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The Blair Brothers: The Scene Stealers.

July 24, 2015

BlairBrosSmall02Text by Brendan Menapace. Images by Stevie Chris.

Walk into the Blair brothers’ studio on Frankford Avenue and the first thing you’ll notice (after petting the not-so-vicious guard dog) is the multitude of string instruments lining the back wall. After that, it’s the speakers and computer monitors that sit on a desk and two keyboards positioned around the desk. On the computer is an image of Patrick Stewart.

No, the two aren’t watching “Star Trek” while they write music for a new album.

They are composers for award-winning films, documentaries and television programming, creating the sounds and music that add suspense, depth and emotion to a director’s visuals.

Last year was huge for the brothers. IndieWire recognized the duo as Composers to Watch in 2014. Their music for director Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin,” which was an official selection at Cannes and Sundance among other film festivals, garnered a Public Choice Nomination from the World Soundtrack Awards and an inclusion in ASCAP’s Composer Spotlight, as well as an honorable mention nod on IndieWire’s list of the best film scores of the year.

Today, they’re finishing a big project.

“It’s Friday, so we’re enjoying some beers,” Will, the younger Blair, says as he opens the door to the studio where older brother Brooke is sitting at the computer, Narragansett pounder in hand.

The two are putting the final touches on the score to an upcoming film by Saulnier, starring the aforementioned Stewart as a Neo-Nazi hunting down a punk band.

BlairBrosSmall01The Blairs, natives of northern Virginia, use their history of playing in bands like East Hundred, as well as influences of Philly music, to create their soundtracks.

When they were in college, their friends asked them to score short student films and they built their portfolio over the years. Brooke now lives in Chestnut Hill and Will lives within walking distance of their studio in Fishtown.

“We grew up with Jeremy,” Will says of Saulnier, the director. “As we went to college, we veered off toward music and he was heading toward film. We did all of his short college films and his first feature in 2007. We started looking at it more seriously but we were still busy with band-related stuff.”

“I had my little film posse with [Will and Brooke’s] older brother Macon,” Saulnier says during a phone interview. “They were very talented musicians and they were available and worked for cheap.”

The two did the score for Saulnier’s short film “Crab Walk” in 2004 and he wanted them to do more. In 2007, when Saulnier did his first feature, “Murder Party,” he brought them on.

“As we built our careers together, they just proved themselves as collaborators,” Saulnier added.

Now they are finishing his third feature, a film Will calls a “punk rock thriller,” which will also premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

“There’s one scene where feedback almost becomes an instrument, like a deterrent,” Will explains. “The word ‘feedback’ is in the script as a sonic detail. It appears in different scenes where things are going crazy. We use that as a starting off point.”

To get this sound, Brooke records hours of guitar feedback in the studio.

“It’s like the one thing that you try to avoid in a studio situation,” Will says. “We try to encourage and create and control it. So we had tons of guitar feedback. We got a trombone to feed back and drums to feed back.”

“Also, the sound of it, it has an abrasiveness and a grittiness that goes well with a punk rock sound,” Brooke adds. “You think, ‘Oh, here’s a punk rock film. That’s probably what the score should be.’ But that’s already such a part of the film that our approach was to weave in and out of that as part of the story, but also not be totally noticeable.”

Brooke contrasts what they’re doing on this project to what some might see as a traditional film score, with sweeping orchestras taking over the film, like John Williams’ epic “Star Wars” soundtrack.

“They’re made to be felt and almost take over a little bit sometimes,” Brooke says. “Sometimes dialogue dies off and they become these moments. We’re kind of doing this the opposite way. We’re still sneaking in melodies here and there but for the most part it’s textural. It’s meant to be there and be felt, but not be overtly obvious.”

Their job is to find the right sound to enhance the emotion and tempo on screen. It changes with each project.

BlairBrosSmall03The Blairs believe that they’re currently part of a shift in the industry’s dynamic, with more and more young composers establishing themselves. With Brooke, 37, and Will, 36, they’re certainly on the lower end of the age spectrum in the industry, but that’s changing at a fast pace.

“I think even like 10 years ago it was rare to see a young composer,” Brooke says. “Especially in, like, old Hollywood stuff. Now, part of it is the advent of home studios and that kind of thing, and being able to pull off that sound outside of an orchestrated Hollywood score, younger guys are getting into the game a little more.”

There are still a few scene cues yet to be crossed out on their whiteboard to-do list. After finishing this Saulnier project, the two are switching gears completely – from the distorted terror soundtrack to a documentary on collegiate swimming. A tub, which will be filled with water for an underwater mic to record the muffled aquatic soundtrack, sits patiently in the corner of the studio.

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