Portishead’s Adrian Utley On Taxi Driver & His Soundtrack Work

This weekend, Adrian Utley will introduce a screening of the new edition of Taxi Driver in London. He tells Simon Jablonski about his love for the film, soundtrack work, and a never-before-told tale from his distant musical past

As part of the East End Film Festival, legendary Portishead Adrian Utley was approached to select a film to screen and introduce; he chose the new digitally restored Taxi Driver – cleaned up by Martin Scorsese himself. Set for a fresh cinema release, this will be the first time this new version has been seen in the UK.

The artistic and political importance of Taxi Driver shouldn’t be underestimated. The film has had a lasting influence, playing an integral role in the readjustment of Hollywood. Embracing the experimentation at the heart of the French new wave – the spectre of Goddard is palpable – and jamming it like a rusty syringe into the vein of New York culture, Scorsese created his own voice and style. With its violence and peculiarity, Taxi Driver‘s unexpected commercial success helped – along with the likes of Spielberg, Lucas, Bogdanovich and Coppola, amongst others – shift the balance of power away from studio executives and over to the artistic vision of the director.

Having suffered the trauma of Vietnam, ex-marine Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) returns to New York to make a new start in life. Despite initial attempts to integrate, make friends and see girls, his struggle with his own inner demons is exacerbated by the dregs and social deterioration he sees from the driving seat of his cab, leaving him with a strong sense of isolation.

Over time, Taxi Driver is no less uncomfortable or spectacular to watch, and it’s themes no less relevant – in fact, the past year has seen a spate of British films dealing with soldiers readjusting to normality after the violence of war. The dimly lit city is supported with a beautifully scored soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann (who was also responsible for Psycho, Citizen Kane and Vertigo). Notable also as the last film score he ever wrote, with exquisite ease Herrmann captures the sleaze and rhythm of the city alongside Travis’ own sense of isolation.

The Quietus spoke to Adrian Utley to find out the details of his own personal obsession with Taxi Driver, which lead unexpectedly to playing Lynyrd Skynyrd covers to brawling marines in the 1970s.

What struck you about Taxi Driver when you first saw it?

Adrian Utley: I saw it originally in 1979 when it did this tour around the cinemas with Midnight Express, which was kind of weird. I was in Leeds playing in working men’s clubs, I was 22 or something. It was a miserable winter playing a shitty gig and somebody suggested we go along, we hadn’t heard of Martin Scorsese at the time. So the whole band went to see it and when we came out, no body talked for absolutely hours and then we had this weird jam at sound check because it was so utterly intense. Martin Scorsese is firing on all cylinders at that time; it had such a new energy.

What was the band you were playing in?

AU: Oh I can’t remember, it was a shit working men’s club band playing in a disco or backing at a cabaret in a Northern club, terrible. It was what I started out doing, it was my apprenticeship really. I didn’t go to music college, I just played all round England and Europe in the shittiest clubs imaginable.

Did the music grip you the first time you saw it?

AU: No, not at all really. I don’t remember the music at all from that first time I saw it. Obviously it would have had a huge influence on my experience of the film, but I think that at the time. If a film’s really good, I don’t think about anything, I just think about the film, that’s probably what that was. At the time I think it would have been beyond my knowledge of how it was made, so I would have just accepted it as part of the whole experience, which is perfect really. Now I can notice the music and be slightly removed because of how utterly brilliant it is.

What inspires you about the music now?

AU: What’s so brilliant about that score is that it’s incredibly hip. The tune for Betsy [(Cybill Shepherd character)], it’s really on one level quite cheesy, but the players are just the best and the way they play really gives it impetus. And it’s so beautifully orchestrated and written and the variations are amazing in the actual sounds. In the very beginning in the collage at the part where you see the taxi in slow motion and see his eyes, it’s so wonderful that it sets you right up immediately. I really love Bernard Herrmann and everything I’ve heard of him, especially Psycho. My two favourite Bernard Herrmann scores are Psycho and Taxi Driver, just for the complete master he is of emotion. BH stands alone. I was also struck by how masterfully in the traditional sense of scoring, powerful, spotting things, and getting the emotion dead right. Like when he did Psycho.

Has film music been an influence on your own music?

AU: Yeah, I’d say so, though more the kind of spirit of it than the orchestration. The very opening sequence, the main theme with the drums speeding up, it kind of reminds me of Gill Evans. I think Bernard Herrmann must have been hip to Gill Evans’ arrangement with Miles Davis. I feel that, I couldn’t actually reference it, I just feel the spirit of it is there; big band, melancholy, New York style, he was down with that definitely.

Was capturing the sound of New York part of the decision to work with the New York Orchestra?

AU: Not really, that was a very different thing. When I worked on those orchestrations, these things are in there: the voicing of the chords and the feelings are in music. The thing about Taxi Driver, or any film that I’ve stored away in my brain and listened to over the years, they’re an influence, music you hear goes in – I store experiences in tiny pots in my head, that’s how I think of it. I think on our last Portishead album I can hear (I don’t think anybody else can probably hear it, just me) the feeling that that music gives me.

Was writing the score of The Passion of Joan Of Arc a very different experience?

AU: A lot of the guitar things I wrote are out of Glenn Branca, which is actually another New York, No Wave noise fest, because I worked with him a couple of years ago and I was really taken by the whole idea of extended madness. I’d already been on that, but I just had a desire to do more of it. Like when Bernard Herrmann did The Day The Earth Stood Still, his palette was incredible. And also with Psycho, he just used strings, there weren’t any horns or woodwind, he did that deliberately. And with Taxi Driver he had a jazz group, he had a very specific sounding bunch of orchestral players. So similarly I’ve chosen six guitars to synthesis with harp and brass. But within those guitars, there’s all the orchestration. So, you get a palette and then write for that palette, and I think that’s the answer for films really; you enter a world.

I wish there was a connection to New York other than the Theremin. Sometimes when you’re in the street, and this sounds corny, and you hear the ambulances, they do sound like Theremins sometimes. It’s more like Spellbound or The Day The Earth Stood Still I just wishing I’d used French horns, I’d never thought about it, I’m not from that discipline. By listening to Taxi Driver or listening to The Day The Earth Stood Still, Howard Shore or whoever. I wanted that Bernard Herrmann sound at the very beginning of the whole concert, but there was a texture that wasn’t there and I found out afterwards that three French horns would have been fantastic for it, and that would have given it a more Heman-esque space vibe. I don’t care, I liked what we did anyway.

What intrigued you about New York?

AU: I think it was the mystery and intensity of New York and America as some other world. I know New York really well now, and I know Time Square where he used to cruise around, and its like Disney own it now, it’s not the same at all. It seemed such a dangerous place and so incredibly vibrant.

Was there a lot of your own fantasy about New York in your attraction to Taxi Driver?

AU: I think there was. Because I come from the countryside, I don’t come from the city, so at that time it was overwhelming that this could happen. I’d seen America in many films. I thought French Connectionwas an amazing document about New York as well, but there’s something about Taxi Driver, with BH’s music, sometimes without natural sound, just the music and him talking over it. It’s just, all the animals come out at night.

Were you ever able to relate to Travis Bickle?

AU: No, I don’t think I could relate to him, I relate to him more now than I did then. I think I can relate to it more now because I have more of an understanding why he might be like that. He’d just come out of the Vietnam War and he was completely fucked up, but strangely articulate. I can understand the grimness of it all after fighting in the war and then coming back and finding this shit back at home.

Did you know people like that?

AU: Round about 1979 I went to work in Spain on an American airbase – it was at the time they were setting up the coast of Iran, the time of the Ayatollah. I met people who came out of Vietnam then. Some of them were fucking lunatics. We played in the bar and when a ship came in from just sitting out there being buzzed by planes all day, and they came in for recreation, my God it was just mental. I would know a couple of the people and they would tell me about some of the older soldiers who had been on boats in Vietnam like in Apocalypse Now and never really got over it. I’ve never talked about this before.

For Travis I guess it was all underneath. There’s a point where he goes to talk to Betsy and the dude with the specs and big hair tells him to get out, and he suddenly goes into total defence position because he’s a marine and you can see that training’s in him; that violence is there ready when he needs it. I mean these guys that I saw would just get horribly drunk and end up fighting; they were just out of control.

How did you end up on an American airbase in Spain?

AU: This is late 70s. I don’t think these days exist anymore, and I’m really glad that I did them. By about 1975 I had left art school and I was playing in any band that would take me where I could make money, and I was on the dole as well. I was going to working men’s clubs playing any old shite. We were travelling round backing comedians, singers and plate spinning magicians with bikini-clad assistants. After we did loads of clubs round England we ended up in Butlins, where we’d get three cabarets a night. You’d never get that now. That’s what I cut my teeth on really. And at the same time I was trying to learn jazz and studying.

So we got a residency in Spain for six weeks over Christmas, we played hour and hour evey night. It was mayhem, lots of drinking, lots of jamming and people getting up and singing. It was mainly covers, what ever they wanted, Lynyrd Skynyrd songs mainly, blues, anything anybody wanted. Like the Beatles did in Germany, playing covers and their own stuff as well. It was just graft to get money.

Adrian Utley introduces the newly restored Taxi Driver this Friday at the Aubin Cinema as part of the East End Film Festival. To find out more visit the Festival website.

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