Richard Thompson :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

You’d have to imagine that Werner Herzog is not a man who is easily impressed. But there’s a moment in In The Edges, Erik Nelson’s short film documenting the sessions for the Grizzly Man soundtrack, where the legendary filmmaker seems positively overcome. As Richard Thompson improvises a dark, shimmering elegy on electric guitar, Herzog, seated nearby, appears to blink away tears, smiling in rapture. 

Music From Grizzly Man, which is receiving a handsome reissue this week from No Quarter records, is full of similarly stunning moments. The music Thompson and his collaborators conjured up was the perfect accompaniment to Herzog’s documentary about the ill-fated environmentalist Timothy Treadwell. But — like Neil Young’s Dead Man or Bruce Langhorne’s Hired Hand — it stands up just fine on its own. The 14 tracks here allow us to bask in Thompson’s unparalleled instrumental prowess, his superhumanly sensitive tone and his singular melodies. In a career that has seen plenty of high points, Music From Grizzly Man deserves a place up near the top. 

A few weeks back, Thompson hopped on Zoom to discuss the making of the soundtrack, his recent memoir, and more. | t wilcox

Aquarium Drunkard: Do you have any favorite soundtracks? 

Richard Thompson: Favorite soundtracks, hmm … Bernard Herrmann has always been a favorite. William Walton’s soundtrack for Olivier’s Henry V is a very good one. A lot of Japanese soundtracks, which is a whole different approach a lot of the time. Much more spare, but very effective. 

AD: Are you someone who pays close attention to the music in films? 

Richard Thompson: Once you start doing a few soundtracks yourself, you start becoming very aware of soundtracks, sometimes to a distracting degree. You start paying attention and you start figuring what works and what doesn’t work. In the 1930s, you had loads of European composers coming to Hollywood and soundtracks were a lot busier. An adventure film like Robin Hood or something might be wall-to-wall music — nonstop symphonic music. That was what people expected. That was what pushed the emotional buttons for them then. I think now we like it a bit more spare. In the case of Werner Herzog, he has very little music, he doesn’t overuse it. There might just be a few moments, but they’re very, very effective. I think Grizzly Man has the most music he’s ever used in a film. 

AD: How familiar were you with Herzog’s work before Grizzly Man? Had you seen his films back in the 1970s and 1980s?

Richard Thompson: Oh yeah, absolutely. I was a fan. I think he’s responsible for some of the most iconic images in cinema — there’s no question. Werner is a real visionary filmmaker. So, I was naturally thrilled to be asked to be involved in the project. 

AD: And what about Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh, who worked on so many of Herzog’s soundtracks — did you know of them back in the day? 

Richard Thompson: Yeah, a bit. And before [the Grizzly Man sessions], I did my homework. I went back again and checked all that stuff out. Popol Vuh had a really interesting approach, but I didn’t want to do the same thing. Grizzly Man was essentially an improvised soundtrack, which is really unusual — for me, anyway. I’d never really done that before. I’ve improvised obviously, but never on a soundtrack, because it can be very hit-and-miss. But I’m amazed at what we actually got. 

AD: Yeah, I was looking at the liners and was amazed that the sessions took place over just two days. 

Richard Thompson: Actually, more like a day and a half. It took us half a day to kind of settle before we really started. And then we pretty much went nonstop. There are so many first takes where we just thought it worked. And there was even enough left over that a lot was used for the six-part spin-off miniseries — Diary of the Grizzly Man

AD: Do you prefer that spontaneous approach? 

Richard Thompson: Definitely. When I’m working on my own stuff, everyone has at least a clue as to where they’re going, but we only rehearse the songs loosely. It’s probably better if we don’t know them that well. There’s still room for things to move around a bit. And then we just go in and do it and see what happens. If we haven’t got it in three takes than we say, “We’ll come back tomorrow and have another go.” I do like it to be a bit loose around the edges if possible. 

AD: Did you have any music at all prepped before the Grizzly Man sessions? 

Richard Thompson: The only thing we took as an introductory theme was based on a song of mine called “The Knife-Edge” [from 1981’s Strict Tempo]. All we wanted to keep of that was the first eight bars, which provided the entire structure. But that was it as far as preparation. I’d sit down with Danielle [DeGruttola], the cellist, and we’d just play off of each other. I’d say, “I think this is in D, but it could go somewhere else. Let’s see what happens.” You’d have ideas about what was needed — it has to have certain qualities. It has to be large, or it has to be reflective. You’ve got a few rules and constraints, but that’s all. 

On a soundtrack you’re a slave to the picture and a slave to the director in many ways. You leave your ego at the door. You have to think: “What does this film need and where does it need it?” But often you want a soundtrack to be almost … not noticed. People are watching the film and the music comes in, but you don’t want them to think about it, to be distracted by it. It needs to be a subtle thing that just kind of breathes along with the visual. 

AD: Henry Kaiser was a big part of the Grizzly Man soundtrack — you go back to the early 1980s with him, right? 

Richard Thompson: I’ve known Henry for a long time. He’s kind of the most experimental edge of my experience as far the people that I play with. Henry’s a fascinating human being, one of the great original thinkers that I’ve encountered. He does not think like other people. And that can be great. It can be such an interesting starting point on any project to have Henry’s input. But he was mostly producing on Grizzly Man. I think Werner didn’t really want too much of the kind of experimental side of things on the soundtrack. 

AD: Another musician on the record is Jim O’Rourke — did you know of him beforehand? 

Richard Thompson: Oh yeah, absolutely. Jim is a great guy and a great musician. He had really good ideas. That’s him playing prepared piano, which is a very effective tool in the soundtrack toolbox. 

AD: How much input did Herzog have into the music? In the documentary of the sessions, he’s often sitting right there with you in the studio. 

Richard Thompson: The general rule was that we wouldn’t play while we were looking at the film footage. We would look at, say, 30 seconds of footage and try to absorb whatever emotion was needed. And then we’d play for 30 seconds. And it’s surprising how well that worked. I think Werner’s concern was that each piece, however long or short it was, had to be a complete piece of music without the film there. It had to be self-supporting. And I think the music holds together in the way that was Werner’s intention, maybe in a way that not all soundtracks do. 

AD: Were there sequences where you felt like you really succeeded in matching the music to the visuals? 

Richard Thompson: I’m really happy with what we got. We achieved a lot. I was amazed at how well we were able to hit the marks and enhance the emotion of what was happening onscreen at the right points. I think we served the film well. 

AD: One of my favorite parts of your recent memoir was the section where you’re doing all kinds of session musician work after you’ve left Fairport. It sent me on a bunch of different paths. Do you like stepping into that “for-hire” situation? 

Richard Thompson: I do like it — I find less time for that kind of thing, however. If I’m going to do a for-hire gig, it’s usually for friends rather than people I don’t know. In the 1970s, I was just doing session work round the clock. A lot of the time, you didn’t even know what it was. You just go in, look at a chart, play it, and go on to the next one. You’re slightly disconnected in many ways, which can be good or bad. 

Working with friends these days, I’m sitting at home adding to someone else’s record, rather than traveling. I’ve got a home studio set-up, which is a joy. It’s the one good thing about technology! It’s a simple setup where I can play acoustic mostly. It’s great what one can do thanks to that technology — especially because of lockdown. It’s been a lifesaver in some ways. But I’m still keen to get back in the studio in person. 

AD: Going back to Grizzly Man, what was your impression of Timothy Treadwell’s story? It’s such a strange and interesting — and ultimately tragic — saga. 

Richard Thompson: Obviously, he was someone with a huge love of nature. But he was also someone who was not completely rational about that love. The park rangers thought he was crazy. They thought, “This guy is going to get eaten one day by a grizzly.” And, well, we know what happened. A complicated character. I think what comes across most is that as flawed as a human being and a naturalist as he was, he was a very good wildlife videographer and photographer. In his stuff, you know that you’re six feet away, as opposed to 200 hundred yards away with a telephoto lens. There’s a big difference. You’re right there, and it’s almost three-dimensional. And it’s scary. 

AD: You’ve done some other soundtrack work recently — I was just listening to the Cold Blue soundtrack, which I’m guessing was the opposite of improvised. 

Richard Thompson: I love doing orchestral stuff. It’s great fun to write something on a page and then you hear it played back on your computer on crappy speakers — and then you get to go to a studio with some very fine musicians and hear it played properly. It’s a great lift. I’ve done probably a half-dozen orchestral projects, not necessarily soundtracks, and it’s a joy. I’d love to do more. We got to record Cold Blue at Capitol Studio B, which is the “Be-Bop-A-Lula” room, in the shadow of Gene Vincent, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra [laughs]. 

AD: Do you have a new record in the works? Have you been writing songs? 

Richard Thompson: Having almost two years where you couldn’t tour was good for writing, so I’ve got the next five albums written [laughs]. Maybe the next two albums. The intention is to go into the studio in October with my band and we’ll do a band record and take that on the road maybe next year. 

AD: Did you listen to a lot of music over the lockdown? 

Richard Thompson: I generally listen to things that I feel I can learn something from. I probably listen to mostly classical music these days because I feel like I can learn more about harmony. That can be really inspirational. I’ll find myself regurgitating things in funny ways. I wrote something the other day and it just had such a strange harmony. I thought, “Where did that come from?” It probably goes back to someone like Vaughn Williams — he’s seeped into my mind somewhere and I end up expressing that in my own writing. 

AD: And you’ve been getting back on the road, as well. How does it feel after such a long break? 

Richard Thompson: The last few months have been great. We’ve had really good audiences. People are so excited to get back to a live music experience. As musicians, we’re not taking it for granted either. We’re just extremely grateful to be able to do our job. 

AD: The last time I saw you play, you did some sort of extraordinary leap into the air during one song. It was very impressive. 

Richard Thompson: [Laughs] Three years ago, I played a show right after I had surgery on my knee, so it was still stitched up. And without thinking, I did this leap at some point. The set ended about half an hour later and I felt something damp in my sock. “Why’s my sock wet?!” The stitches had broken open and I was bleeding quite a bit. But with the adrenalin of being onstage, I just didn’t notice. I didn’t feel a thing. 

AD: Are you thinking about doing more writing in terms of memoirs or did Beeswing cover that for you? 

Richard Thompson: I think I’m done with chronological memoir writing. I’ve been writing kind of episodes. Not “This leads to this and that leads to that.” It’s more about particular moments. Hopefully that will spin together into a volume two of some kind. There’s an arc to most rock biographies where it’s very interesting in the beginning and ends with, you know, “We went to this awards show,” and “Then, Jeff died of a heroin overdose.” I get through two-thirds of most of them and then I lose interest. 

AD: I thought the dreams section at the end of your book was great, too.

Richard Thompson: I could always resurrect some more dreams! 

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