'Sorry to Bother You' Director Boots Riley on Working With Tune-Yards and Breaking the Rules of Soundtracks

 Peter Prato / Annapurna Pictures.

Boots Riley and Steven Yeun on the set of Sorry to Bother You.

In his absurdist comedy Sorry to Bother You, which makes its nationwide debut today, writer-director Boots Riley turns the Bay Area into an eerie labyrinth. The film, which follows a telemarketer named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) as he climbs the ranks of a secretly nefarious company, is full of invitingly mysterious doors and curtains, elevators with intricate passcodes, VIP sections and parties.

In large part, the tone and texture of the underground world of the rich and powerful is achieved through the film’s soundtrack, which was crafted by Tune-Yards. Operating underneath what Riley calls the “beautiful clutter” happening on screen is Merrill Garbus’ simultaneously erratic and ecstatic medley of instruments and vocal layering. “Even where there's eerie undertones, there's also an opening of things happening in the music,” Riley says. “I think that there's a lot of that in the Tune-Yards music.” 

In a recent phone interview with Billboard, Riley elaborated on his musical influences, why he was drawn Tune-Yards’ music, and how being the frontman of the hip-hop group The Coup influenced the movie. 

I know you started writing Sorry to Bother You many years ago. How did you originally conceive of the film's sound, and how did that evolve?
As I wrote, it was easier for me to write to instrumental stuff, which ended up being soundtracks and scores. Weirdly enough, I wrote a lot of the movie while listening to various Mark Mothersbaugh scores, specifically Rushmore, on loop in my headphones. And it was mainly for the energy. I wanted to have a pacing to it, a feel. I never thought that [music] was going to be what I used, but I knew that I could use that [music] as my metronome. As a matter of fact, besides using Mark Mothersbaugh for the tempo of certain themes, I didn't really envision the score until after I finished writing the script the first time in 2012. 

There are two musical worlds that happen in the movie. One is the score, which is done by Tune-Yards, and that's the film's musical voice. [That's] her commenting on what's happening. And then there is the soundtrack, which is by The Coup. And the soundtrack is all the stuff that happens within the world of the film. The diegetic stuff. The stuff that the characters can actually hear in their world. The score, the characters can't hear; the soundtrack, the characters can. 

I had been working with Merrill since early 2015 for the score. Going back and forth with her, we had talked about Suspiria as an influence, and other things like the original Wicker Man and some Daniel Elfman. Some of the stuff that ends up being on the score is stuff that Merrill and I talked about. She made demos before I even went into the Sundance labs [where I developed the script with actors, directors, and writers]. So we had a lot of this stuff for a long time. And we had that [music] to work with even when we were shooting. 

Originally, I had made an album [called Sorry to Bother You] in 2012, after I wrote the screenplay [also called Sorry to Bother You]. And the idea was to get buzz for the movie, and maybe [the album] would be the soundtrack. But I found after shooting it that the aesthetic of that music didn't fit the movie that I had made. So we made a whole new soundtrack while editing the movie — which is confusingly called the soundtrack of Sorry to Bother You. I had to make Coup versions of what would be in certain places in the world. I had to just make stuff that seemed like the DJ would be playing it at this party, [stuff] people would be dancing to in a certain way outside of a car. 

Can you elaborate a bit about what drew you to the influences you mentioned?
I think that if I did, it would contain spoilers. But with the movie, there's this beautiful clutter that happens. All of it is just texture — from the production design to the storyline to the way we cut the movie. And what we wanted were compositions that felt like that too, [compositions] that felt like they had these counter-rhythms and other textures inside it that really built upon stuff. 

Why did you want Tune-Yards to create the movie's feel? 
Well, one, they're from Oakland. They're really cool people, and I'm a big fan of their music. But two, what this movie does is it gets to certain emotional places by taking unexpected routes to get there. I think that Tune-Yards does that. They use a lot of unorthodox instruments. They layer vocals in these strange ways. And it really fits the way that we made the movie.

There's one famous editor who I won't mention because they were absolutely wrong, and they said, “Oh, maybe you should have a more traditional approach to the music because it would help people know that we're supposed to feel this way or that way.” And that's exactly what I didn't want to do. Because you don't really hear that music when it's just like, “This is the part that's sad, let's have the strings playing very high.” So I wanted someone who had a similar philosophy, which was to do it their way. 

What were your associations with Tune-Yards before you made the movie?
I first heard them when they had already moved to Oakland. And the first thing that stuck out to me was Merrill's voice, then the unorthodox use of percussion and vocal layering. And you're like, “Oh my God, there's power right here!” 

It's interesting, [Merrill] has this song where she says people are coming up to her, thinking that she was black, and I never thought that [she was black]. But what I did feel was this extreme, powerful voice, and she also didn't always use that power. [She] used a different kind of power at different times. Seeing clips of them perform and seeing how musically adept she was, [it] was just really inspiring. If someone's doing something close to what you're doing, then there's this competetiveness that feels weird but is good in a certain way. If someone's doing something that's not like what you're doing at all, but you still recognize how fucking awesome it is, then it inspires you. That doesn't feel weird at all.

It's funny, because [while] we were doing our stuff on this soundtrack, she kept coming with stuff for the score, and that shit was hitting. It was booming. The bass was there, and I was like, “Man, we gotta come with it because their shit is tight!” 

Did the Tune-Yards music represent the Bay Area to you?
The eclectic nature of it? Yes. And what people call the DIY approach is really just having your own way of doing things. Everything is DIY; someone does it. But some people do it and try to sound like Jan Hammer or something like that. With the references I had, I wasn't afraid of it coming out like those things. It was really like, “Here's the emotion we're trying to get to right here.” And I knew it would be totally different. 

I know Merrill Garbus is from the northeast. But Tune-Yards have been part of the Bay Area music scene for a while now. And I'm wondering if there's a way you would classify the Bay Area music scene at this point. 
Nope, there isn't. I think that's what's great about it. 

Do you think that's specific to the Bay, or is it just something that's happening everywhere because of the internet? 
I don't know. I think it's always been that way. Matter of fact, I know there were other bands in Seattle that sounded totally different [from grunge]. But once people started putting a name on it and a few people got popular, then all of a sudden there was a sound that people were associating with that. And then they only saw the bands that had that sound. My friend was in a band [in Seattle] — he’s a saxophone player, and they played crazy jazz with someone singing on it. But I’m sure that once it started being called Seattle grunge, then it cut some people out. Similarly, there was said to be a Bay Area sound with hip-hop, and [The Coup] didn’t fit into that.

Were there specific instances where the music inspired something that happens in the movie?
Well, the place where it's most noticeable is when Steve Lift [Armie Hammer’s character] is in his office explaining something to Cassius — we won't talk about what that is — and there's this kind of openness, this cue where there are these chords that are fanned out and Merrill’s voice. It just feels like angels opening the gates of heaven or something like that. There's this sense of discovery, and thinking about that cue helped me in other scenes that had nothing to do with that scene. 

What about the music you were making?
For me, most of what the soundtrack is came into play after we were already editing the movie, because you end up realizing what you need once you're in the edit. We have a whole car dance sequence that got cut out, and maybe we’ll release it at some point. I was just playing them different pieces of stuff we had started working on for the soundtrack. And so my music was more of a reaction: There are people standing in front of the car, this is what that car would be playing. I wasn't making a vehicle for my music. The music was helping the film along. 

I know you've been asked quite a bit about how being a musician impacts you as a filmmaker. But I'm wondering, in particular, if being a musician influenced the film's structure in any way. 
Oh, definitely. The Coup has songs where the vocals don't start until a minute and 30 seconds in. Or, you know, we have songs with no chorus. Or one-minute-long songs. Or eight-minute-long songs. Or songs where the subject goes into a whole different song, and they're all connected, and something is referenced that you need to know from the other song. So my way of thinking about the structure of music and what I will and won't do with it is very connected to the structure of this film. The unorthodox film won't surprise people that know The Coup's music well.

And for instance, “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.,” that time signature is actually 9/17. We cover it up with the four-on-the-floor beat, just because I felt like it gave it something different. Some DJs are like, “I love playing that song, people love dancing to it, but then I have no way to mix out of it.” So I'm already used to making choices like that, where someone couldn't tell me I was wrong for doing that other thing. I knew we could do things that were different from the formula of what we're told people might like. That was part of [figuring out] what I could do with the structure of this story, and what made me not cave the first time that a writer who supposedly knew what they were doing told me to not do that.