Cinematic Spirits — Tindersticks Thrive Pursuing an Art-House Muse
By Bradley Bambarger <2016>
Despite being a distinctive, intimate singer — one whose world-weary baritone can express seemingly infinite shades of melancholy — Stuart A. Staples of the band Tindersticks cites the need to go beyond the strictures of language in order to free his imagination. Breaking out of patterns is another obstacle, the fetter of routine threatening to choke desire, both creatively and in relationships.
Formed in 1991 in Nottingham, England, Tindersticks broke out of a midlife crisis around 2006, the group fragmenting and coalescing in new form. Key to their latter-day thriving has been pushing at the seams of what’s expected of even an art-house band. The group has produced seven scores to films by French director Claire Denis, with an eighth in the works. Staples and band mate Dan McKinna also co-composed an enveloping orchestral soundtrack for a World War I museum in Ypres, Belgium. And Tindersticks worked with France’s Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival to commission non-narrative videos to complement each track on their eleventh and latest set of songs, The Waiting Room (Lucky Dog/City Slang).
About the cinematic element in the music of Tindersticks, whether made for a soundtrack or not, Staples says that there “seems to be something in our music that holds emotion beyond the words. I feel that way with some of my favorite singers. I’ve never really known half of what, say, Léo Ferré is singing about, as he’s a French singer from Monaco. But even without knowing all the details, I understand it in my own way, just as there’s an imaginative freedom that comes with listening to music without words. Mystery and ambiguity in art have always appealed to me.”
The current Tindersticks lineup is Staples on vocals and melodica (plus most of the writing and production), as well as original members David Boulter (keyboards) and Neil Fraser (guitar) and recent band additions McKinna (bass, string arrangements) and Earl Harvin (drums). It’s more of a pan-European than British band these days. Staples, 50, lives in Limousin, France (where he has room for a studio, “a space to dream in”), while Boulter lives in Prague, Fraser in Antwerp and Harvin in Berlin. Only McKinna remains in the UK.
When it comes to songcraft, Tindersticks have pursued a soul-accented, after-hours sound, influenced by everything from Stax and the Velvet Underground to Roxy Music and Nina Simone, as well as torch-song romanticism, vintage film scores and the aforementioned Ferré. During a down period while the band transitioned from one lineup to another, Staples recorded two spare-toned solo discs. One featured the uncommonly evocative “Marseille Sunshine,” a linchpin song that was subsequently re-worked with the new Tindersticks quintet plus strings and brass for a wonderful retrospective album, Across Six Leap Years. That LP saw the band re-record a batch of “songs that got away” in the lavishly high-fidelity setting of Abbey Road as a way of marking the first two decades of Tindersticks.
“ ‘Marseille Sunshine’ was key for us in that it opened a path to approaching a song in a more experimental way,” explains Staples, on a rare visit stateside to present the videos of The Waiting Room in a screening at Rough Trade NYC. “It started us on a different journey, one that’s not always about typical songwriting but about creating a landscape — breaking out of everything you’ve learned about the technique of writing songs, the usual sort of chord progressions and verse/chorus structures. ‘Marseille Sunshine’ was more about certain notes happening in a moment, certain colors and textures that come together to make you feel this. That ideal as a conscious method fed into the Ypres project and our work with Claire.”
The collaboration between Tindersticks and Denis has yielded the milestone six-score LP/CD boxed set Claire Denis Film Scores 1996–2009. The set’s scores include that for the African drama White Material, which constitutes some of the group’s most abstract yet emotionally potent music. “I still shiver when I think about that music,” Denis says. The soundtrack to Trouble Every Day includes the black pearl of a title song, among the group’s most beautiful expressions of inner distress. Beyond that box, there is the score to 2013’s Les Salauds (The Bastards); with the vintage collaboration between director Michael Mann and Tangerine Dream in mind, Denis desired a soundtrack that was “urban and rough, almost cruel.” To that brief, Staples and company created their first electronic score, with the resultant album like blood-red neon in sound, a haunting aural experience even apart from the images.
Recalling her first encounter with the music of Tindersticks, Denis says that she was “touched, and not in a familiar way. So much so that I wanted to use one of their songs for a film I was working on in the mid-’90s, Nénette et Boni. So I approached Stuart one night in Paris, script in hand, when they were playing the Bataclan. It wasn’t easy to communicate there — it was a time when there was a lot of drinking for all of us. But Stuart was excited and thought it would be more interesting for the group to do the entire score — and I was amazed at that possibility. So we began this great adventure together that continues. It’s hard to imagine my films now without their music.”
Denis echoes Staples’ ideas about communicating beyond boundaries of language. “Even though Stuart is a man from England and I’m a woman from France, we have this special mutual understanding that doesn’t operate on ordinary language,” she says. “I trust that he knows what is hidden inside the script — the emotional story of the film, underneath the narrative. He understands my uncommon way of telling a story, and the band never approaches the music in a literal way. The music works as a mysterious counterpoint.”
For his part, Staples says: “You and I wouldn’t be sitting here talking without Claire, really. The process of making music for her films has asked us to look at a different part of our music, extending the possibilities of what we do. Whether it’s the orchestration on Trouble Every Day or approaching music in a more abstract way in White Material or the simple melodies of 35 rhums, it has all fed into what we do in our own songs. We share that need for space and ambiguity in art. She trusts people’s intelligence at a time when so much culture doesn’t. You have to be brave to maintain that, fight for it. And as a collaborator, she always gives you the freedom to do what it is you do, to go on a voyage with the material.”
In Ypres, the museum In Flanders Fields memorializes the long series of battles in the First World War that killed more than a half-million soldiers there — including nearly 200,000 British alone. The museum was named after a poem by Canadian soldier John McCrae: “In Flanders fields, the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row…” When Piet Chielens — director of exhibitions and public programs for the museum, and a native of Ypres — wanted to commission an installation soundtrack for the new permanent exhibition being readied in advance of the 2014 centenary of the war’s beginning, he was looking for the music to speak in today’s tones, not those of the period. Seeing Tindersticks perform their scores for Denis’s films at London’s Royal Festival Hall persuaded the curator that they should be the source of the museum’s new soundtrack.
“Because more British than any other nationality died defending Ypres, it was important for me to use a British composer,” Chielens explains. “But even though Stuart and Dan are English, the music doesn’t sound ‘British.’ Nor is the soundtrack anecdotal — it’s not military music or tragic in the typical way. It’s a soundscape that manifests an emotional aura. It works very well as serious music that opens people up to a serious experience, even if some find it too different or too contemporary. The music collapses the emotional distance between our time and the First World War beautifully — of that I’m 150 percent certain.”
Within the Cloth Hall of Ypres, a medieval market center rebuilt after the war, the space for the museum’s permanent exhibition is 50 meters high, 12 meters wide, 132 meters long. Staples and McKinna collaborated closely — the latter realizing the former’s sketches on piano — to create a meticulous orchestral score that evolves through the large space in a kind of surround-sound, with loops of varying instruments emanating from different speakers. Envisioned as music “without beginning, middle or end,” it accompanies nearly a quarter-million people through the exhibit yearly. A key influence on Staples was the music for strings by Arvo Pärt, with its pure, vibrato-free blend of discordance and euphony. Although the work wasn’t initially designed as a fixed, stereo recording, it was eventually mixed down for a more concentrated, direct CD/vinyl version titled Ypres that, Staples says, is “one representation of the music, one possibility.”
However “tremendously moving” touring the battlefields and fields of crosses marking the fallen Allied soldiers was for Staples, the impetus to create didn’t come fully until he saw the discreet memorial garden for the German dead that features a sculpture, Grieving Parents, by the German artist Käthe Kollwitz (whose own son died at Ypres). “I was able to write the music for Ypres because of her, as if she gave me the reason,” Staples says. “I suppose it’s being a parent myself. And without the air of ‘victory’ in that garden, the loss felt even more poignant. I was able to connect with the magnitude of it all through something very personal.”
The Waiting Room
Without the experience of creating Ypres, Staples says that he might not have been able to take on the CD/DVD project for The Waiting Room; but the earlier undertaking “cemented the realization that doing something creative is about feeling it strongly and chasing that idea, however far away it might seem.” He commissioned simple, atmospheric videos by various directors to complement seven of the album’s 11 songs. Buying gear and learning on the job, Staples made two more videos himself and another two with his wife, Suzanne Osborne, a painter. The film-making ideal for Staples was “not to try to describe the music or create a narrative, but to create a visual space for the songs — the central character in these little films is the song.”
Musically, The Waiting Room opens in a cinematic way, the mood of a wistful, waking-dream set by the instrumental “Follow Me,” a reinterpretation of a theme by composer Bronisław Kaper from the 1962 movie of Mutiny on the Bounty. Many songs are colored by the brass arrangements of Julian Siegel, a British jazz musician, including the Afro-beat horn punctuation in “Help Yourself,” which is complemented by a Denis video of a man seemingly aimless in a train station. Staples duets on “Hey Lucinda” with a musical soulmate, the late Lhasa de Sela, with whom he had sung on two previous albums. Laced by woozy accordion, the song sees Staples plea for a lover “to come out drinking with me tonight, the summer’s almost gone,” while Lhasa sings, “I only dance to remember how dancing used to feel.” Poetically, the song comes with a video of a worn amusement park, from the outside looking in.
Even with all the challenges facing musicians today in terms of making a living, Staples says all these various activities — plus concertizing — “add up to it making sense.” Still, he faces questions. “My daughter studies fine art and has a strong aesthetic,” he says. “I don’t know where that will take her. But she looks at me, weighing things about her possible life as an artist. She said to me, ‘Don’t you think that with everything you’ve done that you should be richer than you are?’ I said back, ‘Well, I’ve pursued my own ideas all these years, and I’ve still managed to keep a roof over your head, and buy you trainers.’ But with more money comes more compromise — and that would be the death of me, or at least of what I try to do with music.”
(Originally published in the summer 2016 issue of Listen magazine... Tindersticks have since released the excellent studio album No Treasure But Hope, and Stuart Staples scored the Claire Denis film High Life and issued a half-vocal/half-instrumental album, Arrhythmia. Tindersticks also scored the film Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith, which was directed by Staples.)