"We Could Be Happy Underground"
An Interview With Nathan Johnson
Imagine this: a film composer, a classically-trained piano instructor, a log-cabin builder, a high-school student, a dancer, a grade-school teacher, an actor, an architect, a struggling novelist, an illustrator and a landscape gardener all move together under one Boston roof. Sounds like a collection that would make for the most dramatic, emotional, and complicated reality TV show of all time. But instead, the above scenario describes the critically-acclaimed graphic art and music collective The Cinematic Underground. Led by composer Nathan Johnson, this group has brought their “mish-mash” of music, art, and storytelling to stages across England and is involved in an American tour that’s sure to keep their audience growing. Sounds Good recently spoke with Johnson, learning more about the collective’s unique form of storytelling and the wonderful message they share through it.
So explain the “cinematic” influence in this group?
My cousin Rian is a director. He lives out in LA and he just completed his first feature film called Brick. It played at the Sundance Film Festival this year and won the Grand Jury Press [prize] for originality and vision, and was picked up by Focus Features [ie. Lost in Translation, The Pianist, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]. It’s going to be distributed worldwide and released in March.
Now with “Cinematic Underground,” do you consider yourselves a band, or project? How exactly would you describe yourselves as a whole?
Essentially we’re an artistic collective that have our fingers in a lot of different projects.
Tell us about the current project that you have been touring and performing?
We wrote basically a literal concept narrative album, which is quite different from your standard concept album because . . . it actually is a literal story with exterior characters. It’s called Annasthesia. The story is about love and escape and risk. And kind of the choice you make that either has to do with numbing yourself or engaging with life . . . it’s sort of an anti-love story, and that’s the album we’re touring. . . The album comes with a 24 page color graphic novella that my brother Zach did all the illustrations for. So you actually read it like a comic book as you listen to the album. And what we’re doing this year is we’re taking that and putting it on the stage, so the show becomes a mash-up between a concert and a graphic novel, and kind of a weird narrative storytelling form.
Is there actual “acting” that the collective does in the performances of this particular narrative album?
It’s not acting ‘as such,’ but I’m in character on the show and my sister is as well . . . So the way that we do it is we actually play all the songs live, but we project all of the graphic novel onto the stage on this big screen behind us. I’m kind of the [lead character.] So it’s not acting in the sense that . . . well, we don’t have lines but we definitely perform it as an abstract theater piece, a concert, and a comic book. It’s really fun. The thing that really drives it is the storytelling aspect of it. And that’s something that I think is apparent in the way we made the album. We wrote the story before the music. I recorded it in my brother’s bedroom in my parents’ house. We had these massive charts up all over the wall where I was madly working out how to structure this story and what was drawn. That really laid the groundwork and the restrictions for the music. The music came out of that and filled the different parts we needed in the story.
Has storytelling and fiction been a significant part of your background?
[Making stories] is something I grew up just loving. My cousins, brothers, sisters and myself would make movies all the time growing up. That’s what we spent our whole vacations doing.
Now what I find fascinating is that Annasthesia, though featuring a whole orchestra of instruments and a very wide, theatrical sound, was recorded with very limited equipment. Tell us a little about that.
We recorded it using pro-tools and a single microphone. It’s amazing what technology is enabling right now. With minimal means you can create something that just opens up creativity quite wide.
So technology has been quite a benefit for your work?
We don’t have the luxury to be snooty towards technology. In essence it has allowed amazing creative opportunity for really minimal means. And I’m so excited about what that enables. Because instead of being an independent band just cobbling together, you know, thousands of dollars to get a few days in a studio where you have lots of time constraints and pressures, what you can do is invest that money into a set-up that enables you unlimited time to create, essentially.
Do you have a lot of experience doing recording/sound engineer work?
I’m so much more excited about the creative side of things instead of the technology of, like, fiddling knobs. That actually sort of hinders my own mental processes. So for me, I need to get into a place where I have unlimited time and I have the ability to capture any idea at the moment I have it.
What about technology associated with the internet? E-mail, Purevolume, My Space? Are you happy with these new resources?
There’s actually a great experience I had with that. I was living in England when Rian, my cousin, asked me to score his film. And so the film was being made in Southern California and I was living in my apartment in England. I composed all the music to the film without ever being in the same room as [my brother.] And so we utilized iChat conferences and we basically “video-conferenced” the whole thing. So we had hours and hours of meetings where I was sitting in front of my Powerbook and with my little video camera . . . I was on the South Coast of England, he was ending the movie in Hollywood, and we would record stuff . . . I would e-mail it to him and we would get online…midnight my time, early morning his, and we totally got out of a rhythm of time. I was sending stuff, he would listen to it, and we’d get online and have a video conference. He would tell me, you know, ‘go more in this direction’ and then I’d make adjustments and e-mail it to him again. It was a phenomenal experience. I would be interested to know if that wasn’t the first time a movie had been composed using iSight. It was really amazing to be able to work on a project thousands of miles away. Really, the first time I was in a room with Ryan [during the project] was when we both flew to New York to fix the score.”
Are you all able to do the Cinematic Underground full-time at this point?
We’re pretty much doing it full time. A lot of us have other projects. I’m producing another singer right now named Katie Chastain. She is absolutely magnificent. We’re actually co-writing a lot of stuff together. It’s been a fantastic creative process. She lives with another community of artists down the road from us. Her aesthetic is amazing. She hands sews her album that she sells at shows. Her voice will blow you away; it’s amazing.
What do you think is unique about your musical compositions?
Ryan asked specifically for a “Broken down junkyard score. So I pushed more in that direction and built some instruments, including a winophone: wine glasses pitched with different levels of water. Basically, when I was preparing for the movie, instead of going to a studio or music shop I went to the local grocery store to their kitchen aisle and I was just, like, insanely testing out cheese graters, whisks, and tones on wine glasses. I basically just bought myself a whole new kitchen set (laughing).
What about the story itself? What is unique about that?
The way that I describe this album is, basically, telling the truth by speaking a lie. I think in my earlier work I was overly concerned about writing songs that were exactly autobiographical. And I think in doing so that you put such a filter, or such a gate, on what you say that you’re telling the truth literally, but it becomes a lie. And so what I did with Annasthesia is in writing about a character, writing through a character, I felt like I didn’t have that gate that I had to write through. So I’m definitely not the main character in the album. I’ve never worked an office job. Never fallen for a girl at work who is getting on a place the next day. But, it’s based on a mixture of four different cities that I’ve spent a lot of time in (Bournemouth, England, New York City, Denver and Los Angeles.) I recorded it in Denver, New York, and England. I captured stuff in the airports as I was flying. One of the main scenes takes places in an airport. I spend a lot of time in airports. [The story] is a lot about this [idea] that a lot of people have connected to. I feel like the great decision that we have to make in life is whether we disengage or escape, or choose to engage with, reality. And that’s kind of where the title comes from. From the mixture of the girl’s name with the medical term for ‘numbing.’ Like when you get a broken arm. There’s a real distinct pain coming from a certain party of your arm. And the choice you have is to either address that pain and fix it or to medicate. When we medicate it essentially we kind of numb it over-and [then] you can’t tell where the pain is coming from, but you just feel this sort of overall ‘blah’, or this numbness.
What about the time period of the story?
The story happens in a mythical city in the recent past; before the explosion of the internet, when telephones still had chords.
Now, are all twelve members of the collective musicians?
The group is a slightly a revolving, rotating membership, but there’s about a dozen of us. And not all of those are on stage. That includes the artists who make the projection happen, the fashion shop happen…administrators who keep all twelve of us eating and living.
How has this communal nature of “Cinematic Underground” been good for the group and projects?
When resources put restrictions on you, I think that can really create amazing stuff if you share them. We’re doing this all independently . . . no label financing us. One of the things we do is figuring out how [to] live on really minimal means. We’ve made the decision that we don’t want to work part time jobs, so we’ve tightened up our belts. And it’s actually really amazing. We end up eating on two dollars per night . . . these amazing meals.
Are there any final words you’d like to give readers?
I feel like there’s a real loud voice right now that says ‘if you want to be successful, this is the route that you have to take. And I think a really powerful thing to understand is that you don’t have to play by their rules if you don’t require their rewards. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot and processing with the whole team. If you do require the rewards that are being offered to your industry or by your vocation then you really do need to play by their rules. If you want this, then this is what you have to do to get it. But the flip side of that opens up this phenomenal freedom that…when someone says you have to do X, you really have the freedom to say, “No, we actually don’t have to do that cause we don’t need what X rewards us with. And that opens up the ability for us to actually do a tour with 12 people, unfunded by a major record label. Because the things that are driving us are creating really good, small pieces of art and connecting with people and, you know, doing a crazy mash-up between three different art forms. And that allows us to say, ‘Well, what we’ve got is a story, and what we are is a graphic designers and illustrators and architects and we’re not just musicians. So, let’s use all these things that we love to tell this story that we have, and have you see what the outcome is.’ And if you start from that way I can assure you that it’s not gonna look like a normal CD or concert.
to check up on their tour, go to: www.thecinematicunderground.com