Skyman: Don Miggs Discusses Universal Sonics

Skyman composer Don Miggs talks about getting out-of-this world sounds.

Don Miggs Skyman
Photo: Skyman

The mock-documentary Skyman doesn’t tell the usual UFO encounter story. Director Daniel Myrick, who broke on the scene with the groundbreaking horror thriller The Blair Witch Project, does not put this together using found footage. The film examines the aftermath of an alien visitation, and the story is told by a witness and survivor.

Carl Merryweather (Michael Selle) was seven years old when he saw the “skyman” in Barstow, a small town in California. The event changed him. He’s spent years obsessively collecting UFO magazines, as well as first-person accounts of other contactees. It made him the neighborhood “character.” Skyman takes place 33 years after the visitation, he is living with his sister, Gina (Nicolette Sweeney), and waiting on a promise the alien made to return on his 40th birthday.

The film was shot in Barstow, where there have been multiple real life reports of UFO sightings. Merryweather also takes the crew to a real UFO festival in McMinnville, Oregon, where the character is met with amused scorn by amateur enthusiasts armed with cellphone cameras.

The soundtrack for Skyman was written by Billy Corgan and Don Miggs. The Smashing Pumpkins frontman is a household name, and occasional appliance. Miggs is a studio veteran. He’s written with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, and worked with such diverse artists as Boyz II Men, Paul Anka, Tyga, and the Plain White T’s. Miggs spoke with Den of Geek about the film, the universal language of music, and the OZ Paradigm.

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DEN OF GEEK: Were you drawn to Skyman because of the subject matter?

DON MIGGS: You know, first and foremost, [I was] told I could do a film with the guy who wrote Blair Witch. Now I’m already interested, right? So you’ve already got me right there. Then a really strange chain of events happened when Dan Myrick approached me to do it. I had just had a crazy incident happen at my L.A. house that involves sort of like the supernatural. Right now, I can’t even believe I just said that because I’m going to tell the story. The person who built our home was Mickey Rooney, who was famous in the ’40s, but ’50s and ’60s, for sure. He was a child star and a long time he was with Judy Garland from The Wizard of Oz.

We bought that house. In between us, there was another artist, Rick James, from, “She’s a very kinky girl.” It’s the house that Rick did all that crazy stuff. He’d been arrested at one point because he and his girlfriend locked another girlfriend in a room and tortured her. They were doing things like meth or heroin or something. He was sort of crazy. We bought this house and maybe it was haunted. I don’t know. But when Dan called me about doing the movie, we had just had an incident where a book was off of a bookshelf that couldn’t have fallen where it fell. Someone would’ve had to take it down.

I walked by for a few days. Finally I said to my wife, “Is it down here for a reason.” She’s like, “I was going to ask you the same question.” I pick up the book, this is before I knew about Judy Garland, and it’s The Wizard of Oz. I’m like, “That’s kind of weird.” Someone told me the book was on the ground because Mickey Rooney was with Judy Garland in this house. This is where they stayed.” I’m like, “Wow,” and so I flipped through. I’m looking through Google and I go into a deep search and I see this photo of them in our house where the piano is and it kind of freaks me out.

So as that’s happening, I’m telling this to my friend and my friend says, “I didn’t want to tell you this. I was in the movie room and I heard clinking of glasses in the kitchen. Then they put them down on the counter, and I was like, “Hello? Hello? Hello?” and nobody was there. Then his girlfriend was in the kitchen and turned and looked to the right, and said, “What do you want?” Because she thought that my friend was standing there. The friend, by the way, is the third writer that wrote the music on this, Greg Hanson. Greg wasn’t there, he was in my studio.

So all this stuff happened, and Greg and I are having this conversation about the supernatural and what do we believe in, life on other planets, all this stuff and we’re coming to all these conclusions then Dan calls me and tells me about a movie about a UFO, about an alien. I’m like, “That’s the craziest thing.” A week later, Billy Corgan comes to stay at my house. We know that he’s had some history with UFOs and believes, and I tell him about it, and he’s like, “That’s crazy.” I said, “Does it make you nervous to stay in the house?” He goes, “No, not at all.”

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So all that stuff is a long way to say it felt like it was supposed to happen when Dan called and said “Do I want to do the film?” Because it felt like I was sort of on the brink of changing my whole belief system.

You own vintage guitars. I was wondering if the guitars can be haunted, and if you ever caught someone else’s riffs?

Of course, the way I look at everything is energy is out there. We’re all the same age in the end. Right? Because we’re all just energy and it’s all floating. I own Hendrix’s guitar from when he played with the Isley Brothers. One day, his brother Leon came to the house, and wanted me to record him, but it’s not something I wanted to record. But as he was holding the guitar, he said something like, “This guitar is the guitar that Jimi dreamed in before he became … This is when he was James Hendrix, and he was basically playing guitar for the white man and dancing in the back and doing all this stuff, and then it’s the guitar that he emerged as Jimi Hendrix, which is the guy with the Afro and larger than life.”

Whenever I play the guitar, and I play it all the time, I feel that life in there, and I think it’s sort of in everything. People tend to be scared by it, but there’s this root beauty and the whole thing that we’re all connected. That’s kind of what the movie, ultimately, is about for me. When Dan explained it, I didn’t see one piece of it when I started writing music to it. The first thing I wrote was “Are you real Skyman?”

When he was describing to me what it was about, I said to him, “This is not really a story. This to me isn’t even a UFO story. It’s the story of a person trying to connect with his father and his father is no longer around. This is his connection. It’s really a story about how we’re all connected and it’s about family.” If you look at your main character, he’s on this journey and he’s very much alone, but he has his sister and his best friend still show up, they might think he’s a little crazy, but they show up because it’s important to show up. I think it makes the story a little bit more beautiful than “there’s a UFO, let’s go chase it.”

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You’re one of the authors of Dad’s Know Best. What do you tell your kids about UFOs?

I tell them that I’ve never seen anything, but the likelihood that we are the only thing out there seems pretty slim to me. Maybe it’s not happening at the same time, maybe it’s because of time and space. The thing I always say to my kids, they’re 11 and nine, is I just say that anything and everything is possible. Your job is to be open enough for it to happen. I don’t believe in God, I feel like there’s something bigger than me out there, but I don’t know if it’s God. I’ve never said that really out loud like that. I don’t know if I can even say I don’t believe in God, but I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong, and I’m looking forward to being wrong. I tell my kids that the fact that we’re here sort of almost demands that there must be someone somewhere else.

What key best captures the abductee experience. Is it A minor? Is it mixolydian?

I love that you would ask that question. It certainly has to be a minor. This is so geeky of me. For me, it would probably be like a minor seven. I literally just wrote a song before I got on. I had a client and we’re doing a record and I just did a Skype with her, and I made sure the whole thing is sort of about, in the end is that it’s going to be alright. It all really stems off of this one minor. It’s a B flat minor seven that comes at the end and just playing that chord leads everything up to a question like, “Is it going to be alright?” But I would say, if you have to say what the best minor chord is, it’s probably E minor and that’s the key of tension for sure. E minor, I’ll say.

Close Encounters taught us music is the universal language. So are different modes more effective at communicating if we were to communicate with another species?

I would think that. I would think that we see things very much in, [hums major scale], right? If I play Indian music, there’s going to be more chromatic notes than there would be in Western music. So yes, for sure, everybody’s going to have a little bit of a dialect when it comes to what’s going to work for them.

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I find it interesting actually, when I’m thinking of Close Encounters, “[sings theme], nu, nu, nu.” That resolve, which makes very much sense, it’s very nice for our American ears, but I don’t know that the  [sings last two notes of theme],” which is four/five, “Duh, nah, nah, nah, nah,” would be soothing to someone from another planet because I don’t think that “Duh, nah” would be soothing to someone from necessarily another country.

What do you think extraterrestrials would pick up from what’s going on in music right now?

The best thing about music today for me is sonically, it’s amazing. The sounds are really exciting. It’s thinner. It’s more shrill. It would be heard better, probably. If I were an alien, I’m going to say that I think they would pick up that it’s a little more vapid. If we’re talking about popular music and I just dated myself, that’s a dumb thing to say because the ’50s music was as vapid as vapid could be, same chords, same melodies.

You mix some pretty etheric sonics into the theme music. I was wondering what tells you how to capture that? There’s one part that sounds like you caught feedback off of a stick across a snare drum.

You’re right. I hit a drum and then I literally grabbed the feedback from it, and I might’ve supported that with some other instrument in there. Then yeah, and that wound up being a part of the sonic scape for a lot of different parts.

I equate music writing with you’re in a field and some days you’re pulling weeds, and other days you’re picking flowers and the job is to stay in the field and keep picking. That’s what I do all day, every day. With this soundtrack, we had a crazy thing happen where Dan Myrick came into the studio and was like, “Well, what are you going to do?” And this idea just hit me on the piano. I went and hit the three notes, came back to the patrol room, and I just said to my engineer, “I need everything on. I need the drums on. I need guitars, I need everything on.” And literally, I just kept going from thing to thing and adding, and it was like I had nothing to do with it.

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No joke. I mean that for most of this record, what was so cool about doing Skyman, I didn’t do it to film, I did it to my idea of who these characters were, and what their stories were, and that’s a difference than with Billy. So Billy stays with me sometimes when I’m in LA, in my house there. So he was there and I said, “Hey, if you want to come out to the studio, I’m working on this thing for the film and I think it might be of interest to you.” He comes into the studio, probably at 10:00 a.m. and my studio is on the property, and I could see him walking up, I said, “Hey,” and I had started a thing. For the next three hours and I might be generous, it may have only been two and a half. We wrote five things. Like we were vomiting. Literally it was coming out of us and no discussion about it. I said, “Here’s one idea.” He goes, “Oh, it might be cool on piano.” So he goes down and starts playing the piano to it, and I’m playing the guitar.

Then there was another one where I’m like, “I have this idea [sings]. You could have that very cinematic. And he goes, “Oh, I think we’d do this.” That two and a half hours became four of the tracks, two of which made the record, then which made the movie, and two others that we have for something else. It all fell out, which is what the whole movie did. Every time I thought I was going to tell it what to do. So I had to listen back through it because I had to put the songs in an order. I could remember being there for all of it, but I couldn’t remember how I came up with some of those sounds because all the drums are real, all the guitars and all the instrumentation is me playing it. Unless it was Billy, he plays an acoustic on two, and piano on another, and I think Greg Hanson plays a guitar in one part of something, the rest is just me.

But I have no idea how it all came out and how the sounds came out like they do. But I’m so damn proud of it. I think it’s a freaking cool record and it takes all these twists and turns, which is why I kind of feel like someone else’s driving.

But you never jammed to visuals?

I think at one point I got a scene that was on my phone, and I think I showed Billy the scene. We were already playing. The visuals were in our head, man. I’m telling you like it was really crazy. First of all, Billy is one of the most gifted, incredible artists of our generation. There’s no doubt. I’m cocky enough to feel like I belong in any room, and I’ve written with some big people. But I knew that the most talented guy I was ever in a room with was Billy Corgan. He’s humble. But also, he’s an encyclopedia, knows exactly what he wants to do, and we had the visuals in our head. When I told him the story that it was really to me about a guy wanting to reconnect with his father, and then we talked about the abduction thing. I don’t think we needed to see anything to know where we were going with it. I don’t know that seeing the movie would have helped, but maybe would have hurt. It’s a weird thing to say.

You said everything was done with instruments. What about that bagpipe, was that sampled?

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It’s not a bagpipe. That was me playing  a combination of a guitar and a keyboard, and then me altering the sound to turn it into what it sounds like. There’s a couple things like that on there that are really cool. I wrote to the feeling and the nice thing about that is I could stretch these things out. As you listen to some of these tracks, some of them take so many turns and twists that I don’t know that I could have done if the movie was playing in front of me. I might’ve been almost too sympathetic to the character as opposed to sympathetic to what he couldn’t see. I wanted to play it from the point of view sometimes of the alien looking in on the story. So it’s not always the story. It’s sometimes the music is supporting what you don’t see.

I couldn’t have done that if I was just using the visual because that’s not part of the visual. You don’t ever see the alien. So my job was to sort of make the alien come to light. Dan didn’t tell me to do that. It was something instinctually. I felt it had to be done because you don’t ever really get the payoff. This is one of those movies. It’s the last two minutes of it where you go, “Oh. There’s the Blair Witch thing happening.” So I needed to sort of create that for the rest of the movie and didn’t know that I needed to, and then there it is.

There seems to be a lot more piano on Skyman than guitar. What can you say on the piano that you can’t say with those strings?

I had a theme that started when I did, “Are you real?” There’s that little piano thing. I considered the piano a character. I wanted that character to make sure he resonated throughout the piece, meaning throughout the movie. So I couldn’t abandon him almost at any point. He was more vulnerable. So the piano became the real vulnerable side, I guess, of all the characters really, including the alien. Then the guitar was then allowed to be more of the Goliath to Davey, which was the piano.

If you were asked to play a concert for extraterrestrials, would you change up your set list?

I tell you what, I’d be damn proud. Billy actually said to me, “We should play live.” There are two songs that I really wish would have made the movie and kudos to Dan for not putting them in because one of them has Billy singing a little bit, he’s humming, and it’s eerie and beautiful and so great, but it wouldn’t have fit the movie. It would just serve the purpose of being sensational because there’s Billy Corgan singing. But the only change up I would do, is I would do “Time Will Melt Us,” which is the one where he was humming on, and then this other one that we didn’t put in that he and I did for the movie. But I’d play that soundtrack. I love it.

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Would you host an alien on the “Miggs and Swig Show?”

Damn. He could live in my house for a while. I’ve had some alien-like people living in that house at different points. So yes.

What would you ask them?

Are they laughing at us? Do we seem comical to them? Do we seem intelligent? I mean, I wonder so many things about what we do as a human race. If there is a God, he’s laughing at us too. And then I’m always a sucker for what’s the secret of life. Are they happy? Does that even come in to it? If you are more enlightened than we are, is happiness even a factor? Do questions like we’re asking right now matter?

MIGGS recorded their first album in 50 hours. Would that be easier now because you’re a studio veteran or harder because you’ve learned so many tricks?

There’s such beauty in being naive. There’s this not knowing. I’m working with three different 16 year old artists and I was working with one today, a girl. Every single option is possible in her mind, and I’ve learned the rules. There’s a song called “Girl” by The Beatles. John Lennon goes from a C to an F to a D major. But you’d think the song is in C, and if it’s in C, it would have to be a D minor. There’s something that’s so beautiful about it because he was so early in his career. But once you know them, it becomes more difficult. So I could certainly make the record.

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I said to Dan, doing this movie, “Could I get one more chance to remix it?” And he’s like, “It sounds perfect to me.” I had to let that be. It does, it sounds great. There’s always something you want to tweak, but that’s the beauty of stopping, of moving on, is that if you can let it go, then you can also have a real time stamp for where you were at that as opposed to making everything perfect so it all sounds the same, no matter where you’re at.

You were the last artist to work with Phil Ramone. I just want to know what that was like and what you learned from him?

You want to talk about someone who haunts me in the best way? Phil Ramone worked with Ray Charles. Phil Ramone recorded Marilyn Monroe singing happy birthday to JFK. Phil Ramone did Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney’s Ram record. He did Blood on the Tracks with Bob Dylan. He did Paul Simon. I grew up on Long Island. He was such an icon, and he stayed with me for three weeks to do the record. I didn’t know it was going to be the last thing he did. He sings on the last song. I did like a little tribute to him by saying it was a tribute to Billy Joel. I mean, I respected him, but on Long Island Billy Joel was a God.

Phil had 15 Grammy awards, and the hope was that maybe he gets 16. Then after we did the record, he died and then no one was interested in my record until he died. Then everybody wanted to interview me and I declined all of it. I didn’t want to make that sensation, it was a really personal thing. But he was such a wonderful man, and so incredibly otherworldly. He could be falling asleep, he would make his record wait, and he could be falling asleep and look like he’s out, and you would hit a wrong note. He’d go, “It’s a B flat,” under his breath, like he was still listening the whole time. The last five years have worked out incredibly well. I feel like I’m on a really good path, and things just keep getting bigger and better. I feel like Phil really started on that for me.