Cinematic Sounds: Spun Out of Control’s Gavin Stoker

A great number of micro labels have popped up parallel to the soundtrack resurgence. While Death Waltz, One Way Static, and Giallo Disco do a lot of soundtrack reissues and releases, they’ve also begun branching out into original releases. These acts — Videogram, Antoni Maiovvi, Metavari, and Espectrostatic — are all inspired, in one way or another, by synthy horror and thriller scores.

These labels and artists represent the next step for those who have gotten into soundtracks but want something that works more as a musical experience, rather than one tied directly to a film. Rue Morgue magazine’s free compilation from last year, It Came From Rue Morgue, is an excellent starting place for many of the artists.

I spoke with musicians and label heads about the influence of horror and giallo,  how one takes those sounds and turns them into something new, and whether they feel that there’s the possibility of moving beyond those basic ideas. For our seventh and final outing, we spoke with Gavin Stoker, head of cassette label, Spun Out of Control.

Spun Out of Control is a boutique music label publishing & promoting the best in synth-based electronica, actual & imagined soundtracks from talented new composers.

What was your initial attraction to movie scores?

The attraction is not always the fact that they’re movie scores; it’s more, of course, that they’re just great collections of music in their own right. Funnily enough, although I’ve been something of a movie buff and music fan for many years, I didn’t really put the two together and start collecting film scores or soundtracks in earnest until early releases from the likes of Death Waltz (Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13) fired my enthusiasm and led me to want to seek out more from whence they came. This led to me going on eBay and Discogs and tracking down original vinyl releases for films I was a long-term fan of: Joseph De Luca’s scores for the originalEvil Dead and Evil Dead 2, for example.

Broadly speaking, I’m more a fan of gritty synth scores than overblown orchestral ones, so that points my ears in the direction of mostly horror and sci-fi genre stuff, anyway. There are exceptions, naturally, such as loving the score to Betty Blue with its repeated piano motif, which is just a great listen away from the (equally superb) visuals. I also had to have the score to Withnail and I, just because I, like pretty much everyone who likes dark, dry English comedy, love that film. The first soundtrack I ever bought was Prince’s Purple Rain. It was about the great songs first, and the fact that was related to a movie was a secondary concern, really.

How have you branched out from there?

My day job is working as a freelance writer, mainly from home. Which means I can choose what music I listen to. I’ve gradually discovered that having instrumental music on while I work both avoids the distraction of certain lyrics catching my ear whilst I otherwise should be concentrating on the job in hand and actually motivates me to get the job done. For example, a pulsing, beat-driven synth score seems to help push me closer to deadline than a meandering, neo-classical score, that, by contrast, has me too relaxed. There is a time and a place for each of course.

At one time you’d have to have friends in the know, or a well-stocked local record store to help hone your tastes and enable your habit. Now that pretty much everything is available at the click of a mouse, or tap of a tablet, it’s both a blessing and a curse. Those formerly obscure, hard to find scores are available if you’re prepared to stump up whatever eBay or Discogs sellers are asking. The Internet is also a great place to be able to discover new scores as well, and being able to sample a couple of tracks or stream before you buy is a really great facility that never really existed before. It also means the film companies and labels can direct market to you of course, and hook you in before you know it.

As a writer, I am curious by nature, so over time I became more interested in the creative process behind the scores I love and wanted to find out more about how they came to be (J Blake Fichera’s interview–based book, Scored To Death, which explores this very subject, is a hearty recommendation). Rather than just passively consume all this stuff, though, over time I wanted to become involved in the creative side as well, which ultimately led to me starting Spun Out Of Control as a label in 2016, with the aim of helping promote fledgling film score composers and emerging electronic musicians (more often than not, one and the same).

Are there particular artists which bridged the gap between film scores and more traditional electronic music — Vangelis or Tangerine Dream, for instance?

Definitely. Vangelis and Tangerine Dream are two titans of the genre who, as well as world famous scores, have also released non-film score related work that nevertheless could be the music to a film — whilst also innovating as regards the electronic sounds they create(d). A lot of the acts we’ve released on cassette and digitally for Spun Out Of Control are the same. Some have been the actual scores to low-budget genre movies or short films, but equally some are imagined scores, or “score like” in their execution and delivery.

But all, like Vangelis and Tangerine Dream themselves, are excellent standalone listens even when divorced of any visuals. And that’s pretty important, otherwise you’re just buying the music to look cool, rather than to listen to, and why would you do that? Through doing the label I’ve been able to discover musicians making electronic music primarily for their own personal fulfilment, who nevertheless could very capably be scoring movies. There are also other modern electronic acts on more established labels who I also think could or should be doing film scores; Blanck Mass and Hannah Peel are two current favourites who spring to mind.

Also, many folks in the soundtrack scene seem to come from a punk or metal background, given how intertwined those worlds are with horror. Was that the case?

It’s funny (or, rather, sociologically interesting) that there does seem to be that connection, a bunch of (I guess, mainly) guys who were involved with rock bands now getting into gritty synth-based scores. I’ve always been into guitar based music first and foremost, myself; mainly indie and punk bands rather than metal. I think a lot of people who are more tuned into, shall we say, the darker side of life, are going to naturally gravitate towards more aggressive styles of music and horror movies as a release and a celebration of who they are and how they view the world, as much as anything else.

How does one take those influences from horror and genre films, and move beyond them? Is there a point at which they need to be set aside?

I think that once a piece of music is recorded and released as a standalone entity, it’s already set aside from whatever it was that inspired it, or [what] it was commissioned for. It becomes its own thing and can be taken up, and championed, independently. Also, it’s worth mentioning that you can love a score from a dreadful movie, but it’s harder to love a movie with a dreadful (or unsuitable) score.

Also, I’m not sure there comes a point at which any composer or musician necessarily needs to set their influences aside, or if, in some cases, they’d be able to do so, even if they tried. They all contribute to the mindset of that composer and filter into the work they produce, even if unintentionally, and that’s partly what I find fascinating… tracing the influences. Also, we’ve released music by guys on Spun Out Of Control who are influenced by a whole bunch of celebrated composers working on horror and genre scores, but are skilful enough to cherry pick and take the “best bits” to fashion them into something that is wholly their own. Nevertheless it also has that air of familiarity about it; a chord progression here, a bass line there, that acts as a subtle nod and makes their own music instantly appealing.

What’s your opinion on “imaginary soundtracks” — scores for films which don’t exist?

I think it’s an inspiration for the creative process that’s existed long-term, to be honest. Many artists in the 1970s and ’80s were making concept albums that sounded very score-like, filmic or theatrical in some way. It may appear that more musicians are presently composing “film-like” sounds or wearing their movie influences on their sleeve, especially in the electronic genre, but that’s partly because such musicians (both amateur and pro) have wider public exposure than ever before, via the social media that we as fans follow, as well as Bandcamp and SoundCloud (and MySpace before that).

Also, you’ve only got to hold down a certain key on a certain synth for it to instantly sound Vangelis-like, or play a sequence of notes that sounds like John Carpenter’s Halloween… and therefore a bit like a film score. Alternatively, add a propulsive beat behind it, throw in some Jan Hammer-type chords, and you’ve got synthwave, which I do find can quickly get very same-y.

Imaginary soundtracks, however, can be endlessly inventive, or just as inventive as actual scores. I feel (and hope others would agree) that certainly goes for most of those that Spun Out Of Control has put out. There’s still musicianship and compositional skill involved to get it sounding good, whether your stated ‘score’ is real or imaginary. Also it’s something of a communication short cut. By saying “imaginary score,” people are instantly forming an impression in their head as to the kind of music you’re making.

Who was the artist that made you want to start releasing original music, as opposed to soundtracks?

One dovetailed neatly into the other. I’d bought a copy of Repeated Viewing’s synth score for Italian Giallo-inspired film The Three Sisters on CD, and wanted to investigate what else this apparent musical genius — who I’d never previously heard of — had done, purely as a fan, initially. That led me to his Bandcamp page, where I discovered a host of other score-type projects, most of which had seemingly been recorded for his own enjoyment. I guess you could call them imaginary, or inspired by, but at the same time they were most definitely original, standalone listens. I was slightly incredulous that most of the music was still unused/unreleased when it was as good as my ears were telling me, and got in touch with Alan (Repeated Viewing) to check that was indeed the case.

At around the same time, I also discovered Irish composer Steve Nolan and the US-based Bryce Miller on Bandcamp, and wondered why they also weren’t already world famous, so standout was their music compared to what else I was hearing released by more celebrated artists and bigger labels. It suddenly struck me that if the three of them were up for partnering with me in trying to share their work with a larger audience, and basically let me tell everyone how good they are, then I might have the beginnings of a label releasing not just scores, but also original music that felt like it came from a similar place.

How does marketing or publicizing original music differ from that of soundtracks?

I guess with original music, if the composer or musician is largely unknown, or just starting out, you don’t have the marketing advantage of it already being tied to a film that may have some public notoriety (and existing fan base) of its own. Obviously, people will get excited about a re-mastered score to Alien, purely because it’s linked to such an iconic film, and it’s a pretty safe bet it will sell. One of the reasons I picked up the Zombie Flesh Eaters score originally from Death Waltz, which kind of started everything for me, is because I, like many, thought “who would be crazy enough to release this score on vinyl? Whoever it is, I want to support their efforts.”

People sometimes pose the question on forums for people who are into movies and music, such as my personal favourite, Spin The Blackest Circles: “Can you love a score if you don’t love, or haven’t even seen the movie in question?” My thinking is always of course you can, because, if you’re buying the score or soundtrack on its own, you’re obviously buying it to listen to as a standalone piece of music. I know vinyl and cassettes are cool as products in themselves, to put in frames or sit on the mantelpiece if you don’t own a player, but you can otherwise show your allegiance to the movie by buying the T-shirt, poster or special edition blu-ray.

If the music you’re releasing or promoting is filmic or score-like, there is a slight advantage, in that it may attract the curiosity and patronage of existing soundtrack fans, who tend to be collectors and pretty passionate about their interests. That is great to see and hear as well, as Spun Out Of Control comes from a personal passion, first and foremost.

Spun Out of Control’s latest releases include Stefan Bachmeier’s The Infernal Machine and the label’s first two vinyl releases: Steve Nolan’s Sodium Party and Correlations’ Aftermath. They can all be had via Bandcamp.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek
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