Last month I talked to Uniform’s Michael Berdan about how the universe of horror film has aided him in sculpting his music into the often-terrifying industrial noise it’s become, noting the aesthetic similarities between his most recent collaborative album with The Body and Wes Craven’s fearful visions of The Serpent and the Rainbow. For Berdan, it seems that music is a way to recreate the worlds he sees on-screen, appropriating the themes and images that stick with him into a new medium that allows him to express his own anxieties.
For LA’s Surf Curse, movies take on a slightly different role in songwriting. When I speak to the duo of Jacob Rubeck and Nick Rattigan the day after my conversation with Berdan, they share the former artist’s eagerness to talk about every movie we can possibly think of, but differ in opinion on how film works its way into the songwriting formula: Where Uniform’s songs with titles borrowed from films share a quickly discernible element of horror, each of Surf Curse’s tracks named after a Cronenberg or Lynch movie are instead simple pop hooks with personal and often romantic lyrics attached to them.
The group’s new album Heaven Surrounds You is the first they’ve written since relocating from their native Reno, Nevada to Los Angeles, and each of the record’s twelve hushed, garage-spawned tracks is steered by a melding of their adaptation to their new environment and the movies that they’ve screened during this transitory period. Although it still sounds like the West Coast garage rock longingly written two hundred miles from the Pacific and illuminated by the neons of downtown Reno, Heaven is both their most romantic record to date and their uneasiest, capturing the sounds of Rubeck and Rattigan falling in love with—and recoiling from—the surreality of their new home.
Over brunch, the pair immediately launch into stories about the personal associations they have with most of the movies that come up—Jacob tells me from experience that Eraserhead is not the best date movie—and specifically, how they work their way into their music. In addition to getting to the bottom of what they could have possibly liked about Maps to the Stars, the duo share how movies (whether or not they’ve seen them) inform their lives and the songs they write about them.
It’s always surprised me to hear your upbeat music and then see you have song titles like “Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me” and, now, “Dead Ringers.” What’s the connection between these movies and the songs you write?
Jacob: It’s kind of like taking in and embracing the experience of the film, and it somehow connects to our lives, or we just pick something up from it—like the emotional aspect of a scene. I brought the guitar riff for “Disco” to Nick, and he wrote a song inspired by the movie Last Days of Disco, and the music video was a mixture of that movie and Hal Hartley dance scenes.
Nick: I would say that writing a song is a cocktail of influences. I don’t think we make a conscious decision to be like, “Oh, we’re gonna make it sound Twin Peaks-y or something.” It feels very hard to pinpoint watching something and then trying to write a song like that mood. I think we just write the songs we write in the same vein—obviously the lyrics in “Fire Walk with Me” are about Twin Peaks, but I wouldn’t say that song feels like Twin Peaks.
On this album there’s definitely a bit more translation of the tone of movies, but normally it’s hard to pin down. I think that we take the mood or subject matter of a movie and just apply it to our own lives. We just screened Hour of the Wolf, because that’s the title of the new single that we’re putting out, and it’s Bergman’s very surreal, cerebral, spiritual amalgamation of a horror movie. But at the bottom of it, it’s just about this fucked up relationship, just a failed marriage or something. I feel like anyone can apply that to their lives, but just put a horror lense over it. That’s what we try to do with that song: talk about struggling to hold onto a relationship but through kind of sinister imagery.
“Movies are just kind of our folktales, or some sort of storytelling that is used to understand what’s happening in your life. Good art helps make your life better or worse, or make sense in some way.” — Nick Rattigan
Jacob: Not that any of the songs sound sinister themselves.
Nick: Yeah, I feel like that one’s a little darker though, got some dropped D’s [laughs].
Jacob: It’s moody [laughs].
That’s obviously the scariest Bergman movie…
Nick: It’s not even the scariest one, though! I just watched Through a Glass Darkly, and the stuff that happens is so disturbing. It’s about this girl with schizophrenia, just the kind of stuff that makes you sick to your stomach. I feel like that disturbed me more than Hour of the Wolf.
The other one I was gonna mention is “Dead Ringers.” That’s easily, for me, the most uncomfortable David Cronenberg movie—and there’s another Cronenberg movie on the tracklist as well [“Maps to the Stars”]. A lot of the movies you chose for this album specifically are dark…
Nick: Yeah, for sure. I remember telling Jacob to watch Dead Ringers so much, ’cause I was like “You’re gonna fuckin’ love this movie.” Then you watched it, and you were like, “I was really trying not to do this, but I wrote a song about it” [laughs]. I think a lot of pop music in general is very romantic, about relationships and stuff, and I feel that at the heart of that movie is a polyamorous relationship.
Jacob: The song is about kind of being stuck with this spirit that you love—a relationship where you connect on so many things, but it can lead to your demise at the same time. It’s about having too much familiarity—it’s simple and short, but the song speaks to it.
Maps to the Stars is such an ugly movie to me. I’m curious what you guys thought about it, since you wrote a track named after it.
Nick: In regard to this album, I felt like it was a perfect intro or overarching theme because this is the first album where we lived in LA for the entirety of writing it. So it has this sort of LA atmosphere, or we’re just learning about all the gross underbellies. You could say that Maps is a really over-the-top satire of that culture and everything, but I think it gets it right on the nose in a really pulpy, comical way.
The more people you meet here, and the more people’s parents you meet, you kind of go into these sterile homes and weird familial situations and it all starts to make sense in a weird way. I hate talking too much about what songs literally mean, but I think when you move to LA and you live here long enough, you lose parts of yourself—you kind of get sucked into the celebrity of it all, or the artificiality, and I think that movie really speaks to it. Mia Wasikowska coming into this world and being physically damaged by it in some way…Olivia Williams sets herself on fire… And that’s the intro to the album [laughs].
I like that the next song is “Labyrinth.”
Nick: Which is funny because I’ve never seen the movie Labyrinth. There’s no connection to that—that’s not even a movie reference one. I remember when we started doing the whole movie thing, for me it was really just a way to hide. We lived in Reno, which is such a small town with a small scene, and saying a song was about this was just an easy way to hide what it was actually about. I think the cinematic world that movies exist in always appealed to us and gives it a bit more romance or texture or color for writing about something.
I like the idea of a movie being a capsule of your thoughts from the period in which you saw the movie that go beyond analysis. Your emotions are informed by the movie, but they’re not based on the movie—they’re based on your experience.
Jacob: We’re not moved by something in the movie, it’s usually something that’s happened in our own lives. It’s very reflective.
“We’re not moved by something in the movie, it’s usually something that’s happened in our own lives. It’s very reflective.” — Jacob Rubeck
Nick: Movies are just kind of our folktales, or some sort of storytelling that is used to understand what’s happening in your life. Good art helps make your life better or worse, or make sense in some way. It’s so easy to insert yourself into the characters. That’s why I feel like with certain movies you can see it once and absolutely hate it and then see it again and have a context. Like Maps to the Stars, if you’ve really seen that side of celebrity then it makes more sense, but if you haven’t then it seems cartoonish or grandiose, like, “Oh, no one’s like that.” But I feel like the acting in it, the blank face that they all put on, that’s so real.
Is “Trust” a reference to the Hal Hartley movie?
Nick: Yeah, the funny thing about that is that I feel like the whole thing we’ve been talking about is how the movie influences the song, but I literally just started watching Hal Hartley trailers for things and getting inspired by that instead of actually watching the full movie. I feel like with him there’s such a ’90s surrealness…I don’t know, his imagery is just really good jet fuel for songwriting. I’ve never even seen that movie Trust.
Nick: [Laughs.] Yeah, I’ve never seen it, but I’ve watched the trailer. And there’s this YouTube video called, like, “Hal Hartley Tribute,” and it’s just all his movies edited together. I put that on all the time when I’m writing something. That song specifically was one that came together a week before we went to record the album. Jacob had just come up with “Disco,” and I was like, “Man, I’d love another song like this on the album. I’m gonna try to write a song like ‘Disco.’”
That’s another very ’90s indie movie, Last Days of Disco. There’s just these dudes you find out about after you’ve been into film for a while. You’re like, “How have I never heard of Hal Hartley or Whit Stillman?”
Jacob: The thing is that the independent movement was so big in the ’90s, but things just got lost in that era. It’s funny because Hal Hartley has always been independent—if you go to his YouTube channel he’s doing, like, Indiegogo or GoFundMe for his DVDs. It’s so wild that he’s done everything on his own, made money back from theater distribution and just put it back into his films. It’s kind of sad when people get lost like that.
Nick: But there’s still such a charm to it. The simplicity of those movies is not simple. The dialogue is so insane and poetic in a way. There’s a whimsical nature that I feel like always translates to our songs. FL