1981: With an initial bootleg soundtrack touting hits from The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Bob Marley, director Stephen Spaulding would later require an original score if he wished to see his underground surf film, Bali High, screened in theaters and sold legally. Turning to Kauai based producer/composer phenom Michael Sena for its 1984 re-release, Sena, without trouble and almost entirely single-handedly managed to sweep the boldness of the existing soundtrack into a seamless, cross-genre body of work perhaps even more invigorating than the original.
Speaking with Sena during a rare moment of downtime ahead of the first Bali High OST issue for Anthology Recordings, it’s clear he has a deep love and respect for surf film and culture, as well as the many opportunities the score brought his way. Check out how it all came together via our conversation below.
AD: Were you surprised when you got the call from Anthology about doing a vinyl pressing of the Bali High OST?
Michael Sena: I really was. I had kind of gotten an inclination that people were interested in the soundtrack when someone sent me a link to another website. This was about three years ago. The fellow who runs the website, he had interest in punk music, I think, and there are a couple of tracks on the soundtrack that are a little punk-ish. The conversation had started like… I really like this one song, I wish I knew all the words and can I get a copy of it? When the link was sent to me I jumped online and said yeah I know what song you’re talking about and I gave him the words. I actually said here’s my email, I’ll send you a link to the song and I sent him the lyrics.
Then other people chimed in. They said oh, this is a great soundtrack who are the other bands you used on this stuff? There are no other bands…it’s just me. There’s one track where I had gone down to a local bar called Club Jetty..it’s gone now. This is on Kauai. It was destroyed by the hurricane. I had gone down to the bar and these guys were really good players and I said hey I own a studio would you guys like to come in and do some tracks and they said sure. I brought them down to the studio and I re-wrote a cue from one of my other songs to accommodate the band and so on that track, I think it’s called ‘Cannonade’…I just made the word up, they played on it. Pretty much I’m doing all the rest of it. I brought in a fellow who sings really well and we just kind of jammed and placed lyrics over the top of another track but for the most part it’s just all me.
AD: I was reading in the liner notes about the forum you mentioned. I’m sure there were some interesting things being said.
Michael Sena: Yeah, it was mostly about the one song called ‘Agatha Trim’ which is a pretty interesting song in and of itself, but I just started talking about it. I did a second soundtrack for the same filmmaker, Stephen Spaulding called Totally Committed and that one…I like that one a little more, but Bali High… it was pre-sequencer, pre automated drums. I think there’s like one drum loop. Most of that is just real organic music.
AD: Was recovering the master a difficult process?
Michael Sena: Yeah in a sense it was. It actually turned out to be a cathartic event because I checked what few tapes I had left over. What happened was in 1992, we had a massive Hurricane on Kauai on September 11th. It destroyed the studio. We had forty-foot waves breaking over the actual building. It was just about 60 feet from the ocean. There was a lot of water damage. So when I finally got down to the studio after the storm had passed, which was late that night, there was water that had saturated my closets where I kept tapes and a lot of my instruments. I had a big music collection. Still do. So when I got the call from Anthology I said well let me check. I only had a few tapes left. And I pretty much keep everything. I have stuff all the way back to one my first compositions in 1972 and I found a cassette.
I had forgotten there was a Memorex-SL2S, which was kind of the best cassette that you could buy. There was a backup copy of that soundtrack. A 90-minute tape. I worked with a particular mastering engineer out here who has done a whole bunch of my artists records and my own stuff and I gave it to him. He called me up the next day and said this is in really good shape. Said there’s some dropouts, but I can probably fix those and said actually I’m in the process of doing restoration for Paramount so we have a whole system set up to get rid of pops and clicks and background noise on old films. So we can apply that to your cassette master. So that’s what he did…it’s so funny, I got a test pressing of the album I guess a month or two months ago and put it on, and it sounds terrific! It’s wild it went from eight-track to half-inch tape, to cassette tape, to probably some digital medium and then back on to vinyl.
AD: That’s neat that it touched so many mediums.
Michael Sena: It was lucky! I didn’t even remember that I had a back-up cassette of it. To be honest, I don’t think I had listened to that soundtrack since I made it. I’m in a continual state of creativity so once I finish a CD or cassette or whatever I’ll listen to it to proof it…cause I’m the engineer too so I listen on the technical side, and then I’ll go oh I should have added a guitar or lowered the bass and all that, but I basically just put it in the closet and work on the next one. I listened to it like wow some of this sucks, but some of this is really cool!
AD: What format did you first watch the film on?
Michael Sena: VHS. I didn’t have any way to sync it. So I would just watch for some point in the tape…a scene or a cut, or maybe when a surfer kicks out of a wave and I was able to hit record on my tape deck and that became the start of it. When Steve finally got the master I think I delivered it on half-track and he played the same VHS tape and we did this in Carmel. The mastering engineer would just hit play so he’d cue up my reel-to-reel tape which I had the master on and when it hit a certain point on the VHS he would know what to do. I had written down little cues like ‘when they walk past the tree’ or ‘when this wave closes out at 2:12’ so just stuff like that. It was real crude.
AD: What were your initial impressions of the original sound track?
Michael Sena: It was pretty eclectic. I guess it was what was popular in that time. There’s Oingo Boingo, Fix, Rolling Stones. I think he had some Pink Floyd and they were actually cues to me as to what kind of energy to create for myself. If there was a real fast uptempo thing I might figure out the tempo and use it. If it was dreamy like a PinkFloyd I would do something kind of jazzy-dreamy like. The original songs were kind of my cue as to how to treat the music. It’s funny in writing future soundtracks, its not technical at all. I’ll talk with a producer or director and we’re talking about emotion. They’ll say I want it to be urgent or ironic. Its more about emotion than like I need something that’s this many BPM or I need you hit a cue here and cue there.
AD: So Stephen didn’t necessarily provide you with much direction beyond that?
Michael Sena: Not at all. I don’t think I even contacted him again until I finished it. He just let me go.
AD: How did Steven came across your music?
He hadn’t heard much, or any of my music before our meeting. He told me he was out on the water surfing in Kauai and talking with some locals. Said he had shot a surf film and is looking for someone to do a score. He told me the guy had a funny name like Fat Cat or Big Cat and I said Fur Cat? He was like yep, that was the guy! Fur Cat. Dude is still a friend of mine. He’s a real estate agent on Kauai. I didn’t know this…or at least I don’t remember that happening but they were surfing and he said go call Michael Sena. Steve and I met and he saw my studio, not a big place, but it was cool and I played some things for him and he said do you wanna do it? I had actually been looking for a soundtrack to write to.
Another friend, this woman who was a real estate agent…she had money…her and her husband took a trip to Africa and they came back with home movies. She said these are just Super 8 movies, they don’t have any sound to them, could you put some music behind it? I said sure. I think it was around 12 or 13 minutes. It was Africa, so I drummed up some African sounding music… at least in my head. After it was done I was like, well thats really cool I’d love to find a project where I could write for film. We don’t have any film industry on the island..and as things happen on Kauai…not too long after, Steve wonders in and says would you like write some music for me? The island is funny like that. Your brain really is creative in terms of energy and if you think of something and start talking about it, shit tends to happen. Thats just what happened in this case. I was going wow I really wish I had an opportunity to write for film and Steve walks in.
AD: Were you attending other screenings at the time?
Michael Sena: I went to high school in California. That’s when I first started surfing. I would go to screenings in California. I lived down by Laguna Beach. There was a great band called Honk. They did a soundtrack called ‘Five Summer Stories’ which is an amazing surf film…real high production value. They had a real studio and a real band and we would go to the midnight showings down at the Lagunalito, I would see surf films there. Then they would have a band play afterwards. I knew about surf films. I don’t ever recall seeing one on Kauai though. I don’t remember anyone coming over and doing a showing at the theaters over there.
AD: You cranked it out in three months. What was the pacing like?
Michael Sena: I don’t remember my workload at the time, but not a whole lot has changed. Ive gone through all these different life changes and different studios but I’m always in a state of creation. Even on the plane back from D.C. yesterday I’m tapping out lyrics on an iPad. On Kauai I had multiple business going on. I was renting sound systems, selling sound systems, installing them in hotels and little bars and clubs, helping people with home stereo systems, and then I had the recording studio where I was recording any kind of music you could imagine. I did a soundtrack with an Inca medicine man, of all indigenous music..then I did one of the only punk bands on the island…they were from the west side of the island which is really slow and sleepy. I would do a PA gig, break the gear down, put it back in the console in the studio and start recording. I was in constant motion on all the time.
AD: You also mention in the liner notes having trouble finding players that could keep up with you. Was that frustrating?
Michael Sena: That’s pretty much even now. Even here in L.A. that’s how it goes. I would think of the music first. Since most of it was played by me, I didn’t really have to notate it. I would generally come up with most of it on guitar, and had chord structures or riff structures written out. Then I’d play the drum part from beginning to end and this way I didn’t have to teach people how to read in complicated time signatures. I knew how it was supposed to sound in my head. Once the drum part was down, that’s basically the click and I start adding instruments..bass, guitars, voices and percussion.
But when it came time to work with the band that came in, I took a riff that was from a very long complicated song and I took one riff out of it and I made it a 4/4 song…’Cannonade’. If you listen to ‘The Two-Finger Concerto’…that thing doesn’t pay attention to time signatures in anyway. It’s all over the map. To try and explain that to somebody would have just taken way too much time, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the soundtrack.
AD: What do you think a great surf film should accomplish?
Michael Sena: Steve and I, in our talking about this when we realized someone wanted to revive interest in this had said I don’t know why I should put any effort into restoring the master film. He said I don’t even know if I have it, but that he’d dig around. I said well one reason is that its a travelogue. These places that you filmed are different now then they were at the time. He totally agreed..he said Bali has become known so it’s somewhat commercialized and there’s a lot of people. Where when we went back in the day the culture was so intact and hadn’t been influenced or corrupted by other outside cultures especially the commercialization side of it.
So I think that one thing that a good surf film does, that Steve managed to do is to give you a glimpse of places that you haven’t seen. Exotic locales. Surf culture in California we’ve got waves, but unless you read Surfer Magazine you may not know that there are great waves all around the world. There’s all these amazing places you can go to surf. We would surf down in Mexico, but that was about as exotic as it got. when a surf film came in town we would see Bali or New Zealand or Australia where people are swimming with great whites and even places like off the Canaries in the Atlantic. It gave everybody a big charge as to wow, I could go there and surf…there’s a reason to go there. Thats one thing that surf films did when I was young and watching them, and I’m sure young surfers when they see them they go, wow, I wanna go. I wanna do what I’m seeing on screen. And if they wanna work it out they can. It enlarges ones view of the planet.
AD: That’s a really nice way to put it.
Michael Sena: In a surf film I saw about surfing in America, they pointed out that surfing was one of the first counter-cultures in America. Before the beat cultures, there were guys that were going.. I’m not going to go to college and get married and do the 9-5 thing…live the American dream. Which was kind of solidified after World War II. They said you know what all I want to do is surf. It’s such a cool high. It’s so far out.. I’m gonna be a beachnik. I. That opened the door for what came after…the beatniks and hippies and everything after. There wasn’t a lot of drugs. There was drinking of course but they were saying hey surfing in and of itself is cool and it’s worth having that lifestyle. I don’t mind being poor because I’m stuck in a juicy wave. And I think that’s kind of cool.
AD: That is very cool.
Michael Sena: I wanted to add one more thing. By my having to search around for that soundtrack, I dug up a whole bunch of music that I had forgotten I had even written. I listened to it and I’m like wow some of this is really cool. The mastering engineer said why don’t you put any of this out and I said well…I don’t really want to be a recording artist..but he’s saying but this is really good music and he’s worked with my other more recent compositions and the whole thing, the dialogue, digging up the music and liking some of it, it really got me wanting to record music again. I have about 16 albums worth of material that has never been released.
Some of it has gone out there in soundtrack form…some on the Discovery Channel, but the whole Bali High thing has made me want to get back into writing and recording music and so I am! I just finished another composition that I had done a few things with …was going to get around to finishing and now I’m like completely re-energized. As soon as I get off the road ,I’m going to have enough money banked so that if I don’t have to go to work or go travel, I can just stay home and write and record some more. I have to thank Anthology Recordings for putting the fire under me. words / j silverstein