INTERVIEW: Asian Dub Foundation Bring THX 1138 to the 21st Century
Composing an alternate score to any film is a dangerous game. Much like the ever-controversial fan-edit, anyone who dares to do it is tampering with an intrinsic element of the art, and in so doing they’re running the risk of sullying it. When it works though, it can place the film in an almost entirely new light, and make no mistake, Asian Dub Foundation’s live scoring of THX 1138 works on almost every level.
For the unfamiliar, THX 1138 was George Lucas’s first feature film as a director, and it’s about as far removed from Star Wars as it could possibly be. Starring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance, it imagines a grim, subterranean dystopia in which everyone is funnelled through a system of factory work and routine drugging, prohibited from relationships and encouraged to talk their troubles away in spartan confession booths, which spout the same recorded platitudes again and again, personified by a blown up image of Christ’s face.
It’s not the first time Asian Dub Foundation have done a live score. Their blistering, fiercely political stylings have previously been applied to La Haine and The Battle of Algiers, and in both of those cases there was a certain amount of cultural symmetry with current events. I caught up with Steve, the band’s guitarist and mastermind of the THX 1138 show, shortly before they were due to play at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge. He was mired in a concern that likely wouldn’t even have occurred to even the most savvy sci-fi writer in the seventies – finding a replacement charger for his phone. Once that issue was resolved, he sat down with me in the green room to discuss what it was that buoyed him and the band to select this seminal film for the live scoring treatment. “It’s slightly impenetrable in some ways, not so much dialogue, so there was space for the group.” He said.
It makes sense, THX is a very sparse film, far more interested in showing you this bleak new world than telling you about it, but did it have the same contextual heft as, say, The Battle of Algiers? “At the time it was the day they had released some pictures from Abu Ghraib, and torture by invading colonial powers is something which appears in the film.” He reflects, but with THX, it turns out, the symmetry was far more general. “Surveillance, I think. It’s the whole thing about the amount of information the state takes, and the way it takes it, via computer. That’s right up front, isn’t it? Also there’s stuff about fundamentalist religion, sexual oppression. I think the drugs are a big part of it, you see children with syringes in their arms, from birth almost, it links to the Ritalin stuff with ADHD, when GlaxoSmithKline had to like 2 billion in compensation.”
There are several instances in the film where drugs play a significant role, the populous are shown to have been raised on them from birth, which given the film’s 1971 timestamp, was certainly a contentious issue. “It’s very much a post-hippie era film, the repression is quite polite, it has a polite face to it. It also had psychological behaviouristic elements to it, which was very much an obsession of the sixties, the beginnings of therapy.” But what to the band bring to it, now that we’re so far beyond that time? Well, to my mind, they’ve brought it to the 21st century. As the film played on a screen, cocooned in the appropriately ornate setting provided by Cambridge’s largest venue, the band wove elements of Lalo Schifrin’s original score with dub, drum and bass, electronic and most significantly, the stylings of Nathan ‘Flutebox’ Lee, who you should search for on YouTube immediately if you’re unfamiliar with.
“I know it by the millisecond now.” Steve says, speaking on how his perception of the film has changed. “I think we’ve become far more aware of its meaning and for the first time reviews of performances have helped us understand it and characterise it. It is a kind of remix of the film, it’s a different beast. Out of all the 3 films, it’s probably the most different than if you watch it at home. The pace of the film is very different, because of the music. What we magnify kind of makes it grander in places, which is what Walter Murch said about it. He said it was like the difference between a book and an opera.” Walter Murch was the writer of the film, alongside George Lucas, the two of them and Lalo Schifrin had to grant permission to the band before they could embark on this project and of the the 3, Schifrin’s approval mattered to Steve the most. “Just the fact that he knows it exists makes me very happy, he’s a hero of mine.” Steve says, leaning back in his chair. “He’s really more known for all this dirty, sinister, brutal, orchestral funk, which was just awesome, just genius. With THX it seems like he was quite influenced by the music from Fantastic Voyage.”
Schifrin’s score for THX certainly remains a unique entity in his back catalogue, it’s ambient, haunting and minimalist, whereas a few hours later when I was sat watching the previously thinly scored first encounter between Duvall’s THX and Donald Pleasance’s creepy, deluded SEN, the band were affecting a heavy, dubby, almost Massive Attack-esque beat that took the tension of the scene to whole different level. The thing to bear in mind though is that almost all of Schifrin’s score is still very much present, it’s the same DNA. “The proof is in the pudding really. You could make the case, the very negative case that if a film’s good, there’s no need to do it, on the other hand it’s just interesting to re-contextualize a film, sonically. You have to respect it, but I think with this one we have kind of booted it into the 21st century. That’s what the reviews have been saying and I think I can safely say that we’ve enhanced it and given it a different platform than it otherwise would have had.”
An interest in science fiction has rippled through a lot of Steve’s work both within ADF and outside of it, so it makes sense that this has ended up being the deepest, most fascinating live scoring project they’ve done. “I’m a science fiction guitarist, if anything.” He says, pausing to allow me a wistful chuckle. “The obvious thing to do would have been to use a lot of electronic music, and we haven’t done that. I remember first seeing Orbital when they did their Planet of the Shapes thing in 1992, and it had just loads of samples from Planet of the Apes. That was terrific. I think they were the first to really use that particular thread of science fiction in that way. I think we’ve moved beyond the necessity of doing music about the future, I remember in 1987 the Phillip K. Dick society awarded Sonic Youth the album of the year for Sister.”
That brought things back around to another topic of discussion I’d been interested to cover, the current state of sci-fi, and I must admit, given Steve’s interest in Lucas’s previous work, I was curious to hear his thoughts on Star Wars. “I don’t really have much interest in Star Wars, to be honest. From an early age I really wasn’t that interested. It seems to me to be Knights of the Round Table in outer space, I’m more interested in dystopia.” He answers. “I mean THX and Star Wars are almost polar opposites. The weird thing is that THX opens with that Buck Rodgers clip, and that’s Star Wars! It’s like he’s showing what he was told the future would be like when he was a kid, and then the reality of it, but then a few years after that he went back to the childhood dreams. The quality of contemporary dystopia has become very low, the Hollywood Phillip K. Dick adaptations, apart from A Scanner Darkly, have been pretty poor. Dystopia has become a B movie genre. The Hunger Games was interesting, it supplanted Twilight, the fact that it was so popular among teens was quite encouraging. Science Fiction is in a very strange place now, because a lot of the fundamental ideas within it have actually been incorporated into normal life. Phillip K. Dick in the seventies had a phenomenally frightening, esoteric and highly original way of thinking and now it’s pretty much mainstream. I think science fiction works best now on a smaller, almost person-to-person scale, like with Black Mirror or particularly Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that was the last truly masterful science fiction film.”
Personally, I love Star Wars, but I also completely understand where Steve is coming from. Dystopic material like THX 1138 now has this strange air of the cultural artefact about it, like it’s a different interpretation of the modern time, rather than being inherently futuristic. About the only thing you seen in the film which wouldn’t be feasible now are the robotic police force, who politely attempt to calm unruly citizens down, and then tase them. ADF’s decision to bring it into a modern context has made the darker shades of our own society all the more evident, in some ways, but are they likely to do any more live scoring? “My personal thing, and I can’t speak for the others, is to find new forms of live performance, like this. We’ve got a couple of other ideas. I think you could make a film specifically for a band to play live to, now that would be interesting. To make an actual film with narrative and characters and script and dialogue that’s designed for the band to play live to, I haven’t seen that done.” As Steve elaborated, I felt myself rippling with excitement at this notion. “Every night’s a remix, maybe the audience can choose the ending, or which soundtrack they get. I did talk about it, someone from Al Jazeera was going to do an actual documentary about Afghanistan which was designed for us to play live to. You have to work within the realms of possibility, though. You have to think about funding and time and all that. Whenever I come up with an idea, the starting point has to be – ‘Where’s it going to, and how?’.”
Whatever they end up doing, this performance is going to stick in my mind for a long time. Interestingly enough, I took a friend to the show who was unfamiliar with the film and he found the whole experience fascinating, in a bewildering way. THX is far from the easiest film to follow, and with a live band blasting music through a concert hall it’s even harder, but he said that the vibe was so overwhelming it was impossible not to get swept up in it. For my part, I enjoyed the film more than any other time I’ve seen it previously, and the increased percussive prevalence (courtesy of drummer Brian Fairbairn) really ratcheted up the pace of some of the most kinetic scenes, something the film really benefitted from, as well as the dissonant wall of noise which accompanied the frenetic crowd scene. The marriage between the potency of the original material and what ADF brought by expressing their interpretation of it though their own art created a kind of perfect storm, and an amazing experience.