Listening to 85-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley sing Captain Beefheart and Velvet Underground songs on the soundtrack to Lawless is certainly disorienting – which is the effect Nick Cave wanted for his film.
Cave wrote the screenplay and worked with his Bad Seeds and Grinderman collaborator Warren Ellis to score the movie, which is based on a novel by Matthew Bondurant about a family of bootleggers living in Virginia during the Depression. Cave and Ellis sought a sound that evoked the Thirties era of the movie while also transcending it.
"We wanted to use the score as a way of kind of stretching time, so we would do songs that were not of the period in a way that, at least at the heart of what we were playing, was of the period, even though we weren't really playing bluegrass," Cave tells Rolling Stone of the soundtrack, which is released today. Lawless opens in theaters on August 29th. "We wanted to do a relatively contemporary song about drug taking, say 'White Light/White Heat,' and have it sung by Ralph Stanley, who has at least one foot set in the period we're dealing with."
Hoping to achieve a consistency of tone throughout the movie, Cave and Ellis dubbed themselves the Bootleggers and recorded punk-bluegrass versions of songs, including Link Wray's "Fire and Brimstone," Townes Van Zandt's "Fire in the Blood," Captain Beefheart's "Sure 'Nuff Yes I Do" and the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat." Because Cave wasn't interested in singing the whole soundtrack – "The last thing I wanted was to listen to my fucking voice the whole time we were working on it," he says – the idea was to recruit vocalists to accompany them. Emmylou Harris and the Duke Spirit's Liela Moss signed on without reservation. Stanley wasn't such an easy sell.
"We'd already recorded a version of ‘White Light/White Heat,' and we wanted him to sing over the top of that, and he listened to our tracks and said there was no way in the world he was going to sing over that shit, basically," Cave says with a laugh. "He's used to not only a different style, but singing with bluegrass players, and we're not, and that's not what we're trying to do."
Stanley offered to sing the songs a cappella, though even that didn't go the way the filmmakers had hoped. "We were still trying to get Ralph to sing in the same time signature and key so we could lay it on top of the tracks we had already recorded," Cave says, which led to a debate on Skype with Stanley's guitarist serving as an intermediary. "I can't even begin to tell you the disdain on the face of the guitarist who works with him, having these Australians telling Ralph what we wanted him to sing," Cave continues. "We're like, ‘Do you reckon you could do this in C?' And he says, ‘Ralph don't do C.'"
Cave and director John Hillcoat discussed the soundtrack before Cave began the screenplay, so he wrote it with particular songs paired to scenes. The a cappella versions that Stanley turned in necessitated revisions to the script. "We had to make room for these songs of his because they were so special," Cave says. "There's something really beautiful about those versions that he did. There's a kind of adventuring feel about it – he's stepping into something that he's not fully acquainted with."
The Bootleggers didn't let their versions of the songs that Stanley declined go to waste. Mark Lanegan recorded vocals for the Beefheart, Velvets and Link Wray songs and both versions appear on the soundtrack album.
Thoughout the soundtrack project, Cave didn't forget his main band. "The Bad Seeds are never far away from any of this, and that's what I'm working on at the moment," he says. "The film stuff is just these brief journeys outside what I'm supposed to be doing, which is being a singer in a band."