It’s not so much the question of whether or not Claire Denis and Tindersticks are modern cinema’s most fruitful director-musician collaboration; it’s more a matter of how far above the competition they stand. By my count their soundtrack for her new feature, Stars at Noon, adds an additional bound or two to that distance—it’s frankly amazing a group in its 30th year would deliver something playing to their milieu and strengths while adding new textures to the fold.

As a major fan of the group—the studio albums, the Denis soundtracks, frontman Stuart A. Staples’ solo work and experimental doc Minute Bodies—I couldn’t have been happier to talk with Staples, who Zoomed from a rather homely recording studio. (Added bonus knowing the most atmospheric, ochre-toned music of our modern era is made in a space to match.) Our 40-minute conversation is as follows.

The Film Stage: Where are you right now?

Stuart Staples: I’m in my studio.

This is separate from your living space?

At the moment, but not for much longer. I think I’m moving in! [Laughs] Full-time. Hopefully not locked into my studio full-time, but we’re undergoing some changes around here. When I got this place, like, 15 years ago I was desperate for an ambient place to record in—because my studio was in my converted garage at the side of my house in London—so when I moved to France a big part of it was finding an ambient space. For a long time I’ve been enjoying this ambient space, and now I’ve kind of maybe enjoyed it so much I just want to be in here all the time. But maybe not so many drum kits. More sofas, less drum kits.

I have to ask, selfishly, if this means there’s new Tindersticks material coming soon.

No, definitely. Every musician has been forged into a certain kind of rhythm at the moment because they weren’t allowed to play—whether they had an album in progress or whatever—for two years. And now—2022—it’s like every artist has been playing concerts this year. So maybe now every artist is going like, “Get me out of this place! I just want to make some music!” [Laughs] And that’s definitely the place that we’re in now; it’s like looking forward to having a creative year next year. That’s kind of what I’m hoping.

How much does the recording studio—the ambiance of it and such—affect the music you’re making? Including Stars at Noon.

It’s also to do with where you are in that space. Where you find to record the drumkit, for instance. It’s all to do with the microphones you pick, the colors of the recordings—it’s all part of the same thing. You have to start with some kind of base that you’re in the right state and the right frame of mind. Most of Stars at Noon was recorded at Eastcote, in London, which is kind of our home from home London. That was at the end of lockdown, still. For Both Sides of the Blade, that was actually composed during lockdown almost by Zoom; then we had to record the orchestra separately. It was kind of a bit of a nightmare, whereas for Stars at Noon it benefitted from that: the confinement was coming to an end and there was just such a sense of joy with the musicians of being able to play. If you can create the right circumstance and the right idea when you’ve got great people around you, really lovely things can happen.

The recording process for Stars at Noon was a real joyous one; it was kind of the opposite of Both Sides of the Blade. And I think it was for Claire, too. I think Both Sides of the Blade was a tough experience—being in the middle of these heavyweight actors and egos. She’s always happier near the equator, and to work with Margaret and Joe—she came back so enthused from the shoot. It was almost two opposites of films, of how you can make them. But I think with Stars at Noon there was a period of time where the ideas flowed and the people involved were just happy to be playing. That’s what I feel when I hear the score; there’s something going on there.

I won’t be so bold as to say I’m the world’s biggest Tindersticks fan—there could be someone out there who’s a bigger fan; you never know—but I’m definitely in the upper percentile, I’ll dare say. And I can’t tell you the jolt of excitement when I saw Stars at Noon and the soundtrack starts up. Those first cues are like a starting gun, almost.

Mmm. Yeah.

I really think it’s one of your best works, period—soundtrack or otherwise. To say that about a band that’s 30 years old… I’m not even 30 and I’m completely out of ideas. I listen to the Denis soundtracks really as much as your other albums, and—hopefully this isn’t a dumb question—I can’t help putting the soundtracks into a different mental slot from the studio albums. First because there’s far fewer lyrics and vocals.


But also, the soundtrack for The Intruder, Les Salauds, or your own film Minute Bodies give the sense of a band taking unique opportunity to explore ideas they’ve been turning over—like an experimental playground. Or is it not that?

I think it’s definitely an experimental playground, but not necessarily one that’s been on my mind.


Every soundtrack has its own story and its own point of connection, and the way that Claire works with her actors, editors, DPs—she wants to know how people respond to what’s going on. That doesn’t mean I’d say “I’ve got so much freedom.” I do have so much freedom, but when I kind of make a piece of music that’s wrong for a scene, she’ll say to me “this is wrong.” Not “wrong,” but she’ll say “this doesn’t work because this, this, and this.” That’s the moment I get a lot more insight into the way she’s feeling about… the real minutiae of what she’s really feeling. Nothing will ever get past her. I think all the people, all we can do is present, feel something, respond to something, and offer her something, and hopefully it excites her or chimes with her.

With Les Salauds she talked to me so much about sailors. When they’re on-ship, life is simple—nothing can faze them, in a way. But as soon as they put their foot on dry land they step into all their real life, their relationships, and that can be a real, real complicated, scary place for these guys. Whereas usually they’re just going through their tasks—they get up in the morning, they have breakfast, they do this—every day.

With the nature of the story, the electronic score was just as much to do with that. Obviously the subject matter is so tough, but we’re also in a place that is alien to us and unsure; we’re feeling our way through it. Every film we’ve made with Claire has a kind of moment of connection or a story that’s like that—that actually sets things going. So it’s not as though it’s like I’m going “Yeah, I’d really like to experiment with electronic music.” This idea comes along and, like, pushes you into a direction that you were not aware of, in a way.

In moments of experimentation and discovery, do you experience self-doubt? Nothing to do with anything Denis might say. Just wondering if you’re not doing the right thing.

Yeah, of course. But I think you find moments that you can hang onto—that you know as soon as you feel something of the music meeting the image. It’s really, really exciting. Like talking about Bastards: feeling this idea about the Hot Chocolate cover version to do in the final scene. And the final scene is pretty… [Laughs] There’s some pretty grotesque moments in the film. And I’ll always remember: we were playing in Paris and she was getting the dailies together after the shoot. And I’d read the script, but the script didn’t prepare me for the dailies. It was about an hour-and-a-half before I was getting onstage and she said, “Come over and see some dailies.” I was like… pff. “How’d you do this?” “I don’t know.”

There is always, always doubts, but sometimes things just really flow and you know you’re on the right path. With Stars at Noon, it was this story I said about her calling and saying “I need the song,” and I’m going “what song.” She didn’t even say “song.” She said, “I need the music for the dance scene for the shoot.” And I’m kind of like “okay.” But because this conversation about Stars at Noon has been going on a long time—I was hoping she’d make this movie a long time ago; maybe even before Bastards—I had this half-an-idea for a song. So I got together with Dan McKinna and we got together at a piano and figured it out. A week later we were in the studio with the percussionist that actually played on the Trouble Every Day score—it was the last time I saw him, which was like 20 years before. [Laughs]

The bongos guy.

Yeah. Things just started to happen. But it’s so much about the tempo, that song. It took so long. Without being technical, for a Latin rhythm—to slow it down—it’s slowed down to its kind of breaking point. Where it actually stops being a rhythm in the musician’s head. That was the biggest thing: to find this tempo. As soon as we found that tempo it started to feel really, really exciting to me. I sent it to Claire and she was in Panama, and they were having a hard time with various things going wrong. It gave them a lift. It was a nice moment.

The first question I even wrote down about the soundtrack plays into this. Which is that: I think if you played it for somebody and asked them “where do you assume this movie is set” it wouldn’t take them long to guess South America. This “Latin tempo” you’re talking about. And something I love is that it evokes that, it feels true to that, but it isn’t a clichéd, obvious, entry-level tone. It’s suffused into the film and environment. So I wonder—and maybe there’s no concrete answer—how you might evoke a setting through music without resorting to cliché.

The only kind of starting point for Stars at Noon, for me, was that I felt it needed to be a rhythmic score. The journey needed some urgency. When Claire went to Panama I sent two pieces of music through. One was the song; the other was the music that I made for the piano bar. She started the edit and just used the music for the piano bar. Not because she was committed to it but because it had a flavor to get her started. And I was like “No! No, don’t!” Because it already existed in my head how this film started with Earl Harvin’s drums, and it just made me kind of run to the studio and put together this sketch of how I thought this should go. It was more to do with the drums—the tension of the drum kit.

That’s really where it kind of started from, really. I felt as though we needed to start from a rhythmic point of view for the film. That’s why I got into it with David Pattman—he’s a multi-instrumentalist when it comes to all sorts of hand percussion. But I wasn’t thinking “it has to be like this” or “it has to be like that,” and I’m not in any way studied about Latin-American forms of music. But I just felt it should come from a rhythmic point of view. There’s a journey and it’s always pushing to get them to the end. It’s always kind of pushing to get them to the end.

It’s the band’s 30th anniversary. And next year is the 30th for your first album.

Yeah, it is. Yeah.

There’s stuff like this recent archival project on your website, there’s a new greatest-hits collection, and now this amazing soundtrack. This seems a really distinct, important moment for the band. Have you been thinking about Tindersticks in a unique, retrospective way?

I think… I mean, I don’t know. It’s mixed in with the pandemic too. Everybody has this kind of period in their lives, now, that this thing came along and stopped everything. Which, in lots of ways, was destructive, but we all know that in some ways it’s been kind of a positive experience for a lot of people, in a way—to reappraise, to think about what’s important for them. All of these things feed into this moment. I was going to say: with Stars at Noon I felt just, purely, this wasn’t just guys on another session. There was a real release of playing in this. I mean, I’ve worked with Julian Siegel for a long time; I’m always bowled over by his saxophone-playing. But there was something just even more special about it. [Laughs] When he played it was even more moving to me.

So all of those things kind of feed into something, but for it to be our 30th anniversary and to be playing these retrospective shows, at this moment in time, there’s a definite line drawn. So I don’t really know what’s on the other side of that line but I’m very excited to find out—if you know what I mean. There isn’t just a kind of “and this is what we do next” kind of thing. I think that even with the new ideas that have kind of popped up in recent months, I don’t understand them and I don’t understand where they’re going but I do feel excited about what this could be. But at the same time it’s not a cozy place. I’m not saying it’s on a knife’s edge, but it’s not this cozy thing that just moves forward. It never is. And it’s the same with working with Claire: people go “Oh, you’ve been working with Claire for 27 years.” But every soundtrack has its own story. It’s never, ever a given that Claire’s making a film, therefore we make the music.

With 35 Rhums Claire was going to make that film without music, and it was only by chance that she was editing it at the same time as White Material and she showed me the beginning of it and I said “I’ve got a piece of music for this that would be just fantastic,” and it was a piece of David’s that we’d been working on, this melodica piece. As soon as I saw these rail tracks it was all I could hear, and I gave it to her and she was like “Wow, this is fantastic.” So there is never, ever a standard way of working, or even a given that we’re going to work together on any particular project. But at this moment in time I’m very interested to see what next year holds.

I recently revisited Distractions, from 2021, and coupled with Stars at Noon it suggests new directions for the group. Maybe you’ve kind of answered this, but I suspect that lately there’s big initiative to innovate. An album like Distractions I frankly wouldn’t expect from the group—if you understand.

No, I think… you mentioned Minute Bodies earlier, but there was a period. Distractions, for me, is very connected to a strand of work that was around the High Life score, Minute Bodies, a solo I made called Arrhythmia. After making those three things—which were all heavy, studio-based projects I suppose—at the end of that period the band hadn’t been together for four years, consistently, to make something, and we came back together and we made No Treasure but Hope, which was kind of a naturalistic record to bring us back into the same space. “Here’s a piano. Let’s sit around the piano and let’s write these songs.” But to me it was a kind of a relief because there’s been constantly, in the studio, experimenting on these three projects. Especially High Life; I kind of lived for a year in that spaceship. I got the job of sound design as well, so it was a heavy time for a big piece of work.

To me, No Treasure but Hope being more naturalistic and what you expect from Tindersticks was a left turn. [Laughs] At that moment. Whereas Distractions is more connected to that work. I’m kind of so much involved in the minutiae of progressions that Distractions felt maybe more natural to me than No Treasure but Hope did. No Treasure but Hope, I went “Okay, I’m a guy that plays acoustic guitar and sings and I’m in the middle of this fantastic band.” Other people recorded it. Other people mixed it. I was always involved, but it wasn’t, like, boring for months on end. [Laughs]

With the lockdown, there was already these ideas going on for Distractions before, but with the lockdown I got kind of left on my own with these ideas, developed them, sent them to the band like “What do you want to do with these? I’ll finish them off on my own and make them a solo album.” But everybody really wanted to be involved with it. I just went with the flow and everybody brought such great things to it, so it ended up working out. But that was closer to the line of progression, is what I’m trying to say.

I revisited a bunch of the group’s music videos and was surprised to realize there’s been a huge influx of work you directed yourself—most recently “Both Sides of the Blade.” Tindersticks conjures rather specific images and colors and textures, and the videos are not so far from what I imagine when I hear your songs.

You imagine a woman shaving. [Laughs]

Your wife shaving, no less. Is there anything to explain that recent uptick?

I’ve always been involved from the beginning, but maybe it’s feeling more confident. To make the “Pinky in the Daylight” film was the first time I worked with a professional DP. It was a fantastic experience; I had so much fun. But it’s just about—so far—specific ideas. And if there’s something I really want to make I find a way to make it. It’s maybe just confidence, but also a confidence in the help I will get in the way of capturing the thing that’s on my mind. So far that’s maybe happened six or seven times and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. But I would hate to be in a situation where if I had to think of a film to make for a song. It’s very much about, just, things that grow in your mind and you’re desperate to achieve that.

I’ve been lucky enough to the last few years especially, and even with Minute Bodies it was a way of making music for image. But being able to touch the image too. That was a real freedom. To have a conversation between these fantastic images and the music we were making, and it wasn’t always about the music having to bend to fit the images; sometimes the images bent to fit or change the music. It was a different kind of conversation. But that kind of helps me also appreciate the processes that Claire has to go through, the editing processes—how difficult that is. All of those elements kind of all feed into this moment. But I don’t know what it all means or where it’s taking me; I’m just happy to feel that in the moment and be able to explore the small ideas I have that need to be achievable.

Are there any videos especially close to your heart? “Both Sides of the Blade” just shows your wife shaving—that seems it would be personal, intimate. But maybe there’s something I don’t know about.

I mentioned “Pinky in the Daylight.” I kind of wanted to make a love letter to this island—this Greek island that we love—but also a love letter to my wife. I suppose I think about “Pinky in the Daylight” being probably the first pure love song I’ve ever written, in a way. It’s taken me, like, 30 years. But to have this simple idea—this Super 8 idea—of a guy on the island filming the island, filming his wife on the island, putting it together in a kind of home-movie kind of way… I found every moment of making that challenging but really powerful and rewarding at the same time. It’s a simple idea, but the song is a simple idea and doesn’t need much more.

I had tickets to see you guys in April 2020—


To add insult to injury it would’ve been a) your first U.S. show in 11 years and b) literally walking distance from my apartment. I understand why it was canceled—fair enough—but I kind of desperately check your site every so often for hints of a return. Is that conversation being had?

For sure. I’m not saying it’ll be in a few months’ time, but there is a definite plan and I really hope it comes together this time. And it’ll be a better plan than before. It’s difficult: when you get used to the concert halls of Europe, we play our music in a particular kind of way that demands a lot of the environment that you’re in, the technicians that you have—all the things we’re used to having when we’re in Europe—it’s tougher coming to America. Even to apply for visas for 10 or 12 people… [Laughs]

It’s prohibitive for artists to enter America. And that’s a sadness, I think, for you. That’s not just us. The most interesting stuff is not Elton John. But if it’s prohibitive for us, it’s just not an easy process. Which is a real shame. I’m not just talking about the visas; I’m talking about lots of different things that make it so much more challenging to go “Okay, we’re going to do this.” But we have a plan and I’m hoping it comes together before too long. Hopefully we’ll be with you before too long.

Stars at Noon is now on Hulu and on VOD.

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