Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Daniel Handler helps plan a heist with an obscurities-riddled soundtrack

Illustration for article titled Daniel Handler helps plan a heist with an obscurities-riddled soundtrack

In I Made You A Mixtapewe 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.]

Threats of violence: Primal Scream, “If They Move, Kill ’Em”
DH: I pictured the New Order song being the triggering of an electronic alarm, with the vocalist going, [sings] “Danger! Danger!” This song seems like it would be the arrival of the law. I believe “Kill ’em” is a line of dialogue in The Wild Bunch. I mean, I’m sure it’s a line of dialogue in a million films, but I think it was The Wild Bunch that Primal Scream seem after. It’s a nice blend of very shrill electronic sounds and very intense wah-wah guitar.


AVC: There are a lot of instrumentals in this mixtape. Do you normally prefer those?

DH: I do. I listen to a lot of instrumentals. I can’t really listen to vocal music while I’m working, and I listen to music for the duration of my workday, so I listen to a lot more instrumental stuff than maybe a lot of people do.


AVC: This seems like a hard song to write to. It sounds like fire alarms going off in a ’70s porn film.

DH: [Laughs.] Or so you’ve read, of course.

AVC: Well, it has that stereotyped wakka-chikka, wakka-chikka thing going on.

DH: Yeah, it does. I pictured it more like the Shaft theme. I guess Shaft is a particular kind of pornography, but not the traditional kind. Well, nowadays, in the age of the iPod, I often make playlists to listen to for whatever book I’m working on, and I don’t think I’ve ever put this on a playlist. This would be the, “Okay, you’ve probably worked enough” song, or the “You’re staring into space” song. This is a loud song to get you to refocus.


It’s a great driving song. Particularly if you’re aging and you have a third-grade son, then maybe you want this kind of music in your car that while you’re listening to it would make you think you were radiating an aura of inscrutable threat, rather than taking your son to swimming lessons. [Laughs.] My son’s been bugging me to… He learned the phrase “souped up,” so he wants me to soup up my car. He was suggesting I paint flames on the side. Just the idea of a car with flames on the side and maybe a skull on the hood, waiting in line to put my parking pass against the electronic reader as we enter the Jewish Community Center, really struck me as funny. [Laughs.]

Arrival of the law: The Clash, “Police On My Back”
DH: In the New Order song, the alarm goes off, and maybe in the Primal Scream song, the cat burglars are surrounded by security guards who are holding guns at them. They manage to get out through a trap door in the floor and move to their unmarked van, but there are police outside, so a car chase begins.


AVC: This is easily the most mainstream rock track on this mixtape.

DH: Yeah. I’m not such a rockist, I guess. Sandinista! is one of my all-time favorite records, but one of the things I like about it is that the rock songs meld into all sorts of weird, tape-loop, dub, children’s chorus, gospel-singing kind of experimentation.


AVC: Does this track draw you at all? Or is it just thematically appropriate?

DH: No, I like it a lot. I was looking for songs about the arrival of the law, but I’ve always liked “Police On My Back,” and most songs about the arrival of the law are kind of terrible. I liked the idea of choosing an actual song by The Police, just because it cracked me up that you would be doing a heist and it’d be like, “The Police are here!” And it’d just be Sting and Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland looking pouty.


AVC: And showing up to either mope, or talk about their own illegal activities, like stalking people.

DH: [Laughs.] Yeah, or you know, Sting would say something like, “You don’t even realize that the real culprit is the capitalist system oppressing the Amazonian rainforest.” And you would say, “I surrender! I surrender! Take it! Never mind!”

Car chase: Grace Jones, “Warm Leatherette”
DH: What is there to say? Except that I have a deep-seated love for Grace Jones, which has been reported widely and publicly, and earned me nothing but shame and scorn. I don’t think you were ever cool if you listened to Grace Jones, but I think she has a kind of weird, eerie, sonic emptiness and a real sense of deadpan strangeness where you can’t tell how much she’s putting you on.


AVC: This song is almost a chant in places. It’s a ’70s slow-mo car chase, as opposed to a modern one.

DH: Yeah, and it’s a cover of one of the first electro-pop tracks ever, which is “Warm Leatherette” by The Normal, which was the founder of Mute Records, Daniel Miller. That was just his little electronic project. So I think the joke when Grace Jones’ cover came out is that the original “Warm Leatherette” is these kind of tinky-toy electronics, and then she turns it into this kind of fierce, funky thing.


AVC: Fierce and funky is pretty much what she does.

DH: She’ll turn anything into a fierce, funky thing. She doesn’t care. [Laughs.] She has a record called Slave To The Rhythm. It’s basically the song “Slave To The Rhythm,” and then kind of an audio documentary and the making of the song “Slave To The Rhythm.” When I was in college, there were a lot of genius-vs.-idiocy arguments because it’s a Trevor Horn production. It’s this totally just ridiculous record, but it is totally unique also. I’ve been a Grace Jones fan forever. I can’t think of what else to say about her. Except I think if you were putting together a team for a heist, and Grace Jones was behind the wheel, I think you would feel good.


AVC: Behind the wheel is good, but she’d also work well with a gigantic gun, sitting up in the rumble seat.

DH: Oh, yeah. That’s true. Like, you’re running from the museum and Grace Jones has this stylish car, but she’s standing up and she’s out of the sunroof pointing a bazooka at the people after you. That would be just what you want. That’s just what you’d want when you say, “Meet me out front! We have to meet at the northwest entrance after all.” And if you got there and Grace Jones was holding a bazooka, you’d feel good.

Celebration of escape: J.C. Davis, “Monkey”
AVC: So Grace Jones has gotten your team out of trouble and you’re having a monkey party, apparently?


DH: Yeah, I just wanted to choose a song that would be a celebration—the kind of drunken, pouring-champagne-all-over-yourself-because-you-really-got-away-with-it kind of party. In my experience, this track is one everyone can agree on. Not that I’ve had a lot of DJ experience, but I’ve had some, and everyone likes this song.

I had it on this old compilation on what I assume is the departed record label Strip Records, which had a few volumes of go-go and grind music that all sounds kind of like this, from the ’60s. But I guess… once, I had it on and someone was very impressed, and they said J.C. Davis was huge. He was in James Brown’s band for a long time, and he’s a well-respected soul singer. But it’s a ridiculous song. It’s almost entirely instrumental, and just everyone likes it. [Laughs.] I think because no one knows it.


You know, sometimes you put a song on at a party and everyone will dance, and there’s always two people who say, “Oh, I’ve always hated this song,” no matter what song it is. But no one can say, “Oh, I’m so tired of hearing J.C. Davis’ ‘Monkey.’” [Laughs.] That era of groove, that kind of ’60s organ, R&B, instrumental, I think makes everyone feel sexy. You can do a ridiculous dance move, and the music makes you feel like you’re awesome. Which I don’t think is true if you put on electronica, say.

The glittering prize: Ferrante & Teicher, “A Whale Of An Aquarian Finale At Sea”
AVC: This one feels like everyone taking a nap after all the tension and excitement.


DH: That’s what I assumed. I’m always confused about various things in heists, but one of the things I’m confused about is that there’s often a party where they’re like, “Hey! We did it! Wooo!” and then they divvy up the money. Maybe this is just what happens when you’re the son of a Jewish accountant, but I would think, “Let’s divvy up the money and then have a party. Let’s make sure we’re totally done, so we’re not at this party saying, ‘I’m having a great time, but I don’t want to get too drunk so that they cheat me out of my share of the take.’” But oftentimes, the party is first.

But I pictured this as the party dying down. Maybe the go-go boys and girls have been let loose, and you’re sitting around having one last sip of really good brandy or something, but they open the pouch of diamonds, and this is the music that is playing.


AVC: And it’s from an ocean-themed album?

DH: This is another one of my all-time favorite records, actually. Ferrante and Teicher are wonderful to search for on YouTube, so I’ll pause for a moment while all A.V. Club readers go and do that.


They were a team of two pianists who played popular songs, mostly, or very popular classical songs, on television full of glissandos and other show-offy piano tricks. Then apparently they had a secret desire to make a really arty album that was a tribute to underwater, and they started it and abandoned it. Then something like 40 years later, when they were old men, they got together this totally ridiculous record. So it’s like the Smile of lounge-piano show-duets. [Laughs.]

It’s a great record. It’s really short. They play the strings on the piano a lot. They play the piano in all sorts of unusual ways, and this is its last track. It always sounds to me maybe like the Ice Capades, or a synchronized swimming show. It makes me think of maybe the end of [Steven] Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, where everyone’s standing and watching the fountains. But I definitely picture the glitter of jewels.


AVC: The effect of playing piano strings directly sounds like an autoharp.

DH: Yeah. I think that’s basically what an autoharp is. Right? You press the buttons to make the chords. It does the chord for you. Shirley Simms plays autoharp in The Magnetic Fields, and she always tells me that she loves that she’s been assigned the autoharp, because you cannot screw it up. Which is funny, because then in rehearsal, when she screws it up, it’s great to say, “You screwed up something that you said yourself no one can possibly screw up.” Oh, does she love that! [Laughs.]


Lingering melancholy doubts: The Chromatics, “Kill For Love”
DH: They’re a great band to work to. They seem always to be making imaginary movies in their heads. They have an album called Night Drive that has some opening dialogue that seems to make you think you’re supposed to understand the stories the next 10 songs tell you. They did the soundtrack to Drive, which was rejected. They’ve just released this record called Themes For An Imaginary Film, which the packaging says definitely isn’t the music they made for the film Drive that was then rejected… which I take to mean that it was. Because you could put that on just about any record. [Laughs.] “Here’s System Of A Down. Please note that this music was not made for the motion picture Drive.” I think the Chromatics would admire the film music of John Carpenter, because they make a lot of empty, electronic music.

AVC: This is a great closing-credits song. It’s got that kind of underwater, far-away vocal effect, the sense of receding.


DH: I think one pictures someone standing sadly on the prow of a boat. Maybe the protagonist faked a love affair with the security guard’s daughter for six months to prepare for the heist, and now he can never see her again, but he really loves her. Or maybe he had to say goodbye to his family because he’s turning forever to a life of crime. Any one of the melancholy endings of crime films like that, where someone has to leave their whole life behind.

AVC: When you’re listening to songs, do you often create these elaborate narratives in your head?


DH: Certainly for instrumentals. “Kill For Love” feels almost like an instrumental, because the vocals are faint and elusive. I think my brain naturally goes to different kinds of narratives. Certainly when I’m making playlists and I’m going to listen to them while I’m working on something, I’ll say, “Oh, no no. This isn’t a high-school breakup song. This is a song when you quit your job because your boss has been a dick for six years, and on your way out, you slap the face of the Xerox guy who was always mean to you.” That song. It’s not a breakup song, so let’s not put that there.

AVC: Would you recommend people listen to this mix while reading Who Could That Be At This Hour?


DH: Gosh, I don’t know. When I’m reading, I couldn’t listen to music that would be this busy. I think if you read Who Could That Be At This Hour? and then you’re inspired to enact a cat burglary or a heist of your own, this mixtape might be of some assistance.