By Tom Murphy
Lusine is Jeff McIlwain who moved from Texas to California to attend California Institute of the Arts, where he studied 20th century electronic music and sound design. His compositions in the ambient and IDM vein have garnered him considerable acclaim for their inventiveness and subltle but vibrant sonic detail. McIlwain has also scored the soundtracks to the films Snow Angel, The Sitter and Joe -- his soundtracks being one of the best parts of those films.
A now longtime resident of Seattle, Washington, McIlwain released his latest album, The Waiting Room on Ghostly International earlier this year. We spoke with McIlwain about having Morton Subotnick, the inventor of the synthesizer, as a professor at Cal Arts, how he got into scoring for film and why he has maintained a balance between the accessible and the experimental in his music.
Westword: Did you start out making electronic music, or did you get your start making some other kind of music?
Jeff McIlwain: I've been doing it for quite a while now. I started making music straight out of high school back in the '90s and just been doing it ever since. I was interested in what I was hearing at the time which back then was a lot of DJ music and just trying to figure out how these people did what they did. At that time it wasn't quite as common to do stuff straight out of computers so I was looking at work stations and drum machines.
Who were some people that inspired you early on?
Back then, I think I was really into Orbital, a lot of stuff on Warp. It just kind of ran the gamut. Speedy J, Atom Heart, stuff like that.
You went to the California Institute of the Arts in the late '90s. What sparked your interest in twentieth century electronic music. Presumably that includes Karlheinz Stockhause and Morton Subotnick.
Yeah, sure. Actually Morton Subotnick taught me there because he taught at Cal Arts at the time. I went to Cal Arts not really for that interest. The program was called New Media Composition which focused on that type of music. I was kind of more into the sound design stuff. I didn't go in there with the idea of being into that kind of music. So I was going back and forth between the music and the film schools there working on other people's film projects.
Did you learn anything from Subotnick that you've applied to what you've done since?
I feel like Morton Subotnick is one of these guys who is kind of an idea man and not a getting down into the nitty gritty technical details of things. He's interested in how different art forms come together. Cal Arts is very focused on that. He taught a class in the dance school and was Music For Dance or something like that.
His big thing was called parametric counterpoint. You have one kind of visualization and you can see what somebody is doing and you try to do something that is kind of the opposite and it produces an interesting effect. A lot of what I was doing in that class is looking at what people are doing and seeing how it could be stronger by doing something that counteracted that. So it was an interesting class.
Are there particular films you thought used sound and music really well before you went into the school?
I'm sure at the time in 1998 I was into films like Sid & Nancy that had an interesting score behind that. At Cal Arts I was working with a lot of student filmmakers and not only just doing music. Really what I was doing in the film score there is not what I ended up doing at all and doing a lot of sound effects work. A lot of it was sort of sound jobs for films.
When you were learning to do sound design and soundtracking, did you ever re-soundtrack a film.
I think probably in a couple of my classes we had to add in new dialogue but I don't think I had to re-score a film as a class assignment but in the past few years I've been involved in some film scores.
You did music for Snow Angels, The Sitter and Joe. Is your process different from writing for an album? How do you approach that sort of thing?
It's definitely a different process. The director has his say on what kind of music he wants in there. It's kind of a finding a fine line between the kind of music that they want and maybe the music they have in their temporarily and try to do something similar to that but sort of add your style to it. It's definitely a lot more of the collaborative process and do what works for the film and not necessarily bring out the music but rather add what emotion they want in the scene. Which a lot of times means the music shouldn't actually be heard all that much.
How did you get connected with scoring soundtracks?
I worked on a few films back in L.A. for a composer named Ed Shearmur. Those scores I got involved in working on through the label I was working with at the time, which was Eyes of Flux. I have a good friend David Lingo and he scored for another mutual friend named David Greene and Greene brough me in on his fourth movie Snow Angels because he was familiar with my music and wanted to bring an electronic element to that score. So that's kind of how I started working with him. From there I've worked on a few of his films and a couple of other projects as well.
Your last several albums have been out on Ghostly International. How did you get hooked up with those guys?
Back when I was living in L.A. Sam [Valenti IV] had come through touring and he heard a DJ playing one of my tracks so he just contacted me then and sending me a bunch of their early stuff back when Ghostly was just first starting out. I didn't have any material at the time but a couple of years later I put out the Push.
You live in Seattle these days. Why did you move to Seattle, and what keeps you there?
I was kind of treading water in L.A. and kind of looking to leave after a while. I had some friends back in Austin and considered going back there. A few of my friends had moved up to Seattle and I had visited here as well to play a festival. It's a beautiful city and it has a good art and music scene. So I decided I'd try it out so I've been here since the end of 2002.
Do you still use mostly hardware these days?
It's a combination of things for sure. I software in the computer and I have a few analogs that I've collected over the past many years. I like having hardware because it's nice to have some hands-on stuff. I'm not a purist in any sense and I have some acoustic instruments that I like to sample in.
When you do a live show do you still use hardware?
Tetra is my main piece of hardware for live. The Tetra is a polyphonic analogue but I like to keep things compact so that they can fit in a backpack and I don't have to check anything.
Your music strikes a true balance between something very accessible and the more experimental spectrum of experimental music. Maybe it's not something you even think about for you to straddle those two world in making the music that you do?
I don't try to think about it too much. But at the same time I got sick of working in one area. I've always appreciated albums that ran the gamut and kind of jumped into different territories and try to make things make sense as a whole but also not sticking to one formula or one genre. I'll be doing a certain type of track for a while and if I wanted to keep doing that kind of track I would but it's not inspiring to me. I think I, for the most part, do it to keep inspired.
On your new album, The Waiting Room, you do a cover of that hit song by Electronic, "Get the Message." Why that particular song?
Actually it started out when Sam at Ghostly asked me because they were thinking of doing a compilation of favorite tracks from the early 90s or the early 80s. That got me thinking about that kind of thing. I think that album is very underrated today. It was a big hit back then but it's kind of got lost in the shuffle. There were a few tracks I was considering but that one made the most sense. My wife sang on it and she loves that song as well. It just seemed like a fun thing to do. I don't know that I would do a cover again but I wanted to do it at least once.
Continue on for our interviews with Ctrl_Alt_Dlt and Brendon Moeller