itself really well to collage.
Taylor: I don’t think we ever thought of it in a strictly traditional film scoring way, although maybe it ultimately turned out like that.
Chapman: In the best of horror films, I find myself literally clutching the chair. There’s a physicality to it that I love. When you were scoring for “Session 9″ were you thinking about generating a real visceral reaction from the audience?
Millis: Yeah. But it’s more about creating that reaction in me and then finding that it translates to the audience. Say with “Session 9,” there were low, heavy drones — that might not come across on a small TV, but in the theater they did. That kind of sound creates a very physical reaction. We also used very, very high-pitched sounds. You can almost not even hear them, but they make you feel uncomfortable. Atmospheric horror — that’s what we were interested in.
Taylor: At times we were trying to come up with the creepiest sound we could. That’s kind of the thing about that movie. There’s really not a lot of overt violence in the film itself. This film is just really creepy psychologically, and I think we kind of matched that intensity with the sounds we generated.
Chapman: So, what makes something creepy?
Taylor: That’s a good question. If you listen to the soundtrack by itself, I suppose if you’ve never even seen the movie, I think there would be parts of those sounds that would be ominous or disturbing or dark. It’s just a mark of the fact that we successfully achieved what we were trying to do.
Chapman: What frightens you?
Taylor: You’ve never met us in person – we’re really scary guys. I don’t watch a lot of horror movies. But “The Descent” scared the hell out of me because of the confined spaces. [Ed. note: “The Descent” is a movie about a group of cavers who are attacked by strange, underground creatures.] The spelunking freaked me out more than the monsters. There’s a similar point in “Session 9” where a kid afraid of the dark runs down a hallway with the lights going out. That was a particularly scary moment even though it’s just a guy scared of the dark.
When I finished high school in Lakewood, Washington, I lived not far from Western State Hospital, which is similar to Danvers — the hospital in “Session 9.” Part of it is abandoned and I used to go there with friends when we were young, and it was truly creepy. I bet that was in my mind when we were working on the film because it was just like the same kind of abandoned, scary old building. It’s primarily scary because you know what happened in those spaces back in the day. I mean, this building was functional in the late 1800s. I’m sure the practices they used back then were horrifying. I’m certain I thought of that during “Session 9.”
Chapman: What are your favorite/influential horror composers or scores?
Millis: Not at the time of Session 9, but now I’m a huge fan of Morricone. Indian soundtracks are also influential. Obviously, those don’t work at all in the way I just described that we worked. But a lot of sounds they use in Bollywood are fantastic — the effects on instruments and things like that. Popol Vuh’s soundtracks for the Werner Herzog movies “Aguirre” and “Nosferatu” are huge influences on me. Huge influences without me even realizing it.
Taylor: I was certainly aware of Morricone at the time we were doing that film. I’d also say Bernard Hermann and a lot of Henry Mancini. His “Experiment in Terror” is fantastic.
Chapman: Are there any classic monster movies you’d like to re-imagine with a new soundtrack?
Millis: I have to admit that I don’t think so much in terms of wanting to re-imagine stuff because if I think it’s great to begin with, it’s already great. Like Godzilla — the sound of his voice. Already great.