How musician-composer David Wingo came to score Todd Rohal's The Guatemalan Handshake was a convoluted series of events involving filmmaker David Gordon Green (who has collaborated with Wingo on every film since 2000's George Washington), Green's location and sound mixer Chris Gebert (a longtime fan of Rohal's short films), and a fortuitous screening during a Colorado vacation. The only part that really matters, though, is that the dominoes lined up perfectly, as Wingo's characteristically wistful, pastoral and often impressionistic music brings as much nuance and warmth to The Guatemalan Handshake as it has for Green's films, or Craig Zobel's Great World of Sound, or to his other project gaining widespread attention: Ola Podrida. Wingo plays frontman and brainchild to the acclaimed indie band, which inevitably gets rock critics writing cinematically ("Plays out like an oddly enthralling short film," wrote Pitchfork of one of their songs; as their Artist of the Day, Spin noted how the "instruments layer together subtly and deftly, creating an atmosphere that brings to mind the wide Western plains or old, not-quite-forgotten lovers.") Benten Films chatted briefly with Wingo about working with Rohal, how Brian Eno understands both him and Dylan, and what he thinks a Guatemalan handshake really is.
What was your first kneejerk reaction to The Guatemalan Handshake?
[laughs] I thought it was awesome. I had certainly not pictured my involvement in it. David Green had really hyped it up, so I felt like I had already experienced it before, something that was very much in signature taste. I was almost expecting a letdown, as much as he had talked about it, but I was not let down. Talking to Todd after seeing the film, knowing how much he really wanted the music to emphasize the melancholy under the surface, that got me excited. I always get excited when I can do music that's not necessarily what's happening onscreen, but not the total counterpoint where you notice the music calling attention to itself. I like the challenge of finding the subtext of a scene, which is definitely what he was wanting.
How did you come to be David Gordon Green's favorite composer?
I grew up with David. Me and David have been best friends since we were, like, 8 years old. It was just natural. We were equally movie-obsessed when we were kids, and when we got to high school, I got a little more involved with my music. While I'm still a huge film lover, I became more music-obsessed. So it just made sense that once David got to film school and was making short films, I did the music. It kept going from there with George Washington, and he didn't have a budget to get an actual film composer, so he got me. [laughs]
When critics and fans say you have a "cinematic" sound, what do you think they mean?
I don't know. Maybe there's an evocative nature to the songs, but I took a long time off, writing just traditional songs. After going back to it, having done so much film work, I'm sure all the scoring I had done influenced the way I constructed my songs. I do think of them in terms of mood much more so now. There are a lot of soundscapes that I build through sampling, myself playing instruments and building drones, so I'm sure that lends itself to seeming cinematic.
How different is the creative process when lyrics are involved, such as your Ola Podrida work?
Usually, I come up with a melody and chord progression, then let that dictate the words, but I always have the words before I start building the arrangements. There's a Brian Eno quote that I read recently that's interesting because it's kind of the way I think about things. He was talking about Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde" -- which is odd because I never would've figured Eno to be a big Dylan fan -- and how that fit the way he was operating lyrically. Dylan mimicked the music with the words, whether it was the emotions coming through or the rhythms, just letting the words... not so much tell a story on its own, but more like the story the music was dictating, more subconsciously. I try to do a similar thing.
For you, what creative itches does film scoring scratch that Ola Podrida can't?
I really like how limited your options are, it's a whole different thing. It's more difficult and yet more simple, it's a tradeoff. With writing songs for Ola Podrida, the world is your oyster. It's just a blank canvas, you can do whatever the hell you want with it. It's daunting, but you're free to do whatever you're want. With film scoring, I really like that watching the film, talking to the director, hearing the temp music they have, feeling the emotions of the film, and knowing "Alright, this is my palette." I pick a few main instruments and one key that I try to write everything in, even taking a couple themes and basing everything off that. Knowing that you capture a pretty big range of feeling and emotion with a limited set of tools, I almost compare that to when you're a little kid doing cultural arts projects. It seems like when you're first being creative in school; you're given this limited set of tools and rules that you have to follow.
How did you and Rohal come up with that crazed video for Ola Podrida's "Lost and Found," starring the Guatemalan himself, Ivan Dimitrov?
I started a project that seems to have been abandoned. [laughs] There are 11 songs on the album, and the idea was to get a different director to do a video for each song. We got four, including Joe Swanberg, Mike Tully and David Lowery, but it seems like there's been a block and everyone has started doing other things. But those four, we went ahead and got done, and it was imperative that Todd do one of the videos. Obviously, there's no song on the album that could really match Todd's sweetly and extremely demented sensibilities. I wanted Todd to do something that no one would ever expect from any of the songs, and so "Lost and Found" was good because it's the most jaunty; it has a little spring in its step, so he could at least make something rhythmic to set the visuals to.
Ivan was Todd's idea. He just loves Ivan, and any opportunity to get him involved I think Todd will take. For Todd, to finally have something that was 100% Ivan, he was very excited. So on the way there, we were coming up with all the different things he should be doing, and it was planned out so we knew, "Alright, Ivan, this costume is the one where he blows on his finger because there's going to be a little me on his finger. This one, he's in an ice cream cone."
Alive or dead, who would you most love to compose for?
It seems like it would be the most obvious choice, but Terrence Malick, just because he makes the most beautiful images, and since his films are all mood and emotion, it would be the most challenging. I would say Satyajit Ray, but I don't know if I can make Indian music. I would like to see what would happen if I could do my own music for the Apu Trilogy, which would probably be total blasphemy and not at all right. [laughs]
Do you have any favorite film composers?
As far as contemporary, I think Jon Brion, Carter Burwell and Michael Nyman are my favorites. They're good ones.
What were the last three movies you enjoyed?
I can't remember what I did yesterday. [laughs] I just saw Be Kind Rewind, which I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would. I just got back from SXSW, where I saw Mister Lonely, which also wasn't anything that I expected it to be. And Goliath was awesome, it was funny as hell. I really loved it.
What's next for Ola Podrida? Is a second album in the works?
Yeah. We are going to Europe on May 5th, we're doing a week in Germany, and then we're playing All Tomorrow's Parties with Explosions in the Sky curating, so I feel like that's a good stopping point for this era. I'll probably do some shows after that as we're getting ready. All of the songs are written and half of them we're already playing as a band, so I'm taking the summer to work out the arrangements for the others, and then hopefully record at a friend's studio at the end of the summer. It's a little more rockin' now that I've got a band. I did the first record by myself before I had a band, so I had set about making a record that I could do by myself. I've always written these folk-y songs, but now that I have a band, I'm taking advantage of that. I haven't written any of the songs yet on acoustic; I'm playing electric for a change.
Wingo goes electric... See, you do share some ground with Dylan! Last but most importantly, what do you think a Guatemalan handshake is, and have you ever had one?
It's a secret code that I've not yet been privy to, but I'm trying.
For more info on Benten's DVD release of The Guatemalan Handshake, click here.