Writer/director Joel Potrykus’ new film, Relaxer, is simultaneously hypnotic and repulsive. It all takes place in one room — on one couch, really — where Abbie (Joshua Burge) is attempting to beat 256 levels of Pac-Man, because he’s not allowed to get up until he does so. If this movie had a smell, it would be sweat on a vinyl couch, with a faint whiff of sour milk somewhere in the background. Y2K’s on the horizon, and a sense of mild panic is palpable.
If The Greasy Strangler left you uncomfortable, Relaxer will have you cringing. And, yet, the film manages to achieve a hallucinatory buzz that washes over the viewer. As you sit on your couch, watching Abbie sitting on his couch, a sort of kinship occurs, as you begin to wonder if re-watching every Marvel movie in order ahead of Avengers: Endgame is really any different than the challenge Abbie’s brother presented to him.
Relaxer is fascinating and enveloping, and no small part of that is due to the music from Neon Indian, the electronic music project from Alan Palomo, who’s no stranger to working with the sounds of previous decades. Neon Indian’s most recent album, 2015’s Vega Intl. Night School, is awash in synthy ’80s vibes, so it makes sense that Palomo would be able to get into a late ’90s groove with no trouble. We spoke with him by phone the other day about his work on Relaxer and how it came to be.
How did you come to be involved with Relaxer?
I have a few friends at Oscilloscope. One in particular is my friend Dan Berger, who was the one who initially connected Joel [Potrykus] and I. Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Oscilloscope and the work that they do. I had heard about Buzzard and read about it, and there were friends of mine who were big fans of Joel Potrykus, but for me, it was just kind of like getting sent a very preliminary rough cut and that was my introduction to his whole world, which was pretty wild.
I guess not having previously been introduced to the logic system of his films, and just understanding the language and the type of characters, it was just like a full, unadulterated dose of Joel, watching that movie for the first time. [laughs] Which was cool. I think it was one of those things where the premise alone just had me hooked, and it was such an audacious idea, that it seemed to lend itself, at the very least, to the palette that I’ve worked in sonically before.
Even just the fact that so much of it was based around this antiquated video game and it just being about this sort of parallel reality that’s already in the past but, in some ways, I guess it was intended to feel futuristic or dystopic; aesthetically, it just seemed like a really good fit and I wanted to work on it.
From there, I had to familiarize myself more with his filmography. The irony is that this is the first of his films that has a score. I was curious to see just what Joel had in mind, this being the first incorporation of that element in any of his work.
When you were composing the score, did you consider the era in which Relaxer is set and/or the music of Pac-Man?
It’s funny, because there’s something kind of anachronistic about it, in the sense that I love watching period pieces from other decades. Like, a ’90s interpretation of the ’70s is different than a 2010s interpretation of the ’70s; there’s always going to be some kind of abstraction it undergoes. For me, the starting point wasn’t Pac-Man, which is from the early ’80s, but that [Abbie] is playing this shitty legacy edition of Pac-Man on his current console, which happens to also be taking place in the late ’90s.
I had done a bit of 8-bit / chiptune composing on my second record [Era Extraña]. Or, at the very least, I was trying to incorporate those elements and use it to make shoegaze,and I had bought, in particular, this one synthesizer called the SidStation, which is essentially the Sid chip, which is the soundcard from a Commodore 64 converted into this polyphonic synthesizer.
I got it specifically for that sophomore album, and it just kind of sat there for a long time. It had kind of found its use, but I knew that I had always wanted to bring it back for something, and this project was kind of a perfect alignment, because it wasn’t like I was making it on a Commodore 64; it was from an instrument from the late ’90s, and the timelines just happened to sync up perfectly.
I was talking with someone the other day, and they were doing research for a project based in the ’90s, and just immersing themselves in things from that era — not for specifics, but more of the general aesthetic. Was your approach like that?
It almost built upon the sound design he used in his previous film, The Alchemist’s Cookbook, in that there’s very few traditional cues. There’s just a lot of auxiliary soundscapes that are just meant to heighten certain feelings throughout the film. There’s also something droning in the background, and that, to me, felt more synonymous with the feeling of hearing console elements playing in the background. But those, to me, seemed more steeped in ’90s nostalgia than just writing a chiptune composition, you know?
There’s always going to be some element of like, wanting to…contemporize would be the wrong word, but to frame it in this context of you’re still watching this film, which is coming out in 2019. There’s a certain self-awareness of there being some parallel universe split that would’ve happened sometime in the past. It almost becomes fantasy, at that point, in that you’re interpreting something that is no longer even historical. It’s just a whole other tangent, and that sort of freed me up to not be so specifically stuck in the context of just making ’80s chiptune or ’90s nostalgia music.
Especially because I feel that the ’90s nostalgia is so prevalent in film right now. Everyone seems to be obsessed with revisiting Larry Clark’s skater aesthetic, and I didn’t feel as if I really wanted to go in that direction, either. I wanted it to be something that felt new, but certainly incorporating the storyline and the context of it into the the palette.
Relaxer is out today in select theaters from Oscilloscope.