How to Compose for a Cold Water Surf Flick


by on

Updated 87d ago

Has someone ever told you, 'you can't hear pictures'. Whoever thought that phrase up has obviously not spent any time with composer CJ Mirra. You see, this legend has put together a soundtrack that captures the sound of cold water surfing for a film project called Translate -- an audio-visual freesurfing experimental film and album featuring some of the greatest European rippers on frigid water ventures. And hearing pictures and translating that over to a musical medium is kinda CJ's gig.

If that sounds a bit out there, it's because it is, sort of – but that's what we love to see in a world of straight-to-social quick cuts. And if it sounds familiar, it's because we spoke to director Chris around a year ago about the project. That this is a stunningly shot film was just one half of the conversation though. To get the full experience, you have to listen to this one. So we decided to pick the brain of CJ – and really dive into how you go about conveying the feeling of travel, cold water, different locations and more in this multifaceted approach to a surf movie.

But it's so much deeper than an audio-visual journey, too. This is a love letter to the frigid seasons, to a sheltered North Atlantic corner, to frost bite and 5/6/7mms of thick, wrapped rubber -- and to all of you (and us) who revel in those circumstances and think nothing of it.

And of course, it features some of Europe's top shred heads, who all recognise that music and surfing can go hand-in-hand – or that both have this ability to transport you mentally (or physically) into another realm.

Anyway, with the soundtrack released, we checked in with CJ Mirra to talk through just how you compose for such a project, while keeping true to the roots of travel and the whole cold water experience.

This is pretty out there for a surf movie, first up, talk us through the concept behind Translate.
Translate was Chris McClean's vision to create a raw, cinematic audio-visual feast that captures the best free-surfing across Europe, conceived as a love letter to Europe in response to the feeling surrounding the UK leaving the EU.

It’s an ode to the raging North Atlantic played out across three mediums. At the core is the live experience that combines the most stunning footage with music and extra visual elements (lights and projections) that bring Europe, its cultures, waters and the surfers together. Then there is the stand-alone film and the accompanying soundtrack. 

LeeAnn Curren recording at Abbey Road Studios.

LeeAnn Curren recording at Abbey Road Studios.

© 2021 - Chris McClean

Ok, that's a whole lot of moving parts. But at the core here, there’s a whole crew of Euro rippers, Fergal Smith, Noah Lane, Sancho, Tom Lowe, Aritz Aranburu, Kepa Acero – did they have much input into the musical process?
Not directly, other than Noah Lane who heard some early versions and is always mega supportive. Chris has a lot of ideas when it comes to the music. We are always sharing tunes and he always has something in mind for a scene. I still try and surprise him with unexpected ideas but it doesn't always make the final cut [laughs].

We’ve so many web edits these days, it’s almost overwhelming – so it’s great to see something the pushes the medium in a different way, what were some of the aims of Translate and how did they materialise into execution and composing for the movie?
Translate always had a sense of being made in chapters. Chris would go off on various trips over the last few years, knowing he was going to work with a particular surfer in a particular spot when the time was right. But there was always the sense that these chapters would all be combined together and make a more solid whole where you experience the diversity we have here on Europe's shores.

The music was written a chapter or scene at a time, we always wanted it to feel like a collection of songs on a soundtrack rather than one composition. This gave us loads of scope to mirror the changes in the locations, the waves and the surfers.

Overall we wanted the music to reflect the same tastes, textures and sonics that capture the pan-European scope of the film. It’s a very over-used and abused term but I can’t escape the fact that this film takes you on a real, literal journey around Europe and the soundtrack reflects that. There's a huge range of sounds and genres across the whole project.

The opener ‘Translate’ is orchestral, textured and cinematic with live strings and tape-manipulated samples and has an almost nordic, ethereal feel from ethereal soundscapes. Sans Raison (with a french language vocal sung by LeeAnn Curren) is two minutes of high-energy, beat-based, psych-pop with distorted bass lines and spiralling, fuzzy guitars.

We did a cover of the track ‘Horses’ which ended up being a more traditional band setup. The second half of the film has a lot more ambient and abstract pieces, some scenes feel very scored and really lock into the footage, blending into the sounds you might expect to hear if you were there.

Can you hear this one?

Can you hear this one?

© 2021 - Chris McClean

Chris McClean’s on director duty – was this a shared vision or how did they idea evolve over time?
This very much started as Chris’s vision and it's because we have worked closely for so long it was natural to start thinking of how we could bring the ideas together. It is a continuation of the live stuff we were doing with the Chasing Zero A/V show which brought a variety of our previous films together into a performance, as well as an album Static. 

LeeAnn performing live for the film.

LeeAnn performing live for the film.

© 2021 - Owen Tozer.

Where do you draw inspiration from?
For TransIate I was inspired by the locations and surfers. Like the North East of England, with it's slug brown waters and industrial backdrop, has a definite look and atmosphere.

The scene starts with some rad graffiti that says 'Narnia' which is such a magic touch. Little details like that influence the feel you want the music to have.

Very different to some of the scenes shot in the Basque region or the inland scenes with the horses running through fire. I was also influenced by the collaborators a lot on this project. Working with Lee-Ann Curren, Robert M Thomas and Andrea Balency took those tracks to such a great place.   

For many people, they will never have seen anything like this before, what advice would you give to someone about to watch it and what do you hope they take away from the film?
When we are able to play live again, that would be the place to experience it. I think the main thing is to celebrate what we have in terms of diversity and scale within Europe for surfers.

Something that reminds us about how connected we are in terms of a shared love of the ocean and respecting each other's experience of it. 

© 2021 - Chris McClean

You worked with a number of visual artists who reinterpreted Chris McClean’s film footage to create a series of music videos as part of the project. Can you tell me about this process.
So much love for the visual artists who have created these! So blown away by what they made. It was a translation of the film done in a way that fits the music as a stand-alone video, rather than the other way around.

Bec Smith of Urban Projections, who made the Translate title theme video, created a really striking, digital interpretation which distilled the movement of the waves and of birds moving as a flock. She will also be part of the Live A/V experience - doing some of that stuff live. For Sans Raison, Rob Thorogood produced a more lo-fi, high-energy edit of the track I made with Lee-Ann.

Chris also did his own edit for the Horses cover. That footage of horses running through fire at the festival in Spain is so otherworldly and it was good to be able to share more of what he captured - a little window into a cultural event you don't get to see everyday. All these extra elements and bringing these artists together is what makes this project so special to be a part of. 

© 2021 - Chris McClean

Translate is a live A/V performance, a film and an album. Did this multi-media approach to the end results inform the creative process in terms of the composition and knowing it would have to work in a number of formats.
Definitely. There are the basic songs or compositions for each scene but then the plan was to rework them again and again with a band in a live environment. We really wanted to play with the various instruments and samples each time to reinterpret the main ideas in each live setting. The restrictions of this year mean that hasn't really happened so the soundtrack that is coming out is quite a pure, instant reaction to the footage, recorded almost as it was being written. We hosted the world premiere at London Surf / Film Festival and performed in front of a packed out audience. Hopefully 2021 will allow for the reworks and live element that is so central to the whole idea of Translate.

Go HERE to give this a listen.