To mark the release of the 4K restoration of Nowhere, Araki speaks to Dazed about his choices for the film’s legendary soundtrack
Some filmmakers just have a great thing going on when it comes to musical partnerships. Steven Spielberg has John Williams; David Lynch had Angelo Badalamenti; and Hayao Miyazaki and Joe Hisaishi are still going strong. But in the 90s, at the height of the indie cinema revolution, not every director needed a superstar musical wingman to make a vivid impression. In the case of New Queer Cinema icon Gregg Araki, all he needed was his killer CD collection.
Once a music critic for LA Weekly who still listens to music “literally 24 hours a day”, Araki’s credentials for being able to transform hyper-cool, eye-popping youth dramas indie films into ear-popping alt-rock video-mixtapes were evident long before his mid-90s breakthrough. Even his own production company, ‘Desperate Pictures’, was named for a song by LA punk band X. And though dream pop heroes Robin Guthrie (of the Cocteau Twins) and Harold Budd would later provide ethereal scores for Mysterious Skin and White Bird in a Blizzard, Araki’s indelible mark on indie cinema had by then already been firmly established – with films like The Doom Generation and Nowhere pairing euphoric indie, shoegaze and dance music with kaleidoscopic colours and devastating one-liners to incendiary effect.
In 2023, the two latter films are receiving the ultimate makeover after decades of obscurity, with the director remixing audio and restoring video in “mindblowing” new presentations. In the case of Nowhere – the story of a gaggle of hip kids with names like Elvis, Lucifer, and Godzilla, who pop pills and have kinky sex while confronting giant lizardmen, gun-toting cults and televangelists – the movie is now closer to the director’s original vision of a “psychedelic, super-colourful and crazy Alice in Wonderland trip” than it’s ever been. With its “incredible soundtrack” key to that creative explosiveness, Dazed decided to catch up with Araki as he tours the States promoting the new cut – playing spin the bottle with some of the best needle drops from the LA party cult classic. Crank it up below.
Nowhere couldn’t have a headier opening. As the opiated feedback sounds of ‘Avalyn II’ build towards catharsis, we find ourselves in the shower with Dark (perennial Araki favourite James Duval) as he masturbates, fantasising about encounters with all kinds of men and women. At the world premiere of the restored version of Nowhere in Los Angeles in September, this introduction was almost heavenly.
“It was literally, like, mind-blowing,” the director says. “I had tears in my eyes because it was so gorgeous – the music was spine-tingling.” Slowdive, the band in question, have opened or closed almost every Araki movie since The Doom Generation – they’re unabashedly one of his favourite acts of all time, and their sound is spiritually essential to his movies because of the atmosphere it evokes. “That shoegaze-y, dream pop sound just takes you into this otherworldly place,” he says. “And the hypnotic nature of that sound is very important to draw you into that world. That’s probably why I always listen to music when I’m writing and when I’m working. It’s in my head. It’s in my subconscious.”
Barely a scene goes by in Nowhere without some kind of fresh music reference – be it a Bikini Kill sticker on a convertible’s windshield or a piece of dialogue referencing Siouxsie and the Banshees. Sometimes these cuts are so deep they even seem to pass the director by. “Some of that music is still so off-label and rare. When I was remixing it I kept being like, ‘What is this song?’”
One such instance was with the ferocious and bustling post-grunge track ‘Get a Helmet’ by Scylla — a side project of Toni Halliday from Curve (who feature elsewhere in The Doom Generation and Mysterious Skin). It was initially sent to Araki as a demo tape, and has never actually received a proper release outside the movie. “It was like an archaeological dig when we were remixing this movie, trying to find all this stuff,” he says.
“It’s this utopian place with all these beautiful kids, and they’re all kind of omnisexual,” he said. “And there’s music playing – bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain; an alternative music paradise” – Gregg Araki
In a movie built on horny teens and gross-out dialogue, raw emotion is conveyed in the sounds of the era’s coolest bands. In one scene, Shad (Ryan Philippe) recounts a story about a man who was found with his face mauled by a dog, before making out ferociously with Lilith (Heather Graham) – with their passion set to the pile-driving goth blues of The Jesus and Mary Chain.
Speaking to the Deeper Into Movies podcast earlier this year, Araki testified to the “noise and chaos” on the surface of The Jesus and Mary Chain (whose 1985 track ‘The Living End’ ostensibly inspired the title of an earlier Araki movie) veiling something “quite romantic and wistful and melancholy” underneath. It’s why the band, who regularly feature on his soundtracks, match so well with his movies. He’d also liken his experiences at Coachella as akin to Nowhere brought to life. “It’s this utopian place with all these beautiful kids, and they’re all kind of omnisexual,” he said. “And there’s music playing – bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain; an alternative music paradise.”
One of the biggest bands of the 90s makes an unconventional appearance in Nowhere – with Radiohead rarity ‘How Can You Be Sure?’ playing out as a couple in the Hollywood hills are stuck up by a spandex-clad mob. After making out with Zoe (Mena Suvari), Zero (Joshua Mayweather) is robbed of his Mom’s convertible; the sneering Atari gang then ride off chanting “I’m full of hate and I want to kill!” as Marilyn Manson’s ‘Kiddie Grinder’ clanks.
“Because The Doom Generation and Nowhere had soundtrack albums, I always wanted to find weird rare tracks that people didn’t know – a lot of B-sides, a lot of imports,” Araki says. “So for this one, it’s Radiohead, but it’s not on ‘OK Computer’ or ‘The Bends’ or whatever, so it was like we would have almost an exclusive track.”
“I always call The Doom Generation my Nine Inch Nails movie,” Araki says, “because I was very angry and industrial and kind of like ‘aaaah!’ at the time.” At one point the soundtrack for the former was even supposed to be a double album composed by Trent Reznor – and though that didn’t quite come to fruition, the industrial rock band would feature broadly across the director’s canon thereafter, most recently in his Now Apocalypse TV series.
In Nowhere, ‘Memorabilia’ plays out as Elvis (Thyme Lewis) and Alyssa (Jordan Ladd) get down to some sordid sexual foreplay. “I was always looking for a track that would make the kids be like ‘what’s this weird song?’ when they hear it,” Araki claims, fulfilling the task here with a jarring cover of 80s new wave icons Soft Cell’s debut single.
In a concrete wasteland strewn with graffiti, Dingbat (Christina Applegate) asks Alyssa what she’s wearing to the party, before Ducky (Scott Caan) and super-sized biker Elvis roll up. All the while, ethereal vocal cries ring out over breakbeats as the classic rave anthem ‘Papua New Guinea’ plays.
“Oh my God. That song is so f***ing awesome now,” Araki exclaims. “You can barely hear it in the original version, but in the new version, it’s just so regal. It’s one of my favourite moments because it just announces itself in a very cool way.”
The inclusion was a testament to Araki’s interest in electronic music in the mid-90s – when DJs like Graham Massey made his way into the director’s collection via remixes of artists like Björk. By the turn of the century, artists like The Chemical Brothers began featuring more and more in his films. “[And] with that late 90s dance music, the feeling became more and more utopian and ecstatic.”
“The 90s was such a heyday of music. I spent so much time and money at Virgin Megastore in Hollywood in the days when CDs were a thing – now I have like a million of them” – Gregg Araki
Another cover comes from alt-rock dream-pop icons Lush, whose version of The Magnetic Fields’ ‘I Have the Moon’ plays during a montage of chatty, flirty dialogue. “I’ve loved Lush forever,” Araki exclaims, describing his elation at seeing them perform at The Roxy after their brief reformation in 2016 – they’d broken up almost exactly 20 years earlier following the suicide of drummer Chris Acland in 1996.
Just a few years prior, they’d been one of the shining centrepieces of an alt-rock revolution in the UK – lumped in with fellow Araki favourites Ride, Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine as part of the shoegazing subgenre. “The 90s was such a heyday of music,” Araki concludes. “I spent so much time and money at Virgin Megastore in Hollywood in the days when CDs were a thing – now I have like a million of them.”
Pillars of the Britpop movement are present throughout the movie, with Blur, The Verve and Elastica all making appearances. But it’s Suede’s biggest-selling single that is arguably the most memorable nod – coming in as the Nowhere kids finally turn up at a much-discussed party to find white lines and violent outbursts awaiting them.
“This was the era of people like Björk releasing three- or four-part CD singles,” says Araki, “and Suede did the same thing. They’d always have some special track on them so you had to get the whole entire set. These bands really understood the passion of their fans and the idea that you really wanted all of those mixes and B-sides and stuff,” he recalls. “It was such a great time for music collecting!”
Nowhere is now playing at select theatres across the US, with the UK premiere of the new restoration coming soon.