The Mexican percussionist explains how he went from playing in his jazz band to composing his first ever movie score - for none other than Oscar-winning film Birdman.
How did you end up composing the soundtrack for Birdman?
[Director] Alejandro Iñárritu heard me playing in my jazz band, the Pat Metheny Group. He’s a big music fan, a true connoisseur. He was a DJ in Mexico City when I was a teenager - I’d listen to his radio show, Magic Nights where he’d play music that was less commercial, more to his tastes. One night he played this track called Last Train Home. I thought, “This is really cool, who is this by?” It turned out it was by the Pat Metheny Group. A year later I was playing with them in Los Angeles and at an afterparty I met Alejandro for the first time. Everything came full circle.
Not many movie scores feature nothing but drumming. Were you worried that it wouldn’t work?
At the start there were no points of reference and I was worried that it’d be too aggressive. But the lack of points of reference meant that it was very liberating also. When Alejandro approached me about the project I thought it was either going to be genius or very bad.
How much of the soundtrack was improvised?
Alejandro would explain to me the scenes, the emotional aspects and I’d improvise from that. Then, they’d use the demos on top of the film, superimposed on the rough cut, then I’d review it and go back into work. So for the last part of the process I relearned what I improvised and worked on that before re-recording.
What’s Iñárritu like work to with? Is he a true perfectionist?
He’s great. He’s definitely a perfectionist. I was a little afraid because I heard that he’s very intense. But he’s easy, fun, relaxed. He has a great creative mind. He told me he wanted the music to actually get into the main character’s mind, his emotional and mental turmoil. He wanted it, at its core, to just actually be in his head. That’s why you see the drummer on the street or in the theatre’s corridors at some points in the film. We wanted it to be me playing the drummer but I was on tour during filming unfortunately.
How would you drum differently for Michael Keaton’s character Riggan? As opposed to when Edward Norton was on screen?
We tried different pacing for different characters. I’d translate what Alejandro would say through the music. He also wanted a dirty sound so we worked on that, making the drumming more distorted and louder. I’d use older drumheads, put some tape over them, change the fitting so the drums would slack, and I’d stack cymbal upon cymbal for that trash can sound. The internal war between Riggan and Birdman was very exciting to portray. When I’d be drumming for Edward Norton’s character, I’d make it cooler, much more improvised.
Birdman came out around the same time as Whiplash, where the drums took centre stage. What did you think of that film?
The drumming is great in Whiplash. For me though, it felt more like a sports movie, with an athlete and coach dynamic, than a musician’s film. But I understand that, Hollywood wanting to dramatise drumming. If it was a movie solely about jazz most people wouldn’t care too much about it.
Will you be returning to movie soundtracks down the line?
Yeah, I’d love to do more. It has to be the right film, Birdman was great, the drumming was right at the forefront. I have a busy life with my music career already - I won’t do a soundtrack where my the music is in the background. If it’s the right project I’ll do it. Otherwise, I already have a living, performing with the Pat Metheny Group. I’d love to work with Alejandro again but he has his own things too. But hopefully we’ll work together again.
Birdman is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 4 May