This Friday The Hunger Games hits theaters, and with already a million tickets sold before the release date, it's expected to bring in more bank than Twilight. Based on the book trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the story is set in a post-apocalyptic country named Panem, where rulers in the highly developed Capitol city ruthlessly rule the rest of their empire. To help set the tone of the movie, Lionsgate tapped Grammy-winning producer T-Bone Burnett as executive producer for the film's soundtrack. Burnett's most well-known soundtrack still remains his folky, idiosyncratic tracks for 2000's Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? It's a bold producer choice for this highly anticipated sci-fi thriller.
Filled top-to-bottom with original songs from the Secret Sisters, Jayme Dee and Carolina Chocolate Drops, the majority of Songs from District Twelve and Beyond eschews standard pop fare. Arcade Fire opens the album with “Abraham’s Daughter,” a cinematic, choir-like single that focuses on religious themes of enslavement and coercion. Neko Case belts beautifully on the feel-good, clap-friendly “Nothing to Remember,” and the Decemberists surprisingly bring one of the more energetic offerings with the runaway “One Engine.” But for the two lead singles from the OST, Taylor Swift with the Civil Wars and Kid Cudi respectively, Burnett felt compelled to seek outside council. The man he tapped was Greg Wells, whose resume includes work with Rivers Cuomo, Rufus Wainright and Katy Perry, including her hit “Waking Up in Vegas.” As we reach Hunger Games fever pitch this week, Hive spoke to Wells about T-Bone’s unifying vision, a "fast and furious" session with Kid Cudi, and the decision to craft a folk soundtrack for this year's biggest blockbuster.
The movie is teen-driven, but the soundtrack is very adult friendly. Would you agree with that?
Oh, absolutely, I think that’s what I love about it. If a movie studio bean counter had said, “What should the soundtrack be, this is a teenage movie?” you probably wouldn’t think T-Bone Burnett or Arcade Fire, but that’s what’s so damn cool about it. I think what T-Bone’s done with the soundtrack is excellent. He played me almost the whole thing, early on to make sure I was plugged into the tone of it. It’s a great record.
And the film's set in the future, but the soundtrack is very folky. All guitars, all drums, no synths. It’s interesting to see that in a sci-fi movie.
I know, I know. I gotta credit whoever's idea it was to bring in T-Bone in the first place. We have for awhile been in this very ... kind of like, more synthetic, more of a rediscovery of synthesizers, which have been around for decades, but they are new to young kids now. So, hearing all this kind of programmy stuff, and having someone like Skrillex who takes it so far ... Skrillex in a way is the new Led Zepellin, it’s like riff-rock to me. It’s really great. However, when [young people] hear stuff that is really compelling that is played with real instruments it just drives their ear in just as much. They aren’t thinking, "Oh I don’t like this because it has a synth on it, I like this because it does.” I don’t think they analyze it that much, they don’t have an adult perception. If it's fresh, they like it. If it doesn’t sound fresh, they will flip to something else. Yeah, I agree with you, it’s a bold choice. I think it works though.
You are the only other credited producer on The Hunger Games soundtrack. What can you tell us about the Taylor Swift and Civil Wars lead single?
T-Bone Burnett wrote the song “Safe & Sound” with Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars, and they had done this really beautiful, very stripped down, very spare version of it in T-Bone’s home studio. That’s the version that is going to be used in the movie, and that’s the version that was released on iTunes a couple months ago. And it’s beautiful. It was his idea to bring in another producer. T-Bone’s thing isn’t really top 40. It's not always my thing either, but often is, so I was suggested and made it to the top of the list and met him, and we clicked. He just said look: "Take these vocals, take the one main acoustic guitar track, and just go nuts, do whatever you think feels right, I’m not gonna get in your way, I’m not gonna come watch you work, and when its done, give me a call and I’ll come to your studio and listen to it." I was so nervous. First of all, T-Bone is T-Bone, but T-bone is also like ten feet tall, an enormous man. He’s a sweetheart, and he is very personable when you are dealing with him. But kind of the lore of him, and I’ve been aware of him for years. Thankfully he liked it.
"Everything was truly written for the movie, nothing was pulled from another project, it was all tailored-made like a tailor-made suit."
How about the Kid Cudi song, "The Ruler and the Killer"?
T-Bone knew Kid Cudi was a huge fan of the book, and had really voiced an opinion that he wanted to be involved with the soundtrack in some regard. And, so, T-Bone and Cudi were just gonna create something on their own, and T-Bone said, “Greg, I actually want you to join us. Let’s just all do it equally together, we’ll all write it, we’ll all produce it.” So they all came to my studio, and you really couldn’t have three more different people in a room creatively, and we were all kind of joking about that. But it really worked great. I think if anybody had been an asshole, it wouldn't have worked great. But everybody was really up for it, ears open, egos checked at the door, and we just hit the ground running, and it was so much fun. It was so creative. And we wrote this really dark, kind of menacing song that I kind of felt like a lot of what I had heard from the soundtrack I really loved, but I thought we could do something that went really dark. Like almost creepy dark. And Cudi took it even further.
He has that trademark moan but on this track he really holds back in a way. I don’t know if you would describe it in the same way.
He’s sort of dialing in the Donald Sutherland character in the movie, an evil incarnate.
How was the conversation around how he ultimately laid his vocals down?
I had recorded a bunch of different drum beats, and Cudi really liked two of the main beats I had done. And it was just me playing real drums, and that’s what you hear on the track. And so we started there, and he plugged in an electric guitar, and we kind of recorded for 15 or 20 minutes, just playing around with these different ideas, and bookmarked the ones we liked. And he did mentally too, Cudi as well. We kind of picked through it and found a couple of guitar things we loved just based on those drums. [Cudi would] kind of like, leave the room for five minutes, and come back and say “I think I got something.” He wanted a hand held mic, he wanted a Shure 57 mic, and he just did it in the control room, no headphones on or anything. He just sat in front of us and boom, one take, didn’t re-record any vocals. Everything you hear is the first time he performed that.
Yeah, everything was so fast. He was like, “that’s it.” I don’t think any of us could have predicted the song that was there three hours later. I wasn’t given any script notes [from the movie studio], it’s all just about the tone of the music. I think that the school of thought was that they would kind of figure out the usage of it once the music itself was created in this unfettered, unself-conscious way.
Did you have to process his vocals at all?
So it’s a purely acoustic song given you played the drums and Cudi sang one time.
Yeah, I didn’t know it was gonna turn out that way. It’s all live, me playing live bass and live drums and Cudi playing guitar, and T-bone playing a little of a David Lynch, solo acoustic guitar that we really love. So we kept it kind of minimal and mean. It’s a weird track.
That's a pretty quick turnaround.
Yea, it was really fast. And I think that spirit of “let’s see what we can make” for this incredible story, this phenomenon of a book, has informed everyone’s input on the soundtrack. T-Bone gave it a real ... somewhere to set your sights, you know? A focal point. And it gives the soundtrack this really great thread of continuity, that I think you don’t often hear in soundtracks. Everything was truly written for the movie, nothing was pulled from another project, it was all tailored-made like a tailor-made suit.
The Hunger Games: Songs from District Twelve and Beyond is out now.