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Ben Lovett on the Power of Brujas, Demons and Collaboration in ‘The Old Ways’

Tuesday, September 14, 2021 | Interviews


When it comes to modern maestros of horror, few composers are as versatile and prolific as Ben Lovett. Known for his masterful and chameleon-like ability to sonically inhabit a diverse array of musical styles, the award-winning composer’s talent seems to know no bounds. And even if Lovett’s name doesn’t immediately ring bells, chances are good that more than a few of his recent works have graced your ears. In the last few years alone, Lovett’s credits have included I Trapped the Devil, The Wind, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Synchronicity, Broadcast Signal Intrusion, and David Bruckner’s The Ritual

Due to Lovett’s unique and passionate approach to film scoring, it is no wonder that directors return to him time and time again. A self-taught musician, Lovett approaches each project with a genuine zest and open-minded attitude that allows each one of his sonic creations to feel beautifully singular and distinctive. As an example, one needs to look no further than two of Lovett’s most recent projects; David Bruckner’s The Night House and Chris Alender’s THE OLD WAYS. 

While the music of The Night House unfolds as a stunning exploration of grief, sound design, and mind-blowing music theory madness, THE OLD WAYS exhibits an entirely different side of Lovett’s abilities. A truly evocative and enveloping score, Lovett’s music drops audiences into the world of Veracruz, Mexico with a blend of traditional and modern elements. As collaborative as it is terrifying and undefinable, it is the music that ultimately brings Alender’s very special tale of demons, possession, and addiction to life. 

Rue Morgue recently sat down with Lovett to talk all about his work on THE OLD WAYS, joining forces with experts, embodying demons, and the one type of score he can’t wait to tackle next. 

The last time we spoke was February of 2020, right after The Night House had just been picked up at Sundance. It’s wonderful to finally see it out and doing so well in theaters.

It’s surreal when you consider what else has happened in between then and now. It’s such a bizarre thing and it’s created a very unique and very different experience for a release. But it also makes it feel so strange and surreal because it only further exacerbates my inability to decipher time, which was already kind of gone, but it’s really gone now. [Laughs]

Along with The Night House’s release, you also have THE OLD WAYS playing in theaters and absolutely killing it on Netflix. 

I’m so excited. It was just bizarre coincidental timing that they are both out within a week, but because in my head and my relationship with them, it’s separated by over a year of time in between those two projects. So they live in very different spaces in my brain. 

How did you first get involved with THE OLD WAYS and what initially attracted you to the project?

Well, I’ve known the director Chris Alender for a really long time. We’ve worked on things together, but he’s mostly been behind the camera or a producer. He directs things, but this was his first feature and it was sort of inevitable. [Laughs] I knew eventually Chris was going to make his own movie. The first thing we made together was when he directed a video for one of the songs on my first artist record. Chris directed this video called ‘Eye of the Storm’ which ended up becoming a really big sort of catalyst for the video side of this artist project that I did. In the video, I was flying this steampunk airship in the sky and it became this viral thing on YouTube and we had a lot of success with that. But that was like, 10 years ago. 

So, when it came around to him making a feature, I was lucky to be the first call. And I think the conversation was as simple as him being like, “Hey. I’m going to send you a script. Read it and let me know what you think because it’s the next movie you’re doing.” And that was about it. 

THE OLD WAYS takes place in Mexico and has an all Hispanic cast so, it was obviously important that the music reflected that. While you are a very versatile and experienced composer, did you have to do a bunch of research and prep before you started composing to make sure the music did the story and setting justice?

Yeah, absolutely. The most appealing thing about this was that it was like that old cliche of getting out of your comfort zone and being able to explore. That’s actually one of the things that’s most appealing about film work for me. The fact that it constantly creates a reason to go off and explore, research, and learn about a lot of things you’re maybe less familiar with musically or artistically. But, one of the first things I said was, “I’m not going to attempt to write traditional Mexican folk music. I’m a self-taught musician from Georgia. It’s just not going to happen.” And Chris was like, “Well, that’s fine. That’s not what we want you to do anyway.”

So the conversation became more about how, what I really like doing on all of these films, whether they have an ethnic component like that or not, is taking instrumentation that’s sort of commonly associated with one kind of music and putting it off-axis by putting it into a different context or turning it into something else. And, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that since we have the two worlds of the main character. 

Because we had this theme going on in the movie with the modern and the ancient, I started to research, study, and find what kinds of tonal instruments, colors, and textures would really reinforce the imagery of what they were going to be shooting and ways to sort of present that in a different light or in a different context musically. Ultimately, what I then ended up with, was realizing that I was going to really need an expert and some kind of consultant to help educate me on instrumentation that’s traditional to Mexican folk music and the specific region of Veracruz. 

Veracruz has a very specific culture and a very specific musical flavor that separates it from the other parts of Mexico. So, that led us to a gentleman named Martin Espino. He became really integral to the process. Not just for consultation and for being a trusted resource, he was all those things, but he also ended up becoming one of our main primary instrumentalists because he’s a specialist in a lot of these handmade instruments. You have to really know how to play to get anything particularly musical out of them because they maybe only make two or three different sounds. 

And because we were doing all this during COVID, everything was remote. So, we would do these long Zoom sessions where he would just sort of show us all these different instruments and educate us on how they were made and where they came from. And, what made it uniquely interesting from other scores where I’ve done that with instruments is that all of these instruments predate the tonal A440 mandate where like, the tonality of a C on the piano is the same as you would tune it to a guitar or as you would play it on a flute. These instruments just make their own sounds that live in their own space. So you can’t just have them play along to a piano or a guitar. You have to sort of tune your other instruments to these things. 

So we started by exploring the instruments that we identified as being from the region and then finding instrumentalists, like Martin, who could perform on those. Then, we took all of those instruments and spent a long time meticulously combing through all the sounds that we had. We then built the other music around it to really support it. Rather than just writing some stuff and then having these players come in and play these instruments on top, I sort of had to do it in reverse. 

It sounds like a very unique and interesting collaborative process.

I don’t think I would have thought to write some of the stuff the way I did if I had started the other way. I wouldn’t have really thought to have incorporated these instruments necessarily in that way. They were really the original inspiration spark and kind of the genesis of it. Ultimately, you have this fishing expedition where you go off and try to find all these unique and interesting sounds. Of course, we ended up with all this amazing stuff that sounded really cool, but at the end of the day, it has to help tell the story. So there were lots of cool things that just didn’t quite fit in there, right? They just didn’t really help communicate something specific that was going on in the characters. And so there’s also that restraint that you try to develop because you just want to throw all the cool-sounding stuff on the screen, whether it belongs there or not. 

While we’re on the subject of the music serving the story, there’s this fascinating fusion of themes in the film that have to do with possession and addiction. While one is supernatural, the other is very real. How did you balance these two worlds, the grounded versus the spiritual, and incorporate them into your score?

It was the perfect vehicle for the juxtaposition that I mentioned about putting instrumentation out of context from its traditional uses, because of the duality going on inside of the main character.

And there was such a clear, even from the script, such a clear metaphor system in play between possession and addiction. It became a playground to kind of explore that duality in Cristina. I remember it had a really simple beginning of being like, “Okay. So, Cristina is an electric guitar. But, she’s from a world of acoustic guitar.” She was born as a child in Mexico, in the jungle, but grows up in Los Angeles and becomes a hardened, drug-addled journalist. She is someone who is very disconnected from that original source, but it’s still fundamentally a part of who she is. Just like you might think of an electric guitar coming from an acoustic guitar.

So, when we’re dealing with that addiction theme and we’re with Cristina as she’s going through her arc and her transformation back into embracing all these things that she’s always felt so repelled by, you get these swelling, floating chords on electric guitar. And then, every time there’s anything that’s related to her cousin, her mother, and the traumatic introduction she had into this culture, that’s all encased in the shimmering palette of mandolin and charango, which is sort of like an acoustic guitar. It all culminates in that final track on the album, ‘Came Here To Die.’ It sort of incorporates a lot of that stuff into one final conclusion where you’ve got this lone, nylon string guitar cautiously moving through this dense cloud of mandolin and charangos. 

It was always supposed to feel unresolved throughout the film. Each time you get that theme  (and you get it a lot) that sort of chordal movement on acoustic guitar, it never quite finds the root. It doesn’t ever come home. It’s just sort of unresolved and searching for the key center of the piece of music. But then, it becomes met with piano. And then cellos and violas start to enter that theme throughout the movie. Then it’s sort of pulled into these choral voices, which seemed right because of the supernatural spirituality of it all. In the end, we also have this kind of greener texture with all the little flourishes of Native American flutes and ocarinas. It’s this really lovely journey of Cristina moving beyond her identity being based in the past and finding this discovery of where she belongs in the world. 

Because the film has such a small cast, it seems like you really got to dedicate a lot of the music to Cristina and her journey. It really adds so much depth to her story and character.

Yeah, I love that. And I love films like this. The films are very different, but it kind of reminds me a little bit of when I did I Trapped the Devil a few years back. Like a stage play, that movie was like, three characters in a house with maybe something behind the door in the basement. It’s great. And this was the same sort of thing with four characters in a hut in the jungle. So, it has to be so story-focused to be able to hold your attention and to feel like it’s developing and going somewhere. I like the containment of that because, like you’re saying, you have to get inside the character’s journey. And for me, that theme I was just talking about related to Cristina, that was the first one that was actually written as a finished piece of music.

I always need a relatable place to start. Like, I’ve never had a heroin addiction and I’m not from Mexico. And, there are just so many things that are fundamentally part of the specifics of the story that I don’t have a particular point of relationship to, but that isn’t really necessary. You just need to understand and have some sense of a relatable point for what the character is going through. And, there was something about her complicated relationship to where she’s from, her family, and some unresolved loose end that lingered with her past that was a way for me to get in. So from there, you can find your way based on how those things feel to you. 

Along with your original score, there are some beautiful traditional songs used in the film. One called ‘La Llorona,’ you actually arranged and produced a new version just for the film. Tell us a little bit about working on that and how the song fits into the story. 

Chris did a great job in doing a lot of research on songs from the region. And, because it’s a relatively low-budget indie film, they were looking for songs that were old traditional songs because they were probably not going to be able to afford to get the publishing and things like that. So we had found recordings, both new and old of various songs and we regularly ran into references to that ‘La Llorona’ song. And it was like, “Okay. This seems to be a really well-known staple of the culture and people grow up knowing that song.” 

And there was something in it, in the lyrics, that seemed to kind of like ‘La Bruja’ which, there’s a couple of different versions of that folk song in the movie. But, the versions of ‘La Llorona’ that we would always find were much more upbeat and kind of, more sort of dramatic and kind of festive feeling recordings. And while I think that is the way that song is traditionally sung, we needed something for [a later dramatic] sequence. And it didn’t feel right. You know, we tried I think at one point to maybe score through all that, but it’s such a long sequence. That’s kind of a meditative moment that follows this kind of big set piece of the action and stuff.

We then kind of stumbled into this idea where, they were looking for a song there that had the right feeling, but also still wanted to incorporate that song into the movie in some way. But we could never find it. And I just kind of said, “Let me take a crack at this. I think I can do it.” So, I brought in a flamenco guitarist named Juan Benavides and a singer named Whitney Moore who has a really exceptional and impressive biography in terms of her academic studies in that region. 

She’s lived in South America, studied with teachers there, and has several degrees in the kind of music from that region. And, when I heard her sing, I almost wanted to put the demo in the movie. It was so good. And so I ended up just doing my own kind of scratched-up version by kinda going, “What if it’s slow like this? And what if it is more meditative and more somber and remorseful?” The way the two of them played it, Juan on classical guitar and the way Whitney sang it, it just sprang to heights I hadn’t imagined. It definitely sounded a lot better than the voice demo I sent off my iPhone. [Laughs]

So, this movie got me thinking about another one of your projects; Emma Tammi’s Old West prairie-horror film, The Wind. While both are quite different, there are also a lot of similarities. For one, there is this thread of the demon and this idea of being haunted. And, you have such a beautiful way of encapsulating that in your music and giving shape to these shapeless things. How do you approach scoring these darker moments and these characters that don’t have a lot to go off of visually?

That’s really sweet. Thank you! Because that’s definitely a conscious thing you’re trying to do. Most of the time you don’t see these things, right? And so it has to kind of have…you have to establish some kind of a presence so that you’re not going to force the film to rely on sound effects and stuff to kind of do that. 

I feel like it’s this kind of thing where, you’re not scoring to picture, you’re scoring to story. And so, you can’t really describe something that isn’t there. You can only describe how it feels to the character you’re experiencing or that you’re witnessing experience that thing. So if you’re coming at it from an expression of emotion in the character, then you hope that sort of registers with the viewer in some way. It may land in different places with different people based on their own experiences, but you’re hoping that it prompts them to react or connect to it. 

Of course, the other side of it is, a lot of it comes from an extension of the visual. How the production design and the camera and the director frame things up to try and insinuate the presence of this other thing that is just, not there. I feel like that is such an assist to me. The hard work that other people have put in already gets us halfway there and allows us to kind of pick up on it. But what I will say, and I think is a really good observation, I felt like this movie is sort of a spiritual cousin to The Wind. In a way, it’s kind of the end of a trip that I think I started with The Ritual, developed with The Wind even more, and then culminates in THE OLD WAYS. It’s sort of the ‘Ben Lovett Folk Horror Trilogy,’ I guess. [Laughs]

I feel like these are all very different movies and they have very different sounding scores, but they all have a sort of shared DNA. They all kind of deal with the thing that you’re describing where we’re constantly having to create and address the presence of a thing that may or may not actually be there. And they all deal with either these period or region-specific tonal palettes where I tried to not just write music, but sort of create this world of sound that gave each of those a kind of sonic fingerprint. Where it just feels like the movie swimming in some kind of mixture of colors that is unique to its own story. 

That’s wild. I love that you have your very own trilogy.

And what’s also interesting about it is, while just coincidental and not intentional, Chris Alender who directed THE OLD WAYS was also a producer for The Wind. And, when they first cut THE OLD WAYS, they temped it entirely with my score for The Ritual. So, it even became bound by real-world connections between those projects as well. But, the first time I saw it, it was the whole movie. And while it was all original music, I was like, “All right. First thing, get all that music out of there. Because while I know that was probably helpful for you guys while you were cutting, that’s just entirely too confusing and upside down to my brain. We’ve got to take all that out immediately.” [Laughs]

Holy cow. That’s so funny. 

It’s a strange and interesting thing. But then it’s kind of like one of those grass is greener situations, right? Like, would you rather they just put Hans Zimmer in there or whatever everybody else has to deal with?

So, along with THE OLD WAYS and The Night House, you recently had The Wolf of Snow Hollow get released and Broadcast Signal Intrusion premiered at SXSW 2021. And, each of these films have very different sounding scores. Is there any style of film or score that you haven’t tackled yet, but would like to?

You know, I’ve never done a space movie. And I’m absolutely down for a space movie. So anybody writing one of those, I’m interested. I would love to go to space or take somebody’s movie to space at some point. I grew up watching movies like anybody else and, you know I spent my time, my imagination in space. As I’ve started doing more and more of these movies I’m like, “Where’s my space movie!? I’ve gotta get out.” [Laughs] So that’s the first thing that comes to mind. 

I also really, really enjoy documentaries. The music that I got to make for that taxidermy documentary, Stuffed was a really nice break from some of, as much as I love it, the heady existential dread of something like The Night House. Whenever I can break out into some fun, whimsical, Jon Brion type influence or stuff like [Mark] Mothersbaugh, fun stuff like that, that’s always such a delight. 

So, I try to go after stuff that just seems like it will give me an opportunity to do something I haven’t done before. I kind of want to be the guy that like, you’re never really sure what kind of party it’s going to be, but you just go anyways because he throws good parties. You might not know what the theme is going to be, but usually, it’s a fun time. 

THE OLD WAYS is currently playing select theaters and is available to stream exclusively on Netflix. Ben’s score for the film is currently available on Spotify and is available to pre-order on vinyl via Burning Witches Records.

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