Music News

Big Score

A couple of weekends ago, I traveled down to Sonoita, near the Mexican border, to hit up my cowboy buddy Andy Hersey's release party for his new CD, Between God and Country. The first song on the disc is called "Roughshod Range," and I'd been sitting at his ranch with him a couple of years ago when he was writing it. I've sat in on a lot of songwriting, but this was particularly interesting to me because he was writing it for a film called Showdown at Verity, and basically collaborating with the screenwriter, Terry Mort, by interpreting his screenplay into a song.

The song is a grim narrative about a Wild West vigilante avenging "the souls of the slain," wherein "there'll be a showdown at Verity / Death with all sincerity / He thinks it's only fair that he / Bring justice to the land." I haven't read the screenplay and I don't know if the film's been made, so I can only assume that Hersey captured the story pretty accurately. That sort of collaboration — one artist interpreting another's work in a different medium — fascinates me, so I really hope to see the film eventually.

Around the same time I traveled to Sonoita, I came across another film, a short piece by Scott Copalman called This Will Be Our Year, scored by former local musician Jason Puffer. The score to the five-minute film is instrumental, so it's a contrast to what Hersey tried to illuminate with lyrics, but that intrigues me even more. I think most musicians would be well-served to use their talents in arenas other than live shows and CDs, and scoring films (or writing advertising jingles, if that's your thing) gives artists a chance to further explore their skills.

The score to Copalman's film is subtle and melancholy, guitar riffs that fade in and out as the action and narration unfold on the screen. Copalman made the film while he was a student in Scottsdale Community College's film program, using his friends Brad Rhoades and a young'un named Ben Gerst to play the main character at different ages. Copalman's close friend Aaron Pearcey provides the character's narration, which is a suicide letter.

While Puffer's riffs wash in and out behind the narration, Pearcey reads the letter, which was written by Copalman eight years ago in his journal while he was depressed.

"I was really in a bad place in my life — not necessarily suicidal but really depressed," Copalman tells me. "I wasn't planning on killing myself but I wrote this suicide letter. I didn't even look at it again for years, then when I started going to film school, our first project was to make a short film. I remembered that, and I was going through my journals and saw it again, and it just meant a lot to me. It was a point in my life [and] I thought, 'I'm not in that state of mind anymore, [but] I could maybe put it out there.' I think most people in our generation, at one point or another, it crosses their mind, so I thought it'd be cool visually being that it was written out of a real feeling and a real emotion. It'd be that much more powerful."

Without giving too much of the film away (which would be easy to do because it's only five minutes long), it ends with the suicide taking place, gun in mouth. The movie's definitely a downer, but it has climactic points as well, and Puffer had to reflect that with his score. Even the gunshot noise at the end is actually what Copalman calls "a happy accident," because Puffer hit the mic stand with his guitar, causing "this amazing, brilliant popping sound. Instead of being so blatant — 'here's a gunshot, look he shot himself' — you still know what happens but it's a unique sound," Copalman explains.

Copalman is a music fanatic — he DJs at the Rogue on Sunday nights, playing garage stuff, Britpop, and blues that span from the '50s to the '70s. Even the name of his film, This Will Be Our Year, is taken from a Zombies song from 1968. So the scoring of the movie was extremely important to him.

"[Puffer and I] were kind of on the same page at first," Copalman says. "I wanted to create something that was almost background music but still helped carry the film instead of it being silent, or going on GarageBand and creating some cheesy song. I wanted something original to help guide the film. We talked about it, and I'd go over to his house and he'd play a couple riffs. I gave him a rough cut of the film, and he just went from there. A day later, he came up with the score and I loved it. You notice it's there but its not overwhelming."

It is, in fact, a perfect score for a depressing, frustrated little film, and it makes me wish I'd seen Puffer figuring it out on his guitar as he watched the rough cut, finding the groove of the film and picking it out on the strings. I'd like to see more musicians spreading their creative wings to find what they're capable of outside the normal parameters of writing songs and putting them on a CD. That collaborative interpretation isn't seen often enough, but when I do see it, it's pretty fucking impressive.

If you're a composer of music, it's important to realize that there's a grip of ways to get your music out for people to hear — some lamer than others. You could compose advertising jingles, do music for video games, or try to sell publishing rights to your songs, but in my opinion, film-scoring collaborations like the ones mentioned above have far more artistic merit. Andy Hersey's experience with Showdown at Verity and Jason Puffer's scoring of This Will Be Our Year won't make them much in the way of money, the way writing a song for a commercial might, but in a bigger-picture sort of way, the experience enriches and broadens their talents, which is more valuable than a big payday.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brendan Joel Kelley