The Invincible Czars look to improve on an auspicious mark in early October. The season is ripe.
“We scared a kid in Midland [Texas] and a kid in Mobile with a show,” bandleader Josh Robins said.
The Austin-based musical ensemble has a sizable reputation for devising soundtracks to silent movie classics, which included a stint as artists-in-residence at Texas A&M University. When they brought “Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde” to Mobile a few years ago, it proved too effective.
“We ask the audience before it starts that whenever Mr. Hyde is on screen to just whisper lightly, not necessarily words just whispering noises. It only takes an audience of about 20 for that to sound really unsettling,” Robins said.
Robins heard repeated commotion from a youngster in the audience. A bandmate completed the picture afterwards.
“Leila [Henley] told me later, ‘Did you hear that kid talking? He was saying ‘Grandma this is really freaking me out.’ Leila talked to the grandmother afterward and she said ‘I was really surprised how scared he got because he’s seen the movie before,’” Robins said.
Potential shivers are more likely this time. The featured film is F. W. Murnau’s German Expressionist vampire tale “Nosferatu,” a piece the Czars have toured across the nation since scoring it in 2015.
Hungarian composer Bela Bartok provided initial inspiration. It was a natural geographic, creative and chronological direction.
“We started with portions of his Romanian Folk Dances because Transylvania, Romania, you know. His arrangements were published in the early 1920s, around the time this movie came out so we thought it was appropriate,” Robins said.
While the Bartok might be peppered throughout the show, the rest is all Czars material. Months of work began with an initial viewing of the film and notes on characters’ motivations and emotional beats.
“For example, there’s scenes where characters look up in the sky or behind them kind of mysteriously like ‘Is somebody following me?’ They’re getting some sensation from afar Count Orlock is possessing them so we use a sound to signify it,” Robins said.
After leitmotif is established and roughly scored, Robins uses recordings and midi to get it on record. He syncs it with the film and the band watches that version to see if intention meets result.
“We also fix stuff on the road. In ‘Nosferatu,’ we have a heartbeat sound and I unintentionally made this loop of my guitar strings thumping that worked at a performance. So we used it every night. There’s a lot of beautiful accidents,” Robins said.
Their first Mobile Bay area performance is Monday, Oct. 3, 8 p.m. at Fairhope’s Bone & Barrel (311 Fairhope Ave.). The aforementioned Henley is an Eastern Shore native.
The Tuesday, Oct. 4 show at the Crescent Theater (208 Dauphin St.) starts at 7 p.m. and tickets are hot commodities. A link for advance sales can be found at crescenttheater.com.
True to their enthusiasm and DIY spirit, the band perfected costumes for the event. Henley fashioned attire for herself and bandmates.
“Leila made the vest I’m wearing with some scary fabric we found online. She made herself a dress with bats and spiders on it and another one, too. We’ll have capes and crazy shoes, going all out but we still have to be able to play so there’s no masks just sophisticated vampires,” Robins said.
When he says ‘play,’ it’s understatement. Four musicians incorporate violin, glockenspiel, organ, flute, bass clarinet, vocals, music box, loops, electric guitar, bass, singing bowl, tambourine and other hand percussion.
The Czars are not the first to score “Nosferatu.” In Mobile alone, progressive rockers Analog Missionary performed their own score at the Saenger Theatre nearly 15 years ago.
Robins’ awareness of the worn path prompted his initial resistance. After relenting to repeated requests, he checked out as many predecessors as possible.
“I found very few of them were actually creepy so our approach was to make it as scary as possible while still complementing the film and remaining cinematic. Once I kind of locked in on using Leila’s voice a lot more and using some of the sound loops like backwards whispering, it convinced me we could be different enough,” Robins said.
The results have brought acclaim. They’ve filled venues throughout the tour – Robins attributes their eerie film trailer available online – and they even had a Wisconsin film festival solicit a performance.
“People have come up afterwards telling us they were genuinely frightened during scenes and it’s the best compliment we could get,” Robins said.
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