Daniel Handler helps plan a heist with an obscurities-riddled soundtrack
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In I Made You A Mixtape, we ask our favorite musicians, actors, writers, directors, or whatevers to strut their musical savvy: We pick a theme, they make us a mix.
The mixer: Daniel Handler has played accordion on albums by The Magnetic Fields, The Gothic Archies, and The 6ths. He’s also done screenwriting work, on Rick and Kill The Poor. But he’s primarily known as an author. Under his own name, he’s written YA (Why We Broke Up) and more adult books (The Basic Eight, Adverbs). As Lemony Snicket, he wrote the 13-book bestselling series A Series Of Unfortunate Events. And his latest book, Who Could That Be At This Hour?, launches a four-book Series Of Unfortunate Events prequel series. In honor of the book, which features a young Lemony Snicket tracking a supposedly valuable object around an obscure, troubled town whose residents keep stealing it from each other over and over, The A.V. Club asked Handler to assemble a mixtape about thieves. He responded with a 13-song soundtrack to an imaginary heist movie, with each song representing a specific stage in a prototypical caper film.
Main theme/Voyage to a secure location: Saint Etienne, “Urban Clearway”
Daniel Handler: I’m from the glory days of mixtapes, so I think I have never made a mixtape that didn’t have an opening theme. I think “Urban Clearway” is a great instrumental that sounds a little bit like the opening credits to Knots Landing or Hart To Hart, although it has a disco beat, so one pictures a vintage sports car climbing a hill to a remote location to talk about something that probably isn’t legal.
The A.V. Club: This one sounds a little like a ’70s James Bond track. There’s a lot of ’70s influence in this list, plus one actual James Bond track.
DH: Yeah, I guess 1970s culture seems like the glory days of cat-burglar culture. [Laughs.] The idea that you could be in an illicit criminal enterprise, but also the most dashing, fashionable person… that idea had full rein in the ’70s.
AVC: This particular track has what sounds like a pan flute, and your mixtape in general has a lot of unusual instrumentation—autoharp and bongos and death-banjo. Do uncommon instruments particularly appeal to you?
DH: I like a good arrangement. I often get bored when I’m listening to an album if there’s no surprising instrumentation, or at minimum, mixing. Yeah, I like things that catch your ear. I can’t think of anything in my top 50 albums that is nothing but guitar, bass, drums, something like that. I always like something oddball thrown in there.
AVC: Does this list come from your core music, or did you have to dig into the crates?
DH: No, this is definitely… [Laughs.] All of these albums were lying around. Or at least the tracks were.
The mark: Marianne Faithfull, “The Blue Millionaire”
DH: Marianne Faithfull has the voice of world-wearied cynicism that I associate with femmes fatale in heist pictures. She always sounds like she’s been all around the world, and men are scum. “The Blue Millionaire” is a portrait of someone you would want to tail and stake out for robbing. My wife really likes a line: “There is no such thing as the wrong man,” which maybe should be disconcerting to her husband, come to think of it. [Laughs.]
AVC: It sounds like a Hitchcock reference.
DH: I don’t know. Marianne Faithfull and Grace Jones, who’s later on this list, are such enigmatic figures, and part of what is enigmatic about them is their lyrics and their delivery. You often think, “That’s either genius or happy accident.” Marianne Faithfull strikes me as someone who finishes a shot of chartreuse and writes a verse of a song, and you have no idea if she’s been thinking about cultural references, or if the words echo one another, or if she’s just tipsy and lucky.
AVC: She keeps coming back to the fact that he’s a “blue millionaire,” but it’s unclear whether she’s talking about someone with money, or just someone with power and control over her in this relationship.
DH: Yes, I would agree. Obviously for the purposes of a fictional cat burglary, he would be an actual millionaire. [Laughs.] Although I guess nowadays, a millionaire would hardly be worth cat-burglaring. I feel like Dr. Evil. [Laughs.] If we made this movie and we got whoever the new Marianne Faithfull would be, we would have to make him “The Blue Zillionaire”or something. [Laughs.]
I thought a lot about femmes fatale, because there’s kind of a femme fatale in the new Lemony Snicket series, so I was reading and watching all this noir, and one thing that was really interesting to think about is that the femme fatale is almost always on the same point on the moral compass, and has the same kind of strategizing, as the detective. They’re both often outsiders in their world, and they’re both using whatever meager skills are at hand to gain advantage in the situation in which they’re down and out.
AVC: That’s why they bond, but she always proves she’s more amoral.
DH: Right. I mean, it’s why they’re drawn to one another. It’s that they have a cynical—or it doesn’t have to be cynical, but it’s often cynical—but at least similar take on everyone else in the story. It’s interesting to me. I felt that I’d never figured that out until I started researching for this book.
Moral justification for robbery: Sam Phillips, “Shake It Down”
DH: Also in the somewhat femme fatale mode, at least in a lot of her visual packaging. She has a great somewhat femme fatale role in the third Die Hard movie. She doesn’t talk, but she hangs out with the villain all the time. [Laughs.] And I always wondered how in the world that happened, that a singer-songwriter with a throaty voice got this weird gig in a film. I met her once, but I didn’t have the courage to ask her that, because it seemed like such a deep fanboy question, and I’m not actually such a fanboy of Sam Phillips. I mean, I admire her work, but I didn’t want to make it sound like I’d waited and waited to ask her one creepy question.
AVC: Apparently she doesn’t get to speak, but she does get a sex scene.
DH: [Laughs.] If that ain’t women in film in a nutshell. [Laughs.] Anyway, “Shake It Down” is from this record of hers that almost vanished without a trace, called Don’t Do Anything, that I really love. The lyrics are somewhat ambiguous.
AVC: You have this as the “moral justification” stage of the heist. How did that come out for you in this song?
DH: I think it probably came up because I searched for the word “shake” on my iTunes. [Laughs.] But when you look up “shake,” all you get is things like “shake it” or “shake it up,” or various things you can shake while dancing. “Shake It Down” seems about underhanded strategies to get what you want.
AVC: The banjo part is surprisingly dramatic and grim.
DH: Yeah, it’s fantastic. I heard her play a few times, and one time, she had two drummers with her. Both drummers were playing with maracas. I think they had two or three maracas in each hand that were duct-taped together that they were using to hit the drums, so you heard this maraca sound on the upswing. I think it’s pretty unusual for a singer-songwriter to really be into drums, and I always liked that about her. So yeah, the lyrics might not perfectly fit a cat-burglary situation, but the sound sounds to me like nefarious people getting together in a warehouse.
AVC: It’s also reminiscent of Tom Waits, who you hit in the next song.
DH: Yeah. I think Sam Phillips has had a somewhat similar sonic trajectory, in that both she and Tom Waits made fairly straightforward singer-songwriter records for a while. The only super-striking thing about the sound was their voices, and then they both went into the kind of carnival-esque, ghostly-percussion, odd-instrumentation mode.
Planning and correction of mistakes: Tom Waits, “Jockey Full Of Bourbon”
DH: This, I put in there mostly because of the opening credits of Down By Law, which, though not really a cat-burglary movie, is kind of a down-and-out crime movie. The lyrics tell a long, involved, complicated crime story that, when I pictured the people sitting around planning the crime, there’d be one kind of raconteur full of information about the last time he tried a similar heist. Like Robert De Niro in Ronin, who, as we think for most of the film, has dropped out of the CIA, so he gives advice about things he learned in the CIA.
AVC: A lot of the lyrics here are from old aphorisms and fairy tales. It’s put together like a puzzle, which feels like a Tom Waits thing to do.
DH: All of his lyrics feel like they’re just something you overheard. He often has a take on something that you’ve thought about for a while, or heard a million times, but you never really thought about it. He has a great song called “Satisfied” that’s really a rethinking of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” At its climax, he keeps saying, “Let the bullets go back into the barrel.” He says it over and over again, and it just sounds like he’s pleading for his life back. Which, coming from a singer of a certain age, is kind of amazing.
AVC: Do you prefer whispery, drunken-confessional Tom Waits or ranting-and-screaming Tom Waits?
DH: Those aren’t the two poles I thought you were going to give me. [Laughs.] Because I like a mix of those two poles. I’m definitely on the carnival-esque, late-period, odd-instrumentation side rather than the lonely piano ballads of the earlier records. I like it when there’s a mix of his kind of barrel-chested yelling and his melancholy ballads. When he released that box set of outtakes, I was disappointed that they were organized so there’s one disc of ballads and one of barn-burners, because they both get exhausting to listen to in one sitting.
Execution of the plot: Nina Simone, “Sinnerman”
AVC: Speaking of exhausting to listen to in one sitting, this is a nine-and-a-half-minute track.
DH: Yeah, I was trying to figure out if that would have to close out side one of an actual mixtape. I mean, it’s hard. One nice thing about the days of making mixtapes was that you could cut off songs that got boring, which you can do less now. I mean, there’s software that allows you to do it, but it used to be when you were making mixtapes, you would just think, “That’s enough of that song. It goes on too long,” and you could just cut it off. Although I like all 10 minutes of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.”
AVC: Do you still have mixtapes from the old days?
DH: I do, yeah. I have tons of mixtapes from the old days, including some mixtapes I made for other people that somehow ended up in my possession. I went over to a friend’s house once, and she was having a garage sale, and there were all these mixtapes I had made her, so I just took them. I didn’t even pay the 50 cents.
AVC: She didn’t make you buy them back?
DH: [Laughs.] That would be humiliating. She already made me pay enough, if you know what I mean.
AVC: It says something about your mixtape skills that she thought that they were worth money.
DH: More about her financial desperation, yes. [Laughs.] This song tracks one of the best heist movies around, which is an unfashionable choice, but it’s the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair with Pierce Brosnan. During a complicated, almost kind of meta-heist toward the end of the movie, it’s soundtracked to “Sinnerman,” which is a song I’d always loved. Nina Simone is a kind of take-it-or-leave-it proposition, I find. Some people can’t stand her. So it would be good to leave her on the end of side one. [Laughs.] Because people could say, “Oh, yeah, this song. I can’t stand this one. What was Handler thinking?” and just fast-forward to side two.
AVC: It’s a great song for the middle of a heist. The percussion in particular feels like a heart racing, almost past the physical capacity to stand it.
DH: Yeah, and the lyrics are about falling into evil, basically. I mean, someone is praying to God, and God says, “Go to the devil.” And he goes to the devil, and the devil’s waiting. I feel you see that in a lot of crime movies, where someone’s trying to go straight, and eventually they get into trouble, going back to their old comrades. They have to enter the smoky bar or call the mysterious bald man, or whatever they need to do.
Unexpected complications: John Barry, “Death Of Fiona”
DH: This is one of my favorite pieces of music in the world. It’s from the soundtrack to Thunderball, which is a fairly dull motion picture. My wife does an imitation of ’70s sci-fi action movies in which she puts the palms of her hands together and slowly opens them or closes them and goes [buzzing noise]. Because if you’re watching films of that era, eventually, there’s a long sequence in which a rocket is launching, or some new piece of technology is going through its motions, and it’s unbelievably slow and dull. [Laughs.] So that’s the low-light of Thunderball, but the high point is this piece of music. John Barry does amazing scores in general, and this is kind of a loungey melody in which the percussion slowly, completely takes over.
AVC: Those are some extremely intrusive bongos.
DH: [Laughs.] There’s your headline right there. In the film it’s actually, in my opinion, not used that well, but I wait for Quentin Tarantino to reuse it or something, because it has a notion of a quiet, sophisticated party, perhaps by the poolside, and then just over the fence, something completely dastardly happening.
AVC: There’s a real transition throughout this track from slinky lounge music to a big, intense, high-energy moment, but it still doesn’t feel like a death. It feels more like the mood changing in a club.
DH: Yeah, could be. Of course, I mean, death in Bond pictures is so sophisticated anyway. [Laughs.]
AVC: Does the rest of that soundtrack draw you at all?
DH: Yeah, I like all of it. In fact, there’s another nice track called “Chateau Flight,” and I noticed a few years ago that there’s an electric outfit that calls itself Chateau Flight, and I raised my hand in a salute to whoever those people are, for also loving the Thunderball soundtrack.
Alarms are sounded: New Order, “5 8 6”
DH: I was never really into New Order back in the day, and then fairly recently, all their albums, or I guess their classic records, were reissued. For some reason, I was on the promotional list, so I received all of them, which must be 10 hours of New Order. It made a very elegant statement of what an incredible band they were. I never had paid much attention to them before. I kind of knew the hits, but when I was in high school, it went without saying that they were total sellouts, and Joy Division was the only thing that you could listen to. [Laughs.] I’ve become more elastic on that opinion lately. I don’t have to cater to my hard-right base on the Joy Division/New Order divide.
I love how cold-hearted the electronics are, and how human the vocals are. The lyrics are almost always terrible, and the singing is really bad. It’s like they missed Ian Curtis with every song. They never really found a vocalist, but they have beautiful melodies, and it’s great sinister music. If I have it on in my car or in my headphones, it makes me feel like I’m part of a crack team of I don’t know what… People who can coordinate an incredible heist of some sort. It makes me feel like I’m donning suction cups to climb the glass exterior of this building, or twisting all the red wires to the blue wires, so I have access to the safe. Or asking a gentleman for a light, and then blowing the smoke in his face that knocks him unconscious so I can blindfold him and duct tape him and take his security card, or whatever I need to do. So I recommend New Order for that. I guess the takeaway is that they’re way more gangsta than anyone thinks. You know, I think they’re thought of as fey Euro-disco.
AVC: Gangsta is absolutely the word I think of when contemplating New Order.
DH: [Laughs.] Well, there’s nothing like two white people deciding that an all-white band from Manchester is really gangsta. I think it gives everyone involved a whole lot of cred. [Laughs.]