An Interview with Composer Xavier Jamaux

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A seminal figure of ‘French house’ music, Xavier Jamaux has been building an excitingly eclectic, quietly international and refreshingly unplanned career for twenty years. And he speaks of this career with a sparkle in his eye and unassuming enthusiasm more befitting a passionate music student than an artist of his stature. One of the strings to his bow is film music: in France, but more notably – at least for us – in Hong Kong, where he’s been a prized collaborator of Johnnie To’s production company Milkyway Image for almost a decade, also working with Soi Cheang and Wai Ka Fai in the process. From 2007’s Mad Detective to this year’s Three, his eight Hong Kong scores have brought an unmistakable yet versatile French touch to the poetic gunplay, psychological webs and/or romantic ballets of Milkyway Image’s films. Having just released an addictive compilation of his film music works – aptly titled Music for Films – the man who is also known as Bangbang graciously agreed to meet Asian Film Strike for an overview of his Hong Kong career.

  Can you tell us about your academic background, and how you came to be a film composer?

Actually, I’m not sure I took a conscious decision to be a composer. I started a long time ago with pop music, forming small bands with friends when I was seventeen or eighteen years-old. I was a drummer. Then I studied law and art history, while still playing music with my friends, and later formed Ollano, a French pop band: that was twenty years ago. We all loved film music, but I had no plans to compose any. In fact, the first score I composed was for Jean-Pierre Limosin’s Tokyo Eyes, in 1997. Limosin was quite taken with the jazz-infused pop sound of our band Ollano, and he put me in charge of the music of Tokyo Eyes, which ended up being entirely electro, far from the mostly acoustic stylings of my band! I was very happy to be working on both music and image, because I’m a film lover as well as a music lover. It was a great first experience.

  After this first experience, did you seek out further scoring assignments?

No, I just let things happen. I was quickly lucky enough to be a fulltime musician, without even thinking of it as my profession. At some point I was able to work on my music from home for a full year thanks to an advance paid to me by a music producer. I was living out my passion for music rather than consciously building a career. Then I met a lot of important people, had the opportunity to have them listen to my music and point me to music labels. Music quickly became my livelihood, and yet I simply did not think of it as a job.

  What led to your first collaboration with Johnnie To, on 2008’s Mad Detective?

A combination of pure luck and destiny, I guess. At the time, it was Hengameh Panahi – whose company Celluloid Dreams often released Johnnie To’s films in France and who had produced Tokyo Eyes ten years earlier – who contacted me with an offer to score Mad Detective. At this point I’d never heard of Johnnie To, and I actually thought she was talking of one ‘John Ito’! (Laughs). We met a few days later in her office, and had a conference call with Johnnie’s erstwhile assistant, Yuin Shan Ding. As I understood it, Johnnie’s films were now reaching a wider and international audience, thanks in no small part to film festivals; and people often remarked that the music in his films was a bit jarring. Which is true: when I saw The Mission I couldn’t help but notice how cheap, synthy and dated the music is. And I think it was a shortcoming rather than an artistic choice.

And so I was sent a rough cut of Mad Detective, upon which I composed three demos of three minutes each, based on three different scenes. At the time I didn’t know the Milkyway team, and the collaboration took place through internet. Now, after a week Shan sent me back roughly thirty seconds out of the nine minutes of music I had composed, and told me “here’s what Johnnie liked”! Those were simply the ten first seconds of each demo, made up more of sound design than music. At this point I thought “wow, this ain’t gonna be easy!” (Laughs) I think we simply had to adjust to each other’s expectations, and at the time Johnnie was tired of intrusive, linear film music: he wanted something more atmospheric. But once I found the whistle-based theme for the titular detective’s seven personalities, the Milkyway people loved it and gave me free rein for the rest of the score. A mutual sense of trust had settled in and I did all my work in France, sending them every cue as I progressed. This has been our modus operandi ever since.

  A year later you were reunited with Johnnie To for Sparrow.

As our collaboration on Mad Detective had gone very well, the Milkyway people called me directly for Sparrow. Now, there are no spotting sessions [Note of the editor: sessions during which the director and the composer go over the whole film to determine where to use music] with Johnnie To. He simply told me he wanted an “exotic vibe”; what he meant was that he wanted something cool and elegant, right out of the sixties, à la Henry Mancini, Martin Denny or Les Baxter, but with a dash of Asia in it. He wanted the music of Asia, the way a westerner might dream it up.

And in Johnnie To’s filmography, Sparrow is one of the few films where music plays almost as big a role as the leads. I worked with Fred Avril, who had already assisted me with pedal steel guitar on Mad Detective. On Sparrow, he brought his extensive knowledge of computer-aided arrangement, something with which I wasn’t yet fluent at the time. I composed the themes on the piano, then we worked together on arranging them. I also got to work with Chinese musicians like Guo Gan, one of the world’s foremost erhu players, who really got involved in the project despite our tiny budget. It was a real treat, and a learning experience: I got to really delve into the Chinese musical idiom, and thus add a string to my bow. And when Sparrow was screened at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival I finally got to meet Johnnie To in person!

  In 2009 you worked for Milkyway Image again, for Wai Ka Fai’s Written By, and more notably for Soi Cheang’s Accident.

It was Johnnie To who recommended me to Wai Ka Fai and Soi Cheang. Those were two very interesting experiences, but I largely prefered working on Accident, which is one of my favorite films in all of Milkyway Image’s output, and also one of my favorite and most personal scores. The music I wrote is just very me. I didn’t have to fit musical styles or idioms, as I did with Mad Detective or Sparrow. But at the same time, I would never have composed this music if it hadn’t been ‘invoked’ by the film.

When I saw Accident for the first time it was unfinished, but I could already sense its crime thriller stylings. But Johnnie To encouraged me to focus more on the psychological side. Now, you have to realize that Johnnie and I have zero common musical references: when I went to Hong Kong, we went for karaoke and I saw that the music he likes is either classic seventies rock like Pink Floyd or the Rolling Stones, or Cantopop. Not much common ground with me. (Laughs) So when discussing a film’s score, Johnnie generally gives me one single keyword. On Accident, it was “melody”. Just one word, deal with it. (Laughs)

I would love for Soi to come back to that kind of psychological crime thriller. Recently, as I was going through my archives, I listened to my Accident score again, and I immediately shot an email to him, telling him I couldn’t wait to work with him again on that kind of film. He answered “Soon. You’ll see.”

  In 2011 you reunited with Johnnie To as a director, with the romantic comedy Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. I can’t imagine romantic comedy being the most rewarding genre for a film composer…

Exactly. When I saw Don’t Go Breaking My Heart for the first time, I thought “why on earth is Johnnie asking me to score this film?” I guess he was not only stepping out of the crime thriller, but also starting to court Mainland China. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of romantic comedies of the Julia Roberts kind. It’s not the kind of film I gravitate towards, whether as a film lover or a film composer. However I do enjoy Italian romantic comedies of the sixties, that used the codes of the genre, but with a different, darker spin. And so that’s what I latched onto, with a score that echoed Stelvio Cipriani. I think it caught them off guard, because that slightly retro feel was not something they had asked for. In the end they told me “it’s fine, but it’s a bit too close to Sparrow.” And they weren’t wrong.

  At any rate, 2012’s Motorway took you out of the sixties, into the eighties.

Indeed. Quite often, Milkyway films are produced over a rather long period of time. After they edit a rough cut of the film, they realize there are characters missing, scenes that don’t quite work, so they do a few rewrites, followed by reshoots. It’s a way of making films that was common in the sixties but doesn’t really exist anymore. The electro stylings of the Motorway soundtrack were Yuin Shan Ding’s idea: he had been Johnnie To’s assistant at the time of Mad Detective and Sparrow, and had now left Milkyway Image and graduated to freelance producer. He was very involved in the film and had just seen the Tron: Legacy teaser, with its electro soundtrack and very streamlined, polished aesthetic.

I brought my old friend Alex Gopher on board: we’ve known each other for thirty years, I had formed the band Orange with him as well as Jean-Benoît Duckel and Nicolas Godin who went on to create the band known as Air. At the time of Motorway I was more and more looking to collaborate with other musicians, and Alex has a vast array of analog synthesizers in his studio, as well as a DJ’s knack for catchy stylings. So we started at the end of 2010, and then a full year later we were still going at it, because the film was in an intense reshoot and re-edit phase, during which it literally became something else. Much more emphasis was put on the psychological dimension of the story, and in the process much of what Alex and I had composed was discarded. They were now asking for something more atmospheric and psychological in nature. Which is why we ended up releasing the full score digitally: we were a bit frustrated that so little of our music had found its way to the finished film.

  The same year, you scored Johnnie To’s Drug War.

The Milkyway people start talking to me before the film starts shooting; communication isn’t necessarily intense, but they keep me posted. On Drug War, quite a bit of time went by after they initially offered me the scoring assignment. Then when I started to work on the film it was almost finished. The editing phase was protracted, but the film didn’t go through a metamorphosis like Motorway had. And for once, I was given a precise musical reference: “Midnight Express“. I was thrilled because I love Giorgio Moroder’s synth score for that film, but I was also puzzled because I knew Johnnie didn’t like synthesizers and electro one bit. So I went on and drew inspiration from the ostinatos in Moroder’s seminal score. But it turned out this was not what they were looking for. And Drug War ended up being our most difficult collaboration: I didn’t quite understand what they were expecting of me. Then they became more specific, and I understood that what they alluded to with the Midnight Express reference wasn’t the underlying ostinato, but the melody. So I gave them melody, but in the end I know I didn’t quite meet theur expectations on this film. Afterwards, when the film was screened in festivals, they told me that the music had been very well received. Still, I’m not quite satisfied of my work on Drug War.

  Your latest collaboration with Johnnie To, Three, is now out in Chinese and American theaters.

My work on Three was done very quickly. The Milkyway people told me I had to finish by the end of April 2016, and they told me that in mid-April 2016! (Laughs) Luckily they had as usual offered me the assignment a while before, so I’d started working on some ideas in November 2015. Initially the final shootout was to be scored with a new song by Faye Wong, and I was supposed to write that song, a prospect I found very exciting. Then the idea was scrapped, and it was Lo Hoi Pang’s character in the film, a crazy old man, who was to sing over the shootout. So I had to harmonize his song, but in the end the scene unfolds over a song by Ivana Wong to which I didn’t participate.

There were no specific demands on the part of the Milkyway people. Johnnie To always works with the same editor, David Richardson. And David also chooses the temp track [Note of the editor: a temporary soundtrack made up of pre-existing music]. So he’ll tell me “I’m sending you a rough cut of the film with my temp track, but Johnnie hates it.” (Laughs) And generally my score is very different from the temp track, which is mostly here to tell me what Johnnie doesn’t want, and the meaning of the scene. For instance, I would’ve scored the final shootout in Three with a big action piece, but Johnnie’s intent was something more ironic. So in the end my score has nothing to do with the temp track.

  What made you decide to release Music for Films?

I realized that this year was my twentieth year in the music business, not only in pop music but also in film music, as the first time something I composed found its way to a soundtrack was 1996, in Kevin Reynolds’ 187. So I decided this called for a celebration, all the more so as I often get contacted by Hong Kong film fans who ask me if I’m going to release the music to one Milkyway film or another. I know film music is a niche market, so I chose to release an LP with a selection of my works for Hong Kong and French films. A kind of summary, an overview.

  My heartfelt thanks to Xavier Jamaux for taking the time to meet me and answer my questions. You can read the French version of this interview on Film Exposure.

  You can find his Music for Films on iTunes or order the LP on Bangbangbeats, where you’ll also find his scores to Sparrow and Motorway.

The Three soundtrack will be available digitally by the end of the year.


FILMOGRAPHY:

Tokyo Eyes (1998 – Jean-Pierre Limosin)

Break of Dawn (2002 – Alexandre Arcady)

Mad Detective (2007 – Johnnie To)

Sparrow (2008 – Johnnie To), with Fred Avril –  Best Original Film Score nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards & at the Golden Horse Awards

Written By (2009 – Wai Ka Fai)

Accident (2009 – Soi Cheang)

Joseph and the Girl (2010 – Xavier de Choudens)

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011 – Johnnie To)

Motorway (2012 – Soi Cheang)

Drug War (2012 – Johnnie To)

Three (2016 – Johnnie To)

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3 Comments

  1. jameslebowski

     /  July 6, 2016

    Very interesting interview. Love his scores and the insight into the working process of To, Milkyway, and surely lots of Hong Kong cinema, is pretty damn interesting!

    Reply
    • Glad you liked it, and I thought you might: I remember you mentioning that you didn’t even wait to finish Sparrow before buying the soundtrack!

      Reply
  1. Xavier Jamaux : la French Touch de Johnnie To – Film Exposure

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