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Left Field: Mica Levi on Making Music Sound Like a Mushroom Trip in Her ‘Monos’ Score

Spin’s ‘Left Field’ column focuses on the latest in experimental music each month, featuring interviews with and capsule reviews of artists at the fringes of genre, sensibility, and commercial appeal. 

Monos, the striking, surreal new film from Columbian director Alejandro Landes, centers around a band of child soldiers on an unnamed South American mountaintop. Deputized by a military faction and charged with protecting a milk cow named Shakira, they descend from their ruined base, and their unit devolves into chaos as the dull jade of the upper Andes intensifies into the jungle’s lush green. The contrast between the rash, impulsive violence of the young “monos” (“monkeys”) and the stark beauty of their surroundings epitomizes the film’s central conflicts, between bodies and environments, order and anarchy. Needless to say, the cow doesn’t make it very far. 

For the score, Landes sought out Mica Levi, whose work on Pablo Larraín’s Jackie and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin stands as some of the most uniquely dissonant music ever put to film. She remains committed, too, to the world of pop music, where she began her career as Micachu. Her sparse, typically jagged compositions for Monos expand upon the film’s central contradictions, dealing in eerie whistles and amorphous ambient clashes designed to provoke and unsettle. For inspiration, she looked inward.

“With a film like this, there’s many things that I don’t relate to,” Levi tells SPIN. “In the literal sense of being in that kind of conflict, being in those kinds of extreme environments, holding a lot of weapons, stuff like that. But there are other things that I could try to relate to, or at least imagine myself into.”

Levi works on the level of the subconscious, summoning up individual sounds through a process of trial and error, and using intuition as a guide. “It’s strange,” she says. “The film really tells you what’s right and what’s wrong the minute you put something to it. It’s kind of like a lie detector.” 

Though she possesses some formal training in composition, Levi isn’t at all biased toward film scores; since Under the Skin, she’s remained as committed to pop music as to her pieces for film, and sees all her music as stemming from the same creative well. She collaborated last year on a full-length album with Tirzah called Devotion, which retained something of the experimental ethos her compositions have become known for. It’s that unaffected, unpretentious attitude that guides Levi in all her work, whether it’s for an arthouse film or a jam session with her closest friends: “It’s the opportunity to make something, basically. That’s what it is, always.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

SPIN: How do you decide what kinds of projects you want to work on?

Mica Levi: More often than not I just work with my friends and people that I’ve come across. But doing film is a bit different, because I got given this opportunity by Jonathan Glazer [to score Under the Skin] really out of the blue. And now, it’s really hard to choose. I just try to understand the difference between what I think is a good film and what I think I could be good for. Because I might appreciate something that is good, but realize that maybe I’m not the right one to do music. I’ve got to figure out if I can do it or not. But you have to have some reaction to the film. That gets you going.

How did you decide on the theme for the film, and what instruments you wanted to work with?

For whatever reason, it suggested sounds really quickly for me. There’s a lot of rough elements to the situation that they’re in, the environment they’re in. Different kinds of materials, lots of natural environments, lots of plastic, lots of metal. They’re wearing the same clothes the whole time. Kind of rough, and quite dirty. 

So the idea of a whistle just jumped out at you?

The thing is, what I’m saying to you now, it’s quite like I’m making things up to answer the question. I think I just subconsciously got on with writing stuff, and it seemed to fit. And then we developed it from there, really, together, as a team. We started getting into conversation, and putting things to image, and seeing what worked, what felt right.

My favorite piece on the Monos album is “Honguitos,” the one that plays during the mushroom trip.

Oh, thank you, I think that one’s my favorite too.

How did that piece come together?

I think it’s quite easy to put woozy music onto a drug scene. But I think magic mushrooms and psychedelic drugs often create quite clear visions—clarity of vision as opposed to loss of vision. People say they see more colors, and you get sharper vision. So for me the flutes were, where everything else is quite messy, they’re quite clear. The music is not as dissonant, it’s very bright and clear. I felt that described the experience of mushrooms more accurately, basically. And then, yeah, it takes a turn for the worse. It gets a bit much, as trips can, as well. But that’s what that’s supposed to be. Clarity. It’s not like having a bottle of whiskey, you know. It’s a different thing.

It does feel like it gets at something more true, or more unexpected and less Disney-ish, than your average depiction of a psychedelic experience.

I hope it’s more true. That’s all I can do, really. Try and relate to the experience in some way, and give my version. I feel like that’s what I’m being asked to do. And if I don’t do that then I literally don’t know what to do otherwise. The joy about it is trying to tune into what I really feel. Because that feeling is being given to me from the characters and the film, the way that Alejandro’s made it. Those things are coming through, and I just tried to respond to that in a way that’s true.

And I guess on that note, in terms of being able to relate: Obviously, with a film like this, there’s many things that I don’t relate to, in the literal sense of being in that kind of conflict, being in those kinds of extreme environments, holding a lot of weapons, stuff like that. But there are other things that I could try to relate to, or at least imagine myself into.

There’s a scene in the film that’s essentially a wedding party, where there are these sweeping, ambient clashes of sound. I’m curious how you went about creating something so intense for that particular moment.

We had different ways of reading the story, and music taking part in that. It’s strange—the film really tells you what’s right and what’s wrong, the minute you put something to it. It’s kind of like a lie detector. So I was just trying to be free and open, and not make decisions about what things are gonna be until we put them to the picture. 

In that scene, they’re not dancing to any music, and that felt key to express: They’re not dancing to the music that you’re hearing. That’s one of the nicer things about that scene. They can still dance, and they’re having a good time, but there’s no music there. They’re making music in their head.

That seems like a theme throughout: the tension between more naturalistic, diegetic noises, and music that feels very self-consciously layered on top.

Yeah. And the sound is so rich. I feel you don’t need a lot of score over that sound of the jungle, because there’s so much going on. Space and time are what’s needed, cutting away some things, not being too heavy-handed.

Is there a continuity in the work you do scoring films, and the work you do in other genres, like with Micachu and the Shapes?

Yeah, I think there is. The medium, or the genre if you want to have it, is just a result of something. It’s funny, I’m still figuring that out. It’s the opportunity to make something, basically. That’s what it is, always. And usually it’s with other people. I don’t see that they’re really that different. The work environment might be a bit different sometimes, or it might be that one’s more of a live experience and one’s more of a compositional or studio experience.

I wonder if you could talk a little about the Tirzah album from last year, since I feel like there’s a continuity, in terms of doing a lot with a little, and creating sparse, angular soundscapes.

I’m laughing because she literally just walked up to me. I’ll tell her that you said that as well.

Whoa. Well, do you see any musical threads connecting to that album?

No, I don’t think so. With any situation that I’m in, unless I’m on my own making something, I respond to what I’m working with and who I’m working with. So it’s come out like that because I’m responding to someone’s tones and voice, and stuff like that. There’s not much more in it than that. I’m so disorganized, to be honest, that it’s hard to even remember any music, particularly. You might not be getting that much out of me. It’s hard to know what I’m on about.

New releases

Countless experimental releases arrive each month, on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, as self-released cassettes and LPs, and on any number of small labels. Here are a few of the most noteworthy and exciting from September and October.

 Blacks’ Myths – Blacks’ Myths II 

Blacks’ Myths, the D.C.-based duo of bass guitarist Luke Stewart and drummer Warren G. “Trae” Crudup III, marry the searing timbral intensity of noise rock with the total rhythmic freedom of post-Ayler free jazz. The effort to describe their second album brings a series of imaginary wish-fulfillment scenarios to mind. Bad Brains jamming with William Basinski? Milford Graves sitting in with Lightning Bolt? Avant-metal voyagers Sumac taking their recent improvised excursions even further into the great unknown? Stewart’s tone is as important as his melodic sensibility: pulverized and blackened with distortion, mutated with pitch-shifting and reverb into increasingly uncanny shapes. Crudup hammers at the edges of these forms, landing blows as heavy as any punk rock blastbeat, but never arranging them in any sort of rigid repeating groove.

Scholar-musician Dr. Thomas Stanley appears from time to time as a poetic narrator, situating the music within a furious political context and declaring its apocalyptic aim. Blacks’ Myths seek nothing less than the end of the human story as we know it, blighted as it is by violent white supremacy and callous disregard for the planet. Our bodies and the edifices of our civilization are “a malignant appendage” to Earth, Stanley declares, and “what we call history is a temporary vessel.” On tracks like “Free Land” and “The Bluff,” the chaos clears for long enough to reveal sublime vistas: riffs reaching toward the heavens, cymbals and snare hits pitter-pattering like rain on the ground. Say “Blacks’ Myths” fast enough and you’ll get the double entendre of the name, confirming what the music makes obvious: This group is as interested in creation as they are in destruction. Only after the old world is wiped out, Blacks’ Myths II seems to suggest, might a blacker and more beautiful new one be forged in its wake.—ANDY CUSH

Shuta Hasunuma – Oa

Shuta Hasunuma’s newest album is explicitly tied to a time and place. Its four short tracks, named for different landmarks around Hasunuma’s “old address” on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, feel like movements in a single piece, rooted in a common physical and musical vantage point. An artist statement reveals that “454” was Hasunuma’s apartment number; “BORO” is short for the nearby Queensboro Bridge, “LEX” is Lexington Avenue, and the last track, “20170716,” represents the album’s recording date. All are shot through with city life, in their recursive rumblings and self-consciously artificial sonics. The metallic birdsong at the beginning of “454” and the cartoon water droplets of “20170716” are extensions of the metropolis—what little naturalism shines through is shaped in some way by the urban environment. At the end of the final track, as the clatter of drums gives way to minimalistic synth oscillations, individual components slowly withdraw from the fold. The effect is similar to that of Terry Riley’s In C, where players can drop out as they wish, and the sound eventually peters out. Flowing through a cityscape of its own creation, Oa is an adventurous ode to environmental music, in all its forms.—WILL GOTTSEGEN

Bill Orcutt – Odds Against Tomorrow 

Guitarist Bill Orcutt, formerly of the feral and uncompromising noise rock band Harry Pussy, went underground for awhile after that band, and his marriage with drummer-vocalist Adris Hoya broke up in 1997. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he went overground: moved from Miami to the Bay Area, started working as a software engineer, had some kids, stopped releasing records. In 2009, he re-emerged with A New Way to Pay Old Debts, a staggeringly inventive debut for solo acoustic guitar. (Like his electric in the Harry Pussy days, it had only four strings instead of six.) In the string of albums that followed, he established himself as one of the most distinctive players working, with an ear for unexpectedly poignant melody, a picking technique that resembles physical violence inflicted on his instrument, and a knack for twisting familiar tunes (public domain folk songs, Ornette Coleman classics, “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah”) into beguiling new shapes. At times, he accompanies his guitar with an array of involuntary-sounding nonverbal grunts and coos, which add to the music’s uncanny force, giving the impression of great effort expended in the service of strange beauty.

Recently, Orcutt has gravitated back toward the electric guitar, on a self-titled solo album in 2017 and a collaboration with virtuoso improv drummer Chris Corsano the following year. (The latter was one of our favorite experimental releases of 2018.) Rather than signaling a return to the unkempt distortion of Harry Pussy, the electric guitar has become a conduit for his most tender and conventionally approachable music, bringing the plaintive and elegiac qualities that have always been present in his playing ever closer to the surface.

Orcutt’s latest, Odds Against Tomorrow, is also electric, and even features some multitrack layering of parts—an “innovation,” the liner notes boast cheekily, acknowledging the resolutely primitive means of his solo work thus far. The results are spellbinding. On “Already Old,” a bed of chordal accompaniment encourages Orcutt to explore a style of purely melodic playing that recalls old masters as disparate as Richard Thompson and Sonny Sharrock, with long arcing phrases punctuated by slashes of noise. When he suddenly leaps between registers, or switches from single notes to a kind of convulsive arpeggio, the effect is Coltrane-esque: a release of shimmering energy that had been bottled up inside the music, waiting for its chance to escape. The stately elegance and meditative clarity of Odds Against Tomorrow make it a high point in Orcutt’s brilliant catalog, and an ideal starting point for curious listeners.—ANDY CUSH

Territorial Gobbing - Capitalist Art Is Cartoons Fucking

You have to start with the name. The title of U.K. noise musician Theo Gowans’ excellent new album as Territorial Gobbing is less a provocation than a post-ironic commandment—a call to nonsense, and to regurgitation. The question of whether capitalist art (whatever that category involves) is, in fact, cartoons fucking, is almost beside the point. As is, it’s the chewed-up remnants of a more coherent observation, originating somewhere further up the digestive tract. Track titles like “Spooky Electrics Blog” and “Feeding the Hand That Feed You Hands Hands” trace a similar logic, without overdoing it.

Capitalist Art Is Cartoons Fucking sounds like it slithered out of a Cronenberg film. “Upholstered Chair Guevara” invokes a harsh, mechanical energy, while “Shaking a Wren” amounts to a disturbing clump of metal, feedback, and sucking sounds. The low-register esophageal scrapes of “Armpit Beer” feel like a dying wheeze, or indigestion. In all its disgusting, somatic splendor, Capitalist Art Is Cartoons Fucking is neatly attuned to our age of unknowing. Pulling back the flimsy veil of meaning, it suggests that all our pretensions to criticism and philosophy can be countered with a fart joke. — WILL GOTTSEGEN