It’s likely you’ve already heard some of Saunder Jurriaans’ music. Over the past decade, not only has he released records with groups Tarantula, Tarantula A.D. and Priestbird, but he’s also one half of an award-winning duo with Danny Bensi, creating soundtracks.
Together they’ve created music for more than 100 film and TV series, including Ozark – recently Emmy-nominated for their work on series three – and The OA, and from American Gods, Barry, Chef’s Table and Boy Erased to acclaimed arthouse films such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, Enemy, The One I Love, The Fits and HBO series The Outsider.
But lately Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter and composer Saunder has stepped into uncharted territory with ‘vulnerable, affecting and musically inventive’ debut solo LP Beasts, released in September on Decca. And it seems that even while Hollywood kept him busy, he never lost his love for straightforward songwriting.
“Soon as we started scoring, I started accumulating songs. With my creative life consumed by writing film scores, I found catharsis in writing songs – music that wasn’t necessarily dictated by someone else’s story or structure. It was something I needed … and still need.”
Opening track ‘All Just Talkin’’ is a great example, Saunder setting heartfelt words to music that shifts and pulls you in surprising directions.
“It goes into this weird, psychedelic world. I was thinking a lot about The Beatles, and unexpected ways of breaking out of song structure. I like the cinematic aspect of songs like ‘A Day in the Life’, where you go into this kind of chaos. It felt right.”
And lyrically, that song sets the tone for the deeply personal themes explored throughout.
“These songs were written after a difficult number of years dealing with depression. They were written when I was coming out of that period, but they’re about how this darker side of me has stayed with me, and about trying to reconcile how to live with that person.”
Another standout, ‘Easy Now’ is one of the most personal songs, first written and performed live during a four-month period when Saunder and his Argentinian wife, artist Patricia Iglesias, were living in Buenos Aires.
“That song very much dealt with our relationship at that time, which was on the rocks for a few years. My wife and I would sing it on stage together. It’s about us, but has since evolved to be about much more.”
And it was Patricia who created the abstract artworks which inspired the name Beasts.
“They were paintings of these strange creatures and animals. I love them so much and wanted to use them for the album artwork. When I started to think about what to name the record, Beasts worked so well. These songs are creatures that came out of my imagination after lurking in my life for so many years. They’re elusive and fantastical, and in some ways terrifying.”
It’s a singular, personal record, one wholly his own. And it certainly carries an apt title.
“Putting out music this intimate is scary. It’s a beast. The whole album is a beast and each song is a beast.”
Saunder, born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1977, is the child of Dutch immigrants who bounced around the United States before settling in Seattle, Washington.
After moving to Providence, RI to study at the Rhode Island School of Design, he instead dropped out to play in a band. Around then he also met Danny Bensi, and they quickly became collaborators.
Moving to New York in 2000, along with drummer Gregory Rogove they formed ‘proggy, chamber-rock trio’ Tarantula, later renamed Tarantula A.D., and then Priestbird, touring with a suitably-eclectic mix of bands.
Those included avante-jazz-funk outfit Medeski Martin & Wood, freak folk singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart, psychedelic duo Cocorosie, and heavy metal rockers, The Sword. What’s more, in Europe, they opened for Pearl Jam.
The first film Saunder and Danny composed the score for was 2010 drama Two Gates Of Sleep, with director Alistair Banks Griffin a friend from Saunder’s RI studies.
Their new way of working came naturally to the pair, critical acclaim following and leading to the pair scoring 2011 thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, their career soon snowballing.
But this year, mid-pandemic, there was a chance to finally complete Saunder’s behind the scenes solo project. Strange times, eh?
“Yes, a very odd year! Patricia and I moved from New York to Los Angeles exactly a year ago, so we feel pretty fortunate to be in a place we can spend a lot of time outside. I’d just finished building out the garage into a studio when the pandemic hit, so was quite lucky in that respect.”
Are soundtrack commissions still coming your way? Alternatively, is a follow-up solo LP taking shape?
“Yes – both! Danny and I have stayed quite busy through this year, even though many projects got cancelled or put on hold. The world might seem to be stopped, but people still need their TV and film. Maybe more than ever now. I’ve a bunch of solo songs and music in the works, and would like to release another album in 2021 for sure.”
How would you say this year of the virus has affected you, professionally and personally? Has it changed the way you work? Might you have been out on the road touring this album with a band now? And if so, will that happen in the near future instead?
“It’s hard to say – I’ve talked a lot about this with people and can’t decide whether the whole thing has been a blessing or a curse. I guess a little of both. On one hand, to be in one place, with no holiday travels, visiting friends, limited social activities, it’s been amazing for consistency in my work. At the same time, I periodically feel ‘pandemic fatigue’ that can be creatively crippling.
“I really wish I could have done some shows around the release. I tried to keep up with the ‘live’ videos and streaming stuff that’s going on, but it’s not my favourite. I would love to put together a band and play this stuff. That would be a blast. I hope it can still happen somehow … if not this album, it will be the next!”
Beasts is an album that’s slowly but surely got under my skin these past couple of months. An alternative soundtrack for these strange times, maybe, full of reflection on the past but also a beacon of hope for a better future. Is that how you see it?
“Yes, what a perfect and wonderful observation! Not sure I need to say more – I think that’s ideally how I’d want people to feel about it.”
Is this perhaps the record you’re most proud of, the closest to the real you, or at least the most personal so far? You’ve used the word catharsis. Was there genuine freedom in writing for yourself rather than looking to express someone else’s vision, as must often be the case in soundtrack work?
“It’s definitely the most personal, and perhaps I’m the most proud of it in that I somehow squeezed it by my very vocal ‘inner critic’ and overcame some deep resistance!
“For me it’s been cathartic or therapeutic in so many ways to just write music without having to answer to anyone else, or please anyone else, besides myself of course … which can be admittedly more difficult at times.
“I love writing music for film, but it’s much like illustration in that I’m always telling someone else’s story. I need to be able to tell my own story, I guess.”
I feel I should apologise if I’ve gone too far with the following questions. I guess that’s the problem when you share your work with the world – a hundred of us might come up with a hundred different interpretations. We tend to bring our own baggage to the party. Are you easy with that?
“I absolutely love hearing other people’s interpretations of my music.”
Well, you hit the ground running with opening track, ‘All Just Talkin’’. For me there’s the feel of a lost Lee Hazlewood number at first, to a point where I half expect Nancy Sinatra to come in. But just before the minute and a half mark, you’re off somewhere else. What’s more, it happens again at the three-minute mark.
And that seems to be your modus operandi, taking us on paths we don’t expect, sharing a mighty ride. Is that part of the thrill? It’s a brave thing to do, not least on an opening song of a debut LP. Those who hear it and listen properly will love it, but I get the impression you’re not seeking a Billboard top-10 here.
“Ha ha! No, definitely not looking for the Billboard top-10! I guess I have a sort of musical attention deficit disorder – I get a huge thrill out of unexpected changes and musical juxtaposition.
“I’m obsessed with creating unlikely combinations – both instrumentally and compositionally – but also trying to make them work and not sound like Frank Zappa at his most insane … even though I do like Frank.
“I guess my process while writing a song is a modulating, changing experience – it’s not always all coming out at once. Each layer I add informs the next. I don’t usually start with a concept of the whole track, so these unexpected changes usually occur quite naturally according to how I may be feeling while writing the song.
“Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t – I do a lot of muting and deleting!”
That opening track, like many on this fine album, might have turned up on a film soundtrack anywhere between the late–‘60s and … well, in 10 years’ time. Is this you paying tribute to some of those influences that have come your way since you were first spellbound by music?
“For sure – that stuff is in my blood and bones – also the ‘80s and ‘90s. I grew up listening to classic hard rock, prog, psych, heavy metal and later was living smack in the middle of the 90’s grunge explosion, as I grew up in Seattle.
“I don’t ever want to feel like I’m trying to recreate those sounds or songs though, even though the influence is there naturally.”
‘A Different Shade of the Same’ is another that catches me out. I’m still trying to put my finger on what’s there, from The Beatles and Love through to Fleet Foxes and The Magic Numbers. Maybe even a future direction for someone like Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. And there’s that big sound, socking it to us, as Otis Redding might have said.
“This song was really inspired by one of my favourite tunes – Elliott Smith’s ‘Everything Means Nothing To Me’. I love the structure of that song – it feels like what he’s saying … not sure how to explain that any other way!”
I realise your roots were elsewhere (and later), and much of this LP was written before you even moved to LA, but ‘Easy Now’ has a late-‘60s Californian feel for me, with elements of everyone from Simon and Garfunkel to The Lovin’ Spoonful, Mamas and Papas and even something of a late Monkees vibe. Was that – albeit retrospectively discovered – a defining era for you as a songwriter?
“Man, I used to love The Monkees’ TV show so much when I was a kid! Kind of forgot about that! I’m not sure what the influence was stylistically for ‘Easy Now’ – I remember for a while I was going back and forth between wanting to write more ‘acoustic’ music and then suddenly I’d hate it and electrify everything.
“A lot of the songs on Beasts are casualties of this little psychological war, including ‘Easy Now’! It could feel like a fireside folk tune or be a more anthemic rock song like it turned out.”
I understand how that song came about, but in a sense it’s become something beyond that now you’ve shared it with the world. Maybe there’s a wider message there amid these odd times, digging deep and discovering what really matters – as America seems to have done recently, getting rid of its orange despot – and looking forward and outward rather than getting hung up on building walls and the like.
“Yes – originally the song reflected a very personal experience for me, but now it’s taken on a whole new meaning. I guess it could be a call to re-centre and try find some balance and common goal. Although I don’t think this rupture in our society is only in the US – it seems to be a global trend unfortunately.
“‘Easy Now” definitely has a glimmer of hope and I think I do too – but it’s hard to imagine how we’re going to put things back together without some major self-reflection on the part of every one of us.”
There’s another mighty change of pace on ‘Ghost Walk’, kicking in at the two-and-a-half minute mark this time. And for me there’s a kind of early-‘70s glam feel. I could hear later-day Bowie tackle this, partly taking us into uncharted territory but also harking back to his work with and influence on the likes of Mott the Hoople. And like the latter, you’ve unleashed a big sound there.
“I am and have always been a huge fan of long epic, dramatic, proggy, rock songs! Ghost Walk was written a bit later in the scheme of the record and my recording chops were much better, I felt more confident going for it. I played every instrument myself on that one … it was a real exercise in overdubs!”
There are perfectly wistful moments too, like ‘All the King’s Men’. Was that something that came into your head one day and you had to get it down and out there?
“Occasionally I’ll spit out an entire song and record in a matter of hours. I could have started to go crazy layering stuff on the piano/vocal take, but I restrained myself – which wasn’t easy – and just let it be!”
‘Last Man Standing’ is another song that takes its time to build and draw you in … then wham! Is that something you’re aware of doing, or set out to do? And while I’m at it, ‘Brittle Bones’ is another lovely, evocative … interlude, I guess, but another integral part of all this. Maybe this LP could have as easily been named Beauty and Beasts.
“I’ve written a ton of instrumental guitar music over the years and always struggle with what to do with it. I don’t use much guitar in films. I love albums with instrumental interludes, especially flashy guitar ones!
“Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ comes to mind, as well as Jimmy Page’s ‘Black Mountain Side’. I am – before everything else – a guitar player. Sometimes I fight it and pretend I’m something else, but I always come back to her!
“And ‘Brittle Bones’ was a sort of etude I wrote while studying classical guitar. I was very influenced – and still am – by Haitian guitarist and composer Frantz Casseus.”
‘I’m Afraid (I’m a Fake)’ takes us on another major journey, and I hear a little late Beatles, guitar-wise. And while I’m not normally swayed by drum solos, there’s something suitably manic at the climax which brings a smile to the face. It’s kind of like Phil Collins in a padded cell for a while. Was this you fighting off Beasts?
“This was the last song written that went on Beasts. I didn’t even mean for it to be on the record, It was meant for the next one perhaps, but I just loved it so much, and I felt the record needed a real rock guitar solo, dammit!
“It’s very much about the whole struggle of releasing the album. It’s another one I played all the instruments and layered everything myself. I had so much fun making this song and it remains one of my favourites …
“And I’m a huge George Harrison fan. I love his weird tinny, in-your-face guitar solos. He was definitely an influence on this tune!”
After that, we perhaps needed ‘The Three of Me’. It’s other-worldly but reminds me in a sense of Neil Finn’s more recent work with son Liam. And as with him, the melodies are never far away – as is the case even among this LP’s more discordant moments – albeit again with little clue as to where we’re going before we take that next fork.
“I don’t know Neil Finn, but will check him out!”
Ooh, I bet you are when you check him out. And then we’re away on ‘Miles To Go’, a suitably-atmospheric climax, that big sound at its heart … although – as with all the strongest songs – I get the impression it’d be just as effective stripped down to just you and an acoustic guitar as it would if it was given the major production treatment in the hands of the afore-mentioned Simon and Garfunkel or even Nilsson perhaps.
“’Miles To Go’ is probably my favourite song on the record. It started as a sort of cowboy, campfire song and turned into the soundscapey distorted metal wash of doom!
“This is the type of juxtaposition I was talking about before that’s so exciting to me – melding to disparate worlds into something that feels cohesive and new.
“At one point, years after I originally wrote the song, I added the heavy metal chunking guitars at the end, which really satisfied a deep, deep part of me!”
Overall, is this something you see as completely different to your scoring work, or is it perhaps a soundtrack to a film that’s not yet been made?
“I don’t really know … so much of what I’ve learned and discovered scoring films has gone into this music, but my work scoring films has also been informed by all the roots these songs come from. I think it’s going to be an ongoing exploration!”
Finally, what’s next for you? And what’s the first thing you and your beloved will do when the virus is behind us and we can get back to somewhere approaching where we were at before the veil came down?
“I’ve just released a podcast. It’s called Giant Steps and is about running and the creative process … don’t ask me how, but I’ve become a pretty serious runner over the last years and increasingly interested in the great things it does for my mind.
“The show consists of interviews with various artists, directors, designers, musicians etc … who are avid runners. I’m working with my dear friend and brilliant film editor, Matt Hannam.
“Each episode is meticulously sound designed and scored for a sort of immersive interview experience. So that is currently taking up a good chunk of my time.
“When this pandemic ends, I really hope to get some live shows going though. I’m itching to play music with people again! For Patricia and I, we will immediately go and visit our families, with hers in Buenos Aires and mine up in Washington State. We miss them terribly.”