Sarah J. Edwards has an in-depth conversation with actor Lukas Haas on his love of music. He discusses plans for his album, performing with OutKast, downloading for free, his cult film roles and his ideal work.
This feature first appeared in the print edition of BLAG, Vol.2 Nø 10 from 2009, this is an edited version.
Interview by Sarah J. Edwards
Art Direction by Sally A. Edwards
Photography by Amanda Marsalis
Styling by Jenny Ricker
Grooming by Kiki Benet
It’s exciting watching people of a similar age really grab life and tap into their talents. Lukas Haas loves film and he loves music, so now he is making them both his profession.
You’re probably aware of him as the cutest child in Witness alongside Harrison Ford, or 11 years later in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! next to Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close. His more recent work includes Brick – the unique Rian Johnson mystery in which Lukas portrays the ever-so-memorable The Pin and the up- coming Death In Love.
Adopt your best laid back LA drawl and read how Lukas Haas is doing it all...
I wanted to chat with you about your musical background, because you got into music really quickly growing up didn’t you? With drumming at 10, is that right?
“Yeah, I got my first drum set when I was nine or 10. I set them up in the garage and would just drum along to all my favourite songs and drive my parents nuts. Then we moved to Austin, Texas and I set them up in the attic and I was kind of relentless about it.”
[Laughing] Did your parents mind the attic as much as the garage?
“Yeah, the attic was even worse!”
“But, [laughs] I had nowhere else to go! My parents were always encouraging me to do what I loved. They’re both artists – so it made it a little easier – not like lawyers or something, they were really cool about it.”
Definitely. So, then you went onto keyboards about a year later, is that right?
“Yeah, I got my first keyboard and was sort of diddling around on it. Then as a gift for Christmas, my parents gave me a piano when I was 11 or 12. So, I started learning piano and then when I was 17 or 18 I got my first guitar – that’s when I started to learn how to play. I had actually gotten a guitar before that, but wasn’t really able to play or pick it up, it seemed really tricky and difficult, but I was still really learning how to play piano. When I got a guitar for the second time, it seemed way easier for some reason. It was only a couple of years difference; but I guess that made a big difference.”
It’s really cool that you managed to go back to it.
“Yeah, yeah, then I think it was just the way that I learned, you know? By learning a few of my favourite songs and just writing on it, before I really knew what I was doing. I think it made it easier and just made me wanting to play rather than doing scales and all that stuff. That sort of makes you want to give up! [laughs]”
So there are all these tracks that you used to play along to, can you remember them to give us your top five tracks from your childhood?
“Um, well, they were all Beatles’ songs.”
“[Laughs] It was Let It Be, Hey Jude, [and] Blackbird was the first real song that I learnt on the guitar. One John Lennon song, Imagine. There was one Tchaikovsky I don’t even remember what it’s called. Actually! Cat Stevens, Morning Has Broken. Those are some of [the] earlier songs I was learning, [as well as] ballads and stuff on the piano.”
And what would be the top five tracks you’re listening to now away from your own music.
“Well, I actually just downloaded that Oasis track that they leaked, did you hear about that?”
Yes, I did.
“I Wanna Live In A Dream (In My Record Machine), that’s pretty cool. And then the new Nine Inch Nails”.
[Laughs] Have you just been downloading music for free?
“[Laughs] Yeah, well, I’ve been... really I’ve been kind of separated from music right now that’s not my own. I’m just so immersed in the studio that I haven’t had much time to listen to much else, but really what I do is listen to the oldie stations. So, I’m kind of stuck in the past when it comes to music. I really like Motown, Bob Marley and The Beatles.”
It’s not going to hurt to listen to that.
“Well, that’s all I really like to be honest with you. I like new music. OK, there’s some good stuff, but I like listening to In Rainbows. Radiohead is always good and the Coldplay stuff is good and I like some hip hop like, OutKast. There’s some interesting stuff... Oh, I like Gnarls Barkley, but in general, there’s not a whole lot that I really like, you know, new stuff. I really really love listening to old music, I kind of do it non-stop.”
This is a question I had for further in, but because you’ve just mentioned them, I wanted you to tell us how you ended up meeting André and performing with OutKast in their videos?
“Oh yeah! Well, we were at a little party here in LA a few years back, like four or five years I guess and [André] knew who I was and I knew who he was and he was starting to get into acting. I don’t think he’d actually been in anything yet, but he was asking me about it. I was asking him about music. [André] basically just got in touch with me when they were out here doing the Roses video and asked me if I wanted to come by and be in it. So... It just sort of happened. It was really weird, we did that and we kept hanging out every time he’s been around. If he has a video going on, he gives me a buzz. We toured for the Roses video, I mean in New York City, we did TRL and the David Letterman show, with that whole Roses concept onstage, which was really funny.”
André’s great isn’t he? We’ve given him two covers actually.
“Really? He’s awesome. He’s such a great guy, really creative and interesting in person, you know? I really, really like him.”
I do, he’s really cool. So, have you got a title for the album yet?
“I think I’m going to call it In Between, it’s one of the titles of one of the songs.”
Can you tell us a little bit about Pulse Recordings, because they’re a really interesting label, aren’t they? How did you end up working with them?
“Yeah, they’re really cool. Even though I’ve been making music my whole life and writing songs, I wanted to be able to do it somehow, professionally. At the same time, I sort of resisted because I didn’t want to have to explain myself as an actor / musician. I didn’t want to go to labels and put myself through that process. I also didn’t know about how to get a deal or what kind of a deal I should have, [because] my music is very specific. I’m very, very choosy and fussy about what kind of music I like to listen to and the way I record my music. I’m very specific about what I want and what I want the sound to sound like. So, I just didn’t want to get myself into some situation where they throw a producer on me and try and just get something out of me that’s not me, you know?
“So, it happened really naturally which is the great thing, I had bumped into Josh Abraham who owns Pulse a few times, we have some mutual friends here in LA. So we kind of knew each other as acquaintances, then I was on the beach, at my friend’s house in Malibu, just playing some of my songs by myself. I guess he was nearby and he came over and asked me to play him some. So, I [did] and he was like, ‘Oh man, you’ve got to come into the studio and play this for my partners and for Tim – Tim Anderson ended up producing the record. So I thought, ‘Hey, why not? Yeah, I’d love to.’ So, I went in and played them a few songs on my guitar and they loved it. [They] said let’s start developing it, let’s make it happen. Basically, I started working with Tim and we started recording the album and it was really easy. We took our time too, ‘cause it’s been maybe a year and a half since we started that whole process.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be able to go back and revisit at lot of the songs, re-record them and try different versions. That was something I had always wanted to do, even from the get-go. To really find where a certain song might be coming from, you know? And how it sounded the best... tempo and all that kind of stuff. I didn’t have a band to record it with, so it was a lot of over dubbing and it would take a lot of time just to record one song. But it was great, the luxury of time that we’ve had – that’s just something that would not have happened anywhere else but Pulse. It’s all in-house, they have the studio’s there. All the management [are] there, the label. It all runs through the same four or five people that you’re there with everyday. It’s just a really great environment because you all get to know each other really well and they’re there through the whole process with you. They’re very supportive, they never really gave me any shit about how much time I was taking because they were happy with what I was doing. So, it was a great experience getting to work there. I’m really excited and happy that it worked out that way.”
Brilliant, and how did you end up working with all your collaborators, Ben Harper, Chris Cester and Blake Sennett?
“Oh yeah! Well, Ben is a friend of mine through Laura Dern who I made a movie with a long time ago. Also my friend David Arquette is really good friends with Ben and Laura. So, I was over at David’s one day, playing him some of my new songs. Ben was there, heard them and was like, ‘Yo, this is great, let me play on it.’ So, we just hooked it up, he came in and played on a few of the tracks and he’s just such a great musician. He’s just on another level, he just comes right in and has such a creative wonderful, fun musical take on everything. He’s really gifted, he’s just a natural. So he just elevated the tracks that he played on. Chris Cester is my drummer, that happened because I guess Jet was on a break.
“One of the people who was working at Pulse had met [Chris] and she just had the idea to bring him into my studio. I was working on this track called My Shooting Star that I guess really resonated for him. I played it for him once, just acoustically and he was like, ‘Oh man, I’m not doing anything, why don’t we play?’ So he ended up doing the drums on the whole record and he is just awesome. Chris is the biggest part of the record besides me and Tim. All of the live stuff we did with Chris. Whatever we tracked live, we tracked with him. He also overdubbed on quite a few songs too. He’s awesome, I really love Chris, I want to keep working with him – if I can, you know? Whether it’s as my drummer. He actually co-wrote one of the songs on the album too. So, he’s just great ...and Blake. Blake is also a buddy of mine. We’ve always talked about doing songs together, I actually wrote a song that he took and re-wrote [which] they tracked for the last Rilo Kiley record, but it didn’t make the album because it was more of a ballady type of song. He and I have always been chatting about doing something together so he came in and played on one song called In Between. He’s awesome, he’s got such a cool vibe, he just knows the music so well. So, that’s how those guys ended up playing with me.”
I’m sure you’ve probably been asked this dozens of times before, but I wondered what skills you can bring from acting to music performance. If there’s anything that you’ve learnt that either gives you more confidence...
“Well, I think there are some. I think that the fact that I’m used to being in front of people helps. I’m a little more comfortable with it, you know? Even on a movie set you’re getting up in front of a lot of people and performing. So, that aspect of it is definitely helpful. I think that there’s some acting that has helped me in the studio a bit with my performances vocally. It’s like the timing, and the musicality of your inflections. A lot of times I’m not really thinking about that stuff, but there are a few times that I’ve re-recorded something or noticed some of my vocals and wanted to hear something different in it. I think it might be to do with the fact the delivery was [laughs] off, you know what I mean? And I just noticed it. To deliver certain lines to convey the emotion that’s behind the words, I mean that’s kind of a natural thing anyway, but I think maybe I get into my head a little bit and start analysing and thinking about it. I think that might be to do with my acting background.”
Yes, definitely. Can you describe your music to someone who’s never heard it before, but not use any comparisons to any other musicians or music.
“Yeah, that’s actually how I like to explain it. I don’t really like to compare to other people. To me, the main thing is that it’s very melodic. I write everything either on acoustic guitar or piano, so it always starts from a basic place. I just like playing with each song, I like coming at songs from a different place, so some songs I’ll write lyrics first and then develop the song around the lyrics and other times, I’ll write the chorus first. The best ones really are when they both come together at the same time, but it’s all about the songwriting to me. So the style itself is a little bit less important, but it’s very natural it’s just pretty much acoustic. I guess, kind of folky but with a lot of other styles mixed in. [laughs] Not a very clear cut answer.”
Well, it’s quite good though, it makes it more intriguing so people will be like, ‘Well I’m going to have to go and listen to it now.’
With regards to film, am I right in saying you’ve made over 60 films?
“Eerrr, not 60, probably like 40 maybe.”
That’s still pretty good going.
“I’ll have to go check IMDB or something [laughs].”
Yes. [laughs] So, I wondered if you can pick two particular characters that were very, very different to each other and if you can remember anything that really stood out to you when you were preparing for those roles?
“One of my favourite characters that I’ve gotten to play recently was The Pin in Brick.”
Yes, such a good film.
“That was very different for me, just in general. It was the kind of role I’d wanted to play for years and years, just something more forceful or more dangerous, you know? I only had a week to prepare as I’d just got the role, right before we started filming. The director Rian Johnson told me to watch Casablanca, and those kinds of films to notice the inflection in the voices of the actors – they’re very musical actually. So that was the main thing that I used when I was thinking of [The Pin] and when I was playing the character. The rest was just a natural thing, the script was written so well, so it just seemed to fall into place and I didn’t really have to do much to get there. I just remember always – keeping in the back of my mind – to be really musical in the way that I said the lines.”
Yes and it was really interestingly shot and very different. How was it being shot in such a creative way?
“Oh it was great. It’s really, really great when you get to work with a director who’s being that creative and who has that kind of freedom too. It’s hard for any director to have much freedom unless they’re really well established, but he raised all the money on his own so it was 100% his film. It was just really fun, you got the feeling that it was going to be a really cool movie. If nothing else, you got the sense that it would be a really neat movie to watch. I’m glad that people actually saw it because at the time, you know... you never know. It was such a small film it was only made for half a million dollars.”
It’s very popular out here.
“Oh cool. That’s so cool! It did OK out here, it didn’t do as well as I’d hoped; but it did better than could have been expected, I guess. So that’s one role, then there was a movie I just did called Death In Love with Boaz Yakin directing it. It was shown at Sundance Film Festival, it hasn’t come out yet, but I played an anorexic. Sort of OCD, a really kind of awkward character and so for that one I had to lose a lot of weight. I talked to Boaz, the director a lot about who the character was because he wrote it. He gave me a real clear sense of who he thought the character was and I tried to soak that up. As an actor, really what you do to prepare – at least what I do – is I think about the things that I think make up the character a whole lot. Like that musical thing for The Pin and some other sort of more intimate qualities. For Death In Love I just sort of run them over in my head, over and over again, you know? When I’m walking down the street or driving my car, I’m just thinking of the lines, thinking of who the person is and it starts to soak in and you become fluent in the character, over a time. So, that’s my method of preparing.”
That one sounds like it was pretty physically gruelling.
“Where I had to be anorexic definitely was. It’s no fun to really change your weight for a movie. Like intentionally lose that much weight, but luckily I knew how to do it in a healthy way. It was alright, it didn’t last too long, only a few weeks.”
I wanted to find out if there’s something that you’re most well known for that you’d like to trade for something that you’ve done. Something that you feel might have been underrated, that you felt was fantastic? Not to put down the thing you’re well known for.
“Right, no no no, there are a couple of movies that I feel it would be great if they were a little more well known. There’s a movie I did called Rambling Rose when I was younger. People know about it, but it didn’t really get that much traction, it was with Robert Duvall and Laura Dern. Then Brick too, Brick is one of those movies... although I have to say it got more traction than I expected, more people saw it than I thought would see it, so that’s cool. But in America at least, the US, not a lot of people know about it, more like an indie circuit, you know?”
I think it’s the sort of thing that more people will continually pick up.
“Yeah, it was cool and it worked out good. I don’t know, it’s hard to have the ‘wish for one thing,’ you know? What happens, happens and you just kind of move forward. I’m happy that my career has gone along in a way where I can keep on doing the movies I want to do, where I’m able to also have the time to focus on other things and still if I need to I can go back and do a movie. I’m really lucky.”
It sounds like a lot of fun. I know you’ve integrated some of your music into film, haven’t you? So, the last thing I wanted to ask you was, I wondered if you have an ideal project that you haven’t done yet, that you’d like to do that you can imagine, that doesn’t necessarily have any boundries.
“Right, um, well I would love to combine music and film. I think that would be really cool, I haven’t really thought about what I would ideally do, but I’m sure there’s something interesting that you could do with it. I saw Once, which is really, really cool. It’s actually a film maker from... I don’t want to sound stupid, I think it may be Scotland actually, I’m not sure, no maybe Ireland, but anyway, it’s this woman and this man. He’s a street musician and she walks by him everyday.”
I know the one you mean, it’s Irish isn’t it?
“You know the one I mean? Yeah! Yeah and it’s just really cool because there’s just a lot of music, they’re just playing right in the film. The songs really play out through the movie and the soundtrack is really great, it’s like an album basically. So, something like that would be awesome. But, I don’t know, it’s been done now, you know, I really liked The Commitments.”
Yeah, another Irish one, there you go.
“Yeah, that was awesome too. So, I don’t know, I don’t have a dream project that I’ve always wanted to do or anything, but it is fun to do both. Acting, movies and music, all of it really is a big part of my life so it’s cool to be able to just do those together.”