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February 4, 2011

Soundtracked - "Nice Guy Johnny" by PT Walkley (& Edward Burns)

Motion picture soundtracks have always fascinated me. In the Soundtracked series, composers and/or directors offer commentary on their film's soundtrack, and share insights into the creative evolution that melds music into the final film.

PT Walkley is the New York singer-songwriter who composed and performed the music for the film Nice Guy Johnny, written and directed by Edward Burns.

In his own words, here is PT Walkley's Soundtracked essay for the soundtrack to the film, Nice Guy Johnny:

Chris Rock does a terrific bit about the difference between having a "job" and having a "career." Well worth YouTubing. I imagine it being tricky for most people to put a finger on the moment they graduated from having a job to having a career, but for me it's pretty easy. Picture it....New York City....2003.... I'm working part time at Ludlow Guitars by day, stockpiling home recordings on my 4-track by night. One fortuitous winter day, Ed Burns walks into the shop, looking to buy a guitar. We become fast friends, and one of said recordings happens to work perfectly for Looking for Kitty, the movie he is making at the time. Long story short, I become his go-to composer, and can finally use the word "career" without it dripping in sarcasm. Fast forward five years to the two of us standing onstage at Madison Square Garden, about to open for Coldplay... A story for another time... Today we are breaking down the soundtrack to Nice Guy Johnny, our fourth film together.

Edward Burns: We are both big fans of the use of music in The Graduate, where Mike Nichols takes a song or two and uses variations on those songs throughout the movie. Whether a scene calls for a whimsical variation or an ominous one, the song's thread remains and it reads as a cohesive score. We have employed this technique on our previous collaborations, but for NGJ, we use a wide range of PT's stuff: rock songs, orchestral, quiet acoustic, even a country song. The thread this time is his distinct voice and sensibility.

1. "Beautiful Ride"

The main theme of NGJ is following your dreams. "Beautiful Ride" and "Somebody" are lyrically the most literal to this theme, so it is appropriate that these two songs bookend the soundtrack. Beautiful Ride talks about the voice in the back of your mind that gets louder and louder, reminding you what you really want. No one knows you better than your conscience, so listen to it... Unless it is telling you to watch the American version of Skins.

Edward Burns: I love the background vocal responses on this track. To me, they represent the greek chorus, weighing in on your every decision.
PT Walkley: you're a sharp one, Mr Burns.
Edward Burns: tack like. you're fairly quick yourself
PT Walkley: cat like. And now onto number 2

2. "What's What"

Purple Violets, our last film together, called for a mainly instrumental score that was quite vibey and on the moody side. I was thrilled when Eddie told me he wanted some summertime rock songs for NGJ. Whats What was born out of a Cars-esque synth riff. I've always loved The Cars. They were my very first concert, and I own every record (even The Chipmunks version of 'Nightlife Baby'). I ran into Ric Ocasek at Chelsea Market a couple years ago and almost barfed I was so thrilled. Lyrically, the song is about a nightmarish girlfriend, and all the reasons for her itsy-bitsy dresses and sequins (her secret little weapons)... They're all just smoke and mirrors, obstacles that buy her a few months before you get beneath the surface to her awful, rotten core....

Edward Burns: This is not pointed at any of the characters in NGJ, but it does parallel the film in that it often takes chasing the wrong thing to get to the right. Plus this is just is an ass-kicking power pop song with one of the catchiest hooks you'll ever hear. A good time song for a good time movie.

3. "Aquarius"
I wrote this song after seeing an early edit of the beach scene. The beautiful Brooke (Kerry Bishe) is emerging, in slow motion, from the ocean, sauntering toward the shoreline in a bikini, rivaling the Phoebe Cates pool scene from Fast Times...

(Edward Burns: again with The Cars!!!)
PT Walkley... coincidence??? Anyway, this is a case where the visual instantly sparked a musical reaction for me: electro drum loop, ethereal semi-vocoded vocal, and a reference to a woman being heaven sent. That was the prescription. But I must apologize to any the astrologers out there: I wrongfully refer to Aquarius as a water sign, although it is actually an air sign. My planet of intellect must have been in retrograde, or something.
Edward Burns: The movie Gods smiled on us with this scene. The song has a cool and, may I say, very sexy and seductive sound to go along with the main female character. Also, the greek chorus (background vocals) return, telling Johnny (Matt Bush) at this moment that this chick is the one.

4. "Something More"

This song is about the ups and downs of any long term relationship, and the brutal fights true love can endure. Hmm, that description makes it sound like a massive downer, but it's actually quite upbeat. The intro features an electric guitar playing muted 16ths through a flanger pedal, so whenever I play this song live I'm pretty sure people think it's either "White Winged Dove" or "Eye Of The Tiger". I then judge them based on their reaction when they realize it is neither of those songs.

Edward Burns: I chose this song to play over the scenic montage of Johnny and Uncle Terry (me) driving out to the Hamptons. I'm a sucker for this orchestral bell and marimba combo, but my favorite part of the song didn't make it into the scene. The huge-harmony vocal break toward the end is a classic moment, reminding me of bands like CSNY and My Morning Jacket.
PT Walkley: Aw Shux! (I just typed that in 4-part harmony, by the way).

5. "The Radio"

This one is extra close to both of us, as it is performed by our rock n roll side project, The Blue Jackets. You can hear it chugging along in the first bar scene at Puffy's Tavern. This song is from the point of view of a character who has just made it big with a radio hit. He sees how all the people around him change. The girls chase him, the hipster scene abandons him, the anglers/danglers/handlers/managers are all just amateurs, and the whole ride is over before he can enjoy it.... Cripes, I am really painting a dark picture of these 'good-time, breezy rock songs'...

Edward Burns: I always love throwing on The Jacket. And don't worry, I like the enigmatic factor on you- very heady and mysterious! Bottom line is, this is a balls to the wall rock song with fantastic energy, a huge guitar hook and of course... unbelievable rhythm guitar. And, now that we are discussing it, maybe the "The Radio" sort of plays devils advocate: OK, you followed your dream, you made it, and guess what? There's a new world of shitty stuff to deal with. It's what you make of it.

6. "This Life"

I actually wrote this song as a demo for someone and never quite finished it. I still submitted it for NGJ because I thought it had a bittersweet quality that worked in the film, and I was thrilled when Eddie selected it as the closing credits song. It comes from the perspective of someone who has just gone through a traumatic experience, and can still see the world for the beautiful place it is. Hope, positivity, and just the right delay pedal. There you go!

Edward Burns: you wrote a demo for someone else??? you're fired
PT Walkley: right here in the Largehearted Boy blog
Edward Burns: breaking news.
PT Walkley: ouch, right in the feelings- I'll have to write a song about it now.
Edward Burns: great I'll put it in my next movie...
PT Walkley: soooo.... you're saying i got the job?
Edward Burns: welcome aboard kid, you're hired.

7. "Why"

This is the opening track off my last record Mr. Macy Wakes Alone. Definitely one of my most personal songs- I lay it all on the table (insecurity, anxiety about everything from bedbugs to wedding rings, do I talk too much? not enough? you know, the whole enchilada)... The song plays through a pivotal scene where Johnny and Brooke realize that they have fallen for each other, but are deeply conflicted, as Johnny is engaged to be married. Not for entirely unselfish reasons, this is my favorite scene of the movie. When just the right music and just the right visuals come together, a new special entity is born, greater than the sum of its parts.

Edward Burns: You spill your guts in this song, and I love the line "perhaps i can relate to you and everything you're going through". people hear a line like that and realize that whatever it is they are dealing with, they're not alone.

8. "Forgiven"

Definitely went for melodrama on this track- it happens just as Johnny calls his fiance Claire and hints he is having second thoughts. We're all familiar with having to have that difficult conversation: the breakup that's hard and sad but is for all the right reasons. It festers and eats away at you for months, but as soon as you drop a hint or have that first conversation, you see a light at the end of the tunnel that says you are almost there, almost free to move on and enjoy the rest of your life. It's this bittersweet catharsis that I try to capture in "Forgiven". Not sure why, but I tend to write those ditties in 6-8...hmm.

Edward Burns: perfect fit for the scene, I love the Bowie meets Brian Jonestown Massacre influence on this track. PT Walkley: Influences??? no, no, no, you are mistaken. Don't you know I invented music?

9. "Oh, My Darling"

This song really hits home for me at the moment. I wrote it a couple years ago for a close friend who was expecting his first child. It is a father serenading his unborn son, telling him a little something about the world he knows, encouraging him to follow his dreams, and letting him know that he will always be there for him.

My wife Michel and I are expecting our first baby in just a couple months, and not a day goes by that I don't sing this song to that big ole baby bump (which looks just like me, by the way)... I also love playing the ebow, which is featured on this track.

Edward Burns: "Oh My Darling" plays under the bonfire scene, a sort of 'getting-to-know' you moment for Johnny and Brooke. This is a case where, lyrically, the song has absolutely nothing to do with what is happening on screen, but the warm vibe of the song and the delivery of the vocal work perfectly. And there is just a PT Walkley:ness about it that tells us it is part of the score. The song could be in Japanese and it would still translate to the spirit of the scene. Plus it has those background 'oohs', that are like a recurring character in this soundtrack.
PT Walkley: Maybe I could do a Japanese version and couch it as a tribute to their legendary baseball star? "Sadaharu Oh, My Darling".
Edward Burns: might get lost in translation.

10. "Punch Drunk"

A country barnburner, complete with a small horns section led by the amazing Steven Bernstein. I wanted an authentic Tijuana Brass feel (huge Herb Alpert fan over here!), and Steve nailed it. He has so much humor and character in his playing, as does Marc Trachtenberg, who plays piano on this one. Eddie asked me for a song for the bar scene, and this song has always sounded like a bar fight to me, so it was a no-brainer.

Edward Burns: 'and now i'm punch drunk standing at your door. don't ask what for'... we've all been there.

11. "Surgeon General"

I call on my Nick Drake / Elliot Smith side for this one. Just a vocal and an acoustic guitar. That's the only way certain songs need to live. More often than not, I find that a sparse track like this can be even more powerful than a massive orchestral score. As they say, it's not the size, it's how you use it.

Edward Burns: the lyric was just too perfect to pass up in this scene as Johnny and Brooke wake up together in a haze and make a quick getaway via '68 Cutlas. 'don't ask about the other night, I was drunk and tired. take a minute, unwind, let the sleeping dog lie'...

12. "Sneaky Pete"

This is another Blue Jackets song. We wrote it a couple years back and it remains one of our favorites... So I was pretty sure this song would be an easy sell for the movie.
Sneaky Pete is a dirtbag who is run out of his hometown for wronging just about everyone he can. This is the tale of his return.

Edward Burns: I'll never forget playing this song at the Garden, we had the crowd singing along on first listen.
PT Walkley: And of course we told them all to 'stick around for Coldplay, they rock!'
Edward Burns: that was big of us.
PT Walkley: considerate.

13. "Saturday"

I don't think you can go wrong with a Lust for Life-like beat. "Saturday" was originally written for VH-1's Save The Music program. The lyrics present nostalgic imagery of what music has meant to the narrator throughout his life, and how a song can have the power to transport him back to that one summer. The song plays over one of my favorite visuals in NGJ: Brooke and Johnny speed off in her convertible muscle car. The gorgeous Hamptons footage is sped up to create a frantic, getaway feel that makes you feel as though you are in the backseat with them.

14. "Save the World (Acoustic)"

As the song in the lead trailer, this song has definitely gotten the most attention so far. The funny thing is, it was kind of an accident. There is a full-blown, orchestrated version of "Save the World" in the works for an upcoming EP, complete with horns and syncopated drums, etc... But when I first showed Eddie the song structure, I broke it down and picked it out on and acoustic guitar. He happened to record it on his iPhone, and put that rough version against picture and something special happened. So I put the full blown version on the back burner, recorded the acoustic version in my living room, and done! Next thing I know, Coldplay posts it on their front page, it's getting some traction on YouTube, lots of fun! Guy with acoustic guitar, who woulda thunk it.

15. "Somebody"

If "Beautiful Ride" is the call, then "Somebody" is the response. Also off Mr. Macy Wakes Alone, this song truly embodies the journey of the main character, Johnny Rizzo. starts sparse and builds to a triumphant orchestral rock finale . It's the most fun I've had recording a single song. The massively talented David Campbell (spitting image of his son, Beck), did the string arrangements and even came down to conduct the session at Frisbie Studios in NYC. We had a party that night where all of my friends and I sang gang vocals at the end of "Somebody". Eddie was there to singing along, and I remember thinking to myself... 'Sure am glad he walked into the guitar shop that day.'

Edward Burns: Same here.

Nice Guy Johnny links:

the film's website
the film's IMDb page
the film's Wikipedia entry
the film's trailer

PT Walkley links:

PT Walkley's website
PT Walkley's MySpace page
PT Walkley's Wikipedia entry

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Soundtracked submissions (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtrack)
Online year-end 2010 music lists
weekly CD & DVD release lists
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
musician/author interviews