×

How Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament Conceived the Eerie, Experimental Score for ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

Says screenwriter Dustin Lance Black: "I hope my script inspired him, because the music he sent me inspired what I did next.”

UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN —
Michelle Faye

Under the Banner of Heaven,” the grim, century-hopping true crime series of Mormon fundamentalists committing a savage double murder in the name of God, rests its weary soul on June 2. But the music lives on for fans of Pearl Jam, whose bassist and co-founder Jeff Ament was called upon to score the FX series.

In collaboration with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black — the writer of “Milk,” for which he won an Academy Award for original screenplay — the first-time composer was tasked with recording an equally-atmospheric version of vengeance and misery to soundtrack devout detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) and his battle against good and evil, inside and outside the realm of his faith.

Ament enlisted the band’s current second guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer, as well as instrumentalists John Wicks and Josh Evans, to create an oppressive and noisy score while the series was still in production. (“Under the Banner of Heaven [Music from and Inspired by the FX Series] Original Score Soundtrack” will be released via Hollywood Records on June 10.)

“We made the music in the spirit of what we thought the series would be, as we hadn’t seen any footage when we started, and wouldn’t, really, until near the end and we saw vague dailies,” says Ament.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy Josh Klinghoffer

“It was incredibly untraditional,” adds Black. “By the time we got near the end, Jeff had already sent me this whole bed of sound that we explored together. Once there, he had built themes that would help us with our point of view, our sense of place and person.”

The tone of Ament’s score complements Black’s stormy “cautionary tale where following ancient rules written by men a long time ago leads to a road to ruin” as its author states. The close proximity between Ament’s haunting score and Black’s haunted, blood-and-biblical-wrath-filled text was no accident.

“Jeff dazzled me, and I must confess, I was starstruck during our first meeting,” says Black of collaborating with his early ’90s college hero. “Pearl Jam were like gods to me. And, as we first starting production, Jeff got to work starting with the first phone call as he knew he wanted to experiment – a vibe according to the script, the roughly-cut footage we wound up sending him — often textures that would become part of our visual imagery — and how he going to get to that sound.”

Working where each artist could hear and see each other, Black speaks of regularly receiving Ament’s experiments once they started on the journey to “Heaven” — “frankly beautiful” musical interludes that cut into the characters and their setting that the screenwriter created. “Interludes that made you feel as if you were entering into a union with the subconscious. This isn’t just about a detective looking for information. This is man looking for answers, a deep dive, to questions he didn’t dare ask before — what does that sound like?”

To that, Black says he received, every few days, transportive 45 minute sheaths of sound from Ament & Co. No sooner than Black pulled off his headphones in his trailer, he would walk out the set and his team would roll camera.

“Jeff set a very definitive tone. … By the time we got to the editing room, we were on the same page, working on themes, rhythms, what he wanted to punctuate and not punctuate. … I hope my script inspired him, because the music he sent me inspired what I did next.”

What was most crucial for Black about Ament’s “Heaven” score was that it not be used in specific scenes — whether those in the 19th Century or its more contemporary 1980s shots — when the series’ real-life murders took places. “I wanted it all to feel immediate, very present as the themes to ‘Heaven’ are very now, very present,” says Black. “I didn’t want this to have some historical context. To all of this, Jeff offered up the electric guitar as the answer. And I think that nailed it. … presenting some rock-and-fucking-roll that will tie together 1984 and the 19th Century. That’s Jeff. He’s fearless.”

For his part, Ament – still recovering from a bout with Covid that shut down Pearl Jam’s spring 2022 tour earlier than expected – had forever wanted to create music for film, long before meeting Dustin Lance Black.

“For 23-years I wanted to make an ambient record as much of the music I listen to at home has that atmosphere,” says Ament, immediately crediting Brian Eno’s “Discreet Music” as a weekly listening and meditative adventure. “I developed this idea of how I would make that record based on tons of research, and utilizing the space that I have at the house in Montana.”

Upon getting the gig for “Under the Banner of Heaven,” Ament knew exactly what to do, as he had planned for this very thing – “a meaningful project at that” — for nearly 25 years. “This was it, the story I get to put music to, finally,” says Ament, reliving the excitement. “I threw everything at this series immediately.”

Ament, a fan of Jon Krakauer and his 2003 nonfiction work, “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith,” felt close to the subject due to the bassist’s own relationship with religion, and the Catholic church. Says Ament: “What Lance pulled out of Krakauer’s story was the unravelling of belief, contradictions and darkness that most religion goes through, where the word is interpreted to benefit their power. … The sort-of historical details that influenced the family at the center of ‘Heaven’ to become monsters.”

No sooner than Ament became part of the process of “Heaven,” he bonded with Black, and shared long conversations about art, music, movie-making and the visuals that inspired such Terrence Malick-esque landscapes.

“I think I hit on things that resonated with Lance, too,” says Ament. “So I went to work with Josh and John in Montana for 10 days, building loops and tuning the room — building emotion into the room, based on the book and the conversations with Lance.”

At the end of this first session, Ament says that he and his team had 40 separate pieces, some one hour long, in varying keys with different instrumentation. “Very quiet stuff,” says the bassist. “There was a little acoustic guitar; some electric guitar and bass; some weird instrumentation; full rock trio stuff. … The music was easy to make once the room was tuned. But remember, we were just making music in the spirit of what it could be as we had not seen anything yet… so, as soon as we did see footage, I knew that we had music for whatever they threw at us, and from there, became a back-and-forth between all of us.”

Ament, sounding thrilled with the proposition of making music for films, claims that the “Under the Banner of Heaven” experience had many chefs in the kitchen. “But in the very best way,” Ament says, laughing.  “It was truly collaborative. Look, we’re not rookies to playing music, but we are to this. This brand new to us. This was scoring school.”

Referring to favorite movie music, such as Ry Cooder’s “Paris, Texas,” and “the stuff that Jonny Greenwood and Trent Reznor recorded for films in the last few years,” Ament describes his score as fluid and not locked to a grid. “We’re ebbing and flowing with Lance’s characters, and getting in-between things on screen,” he says. “Nothing is perfectly in time.”

And mention to Ament Black’s enthusiasm for seamlessly, timelessly and electrically blending the 19th and the 20th Centuries without relying upon cliches, and the bassist admits that temptations ran deep toward replicating the familiar.

“We stuck to this sound that we had, this low-end, earthly gravity – this lurching heavy stuff, against the more ethereal, heavenly stuff, which is what Lance says was the balance in his script, but, it was hard not to pick up old instruments when a scene goes back in time,” says Ament. “You’ve got that banjo in the corner, and it’s just sitting there, staring at us. A lot of that, though, was Lance telling us to insist on being different. That he wanted it to rock more. Lance kept reminding us that Mormons listen to rock and roll, so we had to juxtapose our sweeter, airier sounds against the black metal stuff.”

Black himself grew up in a Mormon household, and it has affected the writer’s aesthetic going back to his days with HBO’s “Big Love” series, the dramedy about fundamentalist, polygamist Mormon families in contemporary Utah which also utilized an alternative musical giant (David Byrne), as its score-maker.

Lazy loaded image
UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN (Michelle Faye/FX) Michelle Faye

“You can connect the dots of my lived experience by the subjects I’ve chosen to tackle, and coming up Mormon is a huge part of who I am,” says Black. “Not just the dots that touch on religion, but, the gay rights things, too, such as ‘Milk’ and ‘When We Rise.’ It’s all processed through that Mormon youth of mine. I learned how to campaign for aggressive values from the Mormons, from growing up in the South and Texas, and being surrounded by Conservatives who taught me how to stand up for myself, and never expect crumbs. The Mormon church taught me that a promise is a sacred thing. My fighting the Supreme Court for marriage equality is about keeping the promise I made on the Oscar stage when I won for Milk – that’s Mormonism. I’m not sure that they’re happy about it, but…. If somebody tells me that I shouldn’t look somewhere, that is a sure sign that I am going to look there, first — whether it was a hired writer on ‘Big Love,’ or creating ‘Under the Banner of Heaven,’ a story where Jon Krakauer asked the questions I needed answered, and provided responses that, though disturbing, felt true. I wanted to shine light to the places in my childhood’s faith that desperately needed light, needed change.”

Jeff Ament’s ferociously sad score to “Under the Banner of Heaven” balances Black’s darks and lights eerily and elegantly. “There were times where we were too dark, when Lance may have wanted something hopeful and melancholy” says Ament. “There was much nuance to be had….This is a brand new medium for me, picking up instruments and using the studio in a different way. I hope we get to do something else with film.”