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Digesting Smitri Keshari and Eric Schlosser’s new project The Bomb is a difficult thing to do. Even on a computer screen at midday, its immersive study of nuclear weaponry and existential dread is overpowering. Light constantly explodes across the screen, threatening everything, mingling with audio cutaways of dire warnings and autopsies of near-cataclysmic mistakes. Its aesthetic beauty is its most incongruous and alarming asset.
The Bomb isn’t made for the small screen, though. Starting tomorrow night at New York's Gotham Hall, it will be a multimedia installation. Through four shows in two nights, the disruptive imagery will be beamed onto eight screens, penning the audience in. In the center of it all will be electronic trio The Acid, performing the film’s score live while the images roll on-screen.
For the band themselves, it meant diving into that angst and fear and coming out with something subtle and challenging, a backdrop for disaster. “Theme I,” premiering on Noisey today, conjures much of this on its own. Its swirling chants and pin drops fall into a sinister downbeat, threatening to burst forward but never setting off. We spoke to The Acid’s Steve Nalepa—still in the studio, perfecting the live set—to talk about nuclear angst in 2016 and its influence on the band’s process.
Noisey: What are you up to in the studio today?
Steve Nalepa: We're doing run throughs offsite today. Tomorrow we're in the space running through everything and it's. They've got eight plasma screens set up from UVA all around, simulating the thirty foot projection screens. And then tomorrow at midnight, we can actually get into Gotham Hall and transfer everything over there and do this again tomorrow. And then run through four shows in two days!
Is it exciting or is it just stressful?
It is very exciting. Not that stressful. I'm six weeks in. I just had a baby girl. It's a little crazy having all of this prep work after just having a child.
So how did you get involved with The Bomb?
A friend actually reached out. Smitri [Keshari], the director, is a fan of The Acid and they actually reached out to us. She had this big vision that she had been talking about, wanting to do this project where it had a live score. Kind of creating a whole experience as opposed to just doing a traditional film situation. At the time, it was interesting as a starting point, because what they were talking about doing was very different than the normal way things go. It was a lot of bouncing ideas back and forth. So they started by putting a very rough cut together with some temp music and they bounced it back to us. We worked up some stuff to put in there then they re-edited based on what we were doing and then passed it back to us. It went back and forth like this for a while until finally things kind of coalesced and came together. The whole while, the plan was to have UVA stage this multi-screen projection situation, having us in the middle. They went through a bunch of different iterations that I saw of design potentials. It ended up with us in the middle of this eight-screen projection thing. Stanley Donwood, Radiohead's art director, basically took all this stuff. A lot of the stuff is old footage. They mined through two hundred hours of all of this old footage. When you see black and white footage and stuff from the fifties and sixties, the reality of it feels like, "Oh, that's a problem that was thirty, forty years ago. Why do we have to worry about it today?" So actually having Stanley do these treatments to a lot of them, now every frame of the film looks like a Radiohead cover or something! It's pretty incredible.
So why is it so pressing now?
Eric Schlosser wrote this brilliant book, the thing that started all of this, Command and Control. It goes over all these crazy accidents that have happened. A lot of people didn't know that some of this stuff was going on and you read it and you're getting really anxious. Every night, I couldn't figure out what it was. I realized: "Oh, I'm getting anxious because there's some heavy shit that's gone down that could have really turned into something." But he's not trying to just scare anybody. He's saying we have to come together; nothing's going to change unless people are actively working to finding a solution to this. With all the stuff going on in the world—terrorism, people trying to get ahold of these nuclear scientists, North Korea doing their testing—it feels very relevant. There's just a lot going on. When we first were starting on the project, Russia was really getting into it over the civil war going on in Ukraine. Apparently the threat level went up to as high as it had been in terms of the nuclear thing in a long time. Hopefully that's stabilized a little bit. But there's always some new threat. They had locked picture and they were all done. I was working with them to do the fine tuning on the audio mix of the whole thing and then literally, that same day was the day that North Korea did their nuclear weapons test. So it definitely feels like this is not a static piece of work. I was just talking to the guys in UVA today and they were saying that the plans are to do this in some other cities as well. If something happens today, we can just add some of this new footage in, just to keep it current. It's such a pressing thing right now. It's definitely a very real concern. It's looming in the background.
How do you write that angst into a score like that?
The reason they reached out to us was because of our last record, Liminal and we were working on that album, what I really liked about that was that we were all working on being really centered. Part of what we did sonically on that record was really having extreme moments where you really are pushing things to a really aggressive place but then always holding back. So even though you're staring into the abyss, at the core is this held space that's really calm and centered; this idea that you take your listener right up to the edge, but your holding their hand the whole time. We tried to do a similar thing with this. Yes, this is an incredibly pressing issue that gives us lots of reason to have concern; there's a lot of anxiety and angst and dumbfoundedness. But we wanted to make sure that we injected it with hope. This was originally as a method to help humanity, to harness the power of the sun and create a way for us to try to have a more clean way of dealing with energy on this planet. Somehow it got hijacked by the powers that be and became who's got the bigger weapon and the bigger control. It spiralled out. We tried to mirror that, not just making it doom and gloom but also there's hope, this potential to get back to what we got into this for in the beginning. A source of power as opposed to weaponizing.
How difficult is it structurally to go from four minute tracks to an hour long score?
Well, there's essentially different chapters in the film. In our first meetings with Eric and Smitri, they had a bunch of ideas. They had these different concepts for what they wanted to do—establish it first with this NASA footage of the earth to put us in position. They had some temp music ideas; they were going back and forth. We realized that the stuff we were creating that was resonating the most with them was stuff when we actually got away from trying to write for the picture and went back to the process that we used to just write ideas to begin with. At one point we were finding ourselves writing this stuff and it wasn't feeling genuine. We were writing through to have this breakthrough where we got to a point. There was one stretch where Ry was on tour and Adam and I got together and we were trying to work on this one song for the film to try and finesse it. Something wasn't working about it. Eventually it was like, let's scrap this. Let's just start a new song, let's work on it for an hour, and when we start to slow down we'll save it and get a new one. Let's get some rapid fire, let's make a bunch of ideas. We did that and we wrote ten new songs over the next three days and Ry came back. He really resonated with them. So then we had a whole new big body of work that we'd created and we revisited. “Where can we slot this stuff into the project that makes sense? This actually would work really well for this scene…” It was a big switch—when we moved away from that, we just wrote a bunch of new music, see what works with the scenes and just evolve them from there. They really reacted to some of those new tracks and they edited around them. It really worked, but it was a process, a lot of back and forth. A real collaboration from everyone involved. The film as it is now, the way it's going to be presented, is very different to just the one channel picture that we were creating and working on together. As soon as it's between two screens or four screens or all eight screens. One image, sometimes it's alternating, sometimes they break down and zoom in on a quarter of a frame, on each picture, adding all the animation on top. It's really a unique process and it's really enjoyable. You don't realize - you listen and watch through these scenes over and over again and you're almost getting numb to the fact that you're doing the accidents scene and it's just terrible explosion after explosion. And then after a couple of hours of being down in the studio and listening to it really loudly…
There’s some strange noise here. How are you going to recreate this stuff live as a four-piece?
Once we wrote a score and everyone approved it, we basically made a 55 minute cut of a film. That was the starting point. Then we had to go back in. In our live shows, we try to do everything completely live. We all agreed when we were starting this, we brought in Jens who plays drums and keys and sings and he's such a talented musician. We don't need to have backing tracks. Because when Ry and Adam and I first started The Acid, when we were figuring out how we were going to play this stuff, we had to make a real choice: do we do this live? Adam's got a DJ background and I do as well. It was like, "we could play back some of the drum tracks." But having Jens who's incredible, metronomic, Berklee school of music drum genius. He can actually play all these complicated rhythms we'd written and I chopped everything out from the actual recordings and loaded them into this kit. So we're actually playing everything completely live, but we're using the sounds that we used in the studio. For example, some of the synth sounds that we used are from these vintage keyboards that I'm not necessarily going to bring out on the road with us, but going back through we recreated and made sampler instruments that I'm actually playing. So it is the sound of the base that we used on the record, but I'm not bringing out some of the keyboards that I used. So yeah, I had a second monitor and I had the film playing. In our shows we don't really have click tracks and stuff like that—we're not locked to any kind of timeline, we're doing it live. But with this, we actually had to put in clicks and count-ins and things like that so that we know, "Ok, this is when the change is gonna come because the picture is changing."
Alex Robert Ross is a writer based in Brookyn. Follow him on Twitter.
VICE is a supporting editorial partner of 'The Bomb' and Tribeca Film Festival.