My mother’s a conceptual artist so I’ve been brought up to believe that, if the concept isn’t there, the art is meaningless.
Jordan Galland’s third feature Ava’s Possessions works both as a horror-comedy and a metaphor for all manners of addiction. We’re tossed into a world where demonic possessions are quotidian details. You can walk into a corner store for spells and incantations, and friends and family will extend their furrow-browed hand in your most unfortunate, puke-stained states post-exorcism. The film cleverly asks: What happens after the possession lets go, the priest goes home, and the victim is left to mend broken relationships and piece together one hell of a blackout?
We meet a writhing Ava (Louisa Krause) in bed as a priest attempts to extract a demon from her body. Once she regains control, she has already lost a month of her life wreaking considerable havoc all over town. With a laundry list of offenses against her—battery, damage to property, indecent exposure, stolen kisses, and a murder or two—she’s mandated to attend Spirit Possessions Anonymous as an alternative to jail. SPA is a group treatment program designed to help those just like her (the formerly possessed) regain personal strength as a means to reenter polite society.
Born out of a tight friendship dating back to their teenage years, Ava’s Possessions marks Sean Lennon’s third collaboration with Galland on a feature as a composer. Lennon’s score, with its dreamy washes of echoey drum machines and keyboards with foreboding synth arrangements, is reminiscent of Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter. The mixed bag of twangy guitar riffs, 50s pop, 70s punk, and creepy themes interlaced with swaggering horns recall old-school film noir, adding a lot of texture to the otherworldly tone so pivotal in selling this kind of story.
You share quite a long history with Jordan, a friendship that dates back to your teenage years. How did you meet and what memories do you have from those earlier days?
We went to the same high school. We were in different grades so I didn’t really know him from that, but we ran in the same circles. We’ve kind of been best friends ever since. We started making music together early on, during my first album when I was 21 called Into the Sun. I took his band, Dopo Yume, on my first tour. For the next ten years or so, I had been in his band as a guitar player, a bass player, and a drummer. We co-wrote songs, and he co-wrote songs on my second solo album Friendly Fire. We even adapted a Japanese novel called Coin Locker Babies into a screenplay. We spent years trying to make a film out of that. I think when Jordan eventually started writing-directing, he couldn’t do the music as well, so that’s where I stepped in. I’ve done three films with him so far and it’s all been really fun. It’s been quite a learning experience for both of us.
Was his short film Smile for the Camera your first collaboration on the film side of things?
As a cinematic experience? [Laughs] I guess so. There might’ve been other things, but nothing really worth mentioning. That was mostly his project, but I did help out a little bit.
You’ve both assembled a long list of repeat collaborators. For instance, Jemima Kirke was in that particular short and she obviously makes an appearance in Ava’s Possessions.
She’s one of our oldest friends. I met the Kirke family through Jordan, actually. I don’t even want to admit how long I’ve known her. She was a young girl when I met her. It’s a real New York crew.
It was my speculation that a lot of the people on this film, on both sides of the camera, were good friends or extensions of friends. Is this way of working very advantageous to you?
That’s the way I’ve always worked, and I think it’s such a privilege to work exclusively with the people you’re friends with. That’s sort of how I’ve managed to arrange my life. In terms of this film, there are obvious budgetary constraints so it’s nice to ask favors from friends. But I think it’s also preferable to work with the people you know, especially in a film situation because there’s so much trust involved in it. You get vulnerable when you’re acting and allowing yourself to be sculpted by the scene, the camera, the lights and all that stuff. I think it’s good to work with people you know. But everything would obviously change if this was a $200 million dollar budget thing. When you’re working on this level, it’s about a community of artists that are friends, you know?
What if there was conflict that broke out during the making of a movie, be it creative or personal? Is it more difficult to resolve that with someone who’s close to you?
Well, I’ve had it both ways. It’s interesting because there’s something about Jordan and my personalities where we don’t fight. It’s odd… We’ve probably written a hundred songs together and we’ve never fought once. Then I’ve worked with lots of other people where things would get heated. I think it comes down to personalities, and that’s key to the longevity of our collaborative partnership. It’s sort of specific to our dynamic. We just kind of keep moving forward.
What was your first impression of Jordan’s idea for Ava’s Possessions?
One of Jordan’s strongest traits is that he has very good core content at the foundation of his films and ideas. He always has an original take on reimagining disparate Hollywood clichés and recombining them in a new and interesting way. His first film, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead was a vampire-Shakespeare comedy. Alter Egos was a superhero film about losers and dorks. This is a possession film, but it’s not so much horror. It’s part Dan Brown, part John Waters, part David Lynch, and part The Hangover and Memento. I think the idea is funny enough that it could sustain an entire TV series, you know? My mother’s a conceptual artist so I’ve been brought up to believe that, if the concept isn’t there, the art is meaningless. It’s almost more important that the concept is good, and not how you manifest it. I feel very confident when I work with Jordan because I always believe a lot in the core ideas of his stories. It’s always interesting and funny.
And at what stage did you get involved with actually scoring the film?
Jordan and I are best friends so he always pitches me a script or gives me a copy of it before they even start pre-production. On that level, I feel like I’m always hip to what’s happening, you know? I’m not a producer on this film. I had a guest appearance in Alter Egos, but in general, I just really focus on the music. Film composition is something I’m interested in studying, so Jordan and his films have been an opportunity for me to start learning about how that works.
The score explores all sorts of genres, but remains thematically consistent to service the story. What did you find challenging about this score as opposed to Rosencrantz or Alter Egos?
With all of Jordan’s films, this was difficult. But the transitions were most difficult because it was the least absurd-looking film. Rosencrantz had a lot of hilarious, absurd situations with vampires and theater actors. In Alter Egos, these kids are wearing really goofy superhero outfits the entire time—the absurdity is just exploding out of the film. Ava’s Possessions is a much more subtle kind of comedy. The universe is darker, but it was about finding the right balance between light and dark. That was actually very hard. Sometimes the music might go too far in the direction of being dark or scary and it didn’t mesh well. If you’re too thematic it would lose the film as well. It was hard to walk the line between this kind of goofiness and the horror. I think it worked out, though.
When you’re so involved with one aspect of a film, what is it like to see the final product?
It’s fun! It feels really good. It’s different from making an album because there are so many more people involved when you make a film. It feels like you’re part of a family and you share this shared satisfaction with everybody else, which is nice. That’s why I admire filmmaking so much. It takes so much coordination and collaboration, whereas recording a song can just be done by one or two people. There’s a kind of community feeling of a shared accomplishment that’s really satisfying, which I don’t necessarily get in the same way from just making a record.
What’s happening on the album cover? When I saw it, I found it curious that the demon is wearing a human mask. Would it not make just as much sense the other way around?
It’s funny because Charlotte [Kemp Muhl] did the cover of Rosencrantz and I think I did the cover of Alter Egos and we were going to do another image of me for this, but Jordan had drawn this for the Spirit Possessions Anonymous manual. I was like, “Man, we should just go with that.” It’s such a cool image. So I definitely advised Jordan, but he actually put together the cover from the drawings he did to be used as props in the film. And the idea is that, when a demon possesses you, it’s like you’re him and he’s wearing you as a mask. It feels darker in a way and it’s an indication of how creative Jordan’s mind is. Most of us would put a girl with a scary mask on because that’s kind of Halloween-ish. The idea of a demon wearing a girl’s mask is much more interesting.
The demon is also a metaphor for addiction, in the more obvious and subtle ways. Having been around alcoholism all my life, I couldn’t help but fixate on those details. My mom always asks—when someone’s coming out of a bad hangover—”Has the demon left?”
Really?? It’s obviously a thinly veiled metaphor, and a brilliant one. It’s funny because Jordan gets to play with all these themes like alcoholism, horror movies, amnesia, and mystery and suspense. He’s sort of good at making soup with a lot of different ingredients.
You’re a collaborator in the truest sense because you’ve done it throughout your entire career and you seem to genuinely enjoy doing it. More recently, you teamed up with Greg Saunier of Deerhoof for Mystical Weapons. You formed Moonlandingz with members of Fat White Family. Your latest is with Les Claypool for The Claypool Lennon Delirium. Do you think you’re more instinctual when it comes to making decisions or more of a heavy planner?
Honestly? I really am envious of the heavy planning people, and I’ve always wanted to be one. So far, I haven’t figured that part out in my life and everything just seems to happen spontaneously. But I’m definitely more in admiration of people who plan things and get them done. For me, it’s sort of like I find myself in a place that feels right and I just keep going.
Your collaboration with Michele Civetta for the Friendly Fire album was so clever—a film comprised of ten music videos. Do you ever think about doing something like that again?
Oh thanks. I thought people would like that, but nobody seemed to even notice it. And everyone’s like, “Wow! Beyoncé did a record like a movie,” and I’m like, “Dude. I did that seven years ago.” I would love to do it again, but I don’t have a record deal anymore. Now I have my own label called Chimera Music that publishes all the soundtracks. It’s a self-published, homemade record label. When I made Friendly Fire, I had a big record deal with Capital Records. It’s a different world.
Wasn’t Jordan actually in one of those videos?
I don’t think I’ve done anything that Jordan hasn’t touched in a way. I didn’t mean that in a sexual way. [Laughs] I mean, we’ve been collaborating on stuff for a while. We just have similar tastes, you know? If you listen to my records and his records together, you’ll realize that we have the same style. I don’t think a lot of people realize it because his music is a little lesser known, but in the end, I think Jordan and I kind of created each other by collaborating so much.
I’d imagine that you guys have discussed in length about the kind of stuff that you haven’t explored yet together. And I don’t mean that in a sexual way, either.
[Laughs] Yeah, like I mentioned earlier, Coin Locker Babies never got made and that was really sad for us. But I think we have potential to do good stuff in the future. I hope so because that’s really the point. With anything you do the hope is that you, at the least, do something better.
What else is going on at Chimera these days?
Well, I live here. This is my kitchen, which is also Chimera Music headquarters.
I didn’t know you meant that literally.
Our stock that we mail is down the stairs in the basement where my laundry machines are.
What’s topping your list of priorities this year? What’s a big personal one?
I turned 40 in October so I want to be as healthy and productive as I can be this year. I have this four- to five-month tour with The Claypool Lennon Delirium planned. My goal is to be able to do this tour and stay really healthy the whole time. I just got off after touring for two years with The Ghost [of a Saber Tooth Tiger], my other band with Charlotte, and touring can be very tiring if you’re not focused. You’re in a different town every day. You’re often eating at gas stations.
You don’t have any secrets to touring that you can parcel out?
If someone has a secret, they need to share that with me. I haven’t figured it out yet.
You don’t have any tour necessities?
I tour in a really rough way, usually. This Claypool Lennon Delirium tour is going to be the first time I’ve ever had a tour bus. We usually tour in a van where we’re all driving in a little car, so it’s not like we can take some vegan cook with us on the road or something. It gets exhausting. As long as you have good books and good music to listen to, I think you can survive anything. But I do like to bring my own soap. I don’t know why.
Your own soap? Is it a special kind of soap?
I just want to have my own soap. I don’t like to use the soap at motels. I don’t mind them sometimes, but if you’re using them every day for months, it gets weird. Skin starts to fall off…