Jóhann Jóhannsson is, amongst other things, an Icelandic film composer now living in Berlin. His latest major work is the soundtrack of the Denis Villeneuve film Sicario. The film has the feel of an elastic band being slowly stretched back, inciting a building turmoil as you become ready for it to flick at any moment, yet it continues to becomes tauter until its excruciating breaking point. Jóhannsson’s soundtrack is at once a foreboding accompaniment and a startling piece in its own right. We talked about the process of the score’s creation, Béla Tarr and Antarctica.
David Sullivan: You’re living in Berlin now? How do you like it?
Jóhann Jóhannsson: Yeah I’ve lived here for the last few years, it’s great, it’s a wonderful city. There’s a lot of people I know that live here, it’s a great place to work. There’s such a vibrant music and arts scene.
David Sullivan: Do you play any live music shows?
Jóhann Jóhannsson: I used to do much more of that, around the time I released the albums IBM 1401 and Fordlandia, I did quite a bit of touring with string quartet and piano setup, but I’m doing much less of it now, basically because I had a lot more work in the studio, there was just no time to tour.
I do play two or three concerts a year and it’s usually in connection with projects like The Miners’ Hymns. In fact we’re doing that piece in Holland next month and there’s a new piece with choir and string quartet called Drone Mass which we’ll tour next year.
David Sullivan: It seems like you’re quite a busy guy with a lot of projects, how long do you think a film score like Sicario would take you to complete?
Jóhann Jóhannsson: Well it depends how you measure it, with Sicario I was involved before they started shooting.
I start to think about the film when I read the script. I flew out to the set in New Mexico and I spent some time seeing the locations and watching some of the footage that had been shot. There’s a lot of things to think about and things to let germinate in the back of my mind.
I really like to be heavily involved early on in the process of working on a film. It allows the music to become more of a part of the DNA of the film, it becomes a very organic part of the film.
I was discussing the film with Denis (Villeneuve) early on and I’m involved for a long time, but the actual work is maybe three or four months.
David Sullivan: I saw the film last night, it’s so suspenseful the whole way through and your soundtrack compliments this really well, how did you feel watching it?
Jóhann Jóhannsson: I thought it was really strong, I’m such a fan of Denis’ work. I love his style, it’s a really strong kind of kinetic yet controlled style. He has a unique sense of rhythm and pace. He really takes his time and doesn’t rush things, in terms of how he paces the scenes. He leaves a lot of time for building up atmosphere and tension. There’s always relentless tension going on.
David Sullivan: The percussion was really great. It sounded quite harsh and muddy almost, what is the process for recording this?
Jóhann Jóhannsson: Well it’s all live percussion, I recorded about five different drummers but some of it is quite heavily processed or treated, I use a lot of different MaxMSP processing and VST plugins to process and manipulate the sound.
David Sullivan: Do you have have any contemporary inspiration of soundtracks?
Jóhann Jóhannsson: Well I’m not a huge fan of film music in general; although I will say I really like the Jonathan Glazer film which Mica Levi scored, Under The Skin, I was impressed by that. I thought it was a bold and daring use of music.
David Sullivan: Do you watch any Béla Tarr films? I thought your Sicario soundtrack was at times reminiscent of The Turin Horse, for example. It feels like it’s one big piece, like the music helps the film along and the film helps the music along.
Jóhann Jóhannsson: Yes I love Béla Tarr, the composer he works with is a man named Mihály Víg and his scores are amazing. The Turin Horse, Werckmeister Harmonies and The Man from London are amazing pieces of music.
Again, they’re all very relentless and minimal. Kind of obsessive repetition of ideas. Another example I was discussing recently is Suspiria with the soundtrack by Goblin. Another use of this relentless, obsessive rhythm. It’s something I really like exploring.
David Sullivan: What projects do you have coming up?
Jóhann Jóhannsson: I’m working on Denis Villeneuve’s new film, called Story of Your Life, other than that just a number of my own things. I have a new solo album which I’ve been working on for the past five or six years which is probably coming out next year.
There’s a project coming out on Sonic Pieces actually in couple of months which is called End of Summer. It’s basically a film that I shot in Antarctica which has been touring short film festivals in the last couple of years.
I got some field recordings there and collaborated on the score with Hildur Gudnadóttir and Robert Lowe. It’s being released on DVD, vinyl and CD in a couple of months.
David Sullivan: Wow I would love to go to Antarctica!
Jóhann Jóhannsson: Well it’s not so far from you guys!
David Sullivan: That’s true, it seems so expensive to get there from here though, I think it’s cheaper from South America, is that how you got there?
Jóhann Jóhannsson: Yeah we flew via the Falklands.
David Sullivan: Can you elaborate a bit on your experience there?
Jóhann Jóhannsson: It was amazing, I went there with some filmmaker friends of mine who invited me on this expedition. We spent a month travelling, we went to the island of South Georgia, then sailing between these places, so Falklands to South Georgia is like three days at sea then again to the Antarctic Peninsula is another four days through very heavy seas, it’s one of the roughest seas in the world.
Arriving there is amazing, it’s one of the strongest experiences I’ve ever had, spending a couple of weeks sailing around the various bays and fjords and experiencing the wildlife and the ice, and the light. There is amazing light there, in the mornings when you wake up there is a magical mist over everything, it’s wonderful. It was a really life changing experience.
Jóhann Jóhannsson is playing in Adelaide at Unsound as part of the Adelaide Festival Sat 27 Feb.
Sicario has been nominated for an Academy Award.