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Gentlemen Broncos and the Lion’s Belly: A Conversation with Composer David Wingo

Suggestion: it’s going to be a good autumn for David Wingo, a musician perhaps best known for his work with filmmaker David Gordon Green. The end of October brings with it the opening of Gentlemen Broncos, a Jared Hess-directed comedy about science-fiction writers, for which Wingo composed the score. Come November, Belly of the Lion, his second album recorded under the name Ola Podrida, will be released on Western Vinyl. It’s a rich, textured work, edging Wingo’s Americana-focused concerns into a territory that sounds — dare I say it — pretty close to cinematic.

You work both scoring films and writing songs — did one lead into the other? How did you first get involved with both?

Doing my own home recordings led inadvertently to my doing film scoring, because my best friend growing up was David [Gordon] Green. He went off to film school; the idea of giving him something to put in one of his films never even crossed my mind. I would send him the four-tracks I was making just so he could hear what I was doing. I was getting into doing droney, ambient kind of stuff, and he put some of my four-tracks to his second student film, and he really liked it. And the next student film, he had me do something original for it. It was the first time I’d ever done that, and it led from there. I was just lucky to have a friend who was making films.

How did the Gentlemen Broncos assignment come about?

David’s production designer, a good friend of mine named Richard Wright, got the job doing that. Jared, as they were in pre-production, was asking him if I could do Logan’s Run-type crazy sci-fi synth stuff. I said, “Sure!” I had just done the film Great World of Sound, and that was all synths; I was happy to do it again. Of course, that’s not all the score ended up being, in the least. But that was the initial push.

Most of the films you’ve worked on previously have been fairly realistic, fairly contemporary; Gentlemen Broncos seems to be a lot more varied…

The only movie that was a precedent, for films I’ve done, was this movie The Guatemalan Handshake, which I really love. That was a really wacky movie. My scores had been very contemplative, but there, the score’s something that was a little more upbeat and fun. That’s one precedent, but everything else, for sure, is very different from Gentlemen Broncos.

Where do you do most of your composing? The two Ola Podrida records sound more guitar-driven, whereas I hear more piano-driven work coming up in your compositions.

It’s really been varied. I feel lucky that I’ve gotten to do so many films that were calling for so many things. Gentlemen Broncos — three-quarters of it is based in the real world, where the main character’s this teenage sci-fi writer. And a quarter of the movie is his book acted out — that’s the crazy sci-fi stuff. And so for the real world stuff, it was poppy, guitar-based. We kind of did a spaghetti-western kind of thing for the sci-fi stuff. There were a lot more strings; not a whole lot of piano. But yes — some of the scores, there have been a lot of piano. But All The Real Girls had a very Americana score. And Great World of Sound was all synths, except for a few songs. It always depends on what the movie is wanting.

Are there people you look to who balance writing pop or rock songs with film scoring? People like Randy Newman or John Lurie… Is that a template for what you’re looking to do?

Career-wise, for sure. I’m a huge Randy Newman fan. It’s a slippery slope. I’m realizing as I’ve gotten more film work over the last year, I respect guys like them a lot more for the fact that they can balance them and do seemingly focused work both ways. Up until now, I’ve been getting a movie every year or two. This year, doing more, I’ve been realizing that it saps your creativity, in a way, to be working on a project for eight hours a day. It doesn’t leave a lot of time, or the creative energy, to work on my own stuff. And that’s what I am looking to balance. I’ve had three films in a row, and it has been difficult to, at the end of the day, write the songs; I’m tapped out for the day. I feel like it’s something I’m still in the process of working on. Realizing how to balance those things. Randy Newman’s a great example, that’s for sure.

Do you find things that come up in the course of writing a film score might also come up in one of your songs, or vice versa? A passage, or something like that…

I don’t know of anything concrete. For sure, it feels like every film score I do, I’m stretching myself a little bit out of my comfort zone as a way to surprise myself, not repeat myself in the same old stuff. Generally, doing that, I know I’m learning something about composing and writing music that I definitely notice bleeds over into my own stuff. It’s not really a conscious thing, as much as it’s one thing that’s ingrained in my process. When I made the first Ola Podrida record, that was the first time I’d focused on writing acoustic-based songs in a long, long time. I did George Washington, and when I came back and started writing songs again, it was a very, very different thing. I was definitely thinking more in terms of atmosphere with the songs than I ever had before. And Gentlemen Broncos, the real-world stuff ended up being really poppy, and I know that was more influenced by the songs I’d been writing.

Do you see yourself as part of a scene in terms of film composers? Are there any affiliations among composers?

My favorite composers are much more musically trained than I am. As far as modern-day composers, Jon Brion, Carter Burwell, Clint Mansell, and Cliff Martinez. But I don’t know…. I would feel like I was definitely stretching to see myself as a contemporary of theirs. I think they all have a different upbringing from me. I have no musical training, and for better or for worse, I think my music is a little more… It’s not as stately as theirs is, but I really love that stuff. It’s always in the back of my head that maybe, down the road, I should go back to school. Get a little more training. I feel more musical kinship with singer-songwriters than I do with most composers.

Watch a video interview with Wingo below. Gentlemen Broncos opens in theaters tomorrow.

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