Glen Johnson of Piano Magic recollects how the soundtrack came to be.
“In 2001, the stars suddenly, albeit temporarily, aligned for Piano Magic. That year, we signed to what had, historically, been our all-time favourite record label, 4AD and almost immediately on the back of this, inked a fairly generous publishing deal with Rykomusic. But the real icing on our cake came when, one afternoon, during my day job as label manager for Rough Trade Records, I took a call from Bigas Luna asking if we’d be interested in soundtracking the new film he was working on, ‘Son De Mar.’
In 2001, there were really only two Spanish film directors known to British audiences, Pedro Almodovar and Bigas Luna. Luna’s dusty, highly erotic, sweaty, carnivorous 1992 film, Jamón Jamón, (literally ‘Ham Ham’) had been a sizeable art house success here (incidentally, the film debut of Penélope Cruz and only the third of her now-husband, Javier Bardem) – enough to sustain his reputation into the next decade. And although Piano Magic had already toured Spain once or twice by this time, much down to the unfathomable critical success of our ‘Artists’ Rifles’ album over there, an association with someone like Luna was just what we needed to break through “the indie glass ceiling.”
Bigas Luna invited us, all expenses paid, to his home city of Barcelona, where we were wined and dined in expensive restaurants and slept in a 5 star hotel just off La Rambla with a huge gushing fountain in the foyer. Even so, my prevailing memory of our time with this softly-spoken, little grey bear of man, was the twinkle in his eyes as he told us how he’d heard our music over the speakers in his local record store and knew this was the music he wanted for his new film.
Those handful of days in Barcelona are gently chalked on my memory. After a wonderful meal in one of Barcelona’s top restaurants, Bigas invited us back to his home just around the corner, where we were greeted by two beautiful, though exceptionally horny fox terriers. There, as we listened to our own ‘A Trick Of The Sea,’ (his favourite record of ours), we shared a saucer of raw garlic cloves dipped in olive oil. “My doctor told me to make sure you do two things every day : eat garlic and walk until you sweat.” Later, we drove down to the beach (with the intention of walking and sweating) but on parking the car, coincidentally, encountered a large film crew shooting a movie on the terrace of a glamourless coastal cafe. As we approached, on recognising Luna, shooting was immediately called to a halt and the whole crew stopped to applaud and cheer him as he passed by. Ever humble, he smiled and gently waved them to stop.
Back in London, we told 4AD of our new plans – to write and record the film’s soundtrack in less than a month, thus postponing the recording of a new album, proper. Thankfully, Chris and Ed were supportive and offered to release the soundtrack as soon as the film was distributed. An additional advance was procured with which we bought much needed new computers and recording software. Even so, we decided to record the soundtrack properly at Woodbine St, John Rivers’ home studio in Leamington Spa. John had produced, amongst others, two of our favourite groups, Felt and Dead Can Dance and thanks in part to his expertise and our driven determination to please not only Bigas but also 4AD, the whole soundtrack was recorded within 5 days.
Bigas would courier VHS tapes of film rushes to us, which we’d play on John’s black and white portable tv set in the studio, improvising over sex scenes, long shots of lapping waves, Leonor Watling hanging her knickers out to dry in a courtyard. But the arid landscape and unbridled lust of the film was a far cry from our naive fumblings beneath studio spotlights, sustained by depressing supermarket sandwiches and greasy tea. Crackling under the pressure to deliver something that wouldn’t embarrass us when finally rendered to a cinema screen, we argued incessantly, though were buoyed and cheered by new boy, James Topham, who not only tolerated our hissy fits but held the whole soundtrack together with a pensive, romantic sweep of his bow.
I can’t speak for the film. We watched it hundreds of times, broken into pieces, a jigsaw emptied straight of the box. Only at the premiere, did we see it all stitched together and even then, were too in love (all of us!) with Leonor Watling, sitting on a few seats away, in the flesh, to truly appreciate it. We played two shows, ostensibly press junkets – a small, members club in Madrid where no-one listened to us at all and at the much larger Razzmatazz club in Barcelona where the audience seemed to view us with a mixture of curiosity and pity. Even so, for the next few years, much helped by the association with Bigas and his film (though sadly, not acclaimed), we could tour Spain whenever we wanted, to good audiences.
What can I say about the music itself? Well, composing music to someone else’s vision, is much like trying to tailor a suit for an ever-wriggling shape. Even when we thought we’d pinned down a scene, word would come back from Bigas, often on fax but sometimes on the phone, that he’d imagined something differently. And so, we’d begin again, marking out the cloth, pinning where we’d imagine the arms and the legs to be. Playing it back now, to me, much of the soundtrack sounds like only air and water onto which we’ve woven viola, the odd e-bow, clocks, drones, synthetic harps, fog warnings. Part 6 is little more than Angèle’s angelic voice fed through my Korg Electribe sampler, augmented by its hypnotic pulses and chimes.
Does the music work without the film? I think it suggests other films. Dreams perhaps. Dreams of deep oceans and time floating away.
Sadly, our tenure on 4AD was short-lived. Our only other album for the label, ‘Writers Without Homes,’ split not only fans but nearly us. Rykomusic was swallowed up by a bigger fish and then by an even been bigger one, BMG (our early work still rots within the belly of this stinking whale).
Bigas Luna made only two more films before sadly, dying of leukaemia in 2013. I often think of and envy his gentle joie de vivre. And I cherish a small, hand-stitched portrait he presented me with one day, a thin stalk of bamboo for the hair. “It’s you,” he told me, his eyes twinkling mischievously. He was an instantly loveable, generous man, a soft soul.”
– Glen Johnson, Piano Magic, May 2016
From a promotional press book for ‘Son De Mar’ (2001) :
Piano Magic, of the sea
It has been said that Piano Magic are a kind of secret society – their albums are released without any fuss on obscure European indie labels, they hardly give concerts in the UK and they change their line-up so often that, like spies, they have no problems going unnoticed checking through airports. Since forming in 1996, Piano Magic have recorded for more than fifteen different labels and have released many different kinds of work, three albums among them. Around thirty members have passed through the band’s ever-revolving doors, amongst them members of Low, Tarwater, Hefner, The Bitter Springs and The Wisdom Of Harry. They are currently recording on the 4AD record label.
Piano Magic’s music and Bigas Luna click together thanks to Kilian Sala and David Cauquil of the CD, Drome music store in Barcelona and to the magic of Shepherds Are Needed from Piano Magic’s Low Birth Weight, 1998 was playing. Bigas Luna took an interest in the band from that moment; there and then he bought as much of their material as he could. This took place while he was putting the finishing touches to his latest film, Son De Mar.
When Lola Films called him, interested in using the group’s music for the new Bigas Luna film, the effect on Glen Johnson was to drink fifteen cups of Portuguese coffee. He had seen Jamon Jamon more than twenty times and it was one of his favourite films. “There’s a crude, suffocating sexuality about it which you don’t find in film productions in England. Those dreams, these intimate sensations which Bigas Luna makes so real, like the one where an egg is fried on an actor’s stomach. The first time that Bigas Luna called me personally, I reacted as you do when you find yourself face to face with a genius : I said ‘yes’ to everything. We set to work, to write and record the soundtrack for a film by following the director’s instructions, which meant using the precise timings and some very concrete aesthetic ideas. It wasn’t easy. The group almost broke up. It took a lot of arguing, entire weeks or total absence of creativity…the things that helped us to carry on together were our total belief in the film, the way that Bigas Luna made us feel like his adoptive children and the hope that we’d get to meet Leonor Watling….we think we’ve been very lucky.”
The soundtrack to Son de Mar was recorded over five days in the Woodbine Street Studios in Leamington Spa with the collaboration of John Rivers (producer of Felt, Dead Can Dance and others).
The following permanent members of Piano Magic participated on the soundtrack for Son De Mar : Glen Johnson, Miguel Marin, Jerome Tcherneyan and James Topham on the viola.