Popping Out! M meets Stuart Staples

Stuart Staples is a founder member and  key songwriter in the Nottingham band Tindersticks. The band formed in the 90s and has released eight critically-acclaimed albums for labels including Island and 4AD.

Tindersticks’ sound is characterised by sweeping melodies and rich orchestral oeuvres, with Rhodes piano, vibraphone, clarinet, bassoon, Hammond organ, and a wind section. All these elements are bound together by Staples’ baritone vocals and ambiguous lyrical themes.

Staples, together with Tindersticks, has worked with French director Claire Denis for 15 years, scoring six films including poetic horror Trouble Every Day and Gallic classic Nenette et Boni.  The BFI on London’s Southbank recently hosted a retrospective of their work to celebrate the release of a boxset of all the soundtracks, and M went down to find out more.

In a rare interview, Staples talks to Anita Awbi about how working on album projects and soundtracks simultaneously has kept his songwriting fresh, and helped to hold his interest in the music-making process for nearly two decades.

Can you tell me how you got into scoring films in the first place?

Me and Claire have been working together a long time, it started about 15 years ago. It was when she making a film called Nenette et Boni and she felt a connection with a piece of music that we’d made at that time. She approached us and wanted to use a piece or two. We got into a conversation, because that felt a bit dead to us, and we decided to score the whole film. The relationship started there really. Since then, we’ve done six films between us.

The bog standard Tindersticks review will always describe your music as ‘cinematic’. Do you think that there is a good marriage between the band and Claire’s films because of that particular sound?

I think it came about because of a song we’d written called My Sister. It’s just a really playful song; I don’t think it’s cinematic in any way. I think that’s what Claire connected with. I suppose I’ve always felt that I like space in our music and people always hear that space and say ‘cinematic’. And I don’t just mean physical space, but space in the ideas too. It’s not obvious what things are about or what the songs are. It’s important to leave doubt or space.

So people can attach their own meaning?

Yes, and also so you are able to step inside them. I think obvious things, things that say ‘this is this’ – they hold very little fascination. But when you can create something that does something for you, but you don’t know what it is, then it becomes exciting. And I think that is how Claire makes films. So I don’t really think about the way of making music for films. I think of it as working with Claire to help her make her films. If you said to me ‘next year you are going to score three soundtracks’, I would say ‘no, I’m not doing that’, because it’s not something that appeals to me as a way of life. Working with Claire, we have a really collaboration and conversation. It’s about finding ideas and space between us to explore. And I think that’s what excites me.

What stage would you get involved in one of Claire’s films? Does it vary each time?

Every film has ended up being approached very differently, but the way it goes is, if we are lucky enough  to spend time together when she is just thinking about making a film, that’s when she’s talking about the things that interest her about the idea – that’s always when you can get so much out of it, even before she has written a line. Then she writes the script and we get stills when she’s filming. She’ll send us odd things while she’s working and then we get a rough assembly. It’s great to have all the conversations and the script because it informs you and gives you a basis to step forward from, but it’s not until we get the images that it really starts to happen musically for us.

Do you go in and sketch out some rough musical ideas with Claire, or do you get the images and go away by yourselves to form the music?

She guided us through conversation about how she felt about an idea that eventually turned into the film Trouble Every Day. Before she’d even started the script for Trouble Every Day she talked about a film she was interested in making. She was interested in kissing, and when a kiss becomes a bite. We talked about it, and it was romantic. We ended up making a very romantic score for a very extreme film. So, even when you have got very violent images you’ve got a very romantic score with it. I think she has a subtle way of guiding us in that way, I don’t mean deliberately, but in a way of conversation. For us it’s about finding a way to get into a film – finding a crack, or something that moves you, that’s not necessarily melodic; finding a sound that chimes with the images.

I think once you’ve found that little way in you can start exploring and step inside musically. But I think to find a way in is the hard part.

Claire’s last film White Material is set in a war-stricken place in Africa – not in our field of experience. So when we got the script we understood the story and what Claire was interested in, but we were still stood on the other side of it, saying ‘how are we possibly going to do this?’ Once you find a small crack to get a shoulder in and be inside it, then it can start to flow.

So in some ways, the process is similar to putting an album together; there will be something that inspires you, a noise or a lyric, that will spark you off…

When you get to a point, it is the same. But the initial inspiration isn’t. When Claire gives us something it’s fundamentally about an emotional response. Once you have an idea, it stirs in you. When we write a song ourselves it’s generally stirred from within us, but when it gets to the point that it exists without us then I think its on the same path to achieve what it needs to achieve as a piece of music. Every piece of music asks for something that’s really different.

Do the two processes feed into each other then?

It’s similar for us because we make music in one way. We’re not interested in a career as film composers, and it’s not because I’m not really interested in being engaged in everything we’ve done with Claire. But I think film composition is something very specific, especially in this day and age, and that’s not really something I’m interested in. I’m not interested in somebody saying to me ‘I want music from here to here, and I want to feel this from it’.

It seems that there is normally a negotiation process when scoring a film, between the musician, the director, and lots of other people too. But it doesn’t sound like that with your work. Tell me about that.

I think it’s about the approach to the music. And that is different every time. There was a film we worked on with Claire called The Intruder, and the music started from my response that I didn’t feel any melody from the film itself. We started from that point after Trouble Every Day, which is very melodic and very orchestrated.

It was a strange point to start from, but looking back I understand it more. The images themselves are so melodic that I think it would’ve felt crass to add more melody to it. To find a way into that was really difficult. And the things that come from that are strange things and strange emotions. I started by trying to take the time sense out of a drum machine, and from that I was able to find a drummer who played like that naturally, and it all led from there. But it started from walking up to a rhythm box and trying to upset it. It’s a simple idea but the basis of the film was about a man with a failing heart looking for a new one. It required failing rhythms and what it ended up being was music with nowhere for you to put your feet down. To find that was so different than working on Trouble Every Day, which was romantic.

The process sounds very personal and self-contained. Do you reach out to other musicians as well, or is it something you keep within Tindersticks?

Tindersticks is now a big extended family, and I look forward to the day when I can get all these people on stage at once. There are about 20 of them that have been involved for so long and brought so much to what we do.

And do you draw on those people for your work with Claire?

Always. I wouldn’t class myself as a musician; I’ve got too much respect for musicians. I think it enables us to change shape quite easily. For the last two films we did with Claire, one of them was all about myself and David playing melodicas, the next one was about a whole band with string section. It just depends what shape a song asks for or what shape a soundtrack asks for. We can call on all of these people and ask them to be involved. It’s taken a long time to find musicians who are on our wavelength, but now we have such an extended family its great.

How has the work you’ve done with Claire influenced the band?

Working with Claire over 15 years is like a punctuation, and it stops us looking at our thing all the time. You can raise your head and look elsewhere and ask different questions and be inspired by different things. It pushes us in different ways. When that’s finished we go back to our thing and we’re changed somehow from the experience. I think it’s an important factor in why, after so long, we’re still desperate to make music. It’s provided challenges along the way. It’s about desire, it’s about wanting something, and that’s true of everyone involved. Everybody wants something and when we get together to make music there is a feeling of desire.

Are you drawing a line under your film work with this current retrospective, the soundtrack gigs and boxset of albums? Or is there something else in the pipeline?

I think the process of turning around and looking at what we have done is something in itself. It will affect us. The process of myself and Claire talking about what we’ve done will affect us. We haven’t done that before. We don’t talk about the process and the things that we share. We don’t need to. We operate by talking about ideas in the moment, why things work and why they don’t work.

Would you ever approach Claire with a piece of music and ask her to make images for it?

It hasn’t happened so far but I would never say I didn’t feel that, and if I did feel that I would ask her. I think she’s always so involved in something she’s working from, to tear away from that would make me feel bad!

What soundtracks do you wish you’d made?

There are so many, and if David (Boulter) was here he would be able to say. If he was sat here he would have lots to say – he’s such an expert on so many things. Whereas I don’t know anything! I can experience things and think ‘wow, that’s really great’ but I’m not a cinephile like David. It’s how we balance in a way. It’s very rare to watch a really great film and think that the music was terrible, because if it moves you, it’s working. Making a film is not like making music, there are so many things to get right. And for the director, it’s important to bring in a team that is going to make that process easier. And the director is at the centre of all of those elements, whether it is the casting, the cinematography, the editing, the music. It’s not like making music, there are so many things to get right. It’s important to bring in a team that is going to make that process easier.

Have there been any difficulties along the way? How does that stuff get worked out on a practical level?

I think that there have been lots of difficulties but in a way, working on the last two films, actually stepping over those difficulties enabled us to be in more of a flowing space and to understand more what we both needed. With White Material and 35 Rums there was a real flow of ideas and conversation to get to that finished point.

Was that because of the impetus you were given or because you were used to working with Claire?

I don’t think it was about being used to working with Claire, because it’s still a mystery to me but I think I have more of a grasp of what she needs when. And I think that she has more of a grasp of what I need and when. It’s not something we talk about, but I think there’s a kind of understanding. It’s never a comfy place. There is an element of fear always! But I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. If it was, I wouldn’t be talking about it in the way that I feel about it.

Well, I suppose you can’t slip into the same comfort zone that you might do with your band all around you…

Definitely. Even playing these gigs – I’ve never seen us so nervous, because we’re all totally out of our comfort zone.

I understand it was pin-droppingly quiet at your Royal Festival Hall gig yesterday, did that make you more nervous?

It’s so much to do with venues though. I think in the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall they are not so hard to loosen up but when people sit down in theatres they don’t know how to react as much. I think that with what we are doing there isn’t really an outlet for people. It’s this thing, and it lasts an hour and a quarter.

Does it make sense on stage or do you think to yourself ‘this isn’t what a gig is’?

Yes, totally. It’s breaking a cycle, which is a really great feeling. Why should it be that for us to make something in a concert way it always has to be that we make an album and then want to play it live. It’s breaking something and I don’t know what the effects of that will be. It’s such a different experience and feeling, and now we know we can do it. Maybe next time we will think ‘maybe we don’t want to go and do this because what we are doing now has changed us. And I think that’s exciting. When I’m sitting there playing my wine glass for ten minutes I think there’s something different going on, and that causes changes.

This interview was conducted for the M magazine feature Popping Out, which will be published online in the coming days.

Read a related Popping Out interview with Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory here.

Also in our Popping Out series, we caught up with James Brett at Abbey Road Studios to watch him record the score to Batman Live. Watch the video here.