You may not know George Sarah’s name, but chances are you’ve heard his music. Sarah composed for the Beijing Olympics and his work has been heard on shows as varied as CSI and HBO’s ADDICTION. Sarah appeared onscreen as a wedding music conductor in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and collaborated with that series’ costar Anthony Stewart Head on the album MUSIC FOR ELEVATORS. Sarah also previously put out the album OSSIA. Now he has a new release, WHO SLEEP THE SLEEP OF PEACE.
ASSIGNMENT X: How did you come to compose and perform in the style of mixing electronic music with classical strings, cello and violin and viola?
GEORGE SARAH: It’s just a love of electronic music and love of classical music and love of indie rock and alternative stuff. So much of my favorite ambient electronic pieces are very orchestral, like Brian Eno’s work and Aphex Twin. This is modern classical music. So I just thought that [usually] when an electronic band plays live, either they’re deejaying or they become a rock band. I didn’t want to do either of those. I thought, “You know what, I’m going to do something different and unique, get a string trio or quartet up there to play my music, while I do electronic rhythms.”
AX: What was the inspiration for doing the album WHO SLEEP THE SLEEP OF PEACE at this time?
SARAH: I had written and recorded a lot of songs in the past eight or nine years that were used in various film and TV projects. [They were] unavailable to the public, and people kept asking me where they could obtain some of this music. Some of the music was licensed for [films and TV projects], and I was also performing these songs at my concerts. I felt that it should come out for those people who are interested in getting it. It was also nine years since I released a record.
AX: Are these the original recordings of the various tracks, or did you re-record them for the album?
SARAH: These are the original recordings. Because I own the music and the publishing, I didn’t really need to re-record anything.
AX: How did you come up with the title WHO SLEEP THE SLEEP OF PEACE?
SARAH: It’s a prayer said silently by a priest at a Trinity Latin Mass, for the departed. And I read the Latin and thought [that] was very beautiful, but when I looked to see what the English translation was, I just thought that was really a beautiful way of describing someone who’s passed on. I thought it was such a unique way to think about someone who had passed, someone important in your life, that I just thought it would make for a beautiful title.
AX: Let’s talk about some of the individual pieces. What was the inspiration for “Anna”?
SARAH: The majority of songs I write are about [specific] people. Sometimes they’re someone very close, sometimes it’s someone I’ve hardly met. If it’s someone I don’t know very well, I will give it a different title [than the person’s real name]. Sometimes if it’s a woman, I’ll give it a different title because I don’t want her boyfriend to beat me up [laughs]. “Anna” was an ex-girlfriend. I wrote the music. I worked with a vocalist named Angela McCluskey on this, and a guitar player, Alain Whyte, who’s Morrissey’s co-writer, and James Fearnley of the Pogues, who’s playing accordion on it. Angela wrote the words. The music was finished as an instrumental, and I was going to present it to a different singer. [McCluskey] spontaneously sang it. [The lyrics were] all written and recorded in one take. I usually have a final say on everything, but rarely do I get to press “record” on a piece of music and then it far exceeds my expectations. I didn’t write the lyrics, but I thought it really described [“Anna”]..
“Cloudy” – I wrote that at Joshua Tree. It’s one of the few songs that I actually wrote in my head. There are no strings on it. It’s acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar, bass, Rhodespiano, and there’s even a tambourine in there, which I thought I would never do. I always made fun of other people having a tambourine. There’s a film called PARIS that was on Showtime, with Bai Ling and Chad Allen. John Cale of the Velvet Underground is the composer for the film, but there was a scene where they drive to the desert and it was used in that almost in its entirety and I was very happy about that, because since I wrote it in the desert, the fact that it was used in a desert scene, it felt like I was actually in sync with the filmmaker on that.
Monique Powell from Save Ferris is the guest vocalist on “Emo.” She’s a great vocalist and I asked her if she would be open to singing someone else’s words. The words “Emo Epa” is actually Korean. It means “beautiful aunt.” It’s about my aunt. I wanted to write something for her that wasn’t minor key. The majority of the songs on my record are minor key. My aunt was such a happy person, I wanted it to be childlike and playful, and the fact that there are only a few words in Korean in it, to me, it’s kind of representative of an innocence and a charm. That’s what I was going for. It’s also licensed, by the way, in a movie called BRA BOYS, a documentary [narrated by] Russell Crowe.
“Afterglow” was written several years after 9/11. It was about that. And it was just sort of like I saw the effect of that politically, not in a good way. I guess subconsciously I had Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” on my mind. It was used for a program that HBO made called ADDICTION. [The filmmakers] used the entire piece in this montage at the end. It was one of those things where, once again, I wrote a piece and somehow, I don’t know why, but these filmmakers seemed to connect with it. “Solace” and “Afterglow” were written and recorded within the same time. “Solace” was also used for the HBO special – the song precedes “Afterglow” for the end credits. It was about 9/11.
AX: “All That is Left is Lost” – Ginger Shankar performed on that.
SARAH: She’s a studio musician, she’s a composer herself – she plays with Smashing Pumpkins and a lot of different artists. She did a lot of the voices in the PASSION OF THE CHRIST soundtrack, and she does a lot of world music. We collaborated on this song, and it was a finished instrumental piece and she put her words to it and it just felt really nice. The instrumental version of this piece was actually used in an episode of CSI.
“Lament” was one of the few songs I wrote on a guitar. [In] the early Eighties; there were a lot of bands that I really liked, Style Council and Aztec Camera, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and I was trying to go for something like that. It didn’t really turn out like that, but it’s jazz chords and it was something that for me, it represented my youth in some way, and that’s where I was at mentally – I kept thinking about my high school.
AX: How did “I Know Trees” come about?
SARAH: We performed at the Galaxy Theatre. We were the supporting act; we opened up for Michael Franti and Spearhead. The show was sold out, and I thought we did just an average performance, but for some reason, we really resonated with the audience and with the band. They really liked us. And I just had this very optimistic feeling, like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I really felt secure in my vocation and just like, “I know trees.” That’s what came to me.
AX What’s: “Moja Bila Moja”?
SARAH: That’s Swahili. In English, it means “one without one.” And it’s about a relationship I had, a different one, not Anna. It was just the idea of, when you’re with someone, when it’s special, you feel like you’re one with that person, and then when you depart from that person, you’re one without them. I felt the lyrics were so personal that I wanted to somehow disguise it. The music was very electronic, but it had this kind of a world music vibe. My friend Peter, who’s a filmmaker – I was working on his documentary, and his fiancée, Erika Lulakwa, who’s now his wife, is from Tanzania, is a singer and I asked if she would be interested in not only singing the song in Swahili, but if she could translate what I’d written in English to Swahili, and she said yes.
AX: “Kiss of the Dust Mites”?
SARAH: I had written the chord progressions on this song in 1987. So it was something that I had in the back of my mind, but I never really worked on it, and I collaborated with a violinist named Lili Haydn on this. I wrote the music, and she wrote the string arrangements. And she said, “What’s this song called?” And I said, “I don’t really have a title, because it’s been lingering for so long.” And she said, “The song should be called ‘Kiss of the Dust Mites.’” So she actually came up with the title.
AX: “Tomorrow Never Came” …
SARAH: There was this cellist who used to play with me – not the current one, I don’t want her to read this interview and freak out – five or six years ago. I liked her a lot, and I wrote this piece about her. I wanted to write something that could really show her talents. The arrangement is for two cellos and a violin. So I was kind of writing a piece for her to perform, but then it became inspired by her. And this sense like I just felt like, this will never happen between us. So it’s like, tomorrow will never come [laughs].
AB: “Spalding Gray Can’t Swim” is a collaboration between you and David J. from Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, about the late writer/performer/filmmaker Spalding Gray, who committed suicide by drowning …
SARAH: I had this finished instrumental song, all the string arrangements, everything was done, and I was doing a concert [with many other] performers in downtown L.A. I asked David if he would be interested I collaborating on a song, and I gave him this piece as an instrumental, and he called me less than twelve hours later, he said, “Yes, I have that song finished. I have a poem that I wrote for Spalding Gray”. He’s a huge Spalding Gray fan. It affected him – it had a huge impact, his death. So he had written this poem for Spalding Gray, and he said when he sang the words of the poem to the song, it just fit perfectly. So it was like [British accent], “This was meant to be, George,” in his British accent. It was a very easy working experience with him. I grew up listening to Bauhaus, so it was an honor for me to have him as a guest.
SARAH: “Manatee” is about manatees, the sea animal. I was watching this documentary about the manatees and how they’re becoming extinct, and it was just very sad and I wrote this piece. It took less than an hour. I was so inspired that I just sat at the keyboard and played the whole thing spontaneously and recorded it.
SARAH: There was this other girl I was dating. I write a song because that’s what I do. If I was a farmer, I’d be writing songs about wheat. I’d write songs about Monsanto [laughs]. “Ours” is about this woman who I was encouraging to play the piano. I had to talk her into it, so I said, “Do me one favor – hit one note and just keep hitting that one note in this rhythm.” And she started playing this one note, and I started writing this. That’s why I called it “Ours,” because it was her and I. So it was also to let her know that when it comes to art, anything is possible – you can take one note and have it turn into a piece of music that will be on a CD.
AX: And finally there’s “Drag Ass.”
SARAH: An old friend of mine had a band called Drag Ass. His name is Dave. He left the music industry, but he was living inNew York and he had a band called Drag Ass and these Drag Ass t-shirts. On the front it said, “Drag Ass” and on the back, it said, “Just Do It … Later,” and it was a guy sitting on a couch. It was veryNew York humor. Because he was running a record label, he knew various people and he got me in touch with this English duo called Swayzack. “Drag Ass” is a collaboration between myself and the two members of Swayzack.
AX: In addition to recording, you also do live shows with electronica and strings.
SARAH: Yes, I do, quite a bit. I’m playing September 12 at Los Globos in Silverlake and at the Roxy [on the Sunset Strip] November 12. I’ll be performing with a string trio at both those shows.
AX: What are the different satisfactions of doing studio work versus live work?
SARAH: Live [performance] is very fun and energetic and it’s like going out and hanging out with your friends and doing what you love to do and being able to share that with people. So it’s extremely important. And the studio stuff is when you get to be creative, those times when you really feel the need to say something, to express something, and live is when you want to make sure life is worth living.
AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about WHO SLEEP THE SLEEP OF PEACE?
SARAH: I’m just very proud of the work and I’m very proud of all the people that were involved in it. It’s not something you’re going to hear on commercial radio, but it’s perhaps something that when you listen to, when you’re going through some struggles in your life, it’s kind of meant to be for that.
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