David Torn Muses on Record Production, Film Scoring, and More

GUITARIST DAVID TORN is widely recognized for his innovative approach to his instrument, and his many genre-expanding recordings. But Torn is also a sought-after record producer (David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Dave Douglas, Tori Amos, Sting) and film composer (Believe In Me, Friday Night Lights, The Order, Traffic). In these interview outtakes from GP’s June, 2007 artist feature, he reflects on both aspects of his diverse career.

GUITARIST DAVID TORN IS widely recognized for his innovative approach to his instrument, and his many genre-expanding recordings. But Torn is also a sought-after record producer (David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Dave Douglas, Tori Amos, Sting) and film composer (Believe In Me, Friday Night Lights, The Order, Traffic). In these interview outtakes from GP’s June, 2007 artist feature, he reflects on both aspects of his diverse career.

How do you decide which record production offers to accept?
Because I put so much effort into the work, I have to have a connection with the music, not just be brought onboard because I was some guy who somebody thought was famous and could do a good job mixing. My best work is when I understand and feel the music.
Another issue is time. I’ve gotten so busy that the first projects to get accepted are from friends who have been a part of some scene that I’m connected to. Many are super low-budget, which doesn’t concern me except for the priority of my family’s needs, so these days what’s sneaking through are people who I know, and who I know are committed to doing something with the records. The edges of the boxes from within which I work are not extremely well defined, so every project brings a new attitude, which means I have to spend two or three weeks mixing every project. It can’t just be one of these independent things where they expect you to mix a whole record in a few days, because that’s not going to happen with me. And I also like to know that the person who’s coming to me is willing to allow me to do some creative editing. I don’t mean make every record sound like a Squarepusher record, or one of my records, but there has to be some willingness to involve me as a producer.
Finally, I have to feel that our personalities are compatible. For example, although I had a great time doing the Kaki King record, it wasn’t a good match. And, in fact, I ended up standing over [recording engineer] Hector Castillo’s shoulder and allowing him to do the mix, because Kaki really didn’t let me in. It’s no disrespect to her. She’s an incredibly talented, smart individual, but it just was not a good match at that time. I prefer to be proud of what I do. I’m still hoping to produce Jeff Beck’s next record, and I’m pretty sure that someday that will happen.

If you could produce any artist you choose, who would it be?
I’m not really sure in a desert island kind of way, but I would love more than anything to work with Estrella Morente, the flamenco singer, on a project that was meant to be a creative collaboration. And secretly, I’d love to a “pop record gone wrong” with someone like Chris Cornell, if he really took a hard left turn, or Tom Morello, or Kevin Shields, or Gnarls Barkley. And there’s still this desire to produce with David Bowie for David Bowie, but that’ll probably go to the grave with me. I could make a very long list, and that’s not even going into the jazz zones.

Which of your skills, psychological and technical, do you find most useful in helping an artist achieve something of lasting value?
I’m not really sure, other than musicality. It’s not so much bringing to bear the creatively collaborative elements—it’s bringing to bear the artist’s commitment to what it is they are doing, because my commitment is so insanely present at all times. My social skills are not that great. My technical skills are very interesting and different, but they are kind of idiosyncratically expert. So I always think that it has to do with being able to hear the music well, and to hear what the artist is hearing, or might be trying to hear, and to communicate commitment, that it’s not a joke. This is your last record. That’s my attitude. This is your last note. If that’s the case, then what are you bringing to the table, and if that’s not the case, then why are you doing this? That’s how I’d like to think of myself, even if it’s not really true [laughs]. It’s not just about the commerce or about that very specific form of ego gratification that can occur with fame and/or money.

How much of the soundtrack for The Order was just you?
It’s split about 40/60 between the orchestra and myself. That was an unusual one, because it was my first score for a real Hollywood feature film, and the license to be creative was unusually broad. I’m really proud of that score, especially because it was my first solo feature. The director, Brian Helgeland, is also a writer, so we had very writer-ly things to discover about the music as we were going along, and that was an incredible ride, really a great score to have done.

In what ways does the creative process differ when you are composing music for a film, as opposed to your own records?
What I’ve discovered over the many years that I’ve worked under other composers on hundreds of films as a creative contributor, is that when it’s working best, it’s because the composer is literate and understands the nature of storytelling. And then applying that, and hopefully coming to an agreement with the director’s vision of what he wants, and of what he actually has on film. And then you’ve got to please the studio and the producers. It’s a really different process than making your own record, and very stressful, which I enjoy. I like the drama. I hate it and like it at the same time.

Why did you choose to partially relocate to Southern California?
Film scores are changing right now, or they are about to change, and I wanted to be around for that. Except for the classic, epic-style movies, there’s a tendency now to use less and less music in a film. It’s been going on for a couple of years, and has been marked, although maybe not visibly or vocally by the industry, and validated by the success of a few very idiosyncratic composers in the last few years.

Who are those composers?
Gustavo Santaolalla, who won the Oscar two years in a row. He’s a musician, a guitar player, and he’s only been in L.A. for five years. He’s done six films, and two years in a row he won Oscars for movies that had, maybe, 15 or 20 minutes of music in them altogether. Then there’s Antonio Pinto, who did City of God. Jon Brion. Michael Edwards, who did Donnie Darko. David Julian, who did Memento. Clint Mansell. Javier Navarrete, who did Pan’s Labyrinth, which doesn’t have that much music in it, but where it does exist, it’s really critical to the story.
And it’s a specific type of film, not all films. Because John Williams doing a Steven Spielberg film is always brilliant, what are you going to say? And Thomas Newman doing anything is always brilliant. There are always going to be films that require something very Hollywood-esque.

Are there any particularly interesting guitar-oriented techniques that you use when scoring that are different than what you’d use on your own record?
There are. One of the things that I like to do if I’m stuck for an orchestral idea or something thematic is to play the picture and make loops of harmonics. You can hear this very much on Friday Night Lights, where I’m using these tiny harmonic loops done with flageolets in different tunings, to set a tone and pace for something.
Starting with pure textural devices, such as long, ambient-style loops, can often be the trigger for beginning to write something, and it’s become a way to move forward for me. It is, in fact, all the textural devices that got me into this business in the first place—the fact that other people were hiring me to create these moving harmonic textures for their scores.