Given that he and creative partner Ohad Benchetrit composed the soundtrack for Algonquin, a new dramatic comedy film set partly in the titular Ontario park, I feel obliged to ask Justin Small if he has ever visited Algonquin. He has. Some 30 years ago with his family, although his memories are understandably hazy.
“At one point they took us out at nighttime and did a wolf call,” Small remembers. “So they have a guy who does a wolf call, and the wolves respond in the far distance, which is kind of cool. It also keeps you awake at night because you’re a kid and you get scared!”
It is two days before Algonquin opens in Toronto, and Small has biked over to my house from his own west-end Toronto home. (It turns out I live below his sister and that we have friends in common.) He is stopping in on his way to Benchetrit’s studio where the duo is working on music for a documentary about the polar sea while his wife (and former Lullaby Arkestra bandmate) Kat Taylor-Small looks after their two-year-old daughter.
Both men are members of Toronto post-rock band Do Make Say Think, which will celebrate 20 years together in 2015. But the duo has developed a second career in recent years as film score composers. It’s a vocation they picked up as DMST’s touring schedule wound down and band members started families. (Small, 40, is the youngest member.)
The segue into film work was a natural one for Small and Benchetrit. Their band’s atmospheric and extended instrumentals (2009’s Other Truths contained just four tracks but runs over 43 minutes) are made for film. In fact, Small says that filmmakers had been using DMST songs as so-called temp tracks for their unfinished movies for years when the thought occurred that they could perhaps capitalize on that interest.
“We were hearing from editors and other people in film that they were getting composers to kind of do our music. And then we started to say, ‘Well, we’re available!’”
So Small and Benchetrit started hustling themselves. They landed work with well-known Canadian director Bruce McDonald on his film Hard Core Logo 2 (2010) and a variety of other indie films and documentaries. It proved to be fulfilling but challenging work, with the duo often struggling to bridge the communication gap between themselves as musicians and their filmmaking clients.
“They’re talking feel,” Small says. “They’re talking context in terms that are a little more abstract than chord names and changes and tempos. And that’s actually kind of fun sometimes. Making music for yourself is just expressing your soul.”
Algonquin director Jonathan Hayes contacted Small and Benchetrit through their website. The novice director intrigued the duo with the film’s plot (about a son virtually pressganged into helping his travel writer father pen a history of Algonquin, where the family had a cabin) and his initial desire to score his “quirky” film (Small’s word) with a Bollywood sound.
“That posed a challenge for us on a number of levels, notably, culturally. We’re just unable to play a lot of the instruments associated with making a believable Bollywood score. You can fake your way through it, but your ears are just going to know.”
Instead the duo decided to incorporate Indian sounds, like tabla drums and the sitar, into their Western palette of instruments. They also decided to channel the likes of Surfjan Stevens in order to achieve a “lighthearted cinematic feel” rather than “our dense, drone-y or maybe even sad-at-times” music.
“Our nature is to go for more expansive and emotional-sounding music,” Small says. “That’s what we gravitate towards naturally. So bringing out quirkiness is something that was really fun to do, because we don’t normally do that. When we sit down to write music, we don’t sit down to write quirky, funny music.”
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In between their various soundtrack gigs, Benchetrit and Small are also working with the other members of Do Make Say Think –David Mitchell, Charles Spearin, and James Payment – on the band’s next record. Set to be released by their long-time label Constellation Records next year to coincide with their 20th anniversary, the as-yet-untitled album is still in the early writing and production stages, according to Small.
“What I do know is that the ideas that are coming out are our best so far, and I think it’s because nobody cares to be cool anymore. It used to be that you had to really want to make this record work! People have got to really like it so that you can go on tour, because that’s all you’ve got! Now everybody’s got families and they’re getting older, and nobody needs to be cool anymore. We just make the music that we want to make.”
When the album does come out, do not expect Do Make Say Think to tour nearly as extensively as they did at the start of their career.
“We’re just not interested in doing the three-month slog through Eastern Europe to make a thousand dollars, sleeping on floors and stuff. Right now we’ve said we’re only going to do the sort of shows that are going to pay us, and we’re only going to go out two weeks at a time. Turns out, after 20 years of doing the band and doing tours like that, that eventually, if you stop touring, I guess we’re known enough that people do put those offers out and they really want you to come. I guess absence has made the hearts grow fonder a little bit.”
As we wrap up, I ask Small if he would ever consider taking his own family to Algonquin?
“I’m more of a cabin dude,” he admits. “I like to drink beer on a dock. That’s sort of my speed.”