Inside John Malkovich's Eerie, Plato-Quoting New Album

Actor teams up with Yoko Ono, Ric Ocasek, composer Eric Alexandrakis and photographer Sandro Miller for experimental 'Like a Puppet Show' LP

John Malkovich, pictured as John Lennon, explains his eerie, Plato-quoting new album, 'Like a Puppet Show.' Credit: © Sandro Miller courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago

Two years ago, composer Eric Alexandrakis wrote an ambient piece of music titled "Cryogenia π [Requiem For Humanity]" that was "very freeform and free-flowing and had this time-warp, evolving vibe to it." He visualized an actor reciting Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave" — a text suggested by his philosophy professor mother — over his music and knew there was only one person whose dulcet, yet eerie voice could complement the piece: John Malkovich.

"He has this very poetic, intellectual, mysterious, academic vibe to him — this blend of classical and edge that you just don't see," Alexandrakis tells Rolling Stone. "John reminds me of the type of people that say, 'Just tell me a story and what's on your mind.' Even his wardrobe has this air of English academic to it. He has a clothing line which he wears called 'Technobohemian,' which he actually designs and draws himself. He's just a fascinatingly unique and talented artist."

After writing his interpretation of the allegory — "the concept was that the body is in a cryogenic state and around it, time changes and the subconscious is thinking about the 'allegory' and the concept of coming out of darkness, into knowledge," Alexandrakis says — the composer turned to Sandro Miller, a mutual friend of Malkovich and a photographer who has worked with the actor for 20 years.

Like a Puppet Show, the first in a series of collaborations from the avant-garde trio, features numerous musicians, including Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, Blondie co-founder Chris Stein, Ric Ocasek, Dweezil Zappa and Roger Waters' son Harry, remixing Alexandrakis and Malkovich's songs. The album is set for a vinyl-only release for Friday's Record Store Day — there are no plans for a digital or streaming release — and will be paired with Miller's exclusive photos of Malkovich.

"[As] an actor, you're really a figure in someone else's dream. So why say, 'Your dream isn't like that?'" - John Malkovich

In April 2014, Miller shot a seven-minute film he had written that found Malkovich, dressed in paramilitary gear, delivering a somber version of the allegory over Alexandrakis' score and Miller's chaotic, warlike animation. At the same time, Miller's latest exhibition, Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters, found the actor portraying cinematic and cultural icons such as Che Guevara, Andy Warhol and Marilyn Monroe. (In one shot, the actor recreates Annie Leibovitz's iconic 1980 Rolling Stone cover photo of a naked John Lennon caressing Ono.)

"I had the privilege of watching that process," Alexandrakis says. "And the Homage exhibition is really what inspired the records. As the images were coming up on screen, I thought, 'These are amazing. These could be picture-disc vinyls.' The music inspired Sandro's film, and then Sandro's photography inspired the music. And, of course, John's artistry inspired the tune because the music was written first."

Once Alexandrakis finished the original composition and recorded Malkovich's allegory, he passed off the dialogue and music to his eclectic range of collaborators and remixers. "I said [to everyone], 'Chop it up, use it as you like, put chickens next to it on an iPhone,'" Alexandrakis says. "It can be as avant-garde or as lo-fi as people wanted, so I didn't really want to tell them too much direction."

This freeform approach juxtaposed with the repetition of Malkovich's speech turns Like a Puppet Show into the year's most terrifying mixtape. The techno-throb Krautrock of OMD ("Cryocarbon 14C") and John Carpenter–channeling horror-movie synths of Blondie co-founder Chris Stein ("Photogenia C [Ruler Of Light]") contrast with the somber piano of Placebo ("Cryoplacebo 47/XXY") and ominous Ric Ocasek mix of "Cryoblue Cheese O." While many of the mixes musically echo Malkovich's eerie reading of the text, Zappa provides comic relief (and possible Greek chorus) on "CryoZolon X," repeatedly singing, "Malkovich, Malkovich/What the fuck are you talking about?"

"In all fairness, I think it's very witty," Malkovich admits of the song. "But it isn't something that I haven't heard before from every teacher of my childhood, from my parents and from all of my friends as an adult. So I just would say, 'Point taken.'" 

"John is this modern-day Warhol and pop-cultural icon," Miller says. "He's brave; he's so experimental; he's open. He walks into my studio and he becomes my white canvas. John has been able to morph himself into my different characters with such brilliance that he's left the studio many times with all of us going, 'Oh, my God, what just happened?'" 

"John is this modern-day Warhol and pop-cultural icon" - Sandro Miller

Malkovich hadn't read the "Allegory of the Cave" since college, but after working with Miller on photo exhibitions and short films for the past two decades, he trusted the photographer enough to take on the project.

"I thought it was kind of a no-brainer [to do the project]," Malkovich says. "One could always have a lot of questions about why you do something, but when you work with trusted collaborators, that's actually a waste of time. Better to open the book and get on the page and see what happens. I'm not much for arguing, or really even questioning much, creative collaborators that I trust. The interesting thing about artistic collaboration, and most especially if you're an actor, is you're really a figure in someone else's dream. So why say, 'Your dream isn't like that?'" 

For Malkovich, the question is not "Why Plato?" but "Why not?"

"I never ask Sandro, 'Why do I need to be Jean Paul Gaultier?' or 'Why do I need to be Marilyn Monroe?' The answer is in the finished piece," Malkovich says. "The photos are iconic for a reason — and there is danger in iconography — but somewhere, quite often, there is truth in it as well. If Sandro says, 'You're going to be the little twin girls in the Diane Arbus photo,' I don't have any questions about that. I'm 61 years old, or blah, blah, blah, but what difference does that make? I get the point. And that's how we all work together. Because if somebody goes, 'Why Plato's "Allegory of the Cave"? Why not Philip Roth?' ... I'm just not like that."