You’ve probably already seen The Hunger Games a million times by now. Read every magazine piece, watched every YouTube video. Have you listened to the soundtrack yet? Probably.
But if not, you should. The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 and Beyond stands as one of the great film soundtracks of recent years. It, like T-Bone Burnett’s soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, as well as every soundtrack for every Quentin Tarantino film ever created, is a narrative in its own right, allowing the listener to know and live in the world of the film long after the screen goes dark. The album boasts talent like Taylor Swift, The Civil Wars, Kid Cudi, The Decemberists, Arcade Fire, and Neko Case, creating a rich tapestry true to the dystopian Appalachian core of both the Hunger Games film and the books.
I can’t stop listening to it.
Greg Wells, Burnett’s co-producer on Songs From District 12, is a producing phenom in his own right. His resume reads like a Who’s Who of Pop and Rock. He broke through with his first hit, Celine Dion’s “The Reason,” which helped Let’s Talk About Love sell more than 30 million copies worldwide. In the years to come, he would essentially be the band on Mika’s “Grace Kelly” and Katy Perry’s “Waking Up in Vegas,” and his skilled musicianship and diverse taste in music is what has allowed him to partner with Snoop Dogg and Adam Lambert with equal success. I had the chance to speak with Wells on the phone from London where he’s working on his next big project, and we talked about what it was like to create music for the soundtrack to a global phenomenon.
Teresa Jusino: How familiar were you with the Hunger Games books before you took on this project?
Greg Wells: Not at all! I usually have a couple of projects going on at the same time, and between that and having three kids, I’m just so busy I don’t take in a lot of new stuff that doesn’t get put right in front of me. So I was somehow unaware of the massive phenomenon that is that book series.
TJ: I was going to ask if there are any kids in your life that were already fans of it. Have any of your kids read them? Or are they too young?
GW: They are almost too young to have read them. My oldest had heard of it, and he knew that his school has a copy of it. He said a lot of his friends love the book and have read it, so now of course my kids are excited to see the movie.
I got played a very long trailer that I don’t think was ever released, a ten-minute trailer that was put together and really gave me a huge feel for what the movie is, and the arc of the whole story and I was so sucked in. It was an incredible little vignette from that movie, and I was pretty much just like, “OK, I’m in! This is amazing. There’s nothing like it.”
Then I met with T. Bone Burnett, whom I was a massive fan of, we clicked, and he graciously invited me to start working on a couple of different things with him for the soundtrack, and I was thrilled to be asked and said yes to everything he brought my way.
TJ: You worked on the radio-friendly version of the Taylor Swift/Civil Wars single, “Safe and Sound.” Talk to me a little about that process.
GW: T-Bone wrote that song directly with Taylor and The Civil Wars, so the version that’s been up on iTunes already is the version that’s in the movie, and it’s beautiful. Very stripped down. I believe it was written and recorded very quickly. It’s very raw, and captured all the right emotions. So it was T-Bone’s idea to bring in another producer that was more in line with Top 40 radio, which sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not, but I made it to the top of his list of who he should talk to. And he said, “I’m not going to come watch you work, I’m not going to sit over your shoulder. I think you should just take these vocals and take this main acoustic guitar track, and just do what feels right to you. When you feel like the cake is baked, or baked enough, I’ll come by your studio and give it a listen.”
So that’s exactly what I did, I just followed my nose. And that’s pretty much what I do with whoever I’m working with. I try not to overthink things, I just sort of lead with my gut feeling. There were some rhythm elements in his original version that I really liked that sneak in toward the end, kind of a rolling, marching snare drum thing, and I thought maybe we can start the song with something like that. It was important to me to have the same kind of intention and feeling that his version did. I didn’t want it to sound like apples and oranges. I just wanted to give it a bit more momentum. Then they came by, and really liked it, and everyone, including Taylor, encouraged me to take it even further, and up the energy even more. And I’m quite proud with how it turned out.
TJ: You also co-wrote and produced Kid Cudi’s “The Ruler and the Killer,” which is absolutely the highlight of the whole soundtrack. Walk me through the creation of that song.
It was really just as good as writing and recording sessions get. The three of us all showed up in my studio Kid Cudi, T-Bone, and myself. And you really couldn’t have three more different people sitting in the same room to work on music, and we were all kind of laughing about that. But without much fanfare, we just started. I had put down a couple of different drum beats, and they both liked the ideas. Cudi in particular gravitated toward one that’s kind of a reinvention of the famous old Bo Diddley beat. And the origin of that, I believe, comes from this old Benny Goodman hit, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” with Gene Krupa playing these great jungle beats. So I did my own version of it, kind of a rockier version of it, and he loved that. He thought that’s what we should build the song on. And he took out a guitar he brought with him, and just started jamming. We really weren’t cerebral with it at all. We just started experimenting and trying stuff. T-Bone and I picked out certain moments in his guitar part that we really liked, and the three of us agreed on what the standout moments were and kind of stitched that together.
Then Cudi would leave the room for about five or ten minutes and come back in and say “I think I got verse one! Let me just hold the mic and I’ll do it right here in the control room.” So he did it right in front of us. One take. Everything was one take. He never re-did anything. And I thought he would, but he just say “OK, that was it.” Like Frank Sinatra never did overdubs, it was a bit like that! [laughs] And I loved it! I’m not used to working with people like that. You know, everyone wants to hone it in a bit, and he was just like “That’s what it is.”
I played some bass on it, and T-Bone played this kind of very vibey little acoustic guitar pass, he did the same kind of beat, he just jammed on acoustic guitar over this track. And pretty much everything he played in the first take was just this great little, fantastically weird little notes. They’re quite featured in the final mix I did on the track. And then I did a mix of that, we listened to it and lived with it. Cudi came in to tune up the guitars a bit…and we had it. It was quick.
I love how kind of quirky the thing is, and none of us knew we were gonna write a song that sounded anything like that! It’s a weird little menacing song. And Cudi just really tried to dial in the Donald Sutherland character in the movie. It’s very oppressive and messed up evil. That’s the perspective of the singer in that song, and I like how creepy we got it.
TJ: What’s your dream collaboration that you haven’t had a chance to have yet?
GW: In my head it kind of goes to people who are dead now. I mean, I always wanted to work with Kurt Cobain, which is probably a ridiculous thing to say, but that would’ve been amazing.
In terms of people who are alive and breathing [laughs], I think Bjork has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard, and I think that Thom Yorke is a pretty compelling music-maker.
I just kind of marvel at anyone who can really concisely and simply tell a story you haven’t heard before, which is really hard to do. I have to say, I’m lucky enough to have worked with a lot of people on that list, just from having done this for so long, which is really a thrill. From the Count Basie Orchestra to Rufus Wainright. Getting to work with Rufus was amazing. When I heard Mika, I flipped out and got to work with him. When I heard All-American Rejects, I mean, I always flipped out over their stuff, and just thought “I’ll never get to work with them, but it would be great to get the chance to!” Then that call came in…
I don’t mean to sound arrogant. [laughs] It’s just that I’m an old man! I’ve had the chance to do a lot!
Greg Wells is clearly giddily in love with music, and the industry is better off for it. The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 and Beyond is available wherever music is sold.
Teresa Jusino is obsessed with “The Ruler and The Killer” and is mad that it didn’t actually get used in The Hunger Games movie. She was selected as one of the Top 11 Geek Girls of 2011 at the Geek To Me blog at Chicago Redeye, and her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com. Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres; she is the editor of Beginning of Line, the Caprica fan fiction site; and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, which is on sale now wherever books are sold! She is Geek Girl Traveler when she travels. 2012 will see Teresa’s work in two upcoming non-fiction anthologies, and her “Moffat’s Women” panel will be featured at Geek Girl Con in August! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, “like” her on Facebook, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.