Daniel Lopatin has become a gambling man. One screen contains these superbly arranged and texturally melodramatic beats of his latest composition, and on the other, a battle between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. You can already sense the mutability in action: both screens are betting on fate in a flawed world, an excess of possibilities. Lopatin has always contained multitudes, and in the years since the man behind Oneohtrix Point Never started scoring films, we have been reminded not only how many unconventional facets he has, but also how good he is at dismantling them.
Our conversation finds Lopatin running around Los Angeles, whilst I’m in his ears over the phone, driven by the wonderment of his score for Josh and Benny Safdie’s new tragi-comedy, Uncut Gems, with imbecilic levels of enthusiasm. Kings of Inconvenience, the Safdies stress the shit out of you, throw you out of a building, run you over with a car, and catapult your corpse into the sky—and then shake you until you wake up. Yet, Uncut Gems is like wakening yourself with your own shouting. You feel this unshakable and demoralizing sense that you don’t know how you got here, but ‘here’ is screaming, and you just have to hear it happen.
The story centers around a Diamond District jewelry dealer, Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler, and his cringe-y, untenable life choices that involve betting, gambling, cheating. He is as flawed as the inside of the smoking section of a casino—his flaws so thick you can choke on them. The landscape of this labyrinthine world he tries to live in feels faulty. That driving force is pressure: to come out unscathed, to be the lucky one who made it, to survive. To win, win, win.
That desperation becomes a veritable mantra, and the film’s textures consuming the whole damn thing. The deafening alarms, Kevin Garnett’s giant-sized championship ring, the furious synths, Ratner’s lust-worthy rimless tinted glasses, Idina Menzel’s fluorescent pink poofy sleeved dress, the broken buzz of the jewelry shop vestibule, the moss green military sleeve pockets of Lakeith Stanfield’s Demany, the overlapping dialogue—all working together in frantic consistency. (And let us not revisit the texture of the colonoscopy shall we?)
Lopatin’s deceptively frantic, but genius, score weaves a similar overlapping tapestry. It gives life to the story. The choral chants of synth frantically build then spiral inward. The celestial dance on “Pure Elation” denotes a feeling akin to its name, and the cascading harp-like tones billow softly as if the strings themselves were made of jewels: dangling, clanging. The barrelling techno on “School Play” feels sinister enough to match the tone of the film’s inherent ponzi scheme, but “Fuck You Howard” the astonishing smacker that stinks of psuedo-power, stinks of greed.
But as the characters are flawed and ill-fitting, so the music goes. It’s as if Lopatin and the Safdies needed everything to feel like that wakened, clumsy, panic-induced scream just to make sure your body could never rest easy. As textured as the film, my chat with Lopatin for both my show, This Must Be the Gig (see above), and Consequence of Sound’s Composer of the Year, showcases the mind behind the unforgettable score.
On Unlocking Cubic Sound
Yeah, so like a lot of kids, my dad was so obsessed with The Beatles, but then he also had this jazz fusion collection on dub tapes—Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return of Forever, and all this other instrumental electric jazz from that period of time. And I was listening to all that stuff and I was always really, really drawn to sounds. Somehow, I’d just got drawn to all the strange moments from Beatles songs, and “Revolution 9”, and weird production stuff. I would love the negative space of music so much. It was like catnip for me. I didn’t really understand what I was hearing, but I loved it.
And then the sort of sample and hold synth stuff or sequencer stuff that I would pick up on, and some of those jazz fusion tapes too, I couldn’t really comprehend it, but it created this really intense hallucination in my mind. I remember feeling moved by it and then years later wanting to understand how that worked. My dad had this synthesizer that he was using for his gigs; he was just using it to get an organ sound or a string sound. But it was this Roland Juno, and it had pretty good capabilities for generating all kinds of abstract sounds and just doing your own sound design stuff.
And so I would just mess around with it in the basement. Once I found that arpeggio button or whatever and started changing around the speeds and hearing this cubic version of tonality, this rhythmic and cubic sound, I was like, “Oh wow, this is what I heard on those records. This is how you make it … kind of.” I was drawn to it like a moth to flame.
Was it because with your imagination, you could create some sort of fill or moment in there, or was it just because it was a moment where you knew other people weren’t paying attention?
That’s a good question. I did always sort of have this bratty kind of need to be different. Maybe that was part of it, honestly. Maybe it was just that everyone else was just seeing it this way and I’m going to see it that way. It really could be, because I can’t think of a single good reason why I would. I mean, there’s just so much melody to sort of luxuriate yourself with in music all the time. And there was so much of that, especially because my mom would sit down and play Chopin. There was just so much beauty happening that maybe on some level the strange stuff, the sort of weirded version of music that I was picking up on just felt fresh. It felt new.
And also even in the music that my sister liked, I remember a record that really changed the way I was thinking about stuff: the Replacements’ Don’t Tell a Soul. It’s a fantastic late-career Replacements record that was criticized when it came out because it had this really overtly ‘80s production quality to it and everyone trashed it. It was like, “This isn’t the Replacements. They’re this really rough punk band, and now here they are selling out,” or whatever. And that was always the rap in the ’80s: “Okay, you’re this authentic band and let’s see how far you could take it before you sell out.”
And of course now that concept might not even apply for young people starting bands. Anyway, long story short, I remember somehow being able to comprehend that a thing to do in music was to essentially keep some pedal going atmospherically in the music while other things change, while the melody changed, and that pedal could just be some sustained tone that kind of referred to the tonal center of the piece. And it was usually tucked away in the background and big and atmospheric. That created this deep, cavernous, sad, washed out, melancholic universe behind the music, behind the melody. And I was like, “That’s where I want to be. That’s where I’m from.”
I don’t think I’m bratty in the sense of wanting to purposely recede from people. I don’t want to make music that’s not for people. It’s quite the opposite actually. I always sort of whimsically believed and still do believe that music is this wonderfully plastic thing where you can’t hide from it and people love it—especially when it’s challenging. I think there’s nothing more depressing than doing something with the expectation of an audience being able to get ahead of it and understand it before it unfolds. It’s like discrediting your audience or painting a picture of them in your head, like they can’t handle it or something. I always wanted to go towards people, not away from them, but I did want to connect that way. Like, “Hey, here’s this thing I think is really magical. Do you agree?” And that’s been always basically the question for me with art in general. I look at everything and say, “Wow, this person really, really cared to do this for whatever strange reason. I wonder why.”
On the Essentiality of Context in Music
I do think it’s funny the way people’s brains work, because there’s a sense with music that’s really wonderful, you do just melt away all that thought. There’s a kind of weird catnip kind of thing. We just love it so much and we don’t totally understand it. It’s kind of in the ether by default. It’s just this thing that’s suspended around us that we can’t really grab, and it’s just there and it affects us immediately and puts you into the present moment in this Buddhist way, more so than many other activities or art forms. But yet it’s this thing that’s so cultural, right? It’s so contextual; it’s always coming from somewhere. It always has a perspective and that combination is so fascinating to me. Even as a composer, I try to be aware of those things from moment to moment as I’m getting through a section or something. There’s sometimes clearly where I just absolutely have no thoughts, and have this kind of intuitive gut reaction. And sometimes it’s not.
On the Euphoria of Bargain Bin New Age CDs and the Influence of Vangelis
From a sort of bratty but also psychedelic perspective, genre always kind of felt like, “Oh, that’s what they—they, the proverbial they—want you to think.” So I was always into the idea that those definitions were just there to be sort of alchemically messed around with. You’re supposed to play with them, destroy them, and do stuff that that made you question them. My intention was never to reassess Muzak-y, terrible music, but at the same time there were honest-to-goodness moments on some of those records that just blew my mind. They were so meaningful to me.
I would just have these moments where I was earnestly just freaking out about some Andreas Vollenweider harp moment or whatever. And those are the records, also just on a sort of economic level, I’d walk into a record store as a college kid in western Mass and nobody was buying or looking in the sections with the throwaway ECM Records and all that stuff. It was just kind of sitting there in a cutout bin, and I just liked the idea that I could grab 20 of them for next to nothing, and just dig through them looking for these euphoric moments. I was hunting for those moments, trying to get in touch with them and let them inspire me.
Vangelis was really a touchstone. He’s amazing. And I don’t know if anyone really ever talks about the emotion. It’s so odd. I think a lot of what people find interesting about Vangelis is biographical; he did something unique for the instrument. He represented something. But we dug up these videos on YouTube of him improvising, just sitting around a bunch of keyboards and talking about the way he thinks about interfacing with these instruments, and he sees the different options that he surrounds himself with as different sections of an orchestra. The only way I can think of it is like model architecture or something. It’s like these synthesizers are these shrunken down things that represent these massively powerful configurations of flesh and bone, doing these things that have been done for hundreds of years. And then he’s going into them intuitively and just playing and reacting, and he’s like, “Isn’t this wonderful? Isn’t this beautiful?”
That’s the freshness. That’s what you’re hearing when you’re listening to a Vangelis record. It’s this person who is acutely aware of the history of classical music but now is like this cybernetically enhanced being who’s free to just roam between these histories and these ideas. And what comes out is just pure. It’s so pure. And so we set up the studio in a sense to replicate that a little bit, in our own way.
But we wanted to get away from just multi-tracking, that very, very lame bit by bit, layer by layer sort of thing. That’s so played out. Everyone does these epic things in Logic or ProTools or whatever because they just sit around all day layering stuff. And I’m saying everyone, including me. I got really sick of that. We approached the studio that way too, in the sense that all of the synths came out of storage. Everything was hardwired, everything was on. And there was a sense of play. That was gratuitously fun for me.
Click ahead to read about how Lopatin won over the Safdie brothers…
On His Idiosyncratic Connection With the Safdie Brothers
I hadn’t seen Daddy Long Legs, but I had seen Heaven Knows What. I kind of vaguely knew them socially from just being in New York. We were roughly the same age and doing stuff in and around the city. But at some point, they reached out and I went to their office in Midtown. I walked in and they were totally immersed in this world that they were creating. Their walls were covered with tapes and DVDs. There was an Akira poster on the wall which was hanging right next to an Abel Ferrara poster for King of New York.
Even that weird contrast, I remember it was really powerful for me. I was like, “Oh, we’re cut from the same cloth. Right. There’s no rules here. There’s only brutal realism and science fiction, and there’s a time loop that connects those things.” And so right away we had so much to talk about. I remember the first thing Josh told me: “You know, we’ve never made a genre movie, and I think we have to. We have to make a genre movie.” And they were talking about Good Time.
I was really excited to work with them from the get-go just because it was really natural. It was really comfortable. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine working with these kids. We were all cut from the same cloth. We were all philosophically volleying around the same types of ideas about what rules exist and what rules don’t or whatever.
So, we did Good Time, and we went to Cannes with it. We had a great time, and then I was like, “Oh wow, I really need to get back to OPN stuff.” So I holed up in this house in south central Massachusetts to record Age Of. I was busy with that for awhile. Then off of that, I had a large-scale show that I had created for that record, which we called Myriad. And it took all of my energy to convince people to support it because it was prohibitively expensive show to put on.
For them it’s a risk because I’m a quote-unquote avant garde composer, or whatever dumb conception of my career people have. That struggle took a lot out of me. But luckily we were already hatching plans for Uncut, which I had known about because they had been writing it for like 10 years. They had sort of explained it to me going back as far as before Good Time.
There were things that were changing that did make it difficult because they have such unbelievably anal second-to-second notes, beat-by-beat, frame-by-frame on the action in terms of the score. They have really, really specific notes. It’s a lot like a ballet. It has a very, very intense emotional wireframe that’s beneath all of this stuff.
Just because it seems crazy and chaotic doesn’t mean that we’re in any kind of chaotic state when we’re making it. I’m following their map and then I’m basically just working in reverse.
On Capturing Howard Ratner’s Anxiety While Composing
At some point, I started online gambling, in-game NBA betting on one screen in the studio while I was writing, just to get into it. My bets were very small, but still, for someone that doesn’t bet, it’s totally thrilling and insane. Not that I would recommend anyone do that. In small doses, you could totally see how it can spin out of control and become a bigger problem, or you just simply want a bigger dose of that.
There were some tricks, but the anxiety… I had writer’s block, some depression. There were all kinds of things happening in my life leading up to the very important moment of playing the film in its entirety for the producers. The Safdie Brothers can take the act of just climbing a fence as if you’re watching War and Peace. It’s just totally insane and that’s the lovely thing about the stories they tell. The problems are very real, and yet the way we animate those problems, those conflicts, or those moments of tension to make them seem as if the world is imploding around you is the fun of it.
We can characterize those very real life situations in very crazy fantastical ways through the music, which is something that I kind of do in reverse or inverse in my own stuff. There’s this kind of sense of that music and noise and silence, or all these things are metaphors and that you can create a picture of something even though there’s nothing specifically to say or to depict.
I’m a pretty calm person. I don’t naturally necessarily go to that level in my own life, but I love embodying it, imagining it, or tinkering with the mechanics of what that might sound like in my own music and in the score. So that’s totally natural for me to jump in there. But I did appreciate the sort of extra steroidal rush of actually betting, because it just makes whatever activity you’re doing instantly insane. It just enhances everything. It’s just purely a drug.
On Bringing In Humans to Hug the Synths
Early on in the process, Josh Safdie and I talked about an orchestral synth score, so I dug up this rejected score for Alien Nation that Jerry Goldsmith had done. Someone else ended up scoring it, but Jerry’s original score’s out there. I had heard it, and it was just like this nice mixture of synth stuff with orchestra. And then of course Vangelis’s stuff, which is sort of a hallucination of an orchestra through the synthesizer. At some point, I’m doing this stuff and it’s working out, but then we’re starting to ask ourselves questions like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if this was all kind of hugged by other instruments. Let’s get some sort of organic contrast going here.” So we started pulling in some people we knew, and some people we didn’t know.
Eli Keszler, who’s a percussionist who I had worked with on a live show, he was drumming in my ensemble for Myriad for Age Of. He came through and added some stuff. And I worked with this saxophone player who also plays flute named Mario Castro. He’s a guy in the city that’s really, really talented that my engineer knew. We had done all of this stuff with Mellotron flutes, and so Mario kind of traced over that and did his own very interesting arrangements, sort of following what I had written on keyboard. He played it on flute and did some harmony stuff. There were contributions from singers and all kinds of stuff that’s happening. That really kind of enriched the whole thing.
I think everyone was really stoked on it once those very human textures were in there, primarily because Howard Ratner is just dripping, he’s just visceral. He’s a human. He’s a real human being. And you feel that in the film. And we wanted that to be somehow a little bit reflected in the score if we could do it.
On the Musicality of New York and the Sales Pitch of the Saxophone
There was this sort of core nucleus to the score that was Howard Ratner; he’s surrounded by all of these people, and he’s either carnival barking, trying to convince people to do things, or selling stuff, which to me sounded very soloistic. When you get a sales pitch, it’s not that different than a saxophone solo.
That busy-ness and density of talk of New York is kind of discursive sound. There’s a poetry to it, to talking, to debate, the sort of joking around and teasing each other, one upping each other and all that stuff. That, to me, is very soloistic, a kind of language of music and a sort of virtuosic language. It was fun to play with that.
This is Howard’s story, but there’s this interplay of the outside world—and it’s a busy world, a dense world. There are many, many voices and many, many superficial desires, a lot of things going on. It’s a busy, energetic world filled with people. And then there’s this sort of interior world, which is hinted at and is described kind of very beautifully at the beginning and the end of the film. And without going into detail, it’s a spiritual communion. It’s a place devoid of people blabbing on and on. And Howard is at the crossing point.
I knew that really anchored me. It had to do both of those things. It needed to have that chaos of the city and the chaos of Howard’s desires, but it had to also kind of fall back and dissipate. And all that fragmented stuff needed to get smoothed over into this other world, the spiritual world that’s teased so beautifully in the film.
I feel it’s a little bit schizophrenic in that way, that Howard’s life is a little bit compartmentalized, the way that Howard is. He has his Long Island thing and his Midtown thing. He’s trying to keep all of these pieces, trying to keep everything going. But, at the end of the day, he’s a fool, he doesn’t know how to do it, and he makes bad decisions. It doesn’t mean that his dreams are wrong or that his desire to succeed or to overcome all of these things is wrong. He’s just who he is.
I remember this moment when we were premiering Gems at Lincoln Center, watching from the side. We were about to go out for a Q and A or something like that. And Ronnie Bronstein, the writer, he could tell I was nervous. He looked at me, and he was like, “Dan, if not now, when?” And he was talking about happiness. [Laughs] He was talking about happiness and it changed my life.
Honestly, I’ve been trying to think about things that way since, because you really do have to stop being so hard on yourself about every little thing. I’m just the kind of person where even the good life stresses me out to no end. It’s like it’s not good to me. It’s like, “Oh well, good and no one else gets to have it? What does that mean?” And all this shit. But I’m trying to enjoy it.
Ronnie hit it out of the park.