"I suppose we have a signature look," says Roger C. Miller, as he drives a van full of musicians, instruments, and carefully selected garbage toward a gig in Nebraska. The keyboard player for the Alloy Orchestra adds, "It's not just three guys up there. It's three guys and a great big wall of junk." He chuckles at the absolute absurdity of the image, but he's very serious about what he does.
Miller, who also contributes vocals and abrasively melodic guitar to the cult post-punk band Mission of Burma, joined the Alloy Orchestra nine years ago while the group was composing an original score for Strike, Soviet film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein's silent epic about a violent labor revolt at a locomotive factory in czarist Russia. The Alloy Orchestra is a percussion-heavy group known for using keyboards, accordions, clarinets, improvised instruments -- and its signature "wall of junk" -- to create sound effects and innovative scores for silent films. By the time Miller joined, the group had long since outgrown its early reputation as quirky performance artists given to banging on sculptures at art events in and around Boston. They had achieved critical acclaim for rescoring The Wind with Lillian Gish, the underappreciated Lonesome, and Fritz Lang's expressionist masterpiece Metropolis.
"When I went to see them do Metropolis [in 1991], I was prepared to be skeptical," Miller says. He offers a few snide criticisms of the misguided 1984 re-release of Lang's film featuring music by Queen, Pat Benatar, and Bonnie Tyler. "It's not that the music [in the 1984 version] was bad, necessarily, it was just inappropriate. [The Alloy Orchestra's] performance was something else. Something unexpected. And when it was over, I joined in the standing ovation."
By the time Miller joined, the Alloy Orchestra had already caught the attention of the Telluride Film Festival's visionary founder, James Card, who had been actively looking for a percussion-based ensemble to create new scores for old films. The group's performances there had become one of the Colorado festival's most anticipated annual features.
"It's almost Halloween," Miller says wickedly, explaining why the Alloy Orchestra will perform its score for director Rupert Julian's 1925 take on The Phantom of the Opera, with Lon Chaney in the title role, when they come to town for the Indie Memphis Film Festival. "Between now and Halloween, we'll be performing all of our scarier stuff: Nosferatu, Metropolis, probably Hitchcock's Blackmail.
"Phantom is maudlin and sappy," Miller says. "But it's also creepy. There are chase scenes. Things get knocked down.
"A chandelier falls!" he exclaims, referencing the amount of noise you can make when you've got a wall of junk at your disposal. "That's a perfect thing for the Alloy Orchestra. We can definitely make the sound of a chandelier falling."
Deadly light fixtures aside, The Phantom of the Opera is a particularly special film for the Alloy Orchestra and one of the few that didn't launch at Telluride. The group's founder, Ken Winokur, purchased the print years ago and had it fully restored. He even sent it to France to have the individual frames hand-colored the way it would have been done in 1924.
"It's the best print available," Miller brags. "And it's a hit wherever we play."
Although Winokur is the band's founder and conductor, the Alloy Orchestra composes its scores collectively.
"It's not a situation where the keyboard player composes the melody and everybody else falls in," Miller says. "Everybody has a different idea. Maybe things start with the accordion or the clarinet. It could start with a drum groove. After watching and discussing a film we go into the studio where each of us has our own TV screen, and we record first impressions as we watch.
"Since there are three of us, there's always a majority. And while we're deciding what to keep or which direction we should go, we always go with the majority," Miller says.
"We're really excited about playing Memphis," Miller says, admitting that it will be the first time he's been in the Mid-South since Mission of Burma played the Antenna club on Madison in November 1982.
The Phantom of the Opera with The Alloy Orchestra
Saturday, October 14th
8 p.m.; $15 (special ticket price)