When artist Kenny Scharf arrived in NYC in the early 1980s, he quickly met and befriended Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The trio would change the way we think about art, the world, and ourselves. Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide which was made over 11 years features interviews and rare archival footage with the film’s subject Kenny Scharf, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Ed Ruscha, Dennis Hopper, and Yoko Ono.
Written and directed by Kenny’s daughter Malia Scharf along with her partner Max Basch, they chose musicians Zach Seman and Roger Kleinman to provide the movie’s score. Seman and Kleinman, both New Yorkers, responded to not just musically telling the story of a fellow artist, but of an era and the artistic process itself. In this interview the duo talk about their approach to film scoring, writing music for artists such as Zayn Malik, and what’s next.
Jason: Can you tell me what your reaction was when you were approached to score this documentary? Were you approached by his daughter Malia Scharf?
Zach Seman: His daughter Malia and her longtime partner, Max Basch, who’s an old friend of ours, made the movie. They were in the finishing stages and they had licensed music by artists such as Devo yet needed a score and it became clear they needed one pretty quick. The movie is very New York and Roger’s from Brooklyn. I’ve lived in New York since 2007.
Jason: What kind of conversations do you have with and Malia and Max?
Roger Kleinman: They both have had a great ear for music so what we were presented with was a movie in almost final form, with a lot of music in it. They needed original compositions that match the energy and the feeling of these specific moments. We went back and forth with them about those songs, there’s a lot of them. It runs the gamut of instrumental music, Yo La Tengo and then Americana stuff with acoustic guitar and more folky electronic stuff. We had conversations about specific pieces and where to draw inspiration from music that’s like that and how we can recreate these moments ourselves without the music that they already put in.
Jason: How did you guys decide on the sound of the score?
Zach Seman: Max and Malia dictated it. They picked music they felt fit the tone of the scene but was a song they could not license and so we go in there; we feel it out. Most of the time with this movie, it was working. We can’t copy a piece of music and we wouldn’t do that. So how do we get the same tempo and feeling but with our own kind of original take on it? That’s how most of the cues came together.
Jason: I was looking up the Spotify listing and the list of like ’80s pop songs,
Zach Seman: I think Kenny has a relationship with a lot of musicians that were big in the ‘70s and ‘80s so they could license tracks that would be un-licensable. The soundtrack itself, the non-score items are pretty cool. You hear those tracks in movies.
Jason: Were you tempted to use ’80s style music or did you want to avoid that? You integrated your own sounds when you could, without aping them?
Roger Kleinman: We strayed the score itself in contrast to the licensed music. You can tell what’s score and what’s licensed. If we had leaned into the licensed music, it might not have worked as well. It would have been a situation where you hear this Devo song and then you hear these two dudes trying to impersonate Devo, which wouldn’t be good.
Jason: As New Yorkers, were you a fan of Kenny’s art before boarding this project?
Zach Seman: If I’m being honest, I don’t think that I knew his name, but his art is so pervasive I seen it before and that’s what the core of this movie is about; he was roommates with Keith Haring and best friends with Basquiat and Warhol and all these guys and at a certain point, they eclipsed him in their careers, But Kenny has been working at a very successful level for his whole life. His personality gets eclipsed by these guys who were massive successes. I don’t know that many people who know who Kenny Scharf is but they have seen his artwork before.
Roger Kleinman: What’s interesting about the timing of this documentary, and it might be one of those cosmic events, is the documentary is lining up with Kenny having a kind of renaissance in his career. In the last few months Dior has made a clothing line with Kenny, the Kardashians are wearing his clothes, big name rappers are wearing his clothes. We were working with a rapper who were was wearing Kenny’s clothes. It’s a interesting time for him in his career.
Jason: Did you research into the ’80s art world or even New York back in the ’80s?
Zach Seman: What’s cool about the documentary is it lays out those environments real well. That, combined with just being in New York for so long and hearing from our friend’s parents, people that were around New York in the ’80s, through osmosis you get that vibe a little.
Jason: How is writing for pop artists such Zayn Malik or collaborating with them musically different from writing for a full length score?
Zach Seman: First of all, scoring a film takes much longer so there’s that. When we were working on the Kenny Scharf documentary we’re doing some other sessions with artists here and there making pop music or whatever it is and our heads are down in the world of creating this music. We wrote close to an hour of music compared to making a song which is three minutes. Working on a pop song is like coming up with a thesis and not reading the rest of the paper and then doing a movie is like coming up with a thesis and then writing the rest of the paper ten times.
Jason: Is there less or more room for musical experimentation in a movie than working on an album with an artist such as Zayn?
Zach Seman: There’s more room for experimentation because when you pair music with a visual the audience is more willing to take in almost anything. Look at the score to Dunkirk. If we did that in a song no one would listen. Making music for a visual medium is so fun is because you can sneak in things that you couldn’t sneak in other music media.
Roger Kleinman: It’s a bit of a captive audience situation. When we make songs that are meant to be under three minutes and listenable there isn’t that much you can get away with. There is some level of musicality and experimentation but it doesn’t come close to being able to basically force people to listen to whatever we want. And there’s definitely some of that in the Kenny Scharf score that the process of sound design and experimentation we can get away with because what’s most important is hearing Yoko Ono talk about the art scene in the ’80s and Kenny Scharf and we can make some weird sounds behind it and people might not necessarily even notice that we’re manipulating the way that they’re experiencing the picture.
Zach Seman: I think when the score started to take shape in the way we wanted was towards the end. We rented out a studio in Bushwick in Brooklyn called Hive Mind and we hired a bunch of musicians to come in. We had a drummer Myles Artisan, who was heavy into the afro-beat scene, and we had him come in and play drums along to the movie. We had finished cues that we had them go over and we edited it. After that process, the score shored up and started to sound unique and like us.
Jason: The movie takes place over various decades. It starts in the ’70s and then we see Kenny present day. Did you consciously say let’s make this decade sound different from this one, or this one?
Zach Seman: I think the licensed music does a good job of that while we act as the constant. So we didn’t even consider that. We just act as the sonic glue to tie the decades together.
Jason: How do you experiment with sounds while remaining true or close to the beating heart of the living subject, here being Kenny?
Zach Seman: In this movie Kenny’s art is so layered, there’s so much going on we felt it was an interesting opportunity to mirror that. You’ll hear detailed blinks and bonks all throughout the score. And I think that we got away with some experimentation that we wouldn’t have gotten away with if Kenny were a much more conservative artist or his philosophy is very let’s throw ideas at the wall and see what it turns into and I think the score is reflective of that.
Roger Kleinman: I think maybe consciously or subconsciously, what we did reflects Kenny’s life. Kenny talking about his life in the ’80s feels very romantic and often sad. And there are moments that are tense and the music that we made to play against these scenes of Kenny in his life and in New York, and even now with his family or adults and his grandchildren. because his daughter made this movie, there’s music that reflects that and there’s music that reflects different aspects of his life.
Jason: I asked to hear your score and your samples were sent to me and I listened to the complete score a few times and really liked them. There’s a hint of jazz, there’s the techno ’80s and there’s strings at one point. How would you describe your musical style and characteristics?
Zach Seman: First, thanks for listening. We appreciate that. I don’t think we went into it being this part should sound like strings, this part should be more cinematic, this part should be more typical doc score stuff. This part should be more crazy, more ‘80s I think we were just reacting to the correct energy in that scene. And you’re right, I think we ended up with a more diverse score than usual because of that.
Roger Kleinman: Regarding our scheme and style, I don’t think we that we have an answer to that as we’re pretty young in our careers. I think what’s interesting about this score is that we started out in studios and then as COVID came around we were doing it from our own home studios and we could only use what’s around us. We had some synthesizers and some instruments and that reflected what we’re able of doing. I’m not sure what our individual unique style is yet, but there’s so much in this score I don’t I don’t think anyone listening to it can even determine that.
Jason: What has the reaction been to the film and your music?
Zach Seman: There is a lot of music that we wrote for the movie. It’s kind of like a character of it. We’ve been pretty surprised by the reaction to the movie and to the score, it’s been positive. People have been into it and we did not expect that when we first started. In fact, it was supposed to premiere at South By Southwest but COVID was ramping up and the premiere got canceled and we were like, ‘this movie may or may never come out. Who knows what’s about to happen over the next year?’ We were expecting the worst. But we’ve been really surprised that not only did it come out. It’s been playing in theaters. People have been watching it. Yeah, we’ve been very happy about it.
Jason: Would you like to talk about future projects you guys might have are working on right now or have coming up?
Zach Seman: Roger and I work a lot and sometimes our minds go blank when when people ask us that question because we do several things a day, I will say that we just had an album come out with this artist Claud on Phoebe Bridgers’ label, Saddest Factory, and the album is called Super Monster and we’re proud of it. We did the whole thing at Electric Lady in New York. Claud is the first artist signed to Phoebe’s label and it making Super Monster at Electric Lady was also a COVID project. So that’s a whole another story, but we’re proud of it.
Visit www.kennyscharfmovie.com for movie and streaming information
If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out some of our others!
Diving Deep: An Interview with Three of the Minds Behind Ultrasound
Interview: Filmmaker David Pagano on the Upcoming Jim Varney Doc The Importance of Being Ernest
Interview: Composer Nicolas Repetto On Scoring The Sound of Identity