The soundtrack king talks about his creative influences with nick Setchfield. “I’m inspired by people being brilliant...”
The soundtrack supremo tells us what’s inspired him.
From Stargate to Sherlock, Little Britain to the global glare of the 2012 Olympics, David Arnold one of our premier soundtrack composers. He’s won an Emmy and a Grammy while a run of five Bond films – transitioning from Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig – saw him hailed as heir to his hero, the masterly John Barry.
Next month he returns to his score for Independence Day, reviving its flag-rippling melodies for a live performance at the Royal Albert Hall, in sync with the original movie. “It gives the film an extra lease of life,” he tells
SFX. “It’s a different way of experiencing it, a different way of seeing it, a different way of hearing it. There’s a certain energy.”
We meet at his base in London’s Air Studios. He shows us how to make the perfect cup of tea (“Look, no milk scum!”), shares the anatomical secrets of the Sherlock theme – never underestimate the power of a ballpoint pen bouncing on the bridge of a mandolin – and reflects on the forces that have shaped his musical career.
“At one point I’m sitting there, Scott Walker’s singing a song I’ve written with Don Black, Don’s next to me, and it’s for a James Bond film. And I’m thinking, ‘It’s going alright for a boy from Luton…’”
John Barry’s film scores sound like songs. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of them have had lyrics put to them. As difficult as they are to sing they’re extraordinarily melodic and incredibly infectious. I remember seeing You Only Live Twice at a very young age, projected on 16mm at a Christmas party, and noticing the colour of the sound as well as the melody, just the tone of it. Why would I be thinking about it like that at the age of eight? You don’t. But I remember thinking, “This is amazing, and therefore this film must be amazing as well.” What I liked about John’s writing was that there was a sense of yearning about it, a reaching out to something just beyond your fingertips. If only you could grab it somehow, everything would be okay, all of your questions would be answered. I actually became quite good friends with him. But we never talked about music. We talked a lot about food and drink. Did I show him the teabag trick? I don’t think he would have bothered with tea!
THE BLADE RUNNER SCORE
I thought Blade Runner, as a piece, was extraordinary, just the sound of it. You realise that the sound is actually really, really important – not just the notes that are written. I tend to get more excited by things that are non-traditional. It’s a sad truth but if you got 10 people from the street and you played them a piece of orchestral film music, usually the
I became quite good friends with John Barry. But we never talked about music
first thing they’ll say is “Is it Star Wars?” They know that Star Wars is big and orchestral so everything else is probably Star Wars. The synths that Vangelis used – and the way that he used them – they’re very idiosyncratic machines. They’re unpredictable – but the predictable aspect of them is that they’re unpredictable! Because it’s electricity running through all these different circuits and valves they’re all going to be burning and heating up at different rates, and it does change the way that it sounds. That’s really exciting to me. If you play an E on a violin for four bars you know what it’s going to sound like, but if you play an E on a Yamaha CS-80 for four bars there’s a chance something weird is going to happen, and it’s going to get your ear going.
It seems to be the requirement of film music now to be simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. This is what Hans Zimmer is so brilliant at, probably most famously on Inception – the big “Blam!” noise, which is now a part of everything, everywhere. I was here at Air Studios when he had like 24 trombones and 24 cellos and they’re all playing at the same time, they’re playing the same note… He creates this noise that you’ve never heard before. Sometimes that does the job of a thousand notes. If it’s the right sound then sometimes simpler is better. He’s great at creating these sounds that sit alongside an orchestra and become part of the same palette. And I think that’s what we’re used to now. In contemporary film scoring, certainly in Hollywood, our ears demand all those things at the same time.
By the time I asked him to work with me he’d
already won an Oscar. He’d written Born Free, To Sir With Love, Thunderball, Diamonds Are Forever, The Man With The Golden Gun. He’d written musicals with John Barry, he’d written Sunset Boulevard with Andrew Lloyd Webber… Don is one of the last true great lyricists who has a mastery of words. I don’t think lyrics are just about telling a story. Don has a way of actually finding a word which might not look all that impressive on paper. When we were doing “Surrender” for Tomorrow Never Dies he sent some lines through and I thought, “Yeah, that’s pretty good…” And then I sang them and all of a sudden I felt the shape of the words and the way that they stuck to the melody, the way that they came out of your mouth… You think, “Good god, this is incredibly satisfying to sing!” And then the whole thing really comes alive. It’s quite extraordinary. It looks really simple, but like John Barry’s work, it’s really not simple. He has a way with the ordinary. An ordinary idea becomes extraordinary because it’s stated in a certain way. Go back to “Born Free” – “Born free, as free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows…” It’s sort of simple, isn’t it? But then you think well, that’s it. That’s everything that it needs to be. These things stab home, and they just land. It helps that he’s possibly the nicest man in the universe.
SIR GEORGE MARTIN
I’m excited by the possibilities of sound with technology. George Martin was famous for his creation of odd sound effects and tape loops, slowing things down and speeding them up, playing things with different bows and hammers, flying things in backwards, tricking your ear into thinking something’s happening. He had a total disregard for convention in terms of recording music, and in doing that he created the idea of the studio as an instrument.
Whenever I see a brilliant performance, I still want to be a part of that
I worked with him on “Only Myself To Blame” [unused end titles song for The World Is Not Enough]. I think it might be my favourite Bond thing I’ve written. His voice is so rich and so expressive and so unique and so powerful. I think people respond to a powerful voice. Like Shirley Bassey, the big note at the end of the songs. That’s kind of what you’re there for. It’s almost like watching a footballer score a brilliant goal – it’s happening in front of you. Tom Jones is the same. Pavarotti. They hit the big note and you know they’re doing something quite brilliant in front of you. Scott had a way of delivering a song which made its way into the core of you. When he sang Jacques Brel they were sad songs, songs that were difficult to listen to – you had to really consider them and you had to let them in. His work is becoming more and more internal, going into the things that are important to him, moving beyond just notes and words. They’ve become more of a pure art thing, rather than what you might casually call a record. People know he’s for real, and no matter how avant garde or strange it might be you know it’s absolutely genuine and absolutely heartfelt. There’s a man who’s doing it regardless of whether he sells one or a billion. The only thing that matters to him is the work. When you have that sort of purity you know it’s not fraudulent. There’s no hiding from the truthfulness of it.
I’ve seen him loads of times. I love his lyrics, I love his singing, I love his playing. He’s angry about things that I’d be angry about. I think there’s a tradition in his songwriting. His dad was a singer and did cabaret standards and sang around the country – and my dad did the same. His songwriting feels like it’s built on the same experience of songs that I knew. He came up through punk, in the look and the attitude, but then he would write a song like “Alison”. I thought, “Something else is going on here – it’s not like The Damned!” There was something much more musical and intelligent and forward thinking and inward looking going on. Here was someone who was a similar age to me, maybe a little older, who was taking all the great things about great songs but somehow making it for 16-year-olds rather than 45-yearolds. He was fashioning these songs that felt like they had their roots in the great American songbook but were completely contemporary and completely essential and relevant, with that incredibly distinctive voice as well.
I find the most inspiring thing is actually watching people being brilliant. If I see a great comedian, I want to be a great comedian. If I see someone score a brilliant goal I want to be that footballer. I love to see a performer connect with an audience, with a song that you know has come to life through inspiration or perspiration. It might have only taken 20 minutes to write or it might have taken 20 years, and either way is fine. Ultimately you know when these things are great. I remember when we did the John Barry memorial concert. It was a two and a half hour concert and every tune you knew, every tune was a stone cold classic. I went to see Burt Bacharach, same thing. He starts off with three songs in a medley. I think, “I know all of them, they’re all massive. Why’s he blowing it all in the first three minutes?” Then you realise you know the next one, too, and the one after that… You come out at the end either wanting to give up or get better. I always think I want to try harder. I want to get better. So whenever I hear a brilliant record or see a brilliant performance, I still want to be a part of that. That’s why I like films – I was in the audience and I went wow. That opens something up in you. You think, “I want to be a part of the thing that makes you go wow.”
Independence Day Live is at the Royal Albert Hall on 22 September. http://bit.ly/sfxindependence
Blade Runner: not just about the visuals. Sean Connery gets with the birds in You Only Live Twice.
He charged a million a shot, you know. Diamonds Are Forever, unlike those sideburns.
Leo BLAM gets his feet wet BLAM in Inception BLAM.
Sir George Martin and some group he worked with. – possibly – his stuntman in Tomorrow Never Dies.
All-round great Elvis Costello. Burt Bacharach, a fella with a CV better than yours.