French film-maker Claire Denis has called on acclaimed band Tindersticks for the music to many of her movies. With a box-set just released, singer Stuart Staples tells Harry Guerin about a (Paris) match made in movie heaven.
Although they've worked together for many years, Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples and director Claire Denis differ on where they first met. Staples thinks Denis introduced herself after a gig at Paris venue Le Bataclan, while Denis contends it was down the road at La Cigale, where she told the English band she was a fan and wanted their help.
What both agree on, however, is the impact they've had on each other's careers. Since that fateful meeting, somewhere in Paris in 1995, Tindersticks have scored six Denis films, from the playful sounds of 'Nénette et Boni' (1996) through to the brooding 'Trouble Every Day' (2001) and up to the recent African civil war drama 'White Material' (2009). Now, all six soundtracks are available in a box-set that's as tempting to movie buffs as diehard fans, and Tindersticks are performing them at special, big screen concerts for the first time. It's four days after the opening show in Istanbul when Staples tells RTÉ TEN that Denis is a big part of why Tindersticks are still around.
"The soundtracks have been a real excuse for discovery," he explains, "a way to experiment, that when you're just writing songs and making music from your own feelings, you never get the chance to do. Working with Claire takes us off just concentrating on our own journey as a band and makes us look somewhere else for a while."
Whatever the job or album, Tindersticks have proven themselves to be as stylish players as they are dressers. Even in the early days, when Staples contends they "couldn't play", they sounded completely in control of their direction. But while poise and confidence ooze from the speakers, Staples refuses to see the band as soundtrack pros, and says each Denis film begins with them in a very different place.
"Every one of them has been us standing on the edge of it thinking, 'How do we do this?' There's always a feeling of fear, a fear of failure at the start when you just don't have any idea. But with that fear comes a certain excitement. If you feel like that when you're making music, or being involved in a film, you can be moving in the right direction. There are film composers that deeply know their craft and trade, but I think for us it's something different: it's about letting something come at you, get inside you, having a reaction and seeing what it brings out."
If you've never heard Tindersticks' music, treasures await. Other directors who have already discovered them have tried to tempt them to compose for their movies, but apart from the theme for the BBC drama 'The Sins' (a cover of The Four Tops' 'What Is a Man'), they've declined. Loyalty to Denis may play a part, but there's more to it than that.
"With the way Claire works it's never a case of, 'I want a piece of music here that describes this emotion'," says Staples. "It's like, 'Here's the rough cut of my movie. Where does it take you? Where do you feel the music and what music do you feel?' One of the biggest things I've learned from Claire is that she has a kind of sureness, an inner clarity about what she's doing. That allows her to let people – the editors, the actors, the cinematographers and us – have the freedom to bring something to it. She can let people experiment because she's sure of something. People really like working with her for that reason."
Staples says that Denis is currently "thinking about a few different ideas", but stresses that it's not a given that Tindersticks will provide the music – what she needs and the band's schedule are deciding factors. However, when he tells a story that captures the warmth and trust in their relationship, it seems it won't be long before they're bringing out the best in each other again.
"When we finished 'Nénette et Boni', I remember so vividly seeing it for the first time and just being tortured with the music being too quiet, too loud, too early, too late, too short, too long," he recalls. "I couldn't actually get any sense of perspective at all. When Claire asked us about working on 'Trouble Every Day', I said, 'It's all great, but I don't really know how to make film music'. And she leaned forward and said, 'I don't really know how to make films!' From that point, we've got on fine!"
'Claire Denis Film Scores 1996–2009' is out now on Constellation Records. Tindersticks would like to bring their soundtrack show to Ireland – National Concert Hall, please take note!