By Brian Wise.
“You know how it is in this world? People call you. You don’t call them,” explains Ry Cooder when I ask him why he hasn’t worked on any film soundtracks in recent years.
We have been connected to talk about the recently released 7-CD boxed set Ry Cooder: Soundtracks that focus on Cooder’s soundtrack work in the ’80s and early ’90s on films such as The Long Riders, Alamo Bay, Paris, Texas, Blue City, Crossroads, Johnny Handsome and Trespass.
“In movie music it’s up to the film people to call some composer that they want. So I used to get called.” And he was called often.
Cooder worked on soundtracks for Watermelon Man and Performance (1970), starring Mick Jagger) first produced his own work in 1980 with The Long Riders (the first of many soundtracks for director, Walter Hill). Over the next fifteen years Cooder would work on 14 more soundtracks, the most notable of which was Paris, Texas, the Wim Wenders film that won the prestigious Palme d’Or in 1984 at the Cannes Film Festival.
Cooder claims that the work slowed when his favoured directors were no longer making films and when ‘marketing became the main focus of all film making.’
“That is to say the marketing people took over the industry,” he explains. “Films seem to me now to be more about life style and product identification and trade marking than anything else. That’s the tail end of that narrative era came to a close. I just didn’t get any more calls. I think the films changed the kind of content. The style had changed into stuff I wouldn’t really have too much to do with anyways.”
Cooder says that Hill and Wenders, the main directors with whom he has worked, had two completely contrasting styles when it came to commissioning the music for their films.
“With Walter, after a couple of films, I understood,” he explains. “It was like school. I could understand what it was he was after: organic music that seemed to come out of these environments that he was interested in, whether it was cowboys and Indians or Cajuns or whatever. That is was authentic in some way
“Wenders was entirely different. We met in a house where he was staying and he had the thing on videotape, Paris, Texas. Watched the whole film. I said, ‘It’s an incredible film. It almost doesn’t need music it’s so rich in the environment and the feeling of the place. This weird character walking around mute.’ He says, ‘Well you have to do something. So maybe you should just play blues guitar. Play Blind Willie Johnson.’ That’s what we did and it worked. It took three days. He had three days to work on the thing. There wasn’t time to think or even contemplate it at all. Just had to look at the film and play at it. So that’s how it went.”
While Cooder’s soundtracks vary in terms of style, he always favoured a small group of musicians to assist him in his work: usually, drummer Jim Keltner, Memphis legend Jim Dickinson, guitarist David Lindley, and composer/arranger Van Dyke Parks. There were also guest performances by Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos on Alamo Bay, keyboardist Benmont Tench of the Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers on Blue City, and harmonica player Sonny Terry on Crossroads.
“He talked in terms of music as dimensional in a way that most people don’t,” says Cooder of Dickinson, who played keyboards on the Rolling Stones’ song ‘Wild Horses.’ I could see that he understood music that way. It was fun and, of course, you can’t teach people this kind of thing. It’s very hard. You can’t say to someone, ‘I want you to visually react.’ If they can’t, they don’t. If you find somebody that can then you’re in business. He could and we got together in this way. It became a real enjoyable thing having him there, working with him. We wrote songs together. He was good lyric writer. We had a great time doing it. As long as it lasted it was sure fun.”
The film fun ran out at the end of the ‘90s with the film Primary Colors but Cooder has hardly been idle since. He steered the Buena Vista Social Club in their famous recording that won him a Grammy, worked with The Chieftains and, most importantly, released half a dozen solo albums.
But in spite of the seemingly frenetic activity (for him, at least) Cooder does still have a yearning to pursue some more soundtrack work.
“Lately though, I’ll tell you something that’s funny,” he says. “My son, Joachim, he says to me just the other day he says, ‘Everybody’s ripping you off in these TV shows for music. Why don’t you go and do it yourself?’ So he wanted to work because he’s done this. He understands. He grew up watching me do it. He knows how to do it. So he says we’ll do it together. I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ So he got me together with a film score agent.
“So I’m going to try and see if there is something we can do because I think it would be nice to try again. You know it’s been a while.”
I suggest that the recent series True Detective would have been the perfect project for Cooder.
“Yeah, exactly,” he enthuses. “That’s a great show for that sort of stuff. Joachim told me this. I didn’t know anything about any of this because I don’t look at the television. Whoever is doing that music is terrific at it. I have to say that’s good music. That’s a good score. So, they’re doing better work in TV – more interesting things. Hopefully, we’ll see what we can drum up here.”