How 'Psycho' Inspired Elvis Perkins's First Film Score

Elvis PerkinsEXPAND
Elvis Perkins
Photo by Huger Foote

Elvis Perkins began the year with the release of his third album, I Aubade, and then he spent the rest of it sharing that work with the world in person on tour. During his travels, however, he managed to compose his first feature film score. The music is destined for February, which premiered at this year's Toronto International Film Festival and is due in theaters in early 2016. February stars Emma Roberts and Kiernan Shipka and marks the directorial debut of Perkins’s older brother, Oz.

Coming from a storied New York family with Hollywood roots — Perkins was raised in Los Angeles; his father is the late actor Anthony Perkins, his mother the late model and photographer Berry Berenson; and Oz, or Osgood, is named for their actor grandfather — it might seem a given that scoring a film would be a shoo-in for him, one of those “of course” situations. And maybe it was, but then comes the hard work.

“I’ve been cobbling it together over the course of many months this year during the tour,” Perkins says, speaking from an early December stop in Amiens in France, a week or so before his schedule would bring him to Manhattan to play two shows at Berlin. “I set up my mobile recording rig and set up a mellotron and managed to get some dark and tense vibrations going — it’s a horror movie. Then I managed to make a mess of my Pro Tools files and lost a bunch of stuff. But eventually I put it together.”

Working on February while on tour meant switching from I Aubade’s ethereal, plaintive songs to the darker music he was devising for February. “During soundcheck and breaks we’d be doing my songs, and then I’d say, 'OK, let’s produce some scary music now.' So all summer we did that, exploring the music, and I eventually ended up with these sprawling, dark vibrations.”

The finishing touch came by accident but now seems fated. “During a tour break, I bought a violin at a junk shop in Hudson,” he says, referring to his upstate home base. “I happily started experimenting with that, but I didn’t know how to play it at all. It was very difficult at first. As you can imagine, there is no more horrible sound than someone who doesn’t know how to play violin who’s trying to play one. But I feel that any musician who’s been making music for several years, they should be able to feel their way around an instrument and get something musical out of it. So I eventually got a good amount of real music and a good amount of these shrieking sounds.”

"Shrieking sounds" is a description that immediately summons the eerie, jarring stabs composer Bernard Herrmann etched into the score for Hitchcock’s iconic Psycho, the film that made Perkins’s father a star. Those sounds...

“I know them well,” Perkins says of those nervy, nails-on-a-chalkboard shower-scene notes. “Of course. And I got some of those very sounds recorded. I was trying to allude to that sound. It’s my brother’s first movie, so it’s an obvious touchstone. Early on, when I was putting it together, in a moment of desperation I downloaded Herrmann’s score as some kind of guide. I slowed it down and I reversed it; I played around with it. I was at a block and needed an exit. I didn’t end up using any of that in the end, but I definitely had that in mind.”

I Aubade marked Perkins's first album release in seven years and ended a period in which he didn’t play live very much, either. “It had been a bit of a while since I had toured, and I’m enjoying it more than I ever have. Part of it is the warm welcome back I’ve received from audiences from city to city. But also, I’ve learned to have fun with it. I’ve evolved during the course of five years; I’m a different man to some degree. I take it both less seriously and more seriously at the same time.” Perkins is a musical speaker, with an engaging rhythm to his delivery. His thoughts build smoothly as he feels his way to a conclusion. “I embrace both the seriousness and the hilarity, and I’m able to interact with the audience more.

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“I’m more embracing of the work in general,” he adds. “I wasn’t raised with a great work ethic. I didn’t see my folks working that much. My father’s career had peaked by the time we came onto the scene, and his work was always on location anyway. All work is hard work, but I’m grateful my work is what it is: making music.”

Elvis Perkins plays December 11 and 12 at Berlin. For ticket information, click here.


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