Johann Johannsson

Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has maintained an interesting balance throughout his musical career. He has produced scores for Bang On A Can and neo-classical ensembles like groups in his native Iceland. He has collaborated with modern pop and rock musicians like SunnO))) member Stephen O’Malley, Pan Sonic, and former Can member Jaki Liebezeit. And he’s also released dense and moving albums of abstract electronica and daring orchestral pieces under his own name through 4AD, Touch, and his own NTOV label.

Jóhannsson’s most high profile work, though, has been the scores he has written for films. An occupation of the composer’s since 2000, the size and scope of the projects have only grown bigger in the ensuing years. In the past few years, he has provided the heartwrenching undercurrent to Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 kidnapping drama Prisoners and earned a Golden Globe for the uplifting romantic waltzes and dazed, smeared strings he added to the Stephen Hawking biopic A Theory of Everything.

His latest score is one of his most ambitious. For the suspenseful thriller Sicario (directed by Villeneuve), Jóhannsson gives the film almost unbearable notes of tension by using fractured bits of percussion that have been filtered and processed through a computer, interspersed with almost delicate orchestral moments and lots of low drones that work to unnerve the viewer as much as the action onscreen.

We were able to catch up with Jóhannsson at his Berlin home to discuss his work on Sicario, in advance of the the film’s nationwide release on September 25th and the release of the soundtrack album this coming Friday.

What is it that you like about writing for films or theater versus writing music for a studio album?

I think i enjoy both. My own solo work and the film work kind of feed into each other in many ways. I like to challenge myself with each project so you know every project there has to be something new that I can explore some new techniques and some new approaches and I think film is really perfect for that because you always have like a new kind of context to work in. I’m lucky enough to be able to work with very talented filmmakers who are very open to experimentation. I’m very fortunate that I’m able to develop my musical language in both the film work and then in my own work.

How did you challenge yourself or experiment for Sicario?

I haven’t really worked with percussion so much before so it was really interesting for me to try and use that element. A very percussive, very kind of driving, throbbing, and sometimes quite violent percussion. And it’s a very textural score. There’s almost an absence of melody in many ways but instead there are these little motifs that permeate the score. It was more about working with texture, working with orchestral textures and percussive textures in a way that I haven’t really done before.

Do those motifs you’re talking about and those themes come out of watching the movie and realizing what it needs, or is that something that comes out of a discussion with the director?

I think it’s a combination of both. We talked about the music obviously before but it was in very abstract terms. Denis [Villeneuve] wanted a very strong undercurrent of melancholy. The kind of melancholy and sadness of the desert and of the border, but also a sense of menace, a sense of tension. On the CD there’s a track called “The Beast” which is I think one of the first things I wrote for the film and it really kind of set the tone for it. It’s this very simple repetitive motif that kind of just grows and grows and becomes quite violent towards the end.

This is your second film working with Denis. Was the process of working on this together much easier this time around because you guys had worked together before, or did it take you guys a while to get on the same page?

It always takes a while to find the voice of the film but Denis likes to involve me early on in the project so I’m there from before they start shooting so there’s always a good amount of time to experiment and develop the sound of the film. There’s always some kind of approaches that you abandon at some point but, for me and Denis, it’s very much a process of discovering what the film needs, and that takes a while. It’s more a dialogue, and I really like working in that way with filmmakers, in a dialogue and in a kind of way of discovering the film together.

Many of the best film scores are those that can survive and be enjoyed on their own, without the visuals. Is that something that is in the back of your mind as you’re working on a score, or do you try not to worry about that?

I keep it in the back of my mind, definitely. The aim is always to create music that works on its own. But this is not always a goal that you reach. The first goal is to serve the film and to create something that works for the film. But the score CD is something that I feel is very important. The score working as a piece of music on its own is something that I place a lot of importance on. 

Did winning a Golden Globe change things dramatically for your career or has it stayed pretty much the same?

Well, I’ve been very busy for the last few years so in terms of work it didn’t really change that much. My year was kind of booked already before the nomination, but i think it definitely made my name more prominent in the film and music world and it created a lot more awareness of what I do and my work so I think my agent is getting a lot more calls.

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