Ross Flournoy, the Memphis-born lead vocalist and guitarist for the Samuel Beckett referencing (I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On) Los Angeles pop quartet the Broken West, writes and records soundtracks for DVDs when not performing songs from his band’s second full-length Now Or Heaven. I asked Flournoy a bit about the process and how it differs from the other music he composes. After our discussion, take a listen to Now’s “Auctioneer” and “Perfect Games.”
STEREOGUM: How did you end up doing this line of work?
ROSS FLOURNOY: Well, first of all I’m very new to this. I’ve only worked on two projects thus far. Last summer, when we had a break from tour, I had a job archiving footage from Seinfeld, which was really fun. Prior to that — before our first record came out and we went on tour — I worked at an SAT tutoring company.
But to answer your question, one of my best friends is a guy named Andrew Epstein who works as an associate producer for Apatow Productions, Judd Apatow’s company. One of Andrew’s responsibilities is to oversee the creation of the DVDs for their movies. So he’s in charge of coordinating all of the DVD “extras” — like deleted scenes, “making of” documentaries, etc. For the “making of” documentaries — or BTS, as I’ve learned they call them (Behind The Scenes) — they need music in the background. And that’s where I come in.
STEREOGUM: What was your most recent project?
RF: I just finished doing the music for the Behind The Scenes documentary for the Pineapple Express DVD, and before that I worked on the Stepbrothers Behind The Scenes.
STEREOGUM: Do you do them entirely be yourself or is it collaborative?
RF: So far I’ve done them all myself. I do them on my laptop, using an electric bass, electric guitar, and a keyboard.
STEREOGUM: Can you explain the process some? Maybe take us through one particularly interesting job…
RF: Sure. And in advance, sorry if this is all too technical and boring!
It starts with me getting a rough cut of the piece. The two I’ve worked on — the Pineapple and Stepbrothers DVDs — were each about 20 minutes long. In that first cut, the editor has put in “temp tracks” — background music which is just that, temporary. So it’s my job to come up with pieces to replace those temps. For both Pineapple and Stepbrothers, there are roughly 5-8 discrete pieces of music. Often, these pieces are no longer than 30 seconds. What I do first is figure out the tempo of the “temp tracks.” The editors like to try to synch up their cuts (edits from shot to shot) with the tempo of the music, so I like to figure out how fast or slow the “temp track” is. Then I try to get a sense of what kind of mood they’re going for, based on the what’s going on visually and what kind of temp track they put in there. Once I’ve kind of figured that out, I start searching for drum loops, find something I like, set the tempo accordingly, then I start trying to come up with melodic/structural ideas.
I’ve been starting with basslines — so writing a bassline that works with the drum loop I’ve picked. This is often the most time consuming part of the process — trying to really refine the bass/groove. I’ll come up with an idea then play it over and over for an hour or more, trying to make sure it’s working and locks in with the drums and feels right. After that, I add guitar and keys and maybe some other loops. Then I send it off to Andrew and the editor, and wait to hear if they think it works.
The thing you want to keep an eye is making sure that the piece sort of reflects the arc of whatever video it’s under — for example, a piece that starts under an interview might begin sort of mellow, then when there is a cut from the interview to a scene from the movie, you might want to pick up the pace a little bit.
STEREOGUM: What kind of guidelines are you given? If any.
RF: There are a lot of emails between Andrew, the editor, and me — which is to say I do get feedback. They’ll tell me they need a piece shortened, or lengthened, or there needs to be a “sting” here or there (I’m learning all of this new terminology! A “sting” is basically a climactic end for the music — like a cymbal crash). Also, they’ll sometimes give me some very specific direction in terms of what kind of feel they want for the piece — that is, if it should be more subdued, or lively, etc.
It’s a very fluid process, because the editor is constantly revising the documentary, so where I start writing to the rough, first cut, by the time the project is done there have usually been at least 5 or 6 new cuts before it’s finalized and “locked.”
STEREOGUM: Christina at Merge mentioned that sometimes you’re doing hip-hop/that sometimes the songs are meant to sound like other popular bands. First … can you rap? If so: Kudos. Second, can you talk a bit about what bands certain songs are meant to mimic/echo?
RF: God, I wish I could rap. But I can’t. Some of the stuff for the Pineapple DVD was a bit in the hip-hop vein, but fortunately it was all instrumental.
For the Stepbrothers DVD, there were two pieces where I was asked to specifically “ape” some well-known acts. As fate would have it, the two bands I was supposed to “emulate” were two of my all time favorites, so it was very fun and kind of easy. I don’t want to mention them by name, lest they see this and decide to sue me. But I will give some clues. One piece was supposed to sound like an electro-ish group out of New York, whose frontman was once offered a job writing for Seinfeld. The other group was a duo, one of whom had a big mustache.
STEREOGUM: Do you find doing this sort of soundtrack work helps with songwriting for the Broken West? Or does it wear you out? Has it taught you anything about the songwriting process?
RF: I have had an absolute blast working on both of these projects. If anything, I feel like it keeps me sharp. My nature is to be a bit sedentary and lazy, so it’s been good for me to have some projects that have strict deadlines. It forced me to get up every morning and write and record. I’ve been learning a lot doing this. I don’t know if it’s necessarily strictly songwriting knowledge I’m picking up — more learning about how to structure music to an image. I suppose a lesson I’ve learned that could be applied to songwriting would be how to maximize the impact of a particular moment, if that makes any sense.
STEREOGUM: Have any soundtracking ideas ended up as Broken West songs?
RF: Maybe. There was one thing I wrote for the Pineapple DVD that didn’t end up getting used that I kind of liked for the band. It’s still just a sketch.
STEREOGUM: I hate to ask, but I know the readers will undoubtedly want to know: Ever soundtrack any porn?
RF: Funny you should ask. Strictly speaking, I haven’t. When I was a younger man, my best friends would occasionally put on a “lurid” tape, then I would play electric guitar along to it, sort of improvising along to the “video”. There was a wah-wah pedal involved. On the guitar, that is. I would be amenable to doing some porn. I think I would have to use a “nom de plum” for that. Maybe Simon Blacklock. Or Cary Falcon, or something like that. I haven’t been asked yet. But if anyone who reads this works for Vivid or any company of the like, I am interested.
[That’s Ross, aka Cary Falcon, on the far left]