One of Sofia Coppola’s signatures as a filmmaker is using contemporary music in period pieces such as 2006′s “Marie Antoinette,” which depicted 18th century France with a score of 1980s post-punk bands such as the Cure and Gang of Four. Coppola is courting Oscar buzz for her latest film, “Priscilla,” a biopic about Priscilla Presley, which eschews using the music of her husband, Elvis Presley, in favor of a wide-ranging soundtrack. Amidst period-appropriate ’60s and ’70s pop are more imaginative selections including “The Crystal Cat,” a 2007 track by Baltimore avant-garde composer Dan Deacon.
Deacon, 42, grew up on Long Island and studied music at SUNY Purchase before moving in 2004 to Baltimore, where he co-founded Wham City, a collective of artists and musicians that staged DIY warehouse shows and eventually national tours and the Whartscape festival.
Deacon also became something of an evangelist for Baltimore as a breeding ground for boundary-pushing music. He inspired others to relocate to the city, including the North Carolina band Future Islands, who moved to Charm City in 2007. Deacon’s breakthrough album, “Spiderman of the Rings,” was hailed by critics as an innovative new sound in electronic music, and “The Crystal Cat” placed No. 84 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 best songs of 2007.
As a recording artist for the British label Domino, Deacon has continued to release solo albums, most recently 2020′s “Mystic Familiar.” But Deacon has become prolific in composing music for film and television, including the 2022 sports drama “Hustle” starring Adam Sandler, and Apple TV+’s recent series “The Changeling.”
The Baltimore Banner recently spoke with Deacon via email about what it was like to hear his older songs in “Priscilla,” as well as his work in the film industry in general.
Have you seen “Priscilla”? Did you have any thoughts on seeing a piece from one of your albums used in a film versus music you’ve tailor-made for a film?
The request to use “Crystal Cat” in “Priscilla” came a long time ago, maybe last year. I can’t recall, but regardless, I was excited about it. Sofia Coppola’s films are so good and always have a solid musical identity. I was hoping this usage would go through. (Often, requests come in, the deal fails for some reason or another, the project goes in another direction, etc., and I never hear anything about it ever again, so I try never to get my hopes up about a usage request since it may not happen). I had basically forgotten about this until people started texting me TikTok links and clips from the film.
As for my music set to picture vs. writing to picture, it’s certainly a different feeling. How a needle drop of a song will bring new context, meaning and memory to an existing piece of music is extremely powerful. I often think of Roy Orbison, very late in his career, only a few years before he passed away, reviewing the license request for “In Dreams” for David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” For many, that film was the first time they’d heard that song. Lynch forever linked that song to those images for a vast population (and continues to), and the music’s legacy forever changed. There’s something massively magical in that. The original inspiration for Orbison composing those lyrics and that music is most likely never known to a portion of the audience. And if it was known, it’s now removed from the minds of audience members and replaced by the images of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth singing the lyrics between deep huffs in a crazed mania. It’s probably not what Roy Orbison had in mind when he penned the track decades earlier. But Orbison cleared the usage, and with that clearance, an iconic moment within a cinematic masterpiece was born.
With all that in mind, I’m positive “Priscilla” is the first time many people heard “Crystal Cat”; for them, it’ll always be “that song from ‘Priscilla,’” and I LOVE that. For them, the song carries no memory of sweaty warehouse parties in the early 2000s late-Bush era of absurdist nihilism. It’s a song in a movie about Priscilla Presley. A nice part about music/art/film is that it has the chance to be lucky enough to be discovered or reinvented by new artists with new ideas in new times for new audiences. A song can mean an infinity of things while traversing the infinite.
“Crystal Cat” feels like a key song from the “Spiderman of the Rings” period when people outside Baltimore really started to take notice of your music. Do you have any memories of making that song and that era of your career, and does it surprise you that your song’s had the longest shelf life?
I wrote the song in the early 2000s while living in the Copycat building. My room was a walled elevator shaft with a narrow entryway off the kitchen of a large group loft we called Wham City. Something like 15 of us lived together in various states of fluctuating chaos. It was the perfect environment to find my voice as a musician. My room was like a secret little cave, and I loved it for that quality. I could go there, put on headphones and compose on my laptop for hours on end. Once I had the first early draft of “Crystal Cat” done, I remember being excited to play it at the Talking Head on Davis Street and then after the show tweaked all night. I revised it a few times after that until it found its form for the 2006 recording for the 2007 release.
Regarding the shelf life of the track, I’ve never thought about it like that. So I also wonder if it’s my track with the longest shelf life. Regardless, it’s nice to have music I wrote around 20 years ago finding new ears while I still get to write new music. I’m incredibly thankful for that.
I really enjoyed your music for “The Changeling”; it felt like you did your own version of an unsettling horror movie score. Is scoring an entire series a lot more work than scoring a feature film? What is that process like? Also, was it a coincidence that Sam Herring from Future Islands acted in “The Changeling” and you did the score, or was someone involved in that show a fan of Baltimore music or something?
Sam let me know I was on the short list for the show’s composer, which helped me get my ducks in a row as far as research, building my demonstration reel and getting in the headspace for a show of this nature. I find scoring a series to be more work than a film due to the simple fact it’s more minutes of music needed. A film has about 20-50 cues on average, and a series can have that same number of cues per episode. I think “The Changeling” had about 250 pieces of music throughout it. A lot of those are recurring motifs, but since everything is scored to picture, even the slight variations can be time-consuming. But I love the process and one of my favorite parts about scoring a picture is getting to revisit musical ideas and rework them into various forms. It’s something I don’t really get to do as a recording artist very much, so I try to bask in it with film work.
You’ve done a lot of scores and soundtracks in the last few years. Was it an ambition of yours to work in film, or did opportunities just arise for you to jump into that world?
I think most nerds who go to college for music composition think about scoring films someday. It’s certainly more of a job-type job than being a touring musician and I think that gets romanticized out of the daydreams, but I do love it and feel lucky to be able to make a living with it.
I liked hearing you work with an entire orchestra on the “Hustle” score. Are there any scores you’re particularly proud of?
The trio of scores for “All Light Everywhere,” “Ascension” and “Strawberry Mansion” are what come to mind. I had scored several films prior to those, but for some reason it was the process of working on those films where I really started to feel like I was in a metamorphosis from recording artist to film composer.
Are there any upcoming projects you can share some details about now?
I’m releasing those three scores on vinyl this month on the Baltimore label Canadian Duck Tapes. Each release is a double vinyl LP and includes previously unreleased material and extended versions. I’m really excited about it.
Al Shipley is a Maryland-based music and culture writer.