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Martin Macphail on Scoring the Friggin’ Awesome World of “Psycho Goreman”

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 | Interviews

By RACHEL REEVES

When it comes to movies, nostalgia can be a fickle beast. If a project leans too heavily into the references and cliché tropes of bygone days, the effect often comes off feeling phony and generic. However, when a movie successfully taps into deep-seated cultural moments in time with focus and mindfulness, the effect can wind up resonating with incredible strength. Although many films within the horror genre routinely attempt to mine the fields of sentimentality, few have recently succeeded as well as director Steve Kostanski’s latest film, PSYCHO GOREMAN.

Expertly walking the fine line of humor, heart, horror and visual effects heat, PSYCHO GOREMAN tells the tale of an unstoppable intergalactic warlord that becomes enslaved, and ultimately entranced, by an aggressively confident young girl named Mimi. For many adults who experienced childhood in the ’90s, PSYCHO GOREMAN offers a cinematic experience that wraps around the shoulders like a warm, familiar Saturday morning blanket. Sprinkled with hints of Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and early PlayStation games, PSYCHO GOREMAN expertly balances referential nods with Kostanski’s unique and original flair. 

Part of what makes this difficult balance work so well is the sonic backdrop provided by Blitz//Berlin. Originally hailing from Canada, the group consists of Martin Macphail, Dean Rode and Tristan Tarr. Now based out of Los Angeles, the trio of bandmates-turned-composers infuse the film with an atmosphere of intrigue, otherworldly danger and period accurate radness. Truly the icing on Kostanski’s retro-gore cupcake, it is these crucial auditory elements that undeniably solidify the genuine heart and tone that PSYCHO GOREMAN projects. In celebration of the film’s recent streaming debut on Shudder, Rue Morgue sat down with Blitz//Berlin member Martin Macphail. In this candid discussion we talk all about the group’s incredible score for PSYCHO GOREMAN, their own nostalgic memories and how the frig the trio went from playing dive bars in Canada to scoring big-budget movie trailers and horror movies in L.A.

I have to say, I’m really excited to talk to you today about PSYCHO GOREMAN.

I’m always excited to talk about PSYCHO GOREMAN. It’s a weird thing to say having worked on the project, but it is one of my favorite movies. I think that even if I hadn’t worked on it, I would still feel that way.  

That is totally understandable! It’s such a fun movie and actually, this is not your first rodeo with the movie’s director, Steven Kostanski. How did you first start working with Steven and how did that turn into working on PSYCHO GOREMAN?

The original way we met Steve was a bit strange. Basically, we were living in Toronto at the time and we had seen Manborg many years before at The Royal [Cinema] in Toronto. At that point we had just found out about it, but it was already on its way to becoming a cult film. A bunch of people were there—in costume—as Manborg. [Laughs] Which is mindblowing! And we ended up loving the film. So, many, many years went by and one of our members, Tristan Tarr was adopting a dog. He was going to a dog fostering program and happened to be in a dog park one day sitting next to this guy. They started discussing their careers and it was, “I make music for movies. What do you do?” “Oh, I make movies and I need music.” That guy was Steve. 

Whoa.

He was in the middle of working on The Void at that time so he brought us in on that. That was our first project together. We’re such fans of the movies that he makes and his kind of storytelling, his vision and his sense of humor. So, everytime I speak to Steve I’m always like, “What are you working on? Let me read something.” Even if we don’t get to work on it, I want to know. That’s how I got handed the script for PSYCHO GOREMAN a couple of years ago. I was just about to get on a plane at the time and read it on the plane, biting down on my hand with tears in my eyes. The whole Galactic Council and all of his old army pals showing up and betraying him, right on the page, all of that was just so funny. So, we were in from the jump. Then, we had the conversation with him about what the music would sound like. He said Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers and it was like, “Man. You are speaking our language.” We could not be more in and that’s how this whole thing came together. 

Steven seems like a director with a lot of vision and his talents as a makeup effects artist are incredibly impressive. How involved is he with the music on his films and what is your working relationship like with him?

I find that Steve has really good instincts for music. Also, just good instincts on how to work with other creatives. I think it probably comes from his very DIY background of doing everything on very limited budgets and doing a lot of it by hand himself. I think to make films effectively that way, you have to learn how to compromise and learn to work with what you’ve got. When it comes to music anyways, he always has very specific ideas and  he’s really excited about certain approaches, but never is a micromanager. He might come in and be like, “I love the way this scene in the first Ninja Turtles movie plays out — the way the music lifts here, the way the music plays for drama even though what’s happening on screen is a little bit silly, that’s great.” That’s sort of the level of detail that he would give us. There’s then a lot of freedom within that as composers to experiment. He’s not getting in there and being like, “Play the F#” or “Use this instrument.” We find that he definitely has a specific vision, he’s not floundering around for an idea. He’s a guy with so many ideas. But, he’s been a pleasure to work with as well. He certainly gives us leeway to do our thing. 

When it comes to the overall tone of PSYCHO GOREMAN, the music is such a crucial element in really selling it. You mentioned TMNT and Power Rangers, but there’s a lot of world-building as well. What were the early conversations like regarding the film’s musical direction? 

Pretty early on, Steve gave me some homework to do. When we typically start a film, especially if we read a script, we’ll create what we call “sketchbooks.” They are basically like vision pieces. Like, “Here’s what we feel for this character.” Or, “Here’s something that feels like the battle music for this film.” It gives the director an opportunity to then be like, “I like this. This isn’t my film.” etc. During that conversation with Steve, some of our first draft stuff made it into the film. But some of it felt a little too Stranger Things-y, synthy or modern. Sort of in the wrong way. So at that point, he gave me the homework to rewatch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Steven described it to me as, “This film sounds like they wanted to get John Williams, but they couldn’t afford him, so they got someone to do their best John Williams impression.” It was very specific in his vision for the movie, but he gave us the chance to watch that and be inspired by it. 

That was definitely something that we had a lot of conversations about early on. Steve identified as well that the music was going to be really key in this film for communicating the tone. It walks this line where it’s humor, it’s a comedy for sure, but it’s never mocking itself or it’s own subject matter. All the characters in it think that what is happening is very serious and they take it very seriously. So, there needs to be an emotional core to the movie that makes sense and isn’t too slapstick-y. Something that drives the humor around it. The music approach was similar. We didn’t want the score to ever be thinking it’s funny. There’s no clear, “We’re going for a big laugh here.” The best example we came up with when working with him early on was, “This needs to sound like you guys are composers working in the year 1990 and doing your absolute best to score this very serious film.” Those were the marching orders. We wanted to capture nostalgia, but without falling into any of the traps that go with that sometimes, where it becomes overly referential without having its own voice. It was a difficult line to walk, but very much led by Steve’s vision. 

Psycho Goreman himself is this incredible beast of rage and awesomeness that also has a really unique sound. How did you work his character into the music?

It was one of the things in our early work on the film that we actually missed the mark on a little bit. We were approaching him in a way that was…we knew that Steve wanted him to be scary, especially in the beginning. You don’t have him playing off of Mimi then. He’s just this horrible, galactic evil force. The kind of scare we ended up bringing to him early on was more in the world of The Void — something that was more drone-y and noisy. Steve at that time was like, “I see what you’re going for, but what we need to do here is bring a similar horror vibe to him that’s a little more like ‘The Imperial March.’ We need to accomplish this scary, ominous thing, but we need something that feels a little snappier and catchier. We can’t go too experimental with this.” So that’s when we made the decision that PG would have this rhythmic motif that would come back. You’ll hear it all throughout the film on all different instruments, but it’s always PG’s rhythm. That allowed us to make it either a little lighter in certain moments or this horrible “the warlord has returned” kind of vibe. That rhythm was kind of what unlocked PG’s theme for us. It made a lot of our drone-y experimentation make more sense in the world of the film.

That’s so cool! It reminded me of Brad Fiedel’s Terminator theme in the best way. 

That was absolutely a reference. For sure. Whenever the Terminator shows up you’re like, “Oh shit!” And we definitely wanted it to feel like that.

It’s interesting that you mentioned how when you presented the original idea for PG’s sound, it wasn’t quite right. I think that’s an important thing to talk about— the fact that you don’t always get it right on the first try. As a composer, and especially since Blitz//Berlin is a group, how do you separate yourself from your art to make sure it works best for the project? Do you ever struggle with situations when your idea isn’t received as well as you may hope?

Definitely. For sure. We always try to maintain some level of professionalism or grace when working with somebody, but sometimes internally we’re like, “Fuck.” [Laughs] Really, I think this is something that being in a band together for many years prepared us for. We would always write together as a band in a jam space. We’d have our stuff plugged in, we’d play as loud as possible and that’s how we’d write our songs. In that context, where there’s 5 of you writing songs simultaneously, you have to find this weird spot in your ego. You have to find where you both think your idea is the best idea, but then also be willing to admit that you’re probably wrong. It’s somewhere in between that. 

Whenever we’ve collaborated with directors, where it works the best, is where it feels like there’s a fourth member of the band. Dean, Tristan, me and the director. If we’re working on something that we are feeling really excited about and the director is like, “That’s not quite right,” or whatever, I think we’re a little better about not getting our feelings hurt because of those years writing collaboratively. That sort of thing happens internally within the band all the time too. Two of us may love something and the other may be, “Yeah, that’s not working for me.” That, I think, is an important part of our creative process. It allows us to be pickier with the stuff we actually finish. I’m not going to tell you it’s not frustrating. It definitely is sometimes. We think we’ve nailed something and find out we’re way far off. Or, vice versa where we’ll be unsure about something and the director will be like, “That was perfect!” You just have to roll with the punches and remember that, ideally, it is all greater than the sum of its parts. 

While we’re on the subject of the band dynamic, I have to ask you about the totally killer “Frig Off!” song. Was that as much fun to write as it is to listen to? Were there any other guest musicians that joined in on the creation of the track?

Yes! There’s a few guest vocalists on the PG soundtrack. On “Frig Off!” it’s a fella named Danny Deane who we actually know from back in the day when we lived in Victoria, BC. I used to work at a music shop with him when I was right out of high school. He was a little bit older than me and was this guy that I really looked up to. He was a rock vocalist and has gone on to sing in this super successful Aerosmith cover band. They’ll play those festivals that are all classic rock cover bands, but there are also 40,000 people there. He’s an incredible rock vocalist. 

I was originally singing the demo of it but, because of the era I grew up in, my voice just is not the right kind of reference. We needed it to sound authentically ’80s and have this Billy Idol thing. And because of that, we cold-called Danny and he tracked it, one-take’d it, the same day. He’s an incredible singer. Making those songs was probably the most fun part of working on PG. So much of it was, “This can’t sound like the composers made a song. It has to sound like we found a song that no one has heard of from that era.” That was the goal for those. 

PSYCHO GOREMAN really wonderfully taps into this very specific era of the ’90s that so many folks grew up in and because of that, strikes a unique nostalgic nerve. Did you have that connection to it as well? What were some of your favorite TV shows as a kid?

When we first read the script and started seeing footage from it I was like, “I don’t know that we specifically have ever been more qualified to score a film.” [Laughs] That was definitely our era. I was 5 years old in 1990 when the first Ninja Turtles movie came out and it was a little too scary, so I wasn’t allowed to see it. But then we owned the VHS a little later and it was my every weekend movie that I would watch with my brother. So much of the specific nostalgia that PG is going for, which is really a ’90s thing, it’s not the Stranger Things ’80s, which Steve was very specific about. It is this other pocket of an era that hasn’t quite been as explored with modern movies. As soon as we started diving into it, it just felt very right. Growing up, the after-school shows that I would watch would be Power Rangers for sure. Like the original frickin’ Power Rangers

As a side note, we didn’t get it so I don’t know why I’m bringing it up, PG did get us in the room to pitch music for a new Power Rangers show. Both Steve and I, we love so many ’90s films like Escape from L.A., these films that have that spirit of fun filmmaking. So, I think that there’s a bit of a natural vocabulary there between Steve and us when he’s trying to explain to us how a scene works. Nostalgia is a funny thing. It’s something that nowadays, for everybody in their 30s, it’s like some marketing company has figured out that now is the time to make the most money off of nostalgia! It’s everywhere. All my favorite video games from elementary school have been remade for tens of millions of dollars. I feel like, with nostalgia being everywhere, it can feel schlocky by definition. I think something Steve really wanted to make sure of with PG is that it is a love letter to the era and that it’s done through his specific love for those films. It’s not trying to hit some generic nostalgic tone. That was definitely the goal. 

I do think that comes across. You can really tell this film is coming from a place of genuine love and isn’t just something that a team of marketing executives decided would be great for the aging emo-kid market. The passion clearly runs deeper than that and it is coming from one of those kids. I think there’s a big difference there.

One-hundred percent. It’s funny because we’ve had this conversation just jokingly. Whichever company bought all the Hasbro brands, because they’ve been making the G.I. Joe movies and stuff, what other Hasbro movies could we pitch on? There’s not a Connect Four movie. There’s not a Hungry, Hungry Hippos movie. We plotted out a whole Hungry, Hungry Hippos movie that’s more or less like that Predator movie where they find the pyramid under the Antarctic, except it’s full of hippos. Just having fun and making light of the fact that everybody is trying to buy these properties and mine that. 

Before Blitz//Berlin started doing film score projects, you were a band in the traditional sense. So, how is it that you all found yourself working on film projects? Was that always something you were interested in or something you sort of fell into? What’s the story behind that transition?

It was definitely something we fell into. To be honest, we really didn’t know it was a job for people like us. Growing up, we of course knew who people like John Williams and Hans Zimmer were on the periphery of our movie fandom. But, we kind of thought of film composers as guys who went to conservatories of music and got a doctorate in music arrangement and work with orchestras. And that’s certainly not what we do. So, it was not something we ever anticipated that we could be a part of. But there are bands like Tangerine Dream and hearing some of their music. There’s also when Trent Reznor made the shift into doing films as well and those scores were non-orchestral for the most part. That was very eye-opening.

For us, the big opportunity came when a director we had worked with on music videos [Colin Minihan] got his first bit of money to make a science fiction film. He didn’t like who the studio had paired him with and we got a panicked late-night phone call that was like, ‘I need you to score my movie!’ We had never done that, but of course we were like, “No problem.” But then we got off the phone and were like, “Oh, no.” We immediately started Googling “How to score a movie” and proceeded to just figure it out. That was our crash course, that film called Extraterrestrial

But right around that time, we had a few things click. That happened, and then we made an instrumental record which got into the hands of a music supervisor in the states who then started asking us to make custom pieces for movie trailers. That was another thing we didn’t know existed. Shortly after we were able to do the trailer music for The Girl on the Train and got to work with a Kayne West vocal for that. Those things all just kind of opened this doorway. We were a band that was playing shows for a hundred bucks a night at little bars and the idea of working on projects like that was mind-blowing. That’s really what propelled us to get the jobs that we did, get our visas, move to the states, and start working out of Los Angeles. It was not a job that we knew existed and we definitely fell ass-backward into it and just said yes and figured it out. 

That is so amazing. Because you three entered the field in such a unique way, what advice would you give a group that is actively trying to get into film scoring?

The best advice I can give is to experiment a lot. That’s something that has served us well. Figure out what you want to make, how you want to make it, and what sets you apart. The more that you experiment the better and the more you push boundaries to make sounds that haven’t been heard before, the more you create a little niche for yourself musically. But possibly, an even more important part of it is to just make music and release music. 

I was given this advice many years ago by a fella in a Canadian rock band and he had told me that back in the 80s when they were super broke, they were making a record and there was a song that they hadn’t really finished yet, but they had a guitar riff. They were in the studio jamming on it and thinking, “This doesn’t even have a proper lyric yet. Should we even bother recording it?” But they did and it ended up being the B-side on the album. Flash forward a couple of years and they’re all still super broke and touring, but that song gets put into a car commercial in the states for like, a million dollars and buys them all houses. So his advice after his very long career at this point was, you never know what’s going to land. 

So, if the question is, do we record it or not? The answer should always be yes. Be as prolific as possible. You don’t know what’s going to connect with people. That ethos has served us very well because records that we’ve made that are little-known experimental albums are the ones that have found their way into the hands of a certain director. Out of the few thousand people who listened to this record, one of them was a guy who needed music for a film and thought, “I’ve never heard music like this before.” Meeting people is important and you should definitely get yourself out there, but making music is key. Make stuff as cool as you can and get it out into the world.  

What’s next for you guys? 

We’ve got a couple of things coming up. We just finished a film called No Running which will be in Tribeca. Another film called Superhost we worked on just finished up and I believe will be a fall release. That one is from Brandon Christensen who also directed Still/Born which is also a film we did a few years ago. And probably the biggest thing going on for us right now is that PG opened a door for us to actually score our first TV show. The Syfy channel is doing a reboot of Romero’s Day of the Dead and we did the full score for it. It’s the most exciting thing ever.

PSYCHO GOREMAN is currently streaming on Shudder and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. You can also listen to Blitz//Berlin’s awesome score on all major streaming platforms or by pre-ordering a copy of the incredible Waxwork Records vinyl, releasing this July.    

Rachel Reeves
Rachel is a record store nerd from Boise, Idaho with an obsession for horror soundtracks and all things creepy.