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Shudder To Think on film

By Mark Woodlief

AUGUST 24, 1998:  "We've always been serious film heads and had a fascination with movies," says Shudder To Think's Nathan Larson. "We've had tons of friends make films, so it's always been a natural part of our vocabulary." Long-time fans of the group might remember 1991's Funeral at the Movies (Dischord). This year, Shudder To Think have immersed themselves in film projects like the score to High Art (ReelSounds/Velvel) and now the First Love, Last Rites soundtrack, out this Tuesday on Epic. Next month, the band's music will appear in Todd Haynes's glam-rock-inspired Velvet Goldmine (London).

Shudder To Think began their recent foray into film music with First Love, Last Rites, the feature debut by ex-Lemonheads bassist and successful video director Jesse Peretz. (He's best known for the Mentos spoof on the Foo Fighters' "Big Me" and for MTV's Jimmy-the-cab-driver spots.) The film's female lead, Sissel (played by Natasha Gregson Wagner), keeps a collection of 45s from various rock-and-roll eras, and Shudder To Think worked closely with the director to compose original songs.

"While Jesse was developing the script, we wrote music that would work dramatically in the film," explains Larson. "The theory is that each of the songs is a single that this girl has in her record collection. So the thing was to write these songs in different genres, and we needed a lot of different voices to make it sound like different records."

First Love's guests include the late Jeff Buckley (on the Stax/Volt-inspired "I Want Someone Badly"), Liz Phair (the Springsteen-esque "Erecting a Movie Star"), X's John Doe ("Speed of Love"), Billy Corgan, and the Cardigans' Nina Persson (the ethereal "Appalachian Lullaby"), as well as Cheap Trick's Robin Zander, The The's Matt Johnson, Komeda's Lena Karlsson, and Low members Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker.

While finishing the soundtrack at a New York post-production studio, Larson and Shudder To Think co-writer Craig Wedren connected with director Lisa Cholodenko, who was wrapping up work on High Art. "People were talking about First Love, Last Rites in the film community there," Larson says, "and we wound up with some other jobs. We've been lucky to have worked on some really nice movies."

He explains that the group's work for High Art -- mostly ambient, instrumental textures -- is quite different from First Love's song-based format. "High Art was much more of a traditional score. The film was completed, we sat down with the director, then imposed music on the film. In First Love, Last Rites, without exception, we did all the songs before the film was even shot.

"But we approached both of these things with no preconceived notion, like 'We want to do this kind of music.' It was more, 'What does the movie call for?' Then we tried to be a blank slate and let the film and the director dictate what to go after. It's a really great thing 'cause you're like, 'Oh wow, I didn't know I could do that kind of music. That's new for me.' "

In the past, Shudder To Think have taken some critical shots for their arty style, and the irony of working on a score called High Art isn't lost on Larson. "A lot of people would accuse us of being kind of pretentious, and I could certainly see why they would say that."

But he adds that the First Love project allowed him and Wedren to "distance ourselves from our conceptions of what was really cool music" and focus more on the history of pop music. First Love's intentionally imitative genre exercises subvert the band's ego. The surprising result is the best record of their decade-long career. Larson laughs and confesses, "It forced us to drop some of our pretensions about music, which is ultimately a good thing. Nobody wants to be perceived as pretentious, y'know?"

Although Larson and Wedren are not new to this kind of work (both have done commercial projects, student films, and MTV shows in the past), it's clear that soundtracking and scoring has opened up new songwriting approaches. The lessons are still being absorbed, and Larson acknowledges that a new Shudder To Think album probably won't be recorded until next year. "We just recently are getting back into trying to work on our own stuff, and it's hard to say what the long-term effects are gonna be. In a way it's much more difficult to start working on something without an assignment and a specific reason and a focus for it. So that's what we're sort of facing -- we're trying to relearn how to be a more traditional band."

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