Thom Yorke on the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Suspiria

all photos by Ebru Yildiz

In 1977, influential Italian director Dario Argento released his film Suspiria. Based, in part, on the 1845 Thomas De Quincey's essay Suspiria de Profundis, the movie follows American ballet student Suzy Bannon (played by Jessica Harper) who transfers to a dance academy in Germany that she soon discovers is a front for a diabolical conspiracy. For the soundtrack, Argento worked with Italian prog-rock band Goblin to create a surrealistic score crafted from unearthly synthesizer sounds — without even seeing the gory film footage, the music alone fills you with a sense of unease and dread. Vocals range from eerie sighs to guttural whispers of "witch! witch" to breathless croaks where a sound barely escapes their throats. Meanwhile, ominous, relentless percussion keeps pushing you forward, with no relief. Argento himself said he wanted the music to sound like "a bad, bad fairytale." 

Over 40 years later, the now-cult-level film has been remade by director Luca Guadagnino, who received an Academy Award-nomination for his work on last year's coming-of-age film Call Me by Your Name. Citing it as more of an "homage," the 2018 Suspiria stars actresses Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson, and features an original soundtrack by none other than Thom Yorke. In this special interview, the Radiohead frontman describes how he got involved in the project and what his influences were for a few of the 25 tracks on the album. And tune in to The Afternoon Show today at 3:00 PM; DJ Kevin Cole will be airing a special live performance from Yorke, recorded at Electric Lady Studios last month, marking his first radio performance in nearly 20 years. 

Transcription by Sandy Dodge

How did you come to work with Luca? 

Thom Yorke: He was kind of nicely stalking me for a bit. I can't quite remember. I think he approached me initially by email and I thought it sounded interesting but was off my radar. And then I met him with his producer and his editor and I sort of became intrigued, but then disappeared again, and then eventually he pinned me down. I sort of got to the point where there was just something about it I couldn't walk away from. 

Was it the opportunity to step out of your usual day job, if you will, and do something that is very different? 

A lot of the attraction was being out of my comfort zone. I knew Goblin's stuff. I knew the film, I'd seen it like once, I think, but I wasn't... I should probably say, "Oh, he called me up and it was such a great idea, I said yes!" But initially I thought it was mad because I'd never done a soundtrack before, so why ask me? 

It's a soundtrack, but it's also a score because so many of your compositions accompany the film in big ways and small ways, but the music is a thread that runs through the film. It's very intertwined in the film, isn't it? 

It is. Luca had a thing about melodic thematic stuff, you know. So the first thing I did was scratch round with a few melodies and then sort of hang them in various points in the films in various sonic different ways, and I just realized that once you had the gem of a few melodic ideas that you really had a connection with, it sort of freed you up to go wherever you wanted to go. So that's kind of what I did, to begin with. 

Talk to us a little bit about the theme of the film. It's a really arty horror film. It's not what one typically thinks of, but it's fairly dark, yet beautiful at the same time. 

There ain't no jump scares [laughs], as my kids say, which I kind of like. It's a very feminine film, which Luca really liked. When he went to the film set, he was like, "There's all this female energy, darling" — [laughs] Sorry, Luca, that's not how you speak — which I thought was really funny. It's a melancholy film and a horror film. More violence, in a way, than horror, and more exploration of collective energy than ghosts or specters or that sort of thing, coming to it from a completely different point of view. 

Interesting you mention the all-female cast. The theme of witches and the coven are very strong; so is breathing and size and the way you incorporate that into the score is really remarkable, because breath, pulse, blood, all of that mixed together really becomes a sound in the film. 

Literally, the first thing I did when I met Luca in this cafe in London — I went home. He was talking about breathing and I started reading the script and I just got one of my synthesizers out and — you know I'm no expert synthesizer person, but I found a way of making it breathe and rattle exactly like human breath. And I just sent him like nine minutes of that [laughs] and said, "I'm in." My assistant, she came into the studio genuinely freaked out saying, "What the hell is going on?" 

I wondered too as I watched the film and listened to the music — and this might be a weird question and we can move forward if it is — is there gender associated with composing music? Are there songs that maybe have more female energy? Songs that have more male energy? 

Within the score? 

Yeah, within the score, or just within your music in general, but was there any part of that in this? 

I was very conscious of trying to keep a feminine angle on everything I was doing in the score. Partly from the melodies I found for it, and partly the sounds, yeah, everything about it. I tried to make it, in my mind — in the context of the script, because I was mostly working with the script — in my mind, the feminine aspect of it and the idea of the rituals that went with it. This is how I saw it, you know, with the biggest sort of priority for me. 

Some of the lyrics on the songs that have lyrics really do a great job of telling the story. How did that work for you this time around, Thom? 

Well, writing lyrics for film, that's a weird thing to do because the worst possible thing you can do is like try and do some sort of narrative. Well, for me, anyway. I mean, that's not what I want out of life. So, you sort of come to it from a forty-five-degree angle from what's going on. I guess you absorb the atmosphere as best you can from the scripts, but then you find your own stories that fit with it. It's a very odd thing to do, in a way, because in a way you're sort of taking on a character or characters. "Suspirium" was very much that. "Unmade" was very much that. I guess they all were. "Open Again," I just loved the title. They're sort of falling off points. The only other time I'd really ever done that was for Baz Luhrmann for Romeo and Juliet with "Exit Music" where he sent me like a 20-minute videotape of certain segments of the film. But that was like taking on a character as well in a weird way. 

There's a sense of place and time about the film. Berlin in the 1970s. 

Yeah, which was really important. 

How were you inspired by that? Not that the music sounds '70s although in some ways there are some references of psychedelia and things like that but the sense of time and place of the film; how did that inspire your work? 

I was heavily referencing it in my own head. Like all my favorite sort of Krautrock, that phase was coming to an end in '77. I was using similar synthesizers — kind of using similar synthesizers — but not too much, I didn't want to get too obtuse about it. But the sort of political atmosphere was important as well. I mean, at the beginning of the film, I spent quite a lot of time going through what Luca sent me; lots of visual references, which you do on films. The art department had pulled a lot of stuff together that really helped. I'm quite a visual person anyway and so I had that stuff scattered around the studio. So it wasn't like I was researching what synthesizers I need to use — well, I did do that, but only for like half a day — but it was more an atmosphere from the pictures of Berlin at that time. That was an easy thing to tap into. 

Most of the film takes place at a dance academy. Movement, shape, bodies, very much a part of the film. Were you, are you a modern dance fan? Is that a world that you've played around in before? 

I guess I have kind of a weird relationship to dance on many levels. From like when I was a kid I really wanted to do dancing, but I never did, and then never really had any contact with it. I was a DJ, I used to enjoy dancing then, and then I joined a rock band where I wasn't really dancing, and then after a while, I started putting the guitar down, I started dancing. Next thing years later, I do the "Lotus Flower" video, there I am dancing with a wonderful choreographer, and then suddenly I'm, like, back into that world. And before that, Radiohead worked with Merce Cunningham before he died. That was pretty mental. In New York. And then suddenly I'm doing a film involving exactly that. The choreographer they had on this film was amazing, Damien [Jalet]. I mean, I hope I can work with him again because what he created for the main "Volk" piece was really cool. My relationship with it though is a pure sort of spectator. But I love it. 

Let's talk a minute about horror films. Have they been an influence on your work before? 

No, not really. I don't think I'm a horror film buff at all. I was obsessed with The Exorcist for a while in an unhealthy way, but I got over that. One of my favorite scores is for The Shining; I like all Kubrick's film scores. But I enjoy music in film, that's an inspiration to me generally. Morricone was always my big obsession. But I don't know, I'm no aficionado. 

The light and the dark coming together in the film is one of the most striking themes. Beauty and darkness come together and the score shares a similar dynamic. And when light and dark get so close together, you know, the light almost becomes lighter and the dark becomes darker. Was this something that you felt comfortable working in that dynamic? 

I have to say, I mean, one of the reasons I took on the project was to have the license to try and find as terrifying sounds as I possibly could. And I thought it was interesting, that's what I expected it would be. And then the more Luca talked about it, the more he talked about the melancholy side of it, and the more I found it interesting to do both. To have a song like "Unmade," which is very gentle, very feminine, very ethereal almost, over like a super violent scene in the film where they did a bloodbath essentially. At the same time, spending days with [co-producer] Sam [Petts-Davies], going to really dark places in the studio. I was surprised how — when you're working to picture, when you're working to commission, essentially: he's describing things and you're trying to build them — you don't think about the overall picture. When the film was mixed and then when Sam and I sat down to try and piece it together as a record, I was really shocked by how dark it was. And we scratched around for a while to find a way into how to put it together and we just — the best thing to do is allow it to start in a fairly safe space, it lures you in, and by the time you've put on the second record on the second side you're like, 'Good luck'. There's one piece called "A Choir of One," which as the name suggests, was all built with my voice, and if your mind is open at that point, then it will really send you somewhere you didn't expect to go. 

14 minutes worth of it. 

I know, that was an interesting few weeks, that was. 

"Volk" — which is a German word for "people" — appears at a key point, a key scene in the movie. Tell us about that because that's another big theme in the film. 

Oh my god, that was the big challenge, but also kind of the coolest bit. When I first sat down properly with Luca, he said, "Listen, I start shooting soon and this essential dance piece 'Volk' which you've read about in the script — yes — and I just need something to start me off." The choreographer Damien had done this beautiful dance, but it was kind of like a mathematical thing that he'd done. So they needed this central piece. Which again, was another thread that went through the film, but the dance piece was already written. So I had to, again, sort of come at it from like a forty-five-degree angle with all the mathematics of it Damien explained to me and then I had to sort of go, "uh-huh," and then forget about it completely, and then find my own way into it. Which, in the end, I used the threes and the fives and the tens that he was talking about, but not in the way he meant. It was a real struggle, though. But then the sort of genius bit was the [film] editor Walter [Fasano] — cause I was tearing my hair a bit — he was sort of, "well, the sound of the dancers in the room is quite a violent, percussive thing and that gives you quite a lot already," and that freed me up. So I was writing to the sound of the stomps and the breaths and swooshing of the weird things they're wearing, and it made it quite easy. In the end what I did — it was the first time I'd really used a surround sound. Sam and I sat down and when we finally sort of mixed all the elements, they start in time and they fall out of time, and they break up and they move around the cinema and some go into the ceilings and some go into the floor. That was the massive highlight for me. When we went to the premiere in Venice, it really felt like the cinema space changed. I was super proud of that. 

And the drums in that song are one of the heavier drums that appear on the record. 

Yeah, they pop out at the end. That was my son, Noah. We only used a small element of it actually, because he did loads of crazy stuff on that. He plays drums on "Has Ended" as well. 

"Has Ended" is another vocal track on the record, almost a sitar sound at times. 

One of the things I was having a lot of fun with was stretching the living hell out of pianos. That was basically the first thing I did. Because pianos have all these overtones and harmonics, which when you listen to at normal speed, you don't really get the sense of them. When you slow them down, literally melodic forms will start coming out which had nothing to do with anything you played. So "Has Ended" started from that, really. I had this one thing and I could hear a melody coming out of it, so I just started singing that on top of it. Lyrically, that one was much more political. That one was like a straight — I mean, I was thinking of 1977, but I was also thinking of Trump, and then I was also thinking of the beginnings of fascism, and then I was also thinking of troops coming home with confetti. You know, that image. And they all tied up with this title, which I had no idea where it came from, "Has Ended." You know, this idea "it was over," "he's gone," you know. 

And the song ends with the refrain, "We won't make this mistake again."

Yeah, and we won't make this mistake again. 

"Open Again." What can you tell us about that track? 

What was nice about that one, actually, is I had the title from the script. And then one of the first sequences that I got was the dancers rehearsing this movement thing at a certain tempo with the dance instructor counting. And it really just poured out straight away, it was dead easy. Again, the idea of cheating death, which is so important in the film. The idea of the coven that lives forever that has its ways of never really dying, of waking up on another shore. And a lot of it also came from this accumulating delay pitch thing, which I did when I did the session as well, where I sing and the notes just climb up and form a cloud of birds as I sing. It's one of those things. Sometimes a song comes out of a sound effect. That's kind of what happened there. 

"Unmade." What do you want to tell us about that song? 

"Unmade" is — again, that one came from a title, I don't know what was going on. I had this sort of cool progression. I didn't know what to do with it. And Luca was like, "You need something sweet", in a moment that's really not sweet at all. I wasn't convinced about it until we put the choir on it. I'd done like a Mellotron version of it but when we actually got the singers from the LCO [London Contemporary Orchestra] to sing just the simple thing I'd written, it really became feminine. Again, it fitted. I'm surprised about that song. That's one of those ones that I think if I'd worried about it or if I thought about it too much, it would have probably killed it, but because I didn't have time, it just happened. 

There's something very pretty about that song. 

Exactly. I would have tried to destroy that if I'd given half the chance. 

The title track "Suspirium" has gorgeous lyrics, a very haunting piano melody and the lyric, "All is well, as long as we keep spinning." What can you tell us about this song? 

It's really, really hard to explain because I just ended up in a space where this stuff popped out. A little bit was based around — it sounds crazy — when my grandfather died, they read a piece — God I wish I could remember who it was — a poem about "I've not left, I'm just in the next room," and that's always stayed with me. I started with a waltz — which I have never done before. It's a waltz, for God's sake. That's not very rock'n'roll. And I just had this image in my mind of these sad creatures, sad women trying to console themselves. There was a bit of Dante in there, there was a bit of many, many things. 

The melody does become a recurring theme through the film. 

It does. That's one of the things from the original score. The combination of the way they did it, the way Goblin built this insane, repetitive score. The repetition of it I thought was really interesting. When a melody goes round and round, after a while it just makes you feel uncomfortable. I wanted to have that in the film. That was the bit that makes sense to me. 

And "Bloom." 

Yeah, that's not in the film though. What can I say about "Bloom"? The version I did on piano came out a few years ago. I did Pathway to Paris [a benefit concert to fight climate change] — that's when America was still involved in climate change. Now you are not involved, are you? I wonder why he chose to do that. Why do you think you chose to do that? I can't think, why would he choose to do that? Anyway. That again was an accident where I was scratching around trying to find something else to do on the piano that was interesting and realized, well, "Bloom" is kind of an obvious choice because of the piano loops. That's an odd song for me because that song really was born out of the experiments we were doing and a bass line that Colin [Greenwood, bassist] wrote over a really simple loop and these crazy drums. And then it became a natural song that you can play in many different ways. And the lyrics — it was not supposed to be environmentally conscious or anything and then it sort of became that after. If in a singer's life, if in a composer's life, you have a few songs like that, that sort of come back and give you something different over different periods of times, then you're really lucky. And I think "Bloom" is one of those for me. Every time I come back to it, I get something different out of it. When we play it as Radiohead now, we get something completely different from it from when we first did it. When we first did it, we were like struggling to stay in time. Now it's something completely different, you know. 

And as music fans, we have the same feeling, and that is the place where the magic strikes. 

Yeah, when you don't know what's going on. 

Talk to us a little bit about the non-lyrical elements, some of those pieces and how they came together because there's almost a chant-like quality to some of it. 

Well, again, Luca was kind of looking for things like that. I was doing just my impression of what that might be, with no real clue. But part of the reason to do it for me was an excuse to experiment with sound: an excuse to vary speed of a female choir to make it sound like a man's choir, an excuse to do something which I've always wanted to do, which is like a microtonal choral piece using my own voice. There was literally days and days and days of experiments. This is something that Jonny [Greenwood, guitarist] from Radiohead was saying to me at the beginning; he said, "There's a lot of mileage you will get from creating a lot of material before you have the picture in front of you." And I did a lot of that. I had some modular synthesizer stuff which was just throwing these things at me, which were just perfect, without me having to do hardly anything. There's a real fun in that. Like playing with toys and having a new reason to use it. It's not geared towards a song, it's not geared towards anything except creating a color or a feeling, which was a really nice thing to finally do and it's something that Radiohead always did, but would be part of something else, to just be an end in itself. I mean, Jonny had explored that by doing film scores but me, not so much. So it was really nice to finally get my teeth into that. 

Having said that, Thom, what's next for you, what's next for the band? Because I can see that many new doors have been opened and this says a lot for a man who has created the body of work that you've created, but it does feel like many new doors have been opened here. What's next? 

Yeah, I would agree that doors, or at least windows, got opened. Flapping in the wind currently. I'm trying to finish something with [long-time producer] Nigel [Godrich], which is a collaboration we started a few years ago with a friend Tarik Barri, who is a visual artist. We're doing a tour across America until Christmas for that. And that's like an electronic live performance thing with live visuals. And I want to finish the record that's being composed out of that and then I'm not sure. There's a few things. I'm supposed to complete a commission for some friends of mine, the Labeque sisters, virtuoso piano players. Which is amusing because I can't read music, so that's been interesting. 

Tell us about the art installation. That was something you did in Berlin with Tarik and now this is part of the US tour? 

Well, we've been working with him a long time before that and he got commissioned to do this thing, so we collaborated on it. That was really fun. We met him years ago in Berlin. He has built the software, which originally was used for creating music, and then we were using it to create a live visual thing. And then he and I have gone back to using it to build music, so it's objects in space. Each one is a different element with the music that you move through. And then we're also using my face. 

So that's part of it as well. 

Unfortunately, yes. 

The 2-LP soundtrack album for Suspiria is out now via XL Recordings. Thom Yorke is currently on tour in North America (sadly, no Seattle date). See tour dates here. Yorke is currently working on a new solo album that will be out in 2019. 

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