Absinthe & Cigarettes with Keefus Ciancia

AH:  I’m corresponding today with composer-songwriter Keefus Ciancia, who is a man of many talents and who has, I am guessing, a very interesting interior life. I’m truly excited about this conversation, because not only have I loved his work on TRUE DETECTIVE and KILLING EVE, the crazy Anglo-French Hermetic horror movie, AS ABOVE, SO BELOW, and his equally crazy but lovable Jeff Bridges project, THE SLEEPING TAPES, but, Keefus, like his partners-in-crime T Bone Burnett and David Holmes, is also a curator, in his case, of pop music that was ‘alternative’ before there was any such category. He’s like the Alan Lomax of late 50s/early 60s Cold War pop. This is the same vein that artists like David Lynch and, to some degree, Lana Del Rey, tap into, and it’s a rich one. To get it right, you have to get it just right, down to the tubes in the compressor and the flat-wound strings on the Fender Jaguar, not to mention the lead voice, which always seems to be that of a woman a too wise for this world and looking for ways to kill the pain, even if it kills her. That would be Keefus’s muse (and mother of his child), Jade Vincent. When you have collaborators like these, you can pull it off. 

Just to get the biographical stuff out of the way so that we can get to the music, Keefus is first and foremost a musician, and he was keyboardist for Everlast and co-wrote the theme song for SAVING GRACE. He goes back a ways with T Bone, as well, and in fact he did the arrangement for one of my all-time favorite movie musical moments, “Troubles Of This World” for the Coen Brothers’ THE LADYKILLERS. But the spiritual genesis of a lot of the stuff that has put him on the map with KILLING EVE and defines the sound of both of the UNLOVED albums he’s done with Jade and David, seems to be a music salon called The Rotary Room at the Virgil in Los Feliz, where spinning records led to this Grail Quest for a retro modern sound that most people can only hear on mescaline. 

Is that even close to right, Keefus? 

KC: Pretty much, Andy. Here’s the embryonic portion if you want. First a young classical pianist hack, then a teenager in basement bands, then a full high school band geek.  College student Jazz School, College Student 1st year drop-out to sign a record deal and hit the road.  Hip Hop session player on the West Coast scene in the 90’s, met Jade and started a ten piece experimental band, then pick up from where you start!

AH: As I was listening through the terabyte of tracks your manager, so generously sent me, I started jotting down the names of artists and songs and films that floated into my imagination by association. Some of them I hadn’t thought of for a long, long time. If you’re game, I thought it might be fun to do kind of a Rorschach test—I give you a name, you tell me the first thing that comes to mind, or even just a spontaneous reaction. 

 Link Wray

     He Bad


    Let’s go.

 Jack Nitzsche

    Technicolor Symphony

 Night Of The Hunter


 I Want Candy

    Mom, Summer.

 Henry Mancini

    Elegant genius

 Touch Of Evil

    Opening sequence

 Skeeter Davis

     Love and tears

 Julie London

    Butter & Syrup

 Salut les copains


 Francoise Hardy

    Comfort and Sunflowers 



 Cilla Black

    Blast Off

 Brigitte Fontaine

    Punk rock Circus train.

 Incense and Peppermints

    Dream Circus train.

 Baby I Need Your Lovin’ 

    Backseat of my parents Tornado 

 Serge Gainsborough


 Greg Garing

    Gut wrenching

Mercury Rev

    Rainbows of Buffalo

Julee Cruise

    Steaming Lake

Bill Laswell

   Collage-sonical- Pioneer?

 How are we doing?

KC:  Great Andy, my brain is tingling. That was hard..

AH: I’m damned impressed. You know your neighborhood. You weren’t alive when most of that stuff was happening. I want to start by asking about your work with T Bone Burnett, since it’s through that work that many people have come to yours. I know the two of you go back at least to 2004, since that when LADYKILLERS came out, but does it predate that? What’s the origin story? 

KC: I was on tour in Germany 1998, I called Jade to check in. She said a producer named T Bone Burnett called, that Sam Phillips and he had heard our radio performance on KCRW (The Jade Vincent Experiment) and wanted to meet. He really heard something, and I’m still so amazed and grateful the music made a connection with him. He started throwing me in the hot seat on the records he was producing. I wasn’t the right keyboardist for these records, but later realized that’s why he wanted me. I was definitely out of my comfort zone, and T Bone would not necessarily give me any specific direction, just let it happen, so it could break, or explode in that moment. It was such a fresh approach to making records, a huge period of growth for me. 

AH: You’ve been through three seasons of TRUE DETECTIVE with T Bone, and without violating any confidences, I wonder if you can tell us a bit about the way you evolve ideas together. I’m asking for two reasons. One is that I teach and coach film composers for a living—if you can call it a living—and I know that the line between sideman or orchestrator and co-writer is often a fuzzy one. I see that as a positive thing. Something that will make the music feel more like the product of musicians working together. Secondly, as I was watching the third season, I began to become aware of a kind of undercurrent in the score, something deeply affecting but almost subliminal, and it felt like a new voice to me. That was when I first looked up your credit and discovered who you were. 

KC: Well, first off, scoring Nic Pizzolatto’s stories is a composing, collaborator’s dream. When T Bone asked me to join in, I was sent the first season to watch in one day before flying to New York to dive straight in. It was sent with no score, no temp. It was the first and maybe greatest binge of my life. It was so strong, played near perfect with no score. I knew the score’s role would be to enhance. It immediately started to find it’s own tone, and subtle themes. T Bone knew what I’d been holding in my sound vault. I had been building my sound library for nearly a decade, thousands of lo-fi, mid fi non musical grains, tones, off-rhythm pulses, and so on. A ton of these seemed to be “meant to be” for Season One, never used until this moment.  Once Director Cary Fukenaga and T Bone latched and loved what was coming out, we started to move fast, almost like we were being led. T Bone and Cary also pushed for me to use my Minimoog heavily, layering, and non-musically. It was making a new sound, made only for True Detective. T Bone wrote the main theme very early, and his concept was to slowly leak the theme, wait, and wait, to tease and subliminalise all the way till we’re deep in Carcosa Episode 8, then we unleash the full theme in all it’s booming glory and full orchestration. I was working remotely and with T Bone in Los Angeles. I definitely was possessed/obsessed and channeling, always eager to get back into Hart and Cohle’s world. We also had the amazing Patrick Warren (composer/musician) coming at it from his huge, rich orchestral writing and sound, as well as hi-fi dirty drones, which all counter-acted with my tones in a beautiful way. Darrel Leonard, the wonderful orchestrator and horn master, gave us non-conventional performances on his various wind instruments, as drones, tones, and thematic elements. And most important Jason Wormer at the master mixing controls, there to bring all this cross texturing to life.

Season 2- had to be a completely new score, since the show took place in greater Los Angles. A more industrial setting, still with disturbed, mangled lo-fi undertones throughout. For this one we set up at Ocean Way and recorded with each of our own setups for about a week, not to picture, but of looping images from the season. Night shots, overhead images etc. We had Jay Bellerose playing, making incredible industrial-esque tones, beats, and pulses. All the incredible tailor-made sonics captured by Jason Wormer and Michael Piersante. Now we could make our own personal Season 2 libraries and began to throw it to picture. Completely different approach, and again Nic’s new detective story made for a great field to bob-n-weave throughout. New themes kept expanding as the plot twist n’ turned.

Season 3- Nic has us now back in the South and bouncing between 3 decades of time on a single case. This time there were more themes needed per character. Multi-layered themes for Wayne, and his interactions with the others. New tones for settings and timelines. Wayne’s character had so much going on in his head, inner dialogue and disorientation, the tones and themes had to follow. The town was like many smaller towns and had its own emotional baggage and self-destruction. There was definitely a new voice coming out of this series. T Bone was pushing me, and encouraging the new sound. I was deep in a bubble here in France for this story, sending back and forth with T Bone. A bit more thought on how these themes would all lead to each other by episode eight. It was a puzzle, just like the series. Maybe more complex than any of the other series score-wise. Also so great to combine the broken sounds with rich orchestra and broken orchestra. We hope to release these and the other seasons one day.

AH: I came across a great piece on the web where T Bone talks about being inspired for the first season TD score by Walter Schumann’s work on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, a movie scripted by the great James Agee. Once again, as with the Unloved records, we’re talking about something new being created by looking back fondly, almost reverently, at something that doesn’t exist anymore. Were you around to share in that inspiration? 

KC: I was. The film’s lost children and TD’s lost children had a connection. When we started, T Bone and I spoke about that score as a feeling or space to remember. Schumann’s score was so strong, themes, orchestrations and tone masterful!

 AH: You, Jay Bellerose and T Bone have just released a beauty of a record called THE INVISIBLE LIGHT. (This is one of the reasons I put Bill Laswell on your Rorschach Test!) There are no conventional roots rock instruments, just drums, percussion, electronics and various found or created sounds. I suppose NARAS will categorize it as a spoken word album, but I’m not sure it’s categorizable. Why don’t you tell me what you three guys were after?

KC: T Bone had been and has been writing lyrics/poetry/tales for a long time. He’s always been deeply in touch with the state of humanity, the state of technology and the guarding of the arts.  He wanted to use his lyrics as the sheet music. In the beginning he sent me the lyric for “A Man Without A Country”. Asked if I wanted to make a “backdrop” for it. I love creating this way. It’s another version of using that childhood imagination. Maybe you read a story or make one up, imagine your own set, characters, then imagine/create the score. Scoring without “picture” is very freeing, no doubt.  This is what T Bone wanted to do as a band with Jay and myself. We needed Mike Piersante at the console to make these “sonic landscapes” possible.  We recorded most at T Bone’s studio. He had a stack of lyrics he’d come into the studio with, then put one in front of us. He’d read it and we’d discuss for a bit. Then begin the backdrop, the three of us playing live together. It was voodoo. At the time there had been and was a lot boiling in the world all around us, so it was also medicinal. I kept feeling like I was reading these stories from the future, kept in a broken time capsule. T Bone’s chants and words fueled us like Fela, Marley. It would conjure the music you hear. There was no rule, or restriction. Really freeing to take time, have time in one piece.

AH: KILLING EVE has obviously been a breakthrough for you as a ‘film composer,’ as well as for Unloved, the band formed by David, Jade and yourself that contributes so many of the series’ most iconic tracks. You probably won’t stop working till you’re ninety. The people who are reading this blog are mostly aspiring and very hard-working film composers who dream of a similar breakthrough. A project that will let them be them. How did it come about? Was the key creative connection with Phoebe Waller-Bridge? Or maybe someone at Endeavor? 

KC: I think it’s important to know that compositions/songs have a long life and may one day find a perfect home. It’s important not to be discouraged if some things are not used, heard or acknowledged immediately. KILLING EVE was one of those occasions for us. A good chunk of the material used was created 5 to 10 years ago. Some unreleased or just sitting on our hard drives till now. 

David was asked by Sid Gentle/Endeavor and Phoebe if he’d be interested in scoring the series. He sent me the scripts to see if I’d be interested in working  with him on it.  He was a big Phoebe fan and I was new to her and Fleabag. I was totally blown away by her approach, really unique and totally edgy. The first creative meeting with everyone, Phoebe and the team said they were hoping that any or most all source music would have a female vocalist. David started playing them some new Unloved tracks we had just been working on. It sparked excitement pretty fast, so we gave them about 40 Unloved tracks to play with in the edit. Next month we were sent the first 3 episodes, which were temped with quite a lot of Unloved music. It was exciting to see their choices and inspiring to feel the enthusiasm from our new collaborators. Now it was time to go in deeper with the multi-tracks and make the songs fit, create the original score, and remix our songs, multi-tracks as score. Scorce right? The ability to strip back or add to the songs is what started making things blossom. Jade’s lyric somehow falling in perfectly, or her non-lyrical vocalizing to back these female assassins was the glue to this process.

AH: Everything about the music used in KILLING EVE has an attitude. It’s totally consistent. From the old Francoise Hardy tracks to the neo-Jack Nitzsche, Shangra-Las tracks like “When A Woman Is Around” to the underscore cues like ‘Bletchem’ and ‘Tune Station.’ Even Satie is in there. Whose attitude is that? It seems to be Villanelle’s more than Eve’s, but it also colors most of the Unloved songs. It’s expressed most eloquently by your wife’s voice, but it’s baked holistically into everything you do. Are you comfortable saying that it’s, well…just your voice?

KC: HA! I think it’s when the three of us work for sure. We all share the same love for “taking a ride” when listening to music.  Attitude, instrumentation, emotion,  the story, unexpected turns, barren, extreme, playful, aggressive etc…. I really love to have these options to play with.

AH: Let’s segue to the new Unloved record, “Heartbreak,” because in your case—as with many of the most compelling composers working in ‘media’ these days—the distinction between your score work and your album work seems almost meaningless. Like Daniel Hart, and Colin Stetson, and T Bone, for that matter, you’re all over the map. The sound of “Heartbreak” is explosive, and the production feels more confident than on “Guilty Of Love,” as good as that one is. The sonic impact of a track like ‘Love’ is something you guys must have labored over. It’s almost like 21st century mono. Do you mind being a little geeky and telling us about some of the tools you used? And any musicians you brought in, Wrecking Crew-style?

KC: We made the blueprints in two different sessions, both in Belfast at David’s studio, each about a week and maybe 6 months between. David has an amazing collection of instruments, analog synths, organs, electro gadgets and so on. We would do a lot of listening the first couple days, sharing music and letting things soak in, remind us how many things can be done musically. I’m a fan of building a fresh sound chest before starting any project. For me it’s variety of synthesizers, samplers, making a new set of samples, odd electro gadgets, basically new, fun options. 

We’d just go for it, and not get hung up on one thing for too long, just throw everything at it and move on. It’s a great way to work and great to come back and listen at different times when your feeling and hearing things differently. 

Next is building the frames and giving Jade time to experiment and write. Not filling the space up too much so she could have room to stretch further or have us change things. 

After the first batch blueprints, we went to London to work with Emre Ramadanoglu, an amazing producer, engineer, drummer and programmer at HOXA studios. We just went for it with drums, bass by the phenomenal Sam Dixon, horns by Idris Rahman and more vocal and keyboard overdubs. One thing added makes the next door open and so on.

You're right, some definitely took longer than others.  Some are just like that and sometimes you end up trying everything before going back to the beginning. Jade and I were working on it in our travels throughout Europe and David back in Belfast. It was great to have the time and space so when we met next we were listening fresh. After the second batch I went to LA to record Jay Bellerose on as many as possible. Jay and Emre’s drumming worked so great together and was making that sound we love. It was a more scattered Wrecking Crew this time!

AH: Jade Vincent is a character in each of those songs, in the same way Debbie Harry was in Blondie. What happens to a song when she steps up to the microphone?

KC: Jade’s ability to change character and have no fear of style or odd arrangements makes all the Unloved music possible. It means we can play with almost any genre. Once she steps onto microphone the song becomes song. Also the intuition to leave space for instrumental sections. We also made the music around some of her a capella writings like the song Lee, which she wrote and sang most of the orchestration arrangements for me to recreate. 

AH: I picked out a handful of favorites from the Whitman’s Sampler that Larry sent me, and I’m hoping you can give us the short story behind each of them. 

AH: ‘Cult Feminine’ from AS ABOVE, SO BELOW

KC: The Brothers Dowdle were really encouraging, brave and  great conceptually for the score. I was working in a temporary studio in LA that was so dark and dirty, almost catacombs-esque. The score had to be only sounds that could be coming from the catacombs. In the distance, or right in your face. It was so meticulously arranged and orchestrated, but so subliminal and as sound design/score. This piece would weave in and out throughout and was first heard when the team first sees the cult/ghost women in the room chanting and possessed.

AH:  ‘Jerry Shoots Himself’ from THE MOTEL LIFE

 KC: The first film I scored with David. It was a raw and rural setting, based on the Flannigan Brothers true accounts. I really love this piece, it was our main theme and went through a lot of tone and emotion. Jason Falkner’s guitar playing is so beautiful, as well as the incredible Martin Tillman on electric cellos weaving in and out. It was made to follow some of the animated stories as well as push like the wind, or the Flannigan brothers in motion on the road.

 AH: ‘Alone’ from STRANGERLAND. 

 KC: This was the last piece I wrote to button up Kim Farrant’s beautiful film. Written in 5 minutes. I won’t give the ending away but there’s an incredible aerial shot of the land where it takes place (Australia). I stayed in the outskirts of Sydney and in the bush to score this film. It was an emotional time and couldn’t have been more appropriate to be there for this score. I also was in before the locked picture with zero temp, building as Kim built.  My favorite way to collaborate.  


 KC: Jackie Earle Haley was absolutely brilliant, so fun to work with. I loved the tone set and the genre crossing possibilities throughout. The Main Titles was one of the more difficult to get, partially because we barely knew each other in the beginning and had to work fast. There’s always a getting comfortable side to new collaborations. Me holding off to send my first ideas, worried that no one would like them. The breaking the ice of first ideas is always hard for me, maybe the hardest part. Luckily I had my engineer Jeremy Carberry with me late that night while I was still trying things for the nearly second week in a row. I stopped playing all these keyboards/synths around me and went to old faithful piano. Jeremy heard me playing the bulk of it and encouraged me to finish.  That’s what came out.

 AH: There’s a second project with Jeff Bridges, in addition to THE SLEEPING TAPES, called LIVING IN FUTURE’S PAST, that I wasn’t aware of and sounds really intriguing. Came out last year, right? 

KC: That’s right. Jeff’s great friend/director Susan Kucera worked so hard on this film. A new way of thinking of how our earth is changing rapidly, not in a doomsday-downer way, more in changing our own personal perspectives on how we each live individually. Not easy to make in a documentary. Susan is amazing. I got to see it grow on and off for about 3 years. It still affects my daily thoughts in a very positive way.

 AH: Two final questions. First, now that you’re in the game as a film composer and more able to be discriminating about projects, do you have any desire to do a fully orchestral score? Not necessarily a traditional score. Even something like John Luther Adams?

 KC: Most definitely. I’ve got a lot ready to come out of me with some secret ideas for orchestra. I’m actually chomping at the bit to get moving with my imagined orchestral ensemble. I’m planning on making some for personal listening hopefully this year. John is just incredible. Just blows me away. Toru Takemitsu as well.

 AH: Lastly, some advice for the youngins’. You and your family live in France. Would you advise more American composers to dodge L.A. and do the expatriate thing? Has the pond in L.A. and London just gotten too crowded?

KC: I love both cities, they’re full of life and work if you’re persistent and patient. I think about how lucky I was to be in Los Angeles for 25 years. My high school big band teacher is to thank, Dr. John Kuzmich. He had sent a piece I composed for the high school big band to various colleges and ended up getting scholarship offers from North Texas State and USC. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to go to North Texas because that’s where the best of the best musicians were going at that time. He said I should go to Los Angeles because that’s where I’d be busier playing and working with musicians. He was right.  It’s unbelievable how much variety and talent there is in Los Angeles. I had and still am having the greatest experience crossing paths with so many remarkable people. LA, London, Paris, New York… If you want to be in one of these major cities, you will eventually find your way. Find your tribe, change your tribes, walk away with new tricks and new inspiration. Eat your Cup-O-Noodles and work hard, eventually you magnetize to the right places and likeminded people. I also think some of the greatest artists I’ve met don’t live in the major cities. It gives them more space, less overhead to create the art and not totally run yourself to the ground trying to stay afloat and still magnetize to other like minded people around the world. 

Moving to France - For me it was timing and luck to move here. We were working a lot more in Europe and it became a possibility. We moved somewhere quiet and beautiful.  I grew up in a small mountain town and always enjoyed being a bit isolated. It’s been good for me to change things up and keep moving. It’s made for a lot of different music now. 

AH: Thanks, Keefus. Godspeed and keep making good sounds. We’ll see you on the trail.