CJ Mirra takes surf soundtracks to a cold, dark but ecstatic place
Ways in which music and surfing are related: both rely on waves. We won’t torture that or any other metaphor further but to say that that the sounds that accompany the images of surf films, whether by The Sandals or The Dead Kennedys or Ween, have shaped our perceptions of people riding boards from celluloid through video to streaming.
Enter one CJ Mirra (né John Sampson), and his original compositions for a string of surf movies, mostly set at cold water destinations around the globe. The recently released Static, collects some of the best of this work from the past few years. Filmmaker Chris McClean said, “I like to think of CJ as my own Angelo Badalamenti.” The comparison is apt in many ways. There is a murkiness to much of Mirra’s scoring, with recurring themes echoing the repetition of waves and chilly evocations of cold mornings and sea spray.
But a wise person once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, so have a listen to these buildings. Each track is accompanied by CJ’s notes on them.
TRACK: Destroy us / Headache
Just came back from playing a gig in Hamburg where we performed this track live to the original film and it was so good to connect again with those images.
This was written for the Icelandic section of a sick film called “Headache” made by the binsurfen crew in Germany. Iceland can be so bleak and so beautiful from each moment to moment and Felix Gansicke (the director) captured that perfectly in this sequence and there ended up being an almost other-worldly feel to the footage. I tried to match that sense of the unknown within the music by using sounds that you might not hear every day. The slow building textures at the start are made by using a cello bow to make the wires of a clothes-horse vibrate and then recording them through guitar pedals and amplifiers which kind of match the bleakness and then these uplifting moments of arpeggios and voices to try to match the totally sublime surfing amongst ice moments.
TRACK: Edges of Sanity
This was the first film we did that really captured the whole feeling of these trips. Mainly shot in northern Scotland at the end of winter, camping on a clifftop meant that the whole experience really got into my bones. When I was writing the music back in London I’d already had an idea of how the whole thing was going to feel based on the light, the cold, the waves and the landscapes and seascapes. It had to be layered and have a lot of low, mellow moments that exploded into the rawness of surf when it got biiiigg. The footage that Chris got was just so perfect and then to hang it all on this poem by Dan Crockett (read by Charles Dance) just took the whole thing to another level.
TRACK: Lost Weekend III
The film for this one was shot in Ireland and I went on the shoot to record a bunch of environmental sounds and get more of an idea of what the film was about. It was directed by Chris McClean who I’ve worked with on over 20 films now. We went with the Finisterre crew and it became clear early on that this was much more lyrical and gentle than what we’d made before. It was far more about the people as much as the environment. The final edit was definitely made up of three parts or acts so I wrote three separate pieces of music. The first part accompanied an incredible and profound excerpt from an Alan Watts talk which was rad. This is the most ‘song-y’ moment on the whole of the STATIC compilation.
TRACK: Forest Liquid Light
LOCATION: Scottish Isles
This is for a very different Scottish session. It was for a series called Atlantic Diversions—small films by Chris again that transport you to some remote locations. Proper grey slabs, bleak and unforgiving but still enchanting and weighty. The surf for this film was so good. The music was much more about capturing an atmosphere than telling a story or creating any kind of narrative. It could revolve around a hook that meanders and weaves based on some improvisations from watching the footage over and over again. I did some of this track with producer Kirk Spencer and there are some live elements from artist/cellist Andrea Balency when we did a live audiovisual show called “Chasing Zero.” Most of this was recorded in one take and we left the mix raw and a bit unhinged which I think helped it lock onto the feel of that trip and it’s an approach to creating that has started influencing everything I’ve made since.