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Eye of the Storm 

Mike Andrews: Making sad and beautiful music for grown-ups

Wednesday, Apr 19 2006
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Mike Andrews is walking through his Glendale Craftsman on a sleepy tree-lined street, strumming a 3/4-size 1950s Martin guitar. Mid-century furniture and stacks of art and architecture books are offset by faded window shades left over from the house’s previous owners.

“Wanna see my studio?” he asks.

A fashionably landscaped backyard leads to a recording studio where the 38-year-old soundtrack composer/record producer/singer/songwriter works most every day.

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“It represents total freedom,” he says. “I built it so no one could ever take away my ability to make music. I spend most of my time [here]. I feel best about myself when I am making something. The more time I spend not doing things and looking around to see what I can do, that’s when I get dissatisfied.”

With his long neck, lanky 6-foot-1 frame and his brand of wide-eyed discovery and slight broken-heartedness, Andrews, who scored the neo-cult classic Donnie Darko andlast year’s Cannes Festival Camera d’Or winner Me and You and Everyone We Know, directed by Miranda July, seems as if he might have just walked out of July’s idiosyncratic film, or one of Wes Anderson’s for that matter.

“I am not 15 years old. I don’t want to hear people complain,” he says, adjusting his glasses and pushing his moppish hair from his face. “I want to see a more beautiful life. I want something to aspire to. I don’t think there’s anyone [who] isn’t aware of how ugly the world can be. So, why do you need to spread those thoughts? A lot of times people will say, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful,’ and it’s almost a knock. Like you have to do something that’s ugly and fucked up for it to be cool. What’s wrong with something beautiful and carved?”

Andrews, whose conversation is littered with words like tight, solid and stoked, graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in social science before recording a couple of albums in the ’90s for Virgin Records with a former band, The Origin. He made another six with soul-jazz collective the Greyboy Allstars and three more with DJ Greyboy. A few years back he made a pop album under the moniker Elgin Park. He never set out to score films.

“It was something he tripped into,” says director Jake Kasdan, who is Andrews’ friend and frequent collaborator. “His soundtracks are not informed by any of the clichés of the form, and are honest expressions of himself.”

These soundtracks, complete with Andrews’ bittersweet sense of irony, seem to be in sync with what could be described as a new genre of film and TV — projects that, like many films from the ’60s and ’70s, set out to celebrate a certain authenticity and existential exploration of their central characters.

It was Kasdan, a fan of the Greyboy Allstars, who first hired the group to score his 1998 debut, Zero Effect. Since then, Andrews has independently worked with the director on the TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, as well as the film Orange County, and Kasdan’s latest, The TV Set, a stark low-budget about a writer who has his TV pilot bought by a network and goes through the heartbreaking experience of getting it made.

“Another great virtue of his, for me in particular,” Kasdan adds via cell phone, “is that he’s great at writing music for comedies in a way that’s funny but not cute. For a show like Freaks and Geeks, that was a major part of that show, and something very difficult to find.”

“I think there’s a through line in my work that is a slightly sad space, sad but beautiful,” Andrews says, when asked to describe his own music. “That would be the one negative comment I can get when I am making music for a movie: ‘It’s too sad.’?”

But filmmakers, especially independent filmmakers, love Andrews’ ability to do almost everything himself.

“He’s a mad scientist,” Kasdan says, “a guy who plays every instrument, but really his instrument is the recording studio. [Usually] it’s just him running around playing all the instruments and one poor engineer trying to get it all down. It’s something to watch. He has a great set of players that he [sometimes] uses, but really the eye of the storm is Mike.”

Because of its limited budget, Andrews played all the instruments on Donnie Darko,including piano, which he taught himself to play after the director requested there be no guitars. It’s probably his best-known score, thanks to its Gary Jules cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” — a track Andrews recorded in his basement in less than an hour, but which went on to become a No. 1 hit on European radio and a KCRW favorite.

For Me and You and Everyone We Know he wrote all the thematic pieces in a week, but scored the entire film almost twice through before arriving at its final version.

“The idea was to make it very pedestrian and unmusicianlike, embedded and constructed around dialogue. Miranda has a very specific aesthetic and perspective; she wanted it to be as simple as possible: no technique,” he says of July, whom he dated briefly during the project. “We both wanted it to be magical and fantastic, made from instruments that everybody could buy at Sears or Kmart or RadioShack, so that’s what I used.”

Reluctant to discuss his personal relationship with July, Andrews will say that the filmmaker’s landscape and themes of people wanting to connect, connecting and then moving apart are ones he is interested in and explores in his own work.

When Andrews isn’t scoring films, he divides his time between producing other people’s albums and writing his own songs. He’s in the process of producing a third album for Gary Jules (whom he has known since Little League in their hometown of San Diego), who has produced albums for Brendan Benson and Metric and scored a number of animated projects for graphic-art star Geoff McFetridge, including this year’s Pepsi ONE ad. Last year, he spent six months touring intermittently with Inara George, whose album All Rise he also produced. And he’s gained a following through his monthlong residencies at Tangiers in Los Feliz, where visits by Jules and George and sought-after players like Beck/R.E.M. drummer Joey Waronker bring a level of musicianship and camaraderie that some are comparing to Jon Brion’s long-standing Friday nights at Café Largo.

Flattered by these comparisons, Andrews hopes that his Tangiers shows are not perceived as a scene. “There are so many people that I like to play music with. It isn’t ‘a scene’ where everyone looks alike. It’s a group of friends who care about the same things. I am too old to be a part of any ‘scene,’ for chrissake.”

His newly released album, Hand on String, is possibly his most personal work yet. The songs, beautiful and carved, were written on the sun porch adjacent to his kitchen, rather than inside the studio, and he videoed himself playing each tune as he wrote so that he could remember his finger placement on his open-tuned guitar and the way he felt at the moment. An apparent meditation on relationships falling apart, he insists that the collection is not about any one relationship, but rather a composite.

“At some point you reach a peace or understanding, and that’s what my music does for me. I could hide in my studio forever and make scores and be the invisible man. But I think that doesn’t solve any of my own emotional issues in the way that [working on] my record does. The premise was that no one was gonna hear it. It’s about a guy who is not 20 years old. I wasn’t trying to make it in a way that a 20-year-old could relate to. It was about specifically my situation and what would make me feel better, period. And it worked. My record is what gets me out of the house.”

Back at his studio, not long before his album’s release, Andrews steps outside to light his one cigarette of the day. “Obviously my record isn’t going to be a smash hit,” he says (though it’s already been embraced by KCRW). “I don’t even know why I am [releasing it]. Honestly, it’s at the urging of my close friends. Miranda was one of the people who said, ‘Be courageous, put out the stuff that is the most close to you. Expose that. That’s the most generous.’ She inspired me in that way. It’s a hard thing to put yourself out there. It’s a lot easier to work on film scores all day long. There’s no risk. And at some point I [became] ready to take the risk.”

He puts out his cigarette with the sole of his well-worn Converse, looking a bit like a McFetridge drawing himself, and eyes the ground before him.

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