Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The Invincible Czars Interview: Nosferatu comes to the Rio (and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, too!)

Nosferatu turned 100 last year. The silent German classic -- the first ever adaptation of Dracula, made without the authorization or involvement of the estate of the novel's author, Bram Stoker -- has spawned two remakes (Werner Herzog's 1979 adaptation featured Klaus Kinski in the role of the monster; Robert Eggers version of the story is set for release in 2024); it also was the source text for a meta-fictional narrative about the making of the film (2000's Shadow of the Vampire, which posits that the star, Max Schreck, played by Willem Dafoe, really was a vampire) as well as this year's The Last Voyage of the Demeter, which elaborates on one specific chunk of the story, involving the titular vampire's transit from Romania to England. The vampire makeup also inspired Petyr from What We Do In the Shadows and Reggie Nalder's "Mr. Barlow" from the Tobe Hooper version of Salem's Lot (among others, no doubt! ...but see below). Suffice it to say that the 1922 film is incredibly important to horror history. 

Shamefacedly I here confess that I have seen it to completion only a couple of times. Once, I believe, it was accompanied by a live score (possibly by Ear of Newt?); this was some 20 years ago. So this Saturday's screening at the Rio Theatre has a remedial quality to it for me, made even more exciting by the band that are accompanying it, Austin, Texas' The Invincible Czars, whose bandname itself sounds like it could be the title of a horror movie (perhaps, ala Andy Warhol's Dracula, with vampiric aristocrats being hunted by Bolshevik peasants? Maybe with a side-serving of Rasputin?). 

So who are these Czars? What can you learn from an interview with them that could not be better served by exploring their Nosferatu score (or their Cabinet of Dr. Caligari one) on bandcamp? I don't really know, but it didn't stop me from trying. 

Invincible Czars in their current manifestation (as will be seen at the Rio), L-to-R: Hampton Rattan - woodwinds, keyboards; Phil Davidson - violin, glockenspiel, keyboards; Louis Landry - drums, sound effects; Josh Robins - guitar, bass guitar, sound effects; Skunk Manhattan - keyboards, bass guitar

Czar Josh Robins indulged a few of my questions via email. I am in italics, he is not. 

Allan: So if I've got this right, you did your first live score, for Nosferatu, in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse around 2003...? Tell me how that came together? (Does it correspond in any way with Kier-la Janisse's involvement there? She has a long history with Vancouver cinema, and some slight history with me - - I'm on the folk horror box set in the extras for Clearcut...). 

Josh: I do remember Kier-la from our early days at the original Drafthouse! Those details aren't quite right --- we were playing rock clubs and opening for weird music acts in Austin starting in 2003 but our first silent film soundtrack show for the Alamo wasn't until summer of 2006 for the film Aelita, Queen of Mars. The Alamo had been doing this for years with other bands and the trend had waned. We were part of a second wave of bands doing it and we seem to have been the only ones to keep doing it and certainly the only ones touring nationally.

We did several other titles over the years and specifically avoided Nosferatu for a long time because virtually every arthouse cinema in the country has had a local band, DJ or orchestra perform with it for Halloween. We're not even the only ones in Austin. We didn't want to compete with that. But after years of touring with lesser-known silent films, we'd gotten so many requests to do Nosferatu (and Metropolis) that we finally did it in 2015. It was the 7th silent film in our list of 9 that we've done over the years. In order they are:

Aelita, Queen of Mars
Der Mude Tod (Destiny)
The Unknown
Martyrs of the Alamo
The Wind
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
Phantom of the Opera
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Thanks for setting me straight. So 2022 was a big year for
Nosferatu. Any thoughts on the film or its influences? Were you keen to see The Last Voyage of the Demeter? Happy that Eggers is remaking Nosferatu (with Willem!!). Did you dig Shadow of the Vampire? If you have any thoughts on the film, its progeny, or its importance, do share... take this question where you will!

You got it - 2022 was a huge year for us and the film since it was the centennial. We're glad to see Robert Eggers re-remaking it after Werner Herzog did the same thing in the 70s and I suspect we'll wind up doing several tie-in shows when his version is released.

I'm not a film scholar so I can only speak to the picture's importance as a fan of silent and classic cinema. It certainly stands out as the first adaption of Dracula. I've heard that the filmmakers took some liberties than resulted in now-common aspects of vampire lore (perhaps the sun killing the vampire?).  I've watched a lot of silent films and Nosferatu has better pacing and acting than many from this early era of film - especially considering that much of it was lost and has been restored over the last 100 years. If nothing else, it's a great document of what filmmaking was like in the 1920s. So much of it seems very basic or even trite to us now, but people in 1922 didn't have the 101 years of cinema to inform their tastes that we do now. To them, this movie was probably terrifying!

The character Hutter doesn't get much love when I ask audiences which characters they like best. But the actor who played him did a fantastic job. He's great at looking scared, happy and he plays the doofus quite well. Max Schreck's make-up, costume and presence helped kicked off 100 years of seemingly unwavering interest in vampire mythology worldwide.

I did like Shadow of the Vampire! Been a long time!

What do you think of the Herzog version, and do you pay homage to the Popul Vuh for that score at any point? (I haven't noticed it yet but I'm only just listening to the score for the first time...).

I've never actually watched the entire Herzog version so I can't really speak to this other than to say that it had no influence on us. None of us even knew about it until after we'd created our first draft of our soundtrack.

On your website, you mention Secret Chiefs 3, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Zappa, Primus, Devo, and so forth as musical touchstones, but listening to the score for Nosferatu I also hear European/ Romanian folk, and maybe some of the "folkier" John Zorn projects - Bar Kokhba...? Was there a specific ethnic music you drew on for the score? Is this an aspect of what you do - the influence or traditional European musics - or was it score-specific...?

Here's the 2022 version of the music we released last year:

We do love those bands and hope to one day say we've played with them all! We used Bela Bartok's versions of several Romanian folk dances in our first draft of Nosferatu but apparently Boosey and Hawkes claims to now own those melodies so we wrote similar-sounding original tunes for our 2022 version to avoid legal issues.

We do like Eastern Euro music but we're not scholars or even pseudo-experts in that regard either. We do seem to be good at creating our own brand of spooky textures. Fantomas' Delirum Cordia was a big influence on this score. I love Trevor Dunn's long bass notes on that album. Scary! The score for Children of the Corn was a big influence, too.

I would be remiss if I did not ask which period of Zappa you are drawn to.

My favorite era of Zappa is still The Mothers mid 60s period. Louis and Phil, though, like the Hot Rats era!

Ooh, Hot Rats, duly noted. So... Will what we hear at the Rio be exactly what we hear on the bandcamp? Have the players changed at all? Has the score been tweaked in any way? (Is there any room for improvisation in what you do?).

I don't think our 2022 version is available on Bandcamp. The version on our 2022 DVD and other streaming services would require a much bigger touring ensemble to pull off note-for-note. The 2022 version is on Spotify:

We've been operating more like a collective for the last seven years and the line-up that was in place when we created the score isn't the same. That said, most of our initial draft that we performed from 2015 - 2019 was written by me and our violinist Phil Davidson. In 2021, we seriously re-vamped it with help from the membership at the time including keyboardist Skunk Manhattan, bassist Henry Vines, flutist Katie O'Neil and drummer Eoghan McCloskey.

(The 2021 revamp lineup)

Many of the sound effects came about accidentally but the sound we use for Count Orlok's powers of possession and the whispering were all in the original draft. The score is ever-evolving and lately we've taken to adding audience participation and even playing up the humor by making comments throughout the show.

We pretty much play our scores the same way each night. Timing is crucial for the show. There's a little wiggle room to improvise but most of our improvisation isn't planned -- it happens if we're a little slow or a little fast or someone makes a mistake and has to roll with it. We've gotten pretty good at making the unintentional sound intentional.

Is physical media available of the
Nosferatu score available? God help me... is there VINYL? A t-shirt? WILL THERE BE MERCH?

Yes, but we have trouble getting across the border with merchandise like DVDs and CDs because they require up-front taxes regardless of whether we sell anything. This year, we finally got smart and had t-shirts and posters printed in Canada.

You can download both our Nosferatu and Dr. Caligari videos with our soundtracks from our web site for whatever price you want!

Tell me about the
Caligari kickstarter?

Well - it raised $4500 more than we thought it would and allowed us to make DVDs and give our backers some special stuff - colored hoodies, metal pins, etc. etc. We are super grateful and couldn't have afforded to tour like we are without it. We need to figure out how to make this more Canada-friendly because we love playing there.

Caligari and Nosferatu are VERY different film experiences. Do you have a preference between them? How many times have you performed live to each film? Do you draw on different influences for each film? (Which was harder to score?).

Right now I like playing Caligari more because it's new!

Phil (violin) and I have performed Nosferatu well over 150 times over the years and though the music has evolved, it hasn't changed drastically in tone or style much.

We did an early draft of Caligari in 2019 in preparation for the centennial in 2020 but the shutdown foiled our plans. But, we did perform that version about 25 times in the writing process. And if course we watched it even more in the re-writes this year.

Our Caligari soundtrack is also the most collaborative thing we've ever done. Nosferatu began with me improvising ideas and sharing with others. Caligari began with group improvising and writing sessions between me, Henry Vines and Aaryn Russell. All our ideas got mixed together and it's hard to say who wrote what in many cases!

Yes, we do specifically use different influences for each film. For Caligari, we listened to Angelo Badalamenti, Bear McCreary and my favorite -- Bernard Herrmann.

We also used a tune I wrote called "Return of the Pink Elephants" for Dr Caligari's theme. Here's the original:

Any history with Vancouver we should note? (Have you played here before?).

This'll be our third time ever.

The first was in 2017 on what has come to be known as the Tour of Tumult on which Phil broke a vertebra and I endured a month of sitting in the van and performing with my ex-wife who was in the process of leaving me for our new bass player while we were on the tour. Haha! I can laugh about it now but it was awful at the time. Rachel at the Rio was very helpful, cool and professional at a time when I was struggling to keep it together. For that and other reasons the Rio is among our very favorite places we've ever played.

I didn't let that difficult initial visit ruin the experience. I'd always wanted to see Vancouver because I've loved so many bands from the region - particularly NoMeansNo and The Showbusiness Giants and that entire early 90s scene. (I know NMN were from Victoria but Vancouver seems to be the nearest big city, right? They stayed at my houses in Austin a few times in the 2000s.)

Actually Nomeansno [I capitalize it differently, but I do not know if there is a "right" way] kind of got claimed by Vancouver, at some point. So you're right, kinda! But coming back to
Nosferatu... who designed the poster that I see in the Rio lobby (and on your home page?) - is that a vintage design? Will you have prints of it for sale?

Our silent film art is all made by Leah Lovise, an artist in Austin! Nosferatu was the first one she did. That was in 2015. Then she did Jekyll & Hyde when we brought it back. That might be my favorite. I loved how she wrote our name on it and it became our logo. 

And yes, we'll have black and white screen prints for sale for Caligari and Nosferatu. We'll also have them in Toronto and Ottawa in October. Tour itinerary:

We couldn't get it together for the color prints this year --- for some reason, we just had a difficult time preparing to launch this year and had to drop some balls just to get the van moving.

What was the origin of the name "the Invincible Czars." (Have you ever scored silent Russian cinema? Why Czars?).

When the original lineup formed in late 2002, we intended to get more into the eastern Euro thing. Our bass player at the time, Tom Kimzey, suggested we be called The Czars but the name was taken. So we thought we could just add a descriptor to the front. We debated hundreds of words. Eventually we booked a first show and when the venue pressed me for a final band name I picked "Invincible " because it sounded ridiculous and tough. I figured we could change it later if we wanted but we never did.

Anything I've missed that you want to add...?

People ask us often if we've considered getting into modern-day film scoring. We absolutely have and would love to do it more often. In fact, until our tours started getting so big, I thought the silent films were just a step in the direction of contemporary film music. We love performing live but it'd be fun to score more new films or even games.

Thanks, Josh! To buy tickets (cheaper online than at the door!) or to get more information, see the Rio Theatre's website... And thanks to the Rio's Rachel Fox for setting this up!

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