With the sound of breaking waves in the background, Griff Washburn of Goth Babe was composing music on an antique pump organ in the Westfjords of Iceland.
After a long journey by air, road and snowmobile, he’d settled into a remote lighthouse to work on the original score for Creation Theory, the new film by Ben Sturgulewski and Ben Moon that recently won the Creative Excellence Award at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.
“It was a long journey to get there,” Griff says, “so I’d only packed a guitar, my MacBook, a MIDI keyboard and an interface. But then we found that strange organ in the building next to the lighthouse on the edge of the cliff. It was even in tune, which was pretty wild. And man, it was such a spectacular location.”
Months before, when Sturgulewski and Moon approached Griff about soundtracking their project, he’d quickly accepted. He wasn’t sure, however, what he wanted to write, or what the finished score would sound like, only that he wanted it to be shaped by his experiences on the wind-blown Atlantic island he’d be visiting for the first time.
“Going into it,” he remembers, “I wasn’t really thinking ‘Oh, I’m going to go there and write Iceland music.’ I didn’t know what would inspire me, or how it would affect my subconscious when I sat down to write. Because for me, that inspiration tends to come from everything I’ve collected over the past weeks or months, or even right there that day. I just knew that by going there and experiencing that place, and by having a set intention that what would come out of the trip would be the score to the film, what I composed would sound like what Iceland meant to me. So I tried not to think about it too much, and just let it flow as it would.”
Flow, that ethereal state of effortless creativity, was one of the thematic concepts Sturgulewski and Moon were hoping to explore on location with Griff, surfer Pete Devries and snowboarders Robin Van Gyn and Elena Hight. A few days before departure, though, Griff’s life on the Oregon coast was thrown into unexpected chaos. After spending a night in Portland to see a show with a friend, he woke up to a call telling him that his self-built tiny home in Pacific City was on fire.
“I loved that place so much, and within minutes it was gone. There went my music gear, passport, birth certificate, basically everything your controlling mind would tell you to protect. And so many incredible memories too. All of it up in flames.”
“I was supposed to do a few shows and then head straight to Iceland,” Griff continues. “I did two of the shows and thought I could still do the trip. I didn’t want to let the crew down, and we had a plan to try to get a new passport, but then I just had a bit of a breakdown and realized it wasn’t healthy for me to continue on. I really needed to rest and get some perspective for a bit.”
With everything else in place for the project, Sturgulewski and Moon decided to go ahead to Iceland to film the surf and snow sequences with the rest of the crew. But the connections between art and sport were at the heart of Creation Theory, and they knew they wanted to do everything they could to have Griff’s music and perspectives in the film.
“Those guys were super sweet,” he says. “They called me and were like ‘Hey, we really want you to be a part of this, and we’d love to bring you back here with just us once you’re ready.’ A few weeks went by, I had some time to get myself together, and then I got on the plane to Reykjavík with the guys.”
Once they’d landed, Griff set up for a few days at a friend’s house in Ísafjörður, starting initial work on the music while heading out on day trips for snow or surf. He still hadn’t quite found that sought-after flow state, though, and things weren’t feeling quite right.
“I was pretty thrown off on our first day of surf,” he laughs. “I was getting used to being in a thick wetsuit, and riding a really small board I hadn’t surfed before at this really intense spot. That, and having cameras on me at the beach, had made for a really stressful session. So we’d gone home and made dinner, and Sturge and Ben said ‘Look, Griff, we’re just here for you to enjoy yourself and be inspired. There’s no pressure, just go out and have fun.”
“The next day, we went out and found this beautiful beachbreak with waist-high waves, and I had a really great longboard that this local legend, Ellie Thor, had loaned me. It turned out to be just the raddest session. It was sunny, there were beautiful white mountains in the background, and all I could think about was how amazing it was to be in that place. There are only so many moments like that in your lifetime, where just you’re pinching yourself because it’s just so rad, and that was definitely one of them. That really changed the whole trip for me, and everything started feeling like it was falling into place.”
With the personal chaos and professional pressure released, Iceland’s wintry beauty began to work its sonic influence on Griff’s music. The film’s interview sequences were pushing him to examine his own creative processes, and being in such a raw and elemental place with other creators was helping shape his writing, too.
“It was really neat to be right there with those guys and their brilliancy, and to envision some of Sturge’s shots as they happened. I could be there, see Sturge flying the drone and start imagining how I wanted that to sound.”
“All the ambient tracks are super film-driven in that way, and I think everything that ended up in the score is different what I’ve done in the past,” Griff notes. “It’s not simple, straightforward pop. I was more in the headspace of dramatic, give-you-the-chills film writing, and it was really cool for me to step into that. It’s a bit more dramatic and intense than what I’ve done before. Some of it’s a bit slower and softer, but I’d say that just overall there’s more of an emotive depth to it. There’s a couple of super joyful tracks, but mostly they’re pretty dramatic, which I think ended up fitting well with the film.”
As the shoot drew to a close, Griff started the more focused work of turning demos into finished tracks. Back home in the States, the collaboration with the filmmakers kept going as they emailed sequences and songs back and forth through several months of post-production.
“The final thing I finished on the whole film was the intro track,” he recounts. “Strangely enough, it was also the first song I finished, but it wasn’t quite working. It was beautiful, but just kind of stagnant, and I felt like my film writing was getting better as the project went on. Sturge had also hinted that the beginning might need something different, but he wasn’t sure what. So I told him I’d get him one more track. I wanted to find a grand piano for it, which I never did, but the day before the deadline, I wrote the intro and was just frothing. I sent it to Sturge and Ben, and they thought it was perfect, too. I put some distorted guitar in there and experimented with some heavier sounds, and I think it really complements the grit of those intro shots that Sturge has of flying drones through Iceland.”
“Seeing both of our art combined like that is pretty incredible,” Griff smiles. “It gives me chills. Which for Iceland, I guess that’s what you want.”
Griff’s music forms the original score of Creation Theory, streaming live this fall on www.arcteryx.com. You can also find four of the film’s tracks on the Goth Babe EP Iceland, out now on Spotify.