As if creating a spot-on retro horror flick soundtrack isn’t enough, los Angeles-based I Speak Machine have made the film to go with it. ‘Zombies 1985’ even stars Gary Numan’s kids…
Tara Busch and Maf Lewis inhabit a twilight zone of their own creation, a immersive sensory realm of sci-fi soundscapes, otherworldly torch songs and spooked electronic scores for macabre short films with blockbuster ambitions. She is an American musician and vintage synth connoisseur steeped in Anglophile pop culture. He’s an ex-pat British filmmaker and former record label boss. Together they’re the audio-visual duo I Speak Machine. They also share a house, a marriage and a dog called Strelka.
Maf and Tara are both cult retro-horror film fans, citing ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Witchfinder General’, ‘The Legend Of Hell House’ and ‘Suspiria’ among their favourites. Tara also raves over more recent fare like Jordan Peele’s low-budget smash ‘Get Out’ and Alice Lowe’s serial killer comedy ‘Prevenge’, with its heavily electronic soundtrack.
“The Toydrum score was gorgeous,” she says, “Alice Lowe is someone I’d just die to work with.”
Tellingly, Tara is also bewitched by the spooky analogue sonics of antique British TV productions like ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You’ and ‘Children Of The Stones’, which terrified generations of younger viewers with their ghostly earworm theme tunes and Radiophonic sound effects. Tara’s own scores, with their grainy analogue synth textures and uncanny folk-horror undertones, share a similar darkly beautiful ethos.
Horror is key to the latest I Speak Machine album, ‘Zombies 1985’. It was created in partnership with the duo’s long-time friend and collaborator Ben “Benge” Edwards, the prolific British electronic producer and composer whose numerous projects include Wrangler and John Foxx And The Maths.
The ‘Zombies 1985’ album is a rich nocturama of nightmarish dread, valve-radio crackle, monophonic fizz and electro-magnetic hum.
But it also showcases Tara’s vocal prowess on emotive electro-noir ballads like ‘Demon Days’ and ‘Blood From A Stone’. John Foxx has likened her darkly seductive siren voice to Nico, Karen Carpenter and Doris Day. We could add Beth Gibbons, Alison Goldfrapp and even Kate Bush to that list too.
As with most ISM projects, ‘Zombies 1985’ began as a live soundtrack to a short film directed by Maf. Set in 1980s LA, this cultish video nasty has an authentically scratchy VHS look and is packed with period-perfect detail including boxy car phones, Toni Basil albums and copious amounts of cocaine. Plus flesh-munching killer zombies, obviously.
The album was initially conceived as an EP, but grew in size and scope over time. It is now much longer than the film it was designed to accompany.
“It was always intended to be a film that we would screen with the score being played live, like all of our films,” Tara says. “But it got to where Benge and I kept getting extra ideas for the film so we ended up doing an extended score for it.”
Having resolved to locate both film and music in the mid-80s, Tara and Benge had the inspired idea to only use electronic instruments that were available in 1985 or before.
“Like Delia Derbyshire said, limitations make you a lot more creative,” Tara explains. “It was a really fun thing to impose on ourselves. So we decided we would just do like a love letter to the 80s, like a Chris & Cosey, Cabaret Voltaire sort of thing. It’s maybe a bit more dark pop than that, but we just kept getting more ideas so it ended up being a full-length record.”
The LA-shot film is actually the duo’s second stab at the project. An earlier version was shot in the UK, around Benge’s home and Memetune studio in Cornwall.
“He had just moved into this amazing house,” Tara recalls. “It was like an 1980s time capsule, it looked like it hadn’t been touched.”
But the shoot began to go distinctly Pete Tong when Maf, his actor and a small film crew all crammed into Benge’s vintage 1984 Porsche to shoot a tortuous driving scene in the sweltering summer heat.
They had counted on finding Dartmoor deserted, but it was heaving with holiday traffic, which compromised the film’s period setting. It then turned out the lead actor was unable to drive a manual car, and wild horses kept photo-bombing the shot. The resulting footage was simply too messy to edit into a coherent whole.
“We fucked up dramatically,” Maf admits, “which is partly my fault and partly just an incredible amount of bad luck.”
But sometimes ill fate can be the first step towards future inspiration. When they came to cast the LA version of ‘Zombies 1985’, Maf and Tara had the genius idea to ask Raven, Echo and Persia Numan, the daughters of electro-rock legend Gary Numan and his wife Gemma. The girls jumped at the chance to play patricidal pre-teen undead monsters. Like, obviously.
“Echo is the youngest,” Maf grins. “We nicknamed her Happy Zombie because she couldn’t stop laughing. I had to cut around her quite a lot, but she was great.”
“Two of the girls didn’t want to wear the special contact lenses, which is fair enough,” Tara recalls. “But Raven was really into it, she stayed in character the whole time.”
I Speak Machine have toured extensively with Numan since making the film. At the time of the shoot they were just casual friends with their famous LA neighbours, and unsure what to expect when they tentatively offered the girls their roles.
“We didn’t think Gary would show up himself,” Tara laughs, “but then he just walked into our house! He’s good friend of ours now, the sweetest guy you can imagine, but at the time we were just totally starstruck. Him and Gemma both came over and helped out. They even cleaned the blood off the sliding doors.”
Maf and Tara have been serial collaborators since first meeting in the early years of the millennium at the Winter Music Conference in Miami. Their debut shared project was a short-lived, dreamy electropop band called Dynamo Dresden. Tara then pursued other musical paths, remixing the likes of Annie Lennox and Bat For Lashes, and releasing her first solo album ‘Pilfershire Lane’ in 2009. A vintage synth nerd, she was invited by Michelle Moog to perform and participate in a workshop at MoogFest 2010, and released a charity EP for the Bob Moog Foundation a year later.
Meanwhile, the I Speak Machine project was coming together as Maf began assembling short films designed to accompany Tara’s live scores. Typically, the duo work on an original story synopsis together before developing music and visuals separately.
“There is a divide there,” Maf explains. “Obviously I’m in charge of film and Tara is in charge of music, but we might cross over with ideas.”
“It’s a really organic process,” Tara adds. “We try to work alongside each other as much as we can. It’s really important to us for the film and the music to have equal significance, instead of one being an afterthought.
When we do it this way the music influences the film and the film influences the music.
“The film has parts where there is a bit more room for the music, especially in the live format, then it will switch back to the film having more attention. It’s important that we weave the work together instead of Maf shooting and then me scoring it. That’s not how we work at all.”
Both inside and outside their I Speak Machine partnership, Tara and Maf are involved in a broad portfolio of film and music projects, from TED Talks to Kickstarter-funded soundtrack collaborations. One of their most ambitious shared ventures is ‘Strata’, a futuristic animated sci-fi series created in partnership with cult comics illustrator Tommy Lee Edwards, with backing from Google Labs and Random House publishing.
The duo initially conceived ‘Strata’ as a short film before realising the visual effects budget would need to be Pixar-level huge. Now it is in development as a TV series. Tara also recently collaborated with the experimental bass guitar duo Kite Base on the score for ‘Deep Clean’, directed by Krent Able and Matt Harlock.
Maf and Tara are currently working on another I Speak Machine short film, a time-travel yarn called ‘Loop’, but inevitably a full-length horror movie is also on their wish list.
“We have a couple of ideas about that,” Maf nods. “There is no finished feature script, but what I tend to like doing is to make the short first, and if that looks successful on some level then we will look at creating a feature out of it.”
Meanwhile, the couple are also hoping to stretch Raven Numan’s acting skills further on their next film project.
“We have written a script, which Gary and Gemma have got,” Maf nods. “It has a much bigger role for Raven and hopeful we will have her starring with… I can’t say the name yet, but a very well known UK actress will be playing the mother. So I’d be very excited to shoot that. We are planning on shooting at Gary and Gemma’s house, which is basically a castle.”
Like the horror and sci-fi films that inspire them, I Speak Machine currently operate on the shadowy fringes beyond the mainstream. But they are slowly emerging from their Twilight Zone, with a little help from their friends electric. They shoot, they score, and they make beautiful dark twisted fantasies.
‘Zombies 1985’ is released by Lex