SFGate - April 23, 2005
They know how to whistle -- they just put their lips together
Author: Jane Ganahl
Date: April 23, 2005
Marc Capelle, the Paul Shaffer of the indie music set, is lustily savoring his bandleader role. Standing behind the keyboards he's pounding as he bounces to the crescendoing rhythms of the American Music Club, he never takes his eyes off a TV monitor that sits on a stack of three plastic milk crates at the front of the cluttered recording studio. On the screen: the silent film Street Angel, for which Capelle and fellow musician Mark Eitzel have composed a symphonic score -- complete with guitars, trumpet, mandolin, sound effects, even robotic birds.
Still, Capelle has more in store for tonight's San Francisco International Film Festival audience, where this rock 'n' film experiment will debut. "OK, wait for it!" he calls out above the din, one finger held aloft, like the bandleader for David Letterman. "You'll know when to start -- watch for his look of love."
Gino, the hero of Street Angel, gazes adoringly at the face of Angela, played by the Oscar-winning Janet Gaynor. And as AMC's music suddenly fades to quiet, a heavenly sound is heard. Kurt Stevenson, best known as guitarist and vocalist for the Old Joe Clarks, puckers his lips into the microphone and starts to whistle. It's a pitch-perfect, sweet wail -- melancholy and piercing.
"Oh, Gino!" calls out bass player Danny Pearson, clearly moved by the moment.
"Is he gonna kiss her?" laughs Capelle. "I don't know."
Kiss thwarted by Angela's boss, she is soon whistling back to Gino -- and there is a corresponding duet between Stevenson and Carla Fabrizio, another professional whistler, who warbles back her birdlike greetings of love. It becomes a running motif in the film, which, like the music scored to match it, is alternately tender and harrowing.
Whistling is not a full-time job, laughs Fabrizio during a break. She is a tech writer by day, and Stevenson is a carpenter. "When I was in high school I saw a whistler perform and thought it was so cool," she says. "I stood next to him in the mirror, and he showed me how to do it."
She has whistled with several local groups during live shows, most notably the Residents. Stevenson, on the other hand, was "discovered" only recently and has done just one other whistling gig before this. "I earned $150 for a full day of carpentry and $150 for 10 minutes of whistling," he says with a grin.
Capelle, whose keyboards have graced albums by bands from Cake to Third Eye Blind, says it took some doing to find whistlers for the gig. "I basically asked everyone I knew for recommendations," he says, smiling. Capelle was the originator of the Street Angel project; every year the film festival asks notable musicians to score a silent movie.
"They gave me several films to choose from," he says, "including a Lillian Gish film that ends with her wandering into the Mojave Desert and dying."
Eitzel, whose music is known for being dark, chuckles. "Sounds kind of great to me."
Capelle and Eitzel have been friends for a long time, and spend as much time giving each other grief as they do playing. Eitzel, once named Rolling Stone's songwriter of the year, lends his beautifully mournful vocals to the score as well, doing three songs. Two are originals, and one is from the recent CD Love Songs For Patriots, which represents the reunion of American Music Club after a 10-year hiatus.
"I had written three new ones, but one got nixed," sniffs Eitzel with a nod in Capelle's direction. Both laugh. "You know why that was," responds Capelle, shaking his head, refusing to take the bait.
They are interrupted by the arrival of the robotic birds, brought by designer Eric Shank, who notes that he used a standard mechanical bird body, but put in the brain from a Chinese kung-fu-kicking baby toy. He also points out that the bird brains are still in Boston. "So they'll just flap around." This seems to make sense to everyone.
"Those birds are kind of freaking me out," says Pearson, and all laugh again.
Break over, and the big event just days away, it's back to work. Eitzel suggests to whistler Fabrizio that she put the microphone right by her cheek. "That's how professionals do," he says. "Really?" she asks. He shrugs. "I don't know. I think so."
The group will rehearse until after midnight. Even now, the light through the cracked skylight is fading, and all six musicians -- and two whistlers - - have to strain their eyes to see the small monitor.
A hand reaches for a large brass knocker, and ... tap tap tap goes drummer Tim Mooney. All laugh out loud at the literal interpretation.
While they play, Capelle barks out reminders -- all of which will have to be unspoken during the festival event. "G minor! Tenderly now! Calm down folks, we're in a church!"
There are moments of back-talking to the screen as time passes and players get punchy. "We're so happy here!" is one line of printed dialogue; Eitzel reads it aloud for the ironic humor.
Guitarist Vudi ("like Cher, he only has one name," quips Capelle) is the special effects guy; he moves around a small area in the center of the room, from sound effects board to zither. At one point, though, the film starts going backward.
"You stepped on the mouse," Capelle hollers and rushes up to click the computer's appendage so that the movie starts going forward again.
None of this, of course, will happen on opening night.
Eitzel groans in fear of it: "Oh, God."
But it will be fine. The music is gorgeous, the musicians expert. The whistlers are standing by with their lip gloss.
"Gotta have it," says Stevenson, smacking his lips.
"I like Kiehl's best," smiles Fabrizio.