Stuart A. Staples has been making music as part of Tindersticks for 25 years. The band, in a couple different incarnations, has created not only its own records, but six scores for films by Claire Denis, with a seventh to be written for the director later this year for her upcoming “High Life.”
The latest proper Tindersticks LP, “The Waiting Room“, acts in a way as a bridge between the band’s music and the world of cinema. The record is accompanied by a set of 11 short films, one for each song, from filmmakers including Denis, Christoph Girardet, Pierre Vinour, Rosie Pedlow and Joe King, Gregorio Graziosi, Richard Dumas and Gabriel Sanna.
As Staples explained by phone as he works with the band to prepare a spring European tour, the short films accompanying each of the 11 new songs aren’t traditional music videos, but examples of each filmmaking team taking the freedom to explore their own visions for ideas in the music. Discussion of this current pairing of music and image naturally led to talk of the band’s long working relationship with Claire Denis, and the experience of composing scores for films such as “Nénette et Boni,” “Trouble Every Day,” and “Bastards.”
At what point in this album’s conception did pairing the songs with short films become key to the project?
The album had to achieve a shape, even though it wasn’t remotely finished or completely formed, but it had to achieve a shape to know what it was looking for in the way of relationships with filmmakers. Some of them were cornerstones. With “Help Yourself,” I started writing that while walking up Boulevard Magenta to see Claire at her apartment, so that song is Claire’s song. I never wavered from that idea. Some of the other songs were really open. And some, it was very important for myself and my wife to make the opening and closing videos, so we knew where we were starting and had some form to the conversation.
This album has the sound of potential, of things about to happen. That’s uncommon for a band that is 10 albums deep in its career.
To be honest, when you’re working on something, finishing something, it’s always about potential. But maybe that’s the easiest thing to delude yourself about. When you write a song, there’s always potential for the next song you’re going to write. But people might look at our career and think, “It’s 25 years, it’s kind of a linear progression.”
But it’s not, really. We started off in a very unconscious way of making music and a very insular way of making music. Gradually we became more aware of reality, more aware of the industry, more self-aware, then self-conscious. This created maybe a thing that should have finished us off, and maybe finishes off a lot of bands and artists. It’s pretty hard to deal with that stuff, and somehow, not without great pain, we’ve worked our way back to a point where we’re able to make music in an unconscious way again.
The 1962 “Mutiny on the Bounty,” which is the source of Bronislau Kaper’s composition “Follow Me,” seems like an unlikely inspiration to open this project.
When we first moved to France, I had this great folly of buying a grand piano. It was really kind of too cumbersome, took up too much space, and was too one-dimensional for our recording purposes — it’s a lot of real estate in the studio for one sound. But I remember I was so excited when I got it, and it was set up in our living room. I watched “Mutiny on the Bounty” and found myself afterwards — this was maybe 10 years ago — finding the melody. It’s never left me, those few notes.
When we were working on this album, I always thought that “Second Chance Man” was the first song on the album. The sentiment of it was always the starting point. As the album formed, the beginning was too abrupt. It was like I couldn’t get back away from the record player in time before the record started, I felt we needed to create space for “Second Chance Man” to step into. This melody came back to me, and I played it for the guys. It took half an hour; it doesn’t surprise me that the band can make something so beautiful so quickly, but it surprised me that I was able to play it. I’m not known for my musicianship within this group of people! When it was done, it was, “Ok, the album is finished now.”
The clip you did for “The Waiting Room” — with a woman floating in a pool with shifting colored light around her — to me has sort of a sci-fi element, in the same way as Claire’s film “Trouble Every Day” has a sort of sci-fi quality to it.
That was the film that started everything. When things happen, you don’t think you are designing the moment, but that film was made in Greece, and on that day I wrote the song and made the film. Then the two got put together maybe a month later. It was never an obvious thing. I thought, there’s something going on here.
When I played that to Calmin [Borel] at the Clermont Film Festival, it was a way for me to explain the idea of what I thought was important about images and music and how to make this idea work. It’s what I want it to be, it’s a counterpoint that allows the song to say what it needs to say but is still interesting and intriguing enough. It adds weight to that song.
The video for “We Are Dreamers,” with a rather small woman moving amidst giant construction machines, is almost oppressive. It’s very striking.
Yeah, but it has some strange hope in it!
I’ve tried to puzzle it out bad on the idea that the machines are there at the end, but I’ve found myself hoping that she has moved on to a more hospitable place.
When that film was delivered, it was one of the first I saw finished, and it was a really amazing moment. It’s when I thought, “OK, this is going to be great.” It was jaw-dropping to have that land in your inbox after months of talking. Gabriel had said, “Ok, there’s this strange landscape I’m interested in, I want to go there with Sara, see what happens.” Then he delivered that, and it was amazing.
Given the fact that “Hey Lucinda” has a real emotional weight to it, thanks to the death of singer Lhasa de Sela just after recording the track, was there a point where you thought you might do that film yourself?
No, Calmin introduced me to Rosie Pedlow and Joe King’s work, and there’s a sense in their work of place, and of time passing and shifting. As soon as I saw their work, I thought it had to do with ‘Lucinda.’ I sent them the song with a letter, and they came back to me saying, “That’s Lhasa, isn’t it?” I said, “OK, you’ve got the job!” Because in France she’s iconic, but in England and the U.K. and other places in the world she’s kind of a hidden treasure. So for someone to recognize her so quickly and have a relationship with her already was very promising. Rosie and Joe were cornerstones in the whole project, really. They were a way to test out the way of making the brief and talking through the process with people. It really helped me talk to other filmmakers.
On an individual basis, how different was this process from going through the process of making a more traditional music video, inasmuch as that even means anything now?
I don’t think it does mean much, really, but we still have memories of that kind of pressure, of being signed to Universal. When we made our second album, looking back there was a lot of hope around it, I would say, within the industry. There was a lot of expectation, I suppose. We made a song, one of our best songs, I think, called “Travelling Light,” and we made what was supposed to be a video for that. It was a Super-8 study of a young couple, a weird couple living in this house. We loved it; we made it with Martin Wallace, and it was such a great moment for us. And then we played it for the record company and you could feel the disappointment in the room. So on the visual side, a video is an advert in a traditional sense, whereas this hasn’t got any pressure on it at all, aside from the creative pressure of the people who are making it.
Do those conversations give you any different perspective on the songs?
When I write a song, it has to be so strong inside me or it won’t make it. It won’t get to the finish line and people will never hear it. I need that momentum inside me. So I’ve enjoyed the process of seeing directors, these great creative people, responding to the songs. I’m wowed a lot of the time. But by the time I get to a certain point with a song in recording, it’s like a rock inside me. Nothing will change it. So I have really enjoyed the way other people have interpreted it, but that will never take away what the song is to me.
As a filmmaker, what would you like to do beyond this project?
Because of this project, Suzanne [Osborne, Staples’ wife] and I have some strong ideas. We bought a camera and had to learn how to use it to make this idea come into being. The first song comes from Suzanne, who is a painter, and it’s something she’s always regarded as a moving painting. To capture that, technically, took months of waiting and trying. We finally got there because the idea was so strong.
The last song [‘Like Only Lovers Can’], I think, gets by on its desire, not its technical ability. We have this kind of strange satisfaction when we see the whole film project through and we get to the stuffed birds at the end, and there is a kind of smirk that everybody has, because it’s surrounded by such accomplishment in a way, and that film itself is a little start of a journey — maybe the potential that you were talking about. But I really don’t know where it’s pointing. It was something so important to that film, a connection between that room we found near us, the forgotten corner of a museum, and this really vibrant sky that we filmed once. The song existed between those two things, and it was too important to pass off to someone else.
Is this project at all like working on film scores with Claire Denis?
There’s a process…. working with Claire, it’s not a machine, it’s a feeling. It gets a little more intense every day, and that’s an exciting thing to be involved in. Claire’s films have always asked us to look in different areas of our music, and that’s fed back into how we approach our own music. It’s a big part of that thing we were talking about — it’s 25 years on, but we’re still in the stage of a feeling of discovery, and working with Claire has a lot to do with that.
Was the score for “Bastards,” which was very much electronic, a direct pointer to this record?
Maybe, but working on “White Material” really helped. That one asked us to really mess with forms and structures of ideas. That fed into this album. There’s always something with Claire in the way she talks about an idea more than what’s in the script or what’s on the set. That is the most inspiring thing. When we worked on “Trouble Every Day,” for instance, if you just read the script or if someone described the action, you would take it one way, as a thing leaning on horror or gore, maybe as an erotic gore film. But all the time of writing that work, as Claire’s talking, she described what she was really interested in as all about kissing, why lovers want to bite each other. That’s the only thing she’s really interested in with that film. So we start from this point, a kind of romanticism, and it runs all the way through the progression of the idea, and you end up with this really strong thing. It’s a gift, really, making this romantic score for a quite tough movie, one that is difficult in parts.
So, that moment of inspiration with “Bastards”: Claire was interested in the idea of a sailor on dry land. When a sailor is at sea his life is totally straightforward. He has his duties, he’s dealing with very specific things. As soon as he steps on dry land, the worst things can possibly happen to him. Starting from that point, I felt as though it was about making an alien soundscape to be around him, even though he’s in the streets of Paris. To do that, I decided to start from a point of music that was alien to me, and electronic music was that thing I didn’t really know how to do. To start from one point of something with instruments of machines you don’t really know how to operate, and then three months later you’ve found your relationship to them and found a strange space between you and the music. That feeds into the film itself. There’s always something like that working with Claire. You learn so much. And then those soundtracks feed into other things.
Has it always been that way, working with Claire?
I think she has a very specific, very unique way with image. Even now — when we worked on “Nénette et Boni,” it was our first one, it was the first time we met Claire. All the time we were doing it, I was thinking “is this working?” I was so insecure about it that I didn’t actually enjoy it so much.
A few years ago, when we were putting together the soundtrack show, we worked with that material again, and without all the insecurity, without the fears of being too late, too loud, too early, it was revelatory. It’s like “wow, that’s a piece of work!” Looking back, it had to be, but at the same time we never got to have the chance to sit back and enjoy it as something that was really worthwhile. I’m not the only person in that way; films like “Nénette et Boni,” “Trouble Every Day,” “Beau Travail,” they’re getting to be 20 years old now, and they’re not going away. People are discovering them and enjoying them now. It’s really satisfying.
The entire Tindersticks “Waiting Room” project is now online and you can watch it in full, all 11 short films, below.