Music : Aussie Ambience

With its lustrous score for Somersault, Decoder Ring emerges from Down Under

“Our job wasn’t to represent what was on screen, but to represent what wasn’t on the screen, which was the innocence and the beauty in the character,” guitarist Matt Fitzgerald says of the award-winning score he and his electro-rock band, Decoder Ring, whipped up for the recently released Australian film Somersault. The challenge the Sydney-based six-piece faced was finding a way to humanize the naïvely self-destructive behavior of 16-year-old Heidi (the divine Annie Cornish) who, after blundering an advance on her mother’s boyfriend, runs away from home to what Australians call “the Snow” (mostly because it’s so rare Down Under).

Decoder Ring: Australian group’s lush soundscapes evoke Brian Eno, Björk, and Krautrock.

“When we saw the film without music, the main character was somewhat unsympathetic because a lot of her actions are very spontaneous and sometimes quite confronting and there’s not necessarily a reason given for it,” Fitzgerald continues, his voice baritone and deeply accented in an Aussie upper-crusty sort of way (pretty much the opposite of Steve Irwin). “What we had to do was, I suppose, give a channel into her mind and maybe the innocence from which some of these actions come.”

Decoder Ring’s soundtrack efforts earned them an Australian Film Institute award for best original music score, another gig scoring Tony Krawitz’s film Jewboy, and now an agent here in the States to help them conquer Hollywood. It’s an impressive set of accomplishments for a band from a country with no tradition of experimental electronic music.

Their blend of analog synth orchestrations, indie-rock guitars, and live 16mm light shows isn’t easy to categorize. Their lush compositions evoke Brian Eno, Björk, and Krautrock and were born of an initial need to stretch beyond the borders of rock and electronica, to create music “that constantly combines things in ways that are new and original with the only aim sort of being to create songs that were deeply affecting just through the music.” For many listeners, Somersault will be a gateway drug to the band’s remarkably evocative soundscapes.

To depict the sexual awakening Heidi undergoes while sleeping her way through the winter ski community of Jindabyne, Somersault director Cate Shortland (also responsible for the upcoming Heath Ledger vehicle Candy, again with Cornish) knew she couldn’t rely on the traditional score full of stuffy, ominous strings. In an online letter about her experiences working with Decoder Ring, she said, “My idea with the music was always to create something out of found things — old music boxes and wind-up toys — to mirror Heidi’s obsession with stuff that other people throw away. All the stuff she uses to make sense of the world around her.” When Shortland’s editor Scott Gray passed her a Decoder Ring CD, she knew she had found Heidi’s musical soul.

“It was a real challenge, like unlocking a puzzle,” Fitzgerald says of his band’s first score, an intricate and ambient collection as multi-faceted and ever-changing as the snowflakes that fascinate Heidi. “Once we did that, everything made sense. I think that’s the secret to a good score, that it seems natural when it’s there, but it actually adds something to the film rather than just blankly representing what you’re seeing.” To free themselves from all distraction, Decoder Ring headed down the New South Wales coast to a fishing community called Kiama, where they holed up in what Shortland calls “a rambling farmhouse out of a Jane Austen novel.” It turned out to be necessary to find the language of Jindabyne.

“The landscape is so important in the film, we thought there’d be a value trying to place ourselves in a pastoral setting, too,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s this beautiful farm that’s in a valley between three hills and they’re all beautifully green and there’s a lake. That kind of environment kind of slows you down. It’s different than recording and then stepping out into the madness of the city. You just live what you’re doing 24/7. There’s no home or people to go back to.”

Decoder Ring feeds off of challenges. In fact, they grow not through experimentation, but by creating obstacles to overcome — as with Somersault. With Fractions, their second full-length, non-score album released in Australia now, they sought to break free from the constraints of cinema even as they tapped into the energy found while scoring Heidi’s journey.

“We wanted to do an album that had, I suppose, the emotional intensity and intimacy of Somersault, but at the same time with a rock album as much as we’re a rock band and an electronic album as much as we’re an electronic band,” Fitzgerald says. “When you step out to be a composer, you actually have a defined area in which to work — you have a story, characters, and a director — and you have these defined boundaries that are actually really fun to work in. Otherwise, you might be killed by the abundance of choice. But when we went back to make Fractions, we got to do something really broad and not put those limitations on ourselves.”

After a three-city stint in the States in March, along with some great turns at SXSW, Fitzgerald and Decoder Ring are revving up for what they know will come next. “We have a strong base here,” he says, “so it’s really time to have the next challenge, which is to come over to America to make some tiny dent in people’s impressions there.”

Scroll to read more Music Stories & Interviews articles

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.