The Guardian – ‘I went for a gay electro-Austrian-Germanic sound’

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Publication: The Guardian
Article: ‘I went for a gay electro-Austrian-Germanic sound’
By John Patterson
Date: July 9, 2009

There’s more than one Baron Cohen behind the success of Bruno and Borat. The musical brother, Erran, discusses Hassidic raps and Kazakhstani anthems with John Patterson

I meet Erran Baron Cohen, older brother of Sacha and composer of the soundtracks to his movies, in Hollywood the morning after the Los Angeles premiere of Bruno at the Chinese Theatre. Bruno himself had turned up there, in a buttock-emphasising lederhosen and a tunic coated with medals, sitting astride the gun barrel of a cheesy glitterball tank and escorted by a platoon of ill-clad bimbettes.

And all this against the backdrop of Michael Jackson’s death, hours earlier and only miles away. That had forced the last-minute excision of a scene in the movie featuring Jackson’s (apparently rather gullible) sister La Toya. To make matters worse, the scaffolding for the Bruno premiere had obscured Jackson’s star on the tacky Hollywood Walk of Fame, where fans had hoped to gather and mourn. Fiesta meets Deathwatch: it’s almost as if Bruno had scripted it.

None of the clamour, chaos and absurdity that swirls around Sacha Baron Cohen troubles Erran, although when we meet at Farmers Market for lunch he is still a little shocked by Jackson’s death. “The price of fame and everything else from a young age, I suppose.”

There was, he says, a great reaction in the Chinese Theatre the previous night: “Everyone laughing and being really, really shocked at the same time, just perfect. There was amazing pressure to follow up Borat, and it was obviously much, much harder to do it second time around. And the result is, I think, a better movie than Borat. Well, it’s obviously a gayer movie. You’re on the edge a lot watching it, there are a lot of scary moments and it does show up all these prejudices that people have. It’s an extreme movie, and that’s good.”

Erran, who has been his brother’s soundtrack composer on both Borat and Bruno, was originally a trumpeter, studied music at Guildhall and Goldsmiths in London, and leads the evolving musical project Zohar (named for one of the books explicating the Kabbalah and dedicated to cross-pollinating different kinds of mainly Middle-Eastern music). Last year he put out an album of hip-hop-infused Hanukah songs – “because the music for Hanukah, which is a nice festival for the kids, is just terrible, these terrible nursery rhymes”. It sold nicely and got him on Conan O’Brien’s late-night chat show in the US, dressed in full Hassidic regalia alongside similarly attired black New York rapper and Jewish-convert Y-Love, who sings in Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic. Suffice to say, the musical Baron Cohen likes to mix it up as much as his comedic sibling.

Bruno called for some rather different musical vibes. “I did this gay house-electro-Austrian-Germanic sort of sound, on which I’m also saying occasional German words as part of the vocals, such as ‘Ach Ja!’ and ‘Erotisches!’ and various ridiculous things. There’s that side, and there’s the more orchestral, Romantic, emotional stuff which we recorded with a 50-piece orchestra here in LA. Then there’s a rock part I did with a band here, and a song I wrote for the end credits. I was having to write music in a lot of different styles, very quickly and very well. You have a sort of cave-like existence, working day and night. The good thing is, at the end you get to work with an orchestra and brilliant musicians in these great studios, and that’s where it all finally becomes a lot less cave-like.”

Things were a little different on Borat. There, Erran had to summon up the musical ethos of an imaginary flyblown, post-Soviet backwater-hellhole afflicted by ignorance, incest, bad plumbing and antisemitism. They called it Kazakhstan. “On Borat I did all this Gypsy-like, actually Romanian Gypsy-like stuff, along with some tacky Romanian pop music and, most famously, this anthem at the end. They called me in London from LA and said they needed a “Kazakhstani anthem”. There was no real anthem, or at least they weren’t sure what it was. So they wanted a new, strong version with the words they had written [to wit: “Kazakhstan! Kazakhstan! Greatest country in the world!”]. And of course they wanted it by tomorrow. The idea was to make it sound like the great massed voices of the Red Army Choir, or something. But obviously I couldn’t get hold of them in the middle of the night – the great massed voices of the Red Army Choir, I mean – so I had to sing it myself. I multi-tracked my voice 40 times and it kind of worked – they all loved it when they heard it. It’s an anthemic thrill ride!”

You would think that, after Borat’s many and varied cultural affronts to the good people and the good name of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Erran Baron Cohen might have joined his brother on its 10-most-wanted list. But no. Instead, the conductor of the Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra, Marat Bisengaliev, called him up to commission, of all things, a “Kazakhstan symphony”. Did any alarm bells start ringing at that moment?

“Yeah, obviously the initial reaction to Borat from Kazakhstan was not as positive as it might have been,” Erran says. “The embassies here and in London were very vitriolic in their dislike of it. But the odd thing about Borat was that there wasn’t any Kazakhstani music in it. And then I got this call from Marat [for a nanosecond I mishear him saying ‘Borat’], who runs this orchestra, and I obviously thought it was a joke, initially. It wasn’t, as it turned out.

“Musically, this time I did use the Kazakhstani influence; it was scored for large orchestra and solo violin, plus two Kazakhstani instruments: the jew’s harp, for which they have a different name, and a Kazakhstani kind of guitar. And it’s just been performed for the first time in Kazakhstan, which I couldn’t make, unfortunately.” (Again, I ponder the Kazakhstan 10-most-wanted list.)

Apart from acting as Sacha’s de facto musical director, Erran has been collaborating musically with his brother (who is four years younger) since they were kids. “Even growing up together we used to do little comedy songs, improvised for singing on Friday nights to unsuspecting guests at my parents’ home. And when we were older, we did Hassidic raps, one called Schwitz which is like, ‘sweat’. You’ve got the Hassidic black clothes, the suit, the hat, the typical Hassidic uniform, but it’s very hot and they wear it even in LA on a really hot day – and be ‘schwitzing’. So that was something we did off the top of our heads. And then later we ended up performing it in some comedy clubs around London, all dressed up as Hassidics. Then some BBC late-night comedy show actually recorded it, but then banned it immediately because we’d insulted three religions within three minutes. And after that Sacha’s comedy career really started.”

Does he ever wonder if that comedy career will end horribly in the middle of one of his stunts? “Yes, and I think it would be good if he did some less dangerous movies in the future. There are some scenes in this movie where the danger factor is just completely nuts. I know I wouldn’t do those kind of things. I’m really happy to be just doing the music.”

Bruno is released nationwide today (10 July)

The Sydney Morning Herald – Making music with Borat and Bruno

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Publication: The Sydney Morning Herald
Article: Making music with Borat and Bruno
Date: June 27, 2009

The other Baron Cohen boy … Sydney features regularly on Erran’s itinerary.
Photo: Jon Reid

Sacha Baron Cohen’s lesser-known brother is an acclaimed talent in his own right, writes Dan Goldberg.

His surname is Baron Cohen, his credits include Da Ali G Show, Borat and Bruno and he fell in love with an Australian woman. The inimitable Sacha Baron Cohen, of course.

Not quite. His older brother, Erran Baron Cohen, is a critically acclaimed musician and composer who wrote the score for the blockbuster mockumentary Borat and has just finished composing the music for Bruno, which has its premiere in Sydney on Monday.

Tall, lean and strikingly similar in looks to his younger sibling, Erran Baron Cohen, 41, has lived a “cave-like existence” for the past few months in Alexandria, where he has been writing the score for the flick that many critics say is more outrageous than the one featuring the bumbling Kazakh reporter.

The music for Borat, which won him an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers award, was heavily influenced by Gypsy music, a genre close to klezmer, one of Baron Cohen’s many musical roots.

But Bruno strikes another chord altogether, he says. His brother’s uber-gay, flamboyantly fashion-conscious alter ego from Austria is accompanied by music that is predominantly, well, gay.

“I immersed myself and bought a couple of electronic dance compilations – Germanic dance stuff – just to get some ideas,” he says. “There’s obviously also the electronic house style, as well as a 50-piece orchestra full of romantic stuff and a rock band.”

But the piece de resistance is the finale, which was recorded at Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles, where the late Michael Jackson recorded Thriller.While he will not disclose details, reports from the world premiere in London last week say the likes of Bono, Sting and Elton John feature in the song.

“We got some huge music stars to sing it,” Baron Cohen says. “It was definitely a memorable moment.”

Sydney also played a bit part. Some of the movie’s soundtrack was recorded with local session musicians at Studios 301. “We did a rock thing here which ended up in the movie. There’s a great guitarist called Mark Johns whom I knew from London and who moved back here; I got him in and some other great musicians.”

During the time he was holed up in Sydney, Baron Cohen made several trips to Los Angeles.

“I took everything I composed here to LA to sit with the director, Larry Charles, and Sacha and everybody else. It’s very, very intense; things are constantly changing, the scenes change, they cut things out.

“I was working day and night alone and at the end when you bring in musicians it’s a fantastic moment.”

The art of composing scores for films, he says, is knowing when to remain silent. Baron Cohen points to the infamous nude wrestling scene in Borat between his brother and his obese comrade Azamat.

“It was such a strong scene that any music would have probably detracted from the beauty of it. Not having any music there was as powerful.”

Like his “totally nuts” younger brother, Baron Cohen is also quirky, witty and sharp.

“The thing about Sacha’s movies, which I think makes them great, is that there’s this edge to them that actually exposes peoples’ prejudices.

“It’s very, very funny at the same time but it’s also somehow very heavy. It has those two sides to it, and that makes it really interesting.”

The two Baron Cohen brothers (they have an older brother) have been collaborating since, as kids in London, they would improvise after the Sabbath meal on Friday nights. “Me and Sacha used to play piano and make up songs for all the unsuspecting guests.”

When Da Ali G Show began in 2000 Sacha asked his brother to remix beats while bands such as Supergrass performed live. But for Borat he had to prove himself to Hollywood’s big guns.

“Before I was confirmed as the composer there were certain scenes they needed music for very quickly. One was my version of the Kazakhstani anthem; I did it in one night. They loved it and that got me the gig.

“Borat was the biggest thing I’ve ever worked on.”

It also spawned the most unlikely of commissions: composing music for the Turan Alem Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra. “I thought it was a joke,” Baron Cohen says, recalling the initial outrage of Kazakh officials to Borat. “But I thought I’ve got a chance to write music for an 80-piece orchestra. I’ve never done that before. ”

The piece, Zere, was performed at St James’s Church in 2007 and mastered at Abbey Road. Baron Cohen also recorded the first album of his world music project, Zohar, there in 2001. Rolling Stone called it “compellingly exotic”.

The first steps toward movies began when Baron Cohen took to the trumpet aged eight or nine. He also taught himself piano. “I performed at the Royal Albert Hall as a teenager playing trumpet and also with a school choir when I was 12.”

Ever since, he has been drawn to an eclectic range of influences – from classical to soul, jazz to Jewish cantorial music – which, he says, have helped him cross genres when writing film scores.

Although London is his official residence, Los Angeles and Sydney, where he was married a decade ago, feature regularly on his itinerary.

“I love it here,” he says. “I’d love to do a project here; there are great filmmakers. I just saw Samson & Delilah. Rabbit-Proof Fence is one of my favourites. I think the movies that come out of here are very unique.”

Bruno opens on July 8.

New York Magazine – ‘Borat’ Composer Erran Baron Cohen on His New Hanukkah Album, His Brother Sacha, and the Music of ‘Bruno’

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Publication: New York Magazine
Article: ‘Borat’ Composer Erran Baron Cohen on His New Hanukkah Album, His Brother Sacha, and the Music of ‘Bruno’
By Lauren Salazar
Date: November 18, 2008

The musical force behind Da Ali G Show, Borat, and the upcoming Bruno, Erran Baron Cohen (he’s Sacha’s brother) also somehow managed to find time to remake a whole collection of holiday classics just in time for the Festival of Light. Songs in the Key of Hanukkah, out today, features collaborations from world-renowned Jewish artists, including Brooklyn’s own Y-Love. Cohen spoke with Vulture recently about Yiddish rapping, the gayest CD in his collection, and what childhood games might have inspired Borat’s naked wrestling scene.

So, why a Hanukkah CD?
Well, the idea is sort of one of the more unusual projects I have been involved with. To take Hanukkah, which is a great festival that I always enjoyed as a kid singing all the songs. I remember we had this terrible record our parents played with children singing slightly off tune to a really old piano player. As the years went on, I realized they were all really bad tunes and all badly played. So the idea was to use story of Hanukkah and take some of the music of it and update it to make it really cool.

Who are some of these musicians on the record?
They’re not so well known in the U.S., but they were some of the interesting singers I was aware of here. Yasmin Levy is an incredible diva from the world-music scene. It was an amazing experience just to hear her sing. Idan Raichel is one of the big pop stars in Israel, sort of one of the more interesting people working there.

What’s the CD’s appeal for a recovering Catholic like myself?
I think it is aimed at Catholics actually. No, I think the hook is that it’s good music. It’s taking something that’s old and bringing it into the 21st century.

Do your kids have a favorite song?
“Oh Dreidel”; they love to dance around. And they love the rap track with Y-Love. He’s a New York–based Jewish rapper that converted to Judaism and raps in Yiddish.

Can you rap in Yiddish?
I don’t even think I could rap in English. But Y-Love can do it, and it sounds great. When we recorded that, we were in Berlin, so he’s this black, Jewish rapper in Berlin, and it was quite surreal but really powerful.

What was it like scoring for Da Ali G Show?
What was great about it was I got to remix some tracks. Like by Supergrass and Chrissy Hynde who were guests on the show; they didn’t quite know it was going to happen. They started to sing their songs and I was in the studio, and I remixed almost live and brought in ridiculous bass sounds. Eventually it turned into a completely different kind of extreme drum-and-bass hip-hop tune.

Do you and Sacha share a love of catching people off guard like that?
I think I certainly like pushing things to see how far you can take something, and Sacha has that as well. Certainly, we have a sense of humor. Well, he doesn’t have much of one. I am the funny one in the family.

How do you score something like a naked wrestling scene?
Well, the naked wrestling scene has no music. We decided that was such an extreme scene, sort of “the scene” of the film — certainly the most disgusting scene — that music would have detracted from the reality of the whole thing.

Was that scene based on any of your real-life experiences?
Do you mean did Sacha and I do any nude wrestling around the house? That’s interesting, I can’t remember being nude when wrestling with Sacha. I may have been wearing underpants at certain times, but they remained firmly on during our wrestling moments.

Can you tell me about the Bruno score? How different is it from the score for Borat?
It’s a lot gayer. That’s the key thing, I think. There’s a lot of gay influence in the music. I am investigating a lot of gay things at the moment. I just bought the CD called Gayfest 2008, and that’s my main influence.

What is on that CD?
It’s got a guy with a sort of muscle-y bare-chested look on the front. It’s got Jackie ‘O,’ “Before He Cheats.” It’s contemporary gay club, dance pop.