Director Jonathan Glazer has been hailed as the next Kubrick for Under The Skin, his adaptation of Michel Faber’s sci-fi novel. It opened over the weekend to mainly ecstatic reviews. The film casts Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien stalking the street of Glasgow to pick up men. If you haven’t watched it already, you might have seen the trailer over the last few months. One of the things that struck me straight-off was the strange, insectival soundtrack. With metallic drones and buzzing, high-intensity strings it bred an uncomfortable, otherworldly atmosphere. It turns out the score was composed by the classically-trained Mica Levi of Micachu & The Shapes, among other projects. I spoke to her about the nuts and bolts of creating a potent soundtrack, the future of her other musical projects and what’s on her stereo right now.
NME: How did the ‘Under The Skin’ soundtrack job come about? Did Jonathan Glazer get in touch with you?
Mica Levi: Yeah, they got in touch with me and it was sort of out of the blue. I was actually on the road with Palma Violets and Savages when I got a call about it. It was a surprise.
NME: How did the experience differ from other projects you’ve worked on before?
M: It was a completely different thing. I was working with a director; he was working to a film. It wasn’t as abstract as writing music just for the sake of it; there was a different purpose.
NME: Did you have a blank slate to do what you wanted?
M: Yeah, I wasn’t dictated to but I was directed. They could have got a professional to do it but they must have wanted a novice in a way. I went into it without being too informed. But there were discussions and changes and we kind of all did it together because the film was getting developed as I was working on it.
NME: Did you feel nervous about doing a high-profile soundtrack for your first one?
M: I did feel out of my league. I felt like I was trying for, I don’t know, the long jump
NME: I guess that writing for a film has to be really lean and you can’t go off on a tangent because it’s so attached to a particular narrative. What did you learn from the process?
M: Oh shitloads, I learnt so much. Just about directing, producing good stuff.. You have an initial instinct or idea or something that feels right and it’s about how you develop that without cheating it or ruining it. Then you realise that all you need is that, you sort of take it really far and you go back to that original idea.
NME: Parts of the soundtrack reminded me of the composer Xenakis. Was he an influence?
M: Yeah, definitely. The first opening definitely used his techniques.
NME: Any particular works?
M: ‘Tetras’, the string quartet.
L: Which techniques influenced you?
M: A lot of aleatoric movement. I was a teenager when I first heard Tetras and I’d never heard anything like it. It was like a beehive. I suppose a lot of concert music from the 70s was definitely in the back of my head like Ligeti, Feldman, those composers.
NME: Did Penderecki inform it at all?
M: Yeah, Penderecki. I was careful not to listen to anything at the time but I’ve listened to that stuff so much that it’s definitely engrained. That music has an impact on a lot of things that I would write for various different groups.
NME: You traditionally trained in viola didn’t you?
M: Yeah. That’s used in it actually.
NME How did you use music to augment different characters and the plot? It’s a massive question but how do you go about reading a script, thinking about a character, writing music.. Can you describe the process in detail?
M: Yeah, I can. It’s really quite thematic so there’s a cymbal roll that goes through it most of the time. And that acts as the cosmos and nature and the planet and beyond the planet and part of the unexplainable. The whole thing is following her [Laura] musically. There’s low bass which is also part of that cosmos. Fifths appear and start to swell in and this held triad is her experience of rushing of human emotion and love.
Then there’s this seductive snake charmery-ish melody which is kind of fake. It’s supposed to be the perfume she sprays to lure in these men. What else is there? The Xenakis-type fragmented aleatoric stuff is the complexity of out-of-space and aliens and energy that we can’t kind of describe and that we don’t know about.
This hocketed note is neurons connecting and the idea of energy being moved around, not quite focusing but connecting. It’s meant to be alien or of human and there’s a moment when you see the factory roof which is this human element of what the alien wants. It’s distilled into something pure and part of that material is a hocketed note refined into one pitch. The drums and the percussion is her as a sexual predator, the hunger thing.
NME: Will you be playing it live at all?
M: I think we are gonna try and do that but I don’t know.
NME: What’s going on with Micachu & The Shapes?
M: We are currently sort of writing, I guess.
M: But it’s very early stages. We’ve all gone off and done different bits ‘n’ bobs and now we’re trying to remember how to play our instruments
Stuff Mica Levi’s listening to
Sons Of Kemet
“I saw them play recently and they were amazing.”
Irving Solomon Teibel’s ‘Environments’(The Magic Of Psychoacoustic Sound – Disc 10)
“I’ve got this vinyl from the 70s where one side is a snow blizzard and another is a thunderstorm. It’s amazing. There’s always comments like “yeah, listening to that part made me feel really fresh” when it’s a hot day.”
Unfortunately Disc 10 isn’t on YouTube but here’s an example from the ‘Environment’s series:
RP Boo’s album ‘Legacy’
“This is quite old now but Tonetta is an internet artist and he does his own videos of all of these filthy songs. He puts up a sheet and dresses up and records songs like A Really Big Cock, I’m Gonna Marry A Prostitute, Drugs Drugs Drugs, Old Lady Peeping Tom. Stuff like that.”
“I really like their songs and I like their live performances. It’s good fun stuff. Would I work with them? I find it hard to work with people if I really like unless it’s something natural. I love Palma Violets as they are.”