Dhani Harrison on 'Beautiful Creatures,' the RZA, and Abbey Road
Between promoting the latest album from his band thenewno2, scoring the movie version of the YA-lit hit Beautiful Creatures, and collaborating with the Wu-Tang Clan, Dhani Harrison has been a busy man lately. We caught up with the son of the Quiet Beatle to find out more about about what he’s been up to.
Speaking on the phone from Los Angeles, Harrison discussed everything from recording at Abbey Road and being in the studio with the RZA to remembering the late Ravi Shankar.
It’s probably the only interview namechecking Catfish Keith that you’ll read all day. Check out the full Q&A below:
EW: So, how did the Beautiful Creatures gig come about?
HARRISON: We played a show for NPR. It was the fear of missing out, our most recent record that came out back in August. We played the whole record from start to finish, and it was heard by some people. Mary Ramos, who’s an excellent music supervisor — we owe her a lot. She really found us. She passed along our music to the music editor, and he was really into it, because he’s really into melodies and stuff. He preferred more of a melodic score, a traditional orchestral score that had a band element in it for the movie. So I think we were just what he was looking for. And I think they really stuck their neck out for us to get us the job, because obviously Jon [Sandoff, composer and thenewno2 member] has done a lot of these things before, and, you know, [band member and producer] Paul Hicks is a mix genius. But as a band, we’d never done something like this before. So they vouched for us, and they really gave us freedom to do whatever we wanted and supported us. And we’re really thankful for them, because what we got left with in the end is a really great score. It really challenged us, but it played right into our strengths.
Were you a fan of the book before all this?
I hadn’t read the book, no, but the first time I heard of Beautiful Creatures, I was sat down and shown one of the first-first edits of it, and I instantly just loved it. I thought it was great. There was a side to it that was not the same of other genre films. I guess it was the writing of [the movie’s director and screenwriter] Richard LaGravenese. He’s such a genius. The take and everything — and the cast is just fantastic. I just got sucked in. I love all the newcomers and I’m a huge fan of Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons and Viola Davis. And you know, Emma Thompson’s like the best. How could you not be into it?
Plus, the whole magical world thing really lent itself to our style of music: kind of starting off in this small town — blues, swampy, kind of delta, stompy, Dixie kind of music, and then expanding into this great big orchestral arrangement It was really something that was very interesting, something we really want to do.
So, explain to me the origin of “swamptronica,” the genre tag you’ve given your score…
There’s this one scene where Viola Davis is traveling through a swamp, and we were kinda like, “We need some swampy blues, but we want some atmospheric electronica.” I looked at Paul, and I was like, “swamptronica”? And he was like, “Haha, that’s funny.” And the director Richard loved the term so much. I think swamptronica is kind of a good way of describing the kind of feeling of this town. Because it’s modern day, so it’s not like some sort of O Brother, Where Art Thou? — it’s not like a traditional blues track. It’s more current, where it’s sort of a contemporary electronic swampy delta blues.
Did you listen to other soundtracks for inspiration?
You know, Jon [Sadoff, composer] and Paul had more experience with [working on movie scores]. This one day, I got really stuck for inspiration. I ended up at a local pub of mine in England where they have music nights, and I came across this old guy who I listened to years and years ago who I haven’t heard for ages — a guy called Catfish Keith — and I just saw what he was doing that night, and it was like a light bulb went off in my head. And that was where my style for the band arrangement really came from. I have to give credit to him — the instruments he was playing, and his style of playing. And he was such a nice guy, so I sat around with him and talked after the show. He really gave me the strength to do the band arrangements. Because you know, John and Paul are just so talented in their respect. So I had to think about what I could bring to the table, and that day was such a big inspiration. I have to give a hat’s off to Catfish.
Had you or your band been wanting to score a movie before this opportunity?
Yeah, really a lot. We’d been waiting for this chance. And it can either not come or it can take 40 years to try and get a chance like this. So the fact that we were trusted with such a big job so early on, and that we showed that we could just do it hands-down, it really opens us up to this different world. And created this monster as well. [laughs]
If they filmed sequels to the movie, would you be up for doing the score for those as well?
Oh, absolutely — I’d do anything that Richard would do. He’s such a lovely guy. Anything he’d ever need me for, I’d be there in a second. He’s such a great pal.
Do you have plans to do more movie scores?
As of yet, we’re still just looking for options. Anyone who wants to give us options, that’s great! We’re about to go on tour with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Once we finish this little tour — and you know, I’ve got a side-project album that I’m working on — but yeah, I hope to do more films sometime this year. Doing them as a three-piece with the band is really fun. We have a great time when we write together. I’m actually sitting on my rehearsal space right now — all of my band is sitting on their stools ready to start playing. So we’re all here everyday, ready to go!
You recorded the score at London’s famed Abbey Road studios, which you have an obvious connection to. How was that experience for you personally?
Really great. I’ve been there a lot, of course. Theoretically, I’ve been there with my father and his friends through many different things that they’ve worked on. And Paul’s obviously spent 13 years there doing engineering and mixing. And I’ve worked there a lot for sort of Beatles stuff, we did the Rock Band stuff there. So I’m used to being there, but it’s the first time recording an orchestra of something we’ve written. It was like a rite of passage. It’s a really special feeling, and I’m honored to have been able to do it.
I saw that you thanked Ravi Shankar in the album’s liner notes.
Yeah, just as we were finishing this whole thing off, Ravi passed away. And we thought since that was the last little thing being done, the artwork, we dedicated it to him because of everything that he’s done for us musically — and he’s just family. He’s family.
Your Fistful of Mercy buddy Ben Harper helped out on the Beautiful Creatures project as well. What’s the current status of Fistful of Mercy?
Yeah, I mean, we’re on a sort of like — that was such a one-off thing. If it happens again, it happens. You know, Ben and Joe [aka Joseph Arthur, FoM’s third member] are so busy with their respective bands, it’s kind of hard to get us all in the same place. But I’m sure at some point in the next few years it’ll probably happen.
Speaking of musical friends, the RZA makes an appearance on the most recent thenewno2 album, and you’ve worked with the Wu-Tang Clan before. How’d that relationship come about?
We became friends through a mutual friend. And then they [the Wu-Tang Clan] wanted permission to use a cover version of a riff for 8 Diagrams. I gave them permission, and they said, “Well, okay, will you come down and play the guitar in it?” So I ended up playing guitar on a couple tracks, and one of them RZA saved for his solo album that last came out, Digisnacks. And it was basically a song called “Can’t Stop Me Now.” So once we got that done, I was on 8 Diagrams and Digisnacks. And then I said to him ‘Well, you’ve got to come and do the same on my record.” So he brought the Black Knights down, and we kind of mashed up a bunch of tunes. And there’s still some that we’ve got in the can. I hope to do more with him, but he’s so busy now that he’s a director! He hasn’t had much time to come and collaborate recently.
Did he offer up any tips on movie soundtracks, given that he recently helmed one for The Man With the Iron Fists?
Nah — he’s a man of mystery, the RZA. He works in his mysterious RZA way. We all come from very different styles of music-making, but we listen to the same things and we watch the same films. And he’s just to eager to learn. He’s one of those people where he can learn anything at any point, his mind is just open. It’s an interesting way — because when I’m around him, you watch him do his thing, but you never really see what he’s doing. He’s kind of a magician.
What projects do have coming up?
I’m looking forward to working with Leila Moss and Toby [Butler] from the Duke Spirit. I’ve got a project with Paul Hicks that’s sort of a side project called pHd that I’m doing. And again, we’re on tour with the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. And then I just hope to get back into the studio and try to work on as many films as possible. We’re just looking for options for everything. We’re starting off with two albums and a tour, and by the end of the year I imagine we’ll be working on some films.
Sounds like you’ve been busy lately.
Yeah, but that’s the thing: As soon as you get all your stuff going, that’s the time to start working even harder.