Call Christopher Bear the “accidental scorer.” The longtime Grizzly Bear drummer/multi-instrumentalist never intended to dive head-first into writing scores for film and television, but after befriending ex-wife and husband team Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair five years ago and putting together a “few things” for their then-Vimeo series High Maintenance, he got drawn into the composing world when the weed delivery anthology show made the jump to HBO in 2016.
And he definitely didn’t plan on that happenstance gig leading to his first film scoring job, for the upcoming documentary The Soul of SOHO.
“It was clear I was going full-on into this and they [Sinclair and Blichfeld] asked if I’d be interested in doing a whole season, which was totally up my alley,” says Bear, 36, of the request that came in in 2012 when Grizzly Bear was in between albums. Bear had just built a studio in the home he was living in at the time and tells Billboard that he thought the turn into the scoring would be an interesting new experience because he’d already established a good relationship with the pair. Plus, the three of them “musically spoke the same language.”
Like, for instance, when Sinclair and Blichfeld said they wanted “something that’s got this feel of Ethiopian funk, but not exactly that,” it somehow made sense to Bear, so he whipped up that sound for them and they loved it. The relationship blossomed over the show’s first run online form 2012-15, but then Grizzly Bear released their 2017 album, Painted Ruins, and Bear was back on the road in band mode.
The end of the tour coincided with the ramp-up of the current third season of High Maintenance, which again found Bear creating a variety of soundscapes for the series, from ambient washes to the frantic, jarring soundtrack to the recently aired, must-see bad mushroom trip episode, “Fingerbutt.”
The time constraints of filming and the creator’s often inscrutable artistic whims helped push Bear out of his comfort zone, leading to more tracks with drum machines and programmed synth sounds that he typically doesn’t use in the band. “It’s a different side of the brain, but not a totally different way of thinking about music when you’re not as concerned about making something that feels like a song or has a traditional song structure,” he says of the challenge of cooking up “20 seconds here or there that need to take you from Point A to Point B.”
That break from more traditional songwriting in favor of “sonic palettes” without lyrics and some admittedly “janky, MIDI-based” tracks also helped Bear prepare for his biggest challenge to date: writing the score for the first original short film from the travel/entertainment start-up Culture Trip, The Soul of SOHO.
The 25-minute documentary, slated to premiere on Saturday (March 9) at the Austin Motel in during the SXSW FIlm Festival, takes viewers on a trip through the iconic Soho neighborhoods in London, New York and Hong Kong in an “exploration of the relationship between people and the places they inhabit,” according to a release announcing the project.
“They got in touch about this project and said, ‘We don’t have anything to show you now,’ but I had some time and it sounded like an interesting project,” he says. Without anything other than the idea to work from, Bear racked his brain for sounds that made him think of the two Sohos he was quite familiar with (admittedly lacking knowledge about the Hong Kong one).
Though his first demos were inspired by listening to songs that immediately bring to mind visions of those locations — think the Velvet Underground for New York — the tracks ended up feeling a bit derivative. Bear sent some of those sketches to director Keith Musil, who responded with an ask for music that unified the three Sohos rather than pointing out their differences.
“So I started going in that direction, and rather than try to characterize these places as, ‘This is the New York sound,’ it became less about location and more about the character’s relationship with the city and their relationship with the neighborhood,” Bear says of the subtly propulsive, moody and ambient sound sketches that underscore the stories of artists, restauranteurs, tailors, radio DJs, dancers and drag performers who have made a home and a life in the various Sohos.
“The story is very much about all of the people interviewed and their relationship to their neighborhood,” says Bear of the music, which manages to be unobtrusive and bubble under the vignettes while also jauntily transitioning between the character sketches.
“I didn’t want it to feel too stamped to older time periods, but also didn’t want it to all be trap beats,” he says. “I was asking, ‘How can we still make some music that’s electronic, but also leaves room to let these melodies and more melodic emotional moments come through?'”
“Our goal for The Soul of SOHO was to make a film that reveals the spirit of these neighborhoods in ways that a travel guide can’t,” says Daniel Montalto, the film’s executive producer. (Disclosure: I worked with Montalto at MTV News.) “We go beyond a casual visit and delve into the lives of the creatives who make these areas more than just places on a map, but also thriving communities.”
Feeling confident about his work on SOHO, Bear says he’s excited to start diving into some new solo music, with no particular project in mind at the moment. “I have years of unfinished demos and songs that would feel good to finish, whether they get released of not,” he says. “Now that I’m off the road for a while rather than having some full-on down time I’d rather be reinvesting in things I’ve worked on in past.”
Watch the SOHO trailer below.