Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's Matthias Bossi on Improvising a Live Score for WaxWorks at This Year's SFIFF

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WaxWorks, a silent German Expressionist film from 1924 will be reimagined with a modern score of musical madness...
Honoring the long-held tradition of coupling together contemporary musicians with classic silent films, this year's SF International Film Festival has forged a psychedelic, improvisational aficionado dream team, sure to shock, scintillate, and maybe even offend.

Mike Patton, of Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, and Peeping Tom, among other strange sublime bands, has joined up with three genre-bending percussionists, Scott Amendola (Scott Amendola Trio, Nels Cline, Jeff Parker, Charlie Hunter), William Winant (John Cage, Mr. Bungle, John Zorn, Lou Reed) and Matthias Bossi (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, The Book of Knots, Skeleton Key) to perform an original "score" for WaxWorks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett), a silent, German fantasy-horror flick from 1924.

The film is episodic, following the travails of a nameless poet who is asked to write the backstory for three of his bosses' wax models, namely Harun al-Rashid, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper. It's renowned for director Paul Leni's visionary set design, which toggles between the grotesque and the gorgeous.

We recently caught up with Matthias Bossi to learn more about the lunatic musical landscape he's helped create for the live world premiere on Tuesday, May 7. Word on the street says it's going to be largely improvisational, so gird your loins for a hefty dose of musical malevolence.

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Matthias Bossi performs in Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Here's hoping the foursome incorporates this "look" for the WaxWorks performance
The story goes that while you were touring in Skeleton Key in 2002 you guys crashed your van on Interstate 10, outside of Joshua Tree on Christmas Day, and the Sleepytime Gorilla crew came and rescued you in the desert.

"That was super crazy. We had just spent a trippy night watching John Carpenter's The Thing in Buzz Osborne's basement. We were set to meet SGM on the 27th in Austin to resume our tour, but on Christmas we totaled our van. I busted up my ribs and head, but we were lucky -- we walked away. We called those guys and they came and got us.

[Heady pause.]

It was how I met my wife. [She was SGM's violinist.] "Nurse Carla dressing our wounds while we convalesced."

I know you originally played the violin -- what is it about drumming or percussion that really turns you on? Why are you drawn to it?

I think it came along at the right time in my life, when I was hating the violin. I used to coat my bow in peanut butter. My brother's friend gave me a drum set in the third grade and I was obsessed with it. I began a journey inside the molten core of the drums. My parents are both musicians, and they made it happen. And who knows if I could offer the same amount of enthusiasm. It's a lot. It's loud! You're experimenting. It sounds like dropping a box of screwdrivers down the stairs.

You don't just consider yourself a drummer though, you've got quite a few hats you're always donning.

In the interest of staying employed and un-hungry I've done a million things. But it always come back to that. [Drumming]. I enjoy it being my sharpest tool. But yes, I'm a composer, a piano player, a singer, an actor.

So what drew you to this project? Are you someone who digs silent films? This genre?

WaxWorks is so silly and so kitschy, and we can push and pull it. [With the original score] every emotion is telegraphed by this dramatic saloon solo piano. But for us, the potential to make it frightening is possible with the horrifying gyrations of all of our past projects. We could get dark... I know we'll get dark.

It has three chapters and we can play to that advantage. There are some really different moods that come in and out. There might be lyrics. There might be vocalizations. One learns not to ask those questions.

The film is like adding another member to the band. It's another element that can enter the conversation. It's one of the many improvised gigs we've all played, it's just in this case, the fifth member is a movie itself. It's old and cranky and grainy and inflexible, unlike us.

So how did this particular group come together? I know you've all overlapped in one way or another throughout the years.

I got asked by the festival to put something together, Sean Uyehara called me up and said, "I'm thinking about WaxWorks, what do you think? We'll have three drummers and throw Patton on the top.

Percussion encompasses so much. There's orchestral stuff, bass drums, symphony, vibraphones, and regular drum sets. An electronic rig, a whole rack of gongs. It's gonna be super dangerous. There's going to be a lot of improvisation as there should be with this group of guys. Scotty and I have had a duo for a bunch of years. I've known Patton a long time, too -- he released my record in the early 2000s and he's known my wife Carla forever. There are connections. It's a big secretive mess. We'll go at it like a prize fight.

What is/was/will be the brainstorming process?
We'll show up at Scotty's house and draw out a compelling round map of the film. And the rest is up to the gravitational forces of the ever spinning planet.

Tuesday, May 7 at 8:30 p.m., Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street, S.F. Buy Tickets, $27.

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