Neil Davidge is a record producer, songwriter, film score composer, musician, and occasional backing vocalist. Once an associate of dance producers DNA, he is best known as the long-term co-writer and producer for Massive Attack. In 1997, he also produced the Sunna album One Minute Science. During that time he has established a career as a film score/TV soundtrack, composer and has been involved on numerous projects for both the small screen and cinema. These include, Push, Bullet Boy, Trouble the Water, and additional music for Clash of the Titans.
I think I am correct when I say you began in the industry as a
producer/performer, working with artists such as Massive Attack, when did you decide to move into scoring movies and TV shows?
That’s right, I primarily worked with Massive Attack but through them I collaborated with a great many more artists. It was whilst I was with the band that I had my first opportunities to work to picture. They had been asked to contribute to the movie ‘The Fan’, starring Robert De Niro, none of us had any experience scoring back then, that was 1995/6. Over the years whilst with the band I contributed to a number of movies but most notably the Massive Attack album ‘Mezzanine’ became one of the most sync’d albums… possibly ever and was a huge signpost for me. So, to cut a long story short, I’d been transitioning from records to scoring for a very long time. My inevitable ‘announcement’ to the guys that I was leaving came around the time I began scoring the movie ‘Push’. That was 2009. I stuck around another 2 years to finish the album ‘Heligoland’ before finally moving into a new studio on the other side of Bristol.
What was your first scoring assignment?
‘Unleashed’ was my first full movie score. Massive Attack are credited as the score artist, but I did most of the actual writing to picture. It was the first time I’d worked closely with a director, Louis Leterrier who was very generous with his time and taught me a lot. Robert from the band and I worked on several other movies after that, most notably “Trouble the Water’ about hurricane Katrina.
What musical education did you receive?
I have no formal musical education. I studied to be a graphic designer and spent most of my childhood painting. I’d always been into music but didn’t play an instrument, I sang, that was about it until Punk hit in the late 70’s. I was part of a tight group of mates at school, we all loved going to gigs and listening to albums together. One day we decided to form a band, none of us knew how to play but over time we learned. I started playing bass, then moved to guitar, then became the frontman, got a record deal, lost it again, did a bunch of remixes, produced a bunch of artists and met Massive Attack. I still don’t read, but along the way I’ve picked up a great many things. I like to think because of my ‘unorthodox’ training it’s helped me see music in a different light.
At what age were you when you first become aware of music in any form?
I suspect from before I can remember. My mother’s side of the family are quite musical. Family gatherings were always musical events, but my mum told me she sang to me a lot when I was small. But I think the first time I realised I too had a musical side was in junior school (I guess 8 or 9 years old). We all had to take it in turn to audition for the school choir out in the hall and I sang a couple of hymns accompanied by the teacher. I’d never sung solo before, never heard my voice resonating around the hall… it was a magical moment and one that stuck with me, something switched on inside.
Your recent projects HARD SUN and BRITANNIA have been quite high profile and have received good reaction, when you are working on series such as these, do you work on each episode as an individual project or do you score the entire series as you would a movie. and do you score in the order the episode will be aired?
I’ve not yet been in the position where I could score an entire series in one project session, I might read the scripts for all episodes and plan my themes based on what I know of the characters… but scripts can be very misleading, and I’ve had to dramatically shift my perception of a show before now after it’s been shot.
In the past I’ve tended to work on individual cues and then pull them together to check them against the episode timeline. The benefits of working this way is that my multitrack sessions are relatively easy to navigate and not too taxing on the computer. But for Britannia, which was the first of these two shows I worked on, I took the decision to have one episode / one session for writing in and only split it into individual cues once I’d written and mapped out the entire episode. The reason I did this, to answer your third question, is because after spending some time writing for the first episode, gearing up to our first orchestral recording session, without warning, production decided they needed to shoot a bunch of new scenes for ep one, so they pulled it! Instead they were going to lock episodes 4 and 5… and I’d not started working on either them. We had two weeks until the orchestral session in Prague which couldn’t be moved. Jumping back and forth between sessions and then checking them in a run after working them up can be a little two steps forward and step back, and I didn’t have the time. As it turned out that was the best thing I could have done, and I discovered a new way of writing that helped me hone in on the narrative of the entire episode. I now always write that way.
Another reason why it might be best to score out of episode order, especially with a new show, is the first couple of episodes can be self-conscious and production have huge expectations to fulfil. On Hard Sun I’d written a fair amount to the first episode and did a lot of sketching around it but again the team wanted to do some re-shoots and re-cuts and there were differences of opinion on the approach for the music. Meanwhile episode 3 came together very quickly for them, it locked early and when I watched it through it just had a very natural flow. So rather than get stuck with revision after revision of ep 1 I decided to jump on to ep 3 which I wrote very quickly, and which helped me work out which theme ideas would translate best. With what I learned I could then use to better inform how I should approach the first episode.
ON BRITANNIA the opening titles are accompanied by THE HURDY GURDY MAN sung by Donovan, which is very effective and grabs your attention instantly, (well it did mine anyway) was it your idea to use this and if so for what reasons?
That I believe was James Richardson’s (lead Producer) idea. He’d asked me to come up with sketches for the titles, but nothing seemed to stick. When he showed me Hurdy Gurdy Man it was obvious that was the winner, it seemed to be written for the show and for the character of Divis in particular. I played it to my 24-year-old daughter just check that it wouldn’t only appeal to the dads… but she loved it, I think James felt reassured when I told him.
Staying with BRITANNIA, how much time were you given to work on the series and did the producers/director have any specific instructions when it came to the style of music and where the music would be best
I started the show in November 2016 and finished it in June 2017 although the first locked episodes came late in February and not late December as they were promised. So, there was a healthy amount of time for sketching and experimentation and a mad dash to actually score the show.
I mainly worked with the producers, James but Jez (Butterworth, writer and creator) would give feedback, generally relayed through James. Initially I was given a playlist of tunes that James, Jez and his brother (co-writer) Tom had collected whist thinking about musical influences for the show. Everything from Led Zep to Thin Lizzy, from to Mogwai to Massive Attack.
The temp score was always a reasonable indication of where they wanted music placed although it could often be misleading sometimes in style or dramatic effect. James pointed on many occasion that the temp was ‘shit’ but I’d often find some useful bit of information. I’d refine the placing and if in doubt I’d over score rather than risk a request at the 11th hour.
Overall, they were very trusting and never dictated how they wanted the score to sound. They instead allowed me to digest and absorb what I needed from what I’d been shown and read and heard and find the direction for the show in my own way. They did come down pretty hard on anything sounding too Celtic though! I guess they wanted to avoid the clichés of the genre, which I assumed was why they chose me with my background anyway. For the most part I’d do a first pass of an episode, James would come down to Bristol with Tom or Nick Brown (producer) and watch through, giving notes as we went. I’d then be left alone to work through the notes with my assistant Tom, we might then have a session or two to record, we’d mix and send it off for final approval. It was rare that any cues would come back after.
You worked on HALO 4, what would you say are the main differences to working on a movie/TV project and writing music for a game?
Well, you get to write to moving pictures and you know within reason when the music starts, when it ends and the duration. It’s such a different thing to write music for a game, in some ways it’s got more in common with writing an album that it does film or TV because often you have little more than a blank piece of paper at the start. I’d have maybe a few artist sketches, a bare bones script that change enormously, I had to use my imagination a lot. It’s hard to write for games, it’s not really about the narrative in any detailed way, it’s about broad, very graphic headline statements and lots and lots of music. It was fun, and I loved working with the people from 343, but there were many periods of frustration where I wished I could jump forward to glimpse the end of the project to be sure what I was writing would work.
BRITANNIA is at times a dark and brooding work, which of course is great considering the content of the series, but it also contains some melodic and haunting pieces, such as YOU SPOKE, (which is a particularly lovely theme) and the opening part of the track THE ROMANS ATTACK, what percentage of the score was realised by samples/electronic contributions and how many conventional/symphonic instruments were utilised on the
I’d say it’s roughly 50 / 50. Sometimes the ‘electronic’ sounds were generated from real instruments but treated heavily and / or cut around. Sometimes the organic sounding real instruments are sampled sounds but carefully sculpted and performed to sound and feel like the real thing. For the strings we recorded with roughly 40 players with the City of Prague Philharmonic conducted by Elizabeth Purnell, and we also did a much smaller section at Real World studios near Bath with the Bristol Ensemble who I’ve worked with a lot in the past, Drew Morgan, a longstanding collaborator of mine conducted that session.
I’ve always taken the view that the recording is not always the last word, often it’s just the beginning of the process, even when it’s a big orchestral session. I did a track with David Bowie once, a cover of the song ‘Nature Boy’. He’d sung to a full orchestral backing arranged by the composer Craig Armstrong which I then half timed and cut around and scratched in from a CD deck. That was for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.
What composers or artists would you say have had an influence upon you and the way you write or score a project?
Bowie and Eno, especially Low and Heroes. Cliff Martinez, Debussy, the Beatles. Vangelis, Morricone, The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Atticus Ross, Harry Nilsson (don’t ask why), Stars of The Lid, Talk Talk, Can, Hans Zimmer and John Williams spring to mind. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of people though…
What was your degree of involvement on the music for the series GOMORAH?
Nothing as far as I’m aware? Robert Del Naja (Massive Attack) and I sat with the director of the film to discuss us scoring it, but we basically said it didn’t need music and talked ourselves out of a job. We did something for the end credits but that was it.
Have you ever worked on a project where the director has been using a temp track? and did you find this helpful or distracting?
The temp is a fact of life as a modern composer, you can deny it, but it’ll always come back to bite you on the ass if you don’t at least listen to it once.
I’ve found temp scores really useful in the past, sometimes admittedly in seeing just how a scene shouldn’t be scored but most of the time there’s important information that could save you a lot of headaches. On occasion I’ve even re-temped a show myself in order to quickly see how certain styles of music might work at an arm’s length before I’m ready to really get stuck in.
The only times it’s been tricky is when either the temp works brilliantly and / or the director / producer is essentially asking you to copy it, or… which has happened to me on several occasions… the temp works brilliantly, they want me to copy it and the temp score is something I wrote for a different project. That’s tough!
Do you think that enough of your work/music for TV and film is available on recordings for collectors to listen to away from the actual films?
There are a few scores I would have liked to have had released and soundtrack albums where I would have liked to have had more of the score represented. My managers always try to get the rights to release the soundtrack album if they can but it’s not always possible or practical financially.
What in your opinion is the purpose of music in film?
To support the narrative and enhance the experience, in good taste, or bad taste if that’s what it needs. I personally prefer it when the music is felt without becoming distracting but there are times when it’s very effective to crank it.
How many times do you prefer to see a movie before getting any ideas about what style of music, you will employ and where it will be placed, and at what stage of production do you become involved?
There’s no specific number. I like to watch it once and see what happens if I start sketching based on that first impression. But when I feel I’ve exhausted that burst of creativity I’ll change tack and start working specifically to scenes, especially scenes that suggest might help me write the core themes. But the project tells me what it requires of the music and me, it can tell me in an instant or sometimes I need to coax it out of it over a bunch of sittings. I might get an initial impression that I need to flesh out before I fully understand it, but even when I feel I know it really well, it can still surprise me.
Have you or do you ever perform on your film/TV scores?
I play keys and guitars, I sing, sometimes even play a bit of percussion. I’m not an accomplished musician by any stretch but I can do interesting things with instruments because I don’t approach them in a traditional way. And I know what I like, I know how the instrument should feel in the scene, what it needs to ‘say’, what it needs to communicate. I also programme and arrange, spending a great deal of time fine tuning ‘performances’ in the box.
I’m a big gesticulator in the studio, even when I’m working on my own, I imagine playing the cello or the violin or the horns and feeling what the musician might feel in their body. I use my voice a lot, I sing the parts to work out how to phrase them. Even when I have musicians in the studio I sing a lot to them and my ‘performance’ often becomes part of theirs. When I’m working with additional arrangers it’s my way of communicating what I want to hear.
Do you have a set way of working or tackling a score, by this I mean do you begin with a core theme and develop the remainder of the score around this, or do you work through from beginning to end, opening credits to end titles?
Initially I try not to get drawn into writing directly to picture so I can free associate, and then I might begin to explore a core theme or themes. But sometimes it’s only when you write to picture that you discover what will work and the themes begin to write themselves. I follow my gut at the start, I don’t have a set process for that bit. Once I’ve gotten through the initial sketching I’ll work from the start of an episode to the end, trying not to get hung up on specifics but allowing myself to dig in deep if I’m moved to it.
When I have a complete first pass I’ll hand it over to my assistant, but I might also give that first run through to a couple of trusted musicians to play along to. I’ll then jump to the next episode and start working through that before revisiting the previous episode once I’ve gotten some distance and the pieces have become a little more fleshed out. That’s for a TV show of course, but I suspect with a movie I would choose much the same kind of process these days.
Does the working relationship differ between say the BBC and other production companies, and how much effect does budget have upon the music for a series?
Even if the show is set to view on the BBC it’s made by an independent production company it seems. The working relationships I have are with the individuals of that production company and the people they employ, so as far as the creative side of things goes, I’ve not experienced any difference between working on a BBC show to any other.
Budget can have a big impact on the scope and style of the music. I’ll have to make decisions about how to cut my cloth, how much I can weight the project towards real players or time arranging in the studio with a small team of programmers. If I know I have limited budget for strings, I’ll write parts that will work better using samples and I’ll be looking to record more ’toolkit’ material that can be reused a lot. I’ll use other instruments and musical / sound devices for those one-off moments. But that ‘rub’ between ambition and budget restrictions can often be an opportunity to think outside the box too and innovate. Too many options are not a good thing, you can get lost for years going around the houses, I’ve been there…
You are I understand working on SLO LIGHT when can we expect to see this, and can you tell us anything about the project?
I released the album Slo Light a couple of years back, it was very well received critically but didn’t make much of a dent commercially. So, it was quite a surprise to hear that a director who I’d briefly worked with had an idea to turn the album into a film! He sent me a script and had mapped out the whole movie to the album timeline. He’s now in the final stages of post-production and we’re discussing how I could help him finish off the project, maybe some additional music and sound design to help certain scenes connect fully. I’m not exactly sure when it will be released but I suspect it will ready in the spring. We hope for some independent festivals to show it along with selected cinemas, but they’re also looking at an online release, possibly in chapters. It’s quite fitting that my last album before giving up making records to focus on composing would be made into a film!
My thanks to Neil Davidge, for his time and patience and also for a great interview.