Devon E. Levins (Morricone Youth): “Nothing is really a secret anymore.” Interview by Ruth Bailey


When George Miller, the director of the renowned post-apocalyptic film Mad Max, gives his blessing for his decades-old release to be screened without dialogue and shown accompanied by a live re-score, you know his sensibilities must align with those who are creating the music to support it.

And that is exactly what will happen via an ensemble of musicians who have made scoring for cult cinema classics in live settings their passion. Spearheaded by zealous New York-based cinefile and musician Devon E. Levins, the outfit, Morricone Youth will visit Australia next month as part of Sydney Festival, touching down to perform live score soundtracks for enhancement of screenings of two iconic films. The 1968 George A. Romero directed Night of the Living Dead and 1979, Australian original– Mad Max.

The latter will screen somewhat fittingly on Australia Day (26th January) and according to Levins, George Miller in most of his early interviews, confesses he conceived the film to be silent– the dialogue, the car screeching and the bells and whistles were all added bonuses to his vision.

“We’re kind of taking him to task, and he’s allowing us to do it. So it’s a little bit of that, and we wanted to do the silent film stuff that we do, a little bit of the Western and then we’ll have a lot of action high-octane, car chase music at times.” Levins, painting the picture as to what audiences can expect from the scored screen performance.

To truly comprehend the gravitational pull of reinterpreting cult film soundtracks, understanding a little of Levin’s history is useful.

The genesis of Morricone Youth occurred predating 1999, before he had relocated to the East Coast. From his base in San Diego he’d enjoyed notoriety in the post punk-rock band scene from age 13. Acts including Rocket from the Crypt and Pinback were part of his band community, and it took both his membership to the band Creedle (an act who erred on the side of comic-book geeky and who used the tropes of tv and film and other pop cultural references to sample within their music) and an idea he shared with a fellow band bass player to reinterpret soundtracks to films that they loved, for Levins to birth what is now recognised as Morricone Youth.

“When I got to New York, I found some like-minded people and film soundtrack fans, and started it [the band]as a side project. We all had our sort of indie projects or side projects we were working on and this band started getting better gigs rather than the other ones we were in. I guess because there was something thematic about it, or it was an easy thing to sell to get into clubs or whatever.”

The MO (modus operandi) for the show and the band is that it’s music written for the moving image. That can mean film music, tv music, video installation music as well as incorporating library production music which has emerged as yet another of Levin’s passions – more on that later.

“We had a catalogue of 150 songs, that we had reinterpreted from the 60s 70s 80s and from there we just sort of did this album all over the place. It was for this imaginary film and it had a lot of genres on it but we sort of thought we should get a bit more thematic with each one. We thought perhaps maybe a Western, maybe an Italian horror– Giallo, or even a spy movie.” Says Levin.

Adding: “We started covering songs, but we wouldn’t just cover songs that had appeared in movies, we were more interested in songs specifically written for films and scenes that were visual in nature.”

Naturally the group started working closely with a theatre in Brooklyn to do live scores to silent films or midnight films and Levins recollects that the first one, was the French Horror film: Fascination directed by Jean Rollin. A 70s cinematic release which he admits he’d initially had reservations of rewriting music for, especially as it was a more modern film.

“We did it with the dialogue and the sound off, kind of like an old silent film. And it did really well, so we started rotating between silent films and midnight movies.”

To say there is an increasing interest for this type of show around the world is probably an accurate statement. Levins can’t quite pinpoint where the resurgence has originated but certainly it feels to him that this experiential form of cinema and soundscape is on the rise among audiences.

“I don’t know if it’s a huge thing or not, but it’s a niche– every city /at least major city in the United States, I’m finding is starting to do this kind of thing and I do feel like it’s the Wild West a little bit. I think there is something happening around the rise of the Internet. Nothing is really a secret anymore, people are saying what’s going on in Alamo in Austin; in Cinefamily in LA; and they have a lot going on in LA quite often where they’re doing these live scoring events, and I think they’re influenced by these bigger live scoring events and New York and I’m assuming all over the place – London and you’re noticing it from Australia too”

In fact at the time of speaking with Cyclic, Morricone Youth, are finishing up a support slot tour with Italian soundtrack outfit: Goblin, a band revered in this niche and who Levins mentions have somewhat miraculously reformed after a period on hiatus. He also shares that on this tour, it’s not uncommon for fellow Italian composer Fabio Frizzi to be performing days ahead of them with his eight piece orchestra. Levins adds that one of his idols, composer John Carpenter is also currently on tour.

“He’s coming to New York, and I mean our last show of this tour is next Sunday at Irving plaza and four days later is John Carpenter with his six or seven piece band with visuals. And John Carpenter is drawing a lot more than say our band, because these are all things that people never thought (me included) that we would see. Goblin reform, Fabio Frizzi performing live (cos he’s just an Italian Composer) or, I mean I’d never in my wildest dreams, would think that John Carpenter would be touring musically, it doesn’t even register. It doesn’t make any sense and he’s selling out and playing big festivals in Europe, I don’t know that he’s made it to Australia yet. So there is something going on.”

And it’s this sort of passion for the industry he resides within that has seen Levins dovetail from live score performance into hosting a highly successful radio show, dedicated to unearthing composers and revealing library production rarities he’s laboured to find over the years. While it continues to be a dream of Levins to interview the likes of John Carpenter, he’s content with the composer lineage he’s rubbed shoulders with so far, which extends to Australian composer, Sven Liebeck. (see our interview with Sven here)

“I think the younger composers appreciate it because they have a place where they can have their music played and talk about it and I always try to not just keep it to my dream composers that I’m chasing. Yes, I’m going after John Carpenter don’t get me wrong, but I like to get those composers who on their first or one off and I get promo-’d so many records I try to listen to them.”

And as the five piece (none of whom have ever visited Australian shores) prepare for their new year trip down under, we touch once more on what audiences can look forward to experiencing musically from the two performances.

Night of the Living Dead will feature a customised DCP – where the sound goes up and down and the key dialogue from the film remains, because Levins states, that they really didn’t want to step on it too much.

“There is famous lines and if you’re familiar with the film there is ‘so called’ tv reporting and it doesn’t make any sense for a band to be playing on top of that or whatever so we kind of sit out at times.

Where as Mad Max the next night, it’s pretty synth heavy. The film was created in 1979 that was a time when synthesizers were being more heavily used in ‘B movies’ and action movies so we kind of approached it that way.”

Night Of The Living Dead and Mad Max with live score by Morricone Youth is a part of Sydney Festival 25 & 26 January 2018.

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