Thursday, 3 November 2016

Do Composers Dream of Electric Keyboards? Jóhann Jóhannsson hits the sci-fi realm with Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival

Image © Jónatan Grétarsson

Twice Oscar-nominated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson is having a busy time. When we catch up with him in the Umbrian hills of Italy he is preparing for the release of a solo album – Orphée – a concert tour, the release of sci-fi drama Arrival and possibly the most anticipated movie sequel since Star Wars Episode 7 – Blade Runner 2049. If he’s phased by all of this activity, he’s not showing it.

There’s also another big, important film score that I can’t talk about right now which is happening over the same time period… it's going to be a very busy winter! [Since confirmed to be Darren Aronofsky's next untitled project]

Do you work best under this sort of pressure or do you like kicking back and doodling?

Well, I haven’t had time to sit and doodle for 25 years, so I don’t know if I can answer that question!

The latest trailer has dropped for Arrival, featuring a snippet of your score. It’s your third film with Denis Villeneuve (after Prisoners and Sicario) before you both start working on the Blade Runner sequel Blade Runner 2049. It seems to have arrived with little fanfare. 

When I was scoring it, I didn’t feel that it was any less high profile than say Sicario. If anything, it’s a bigger film, I just think that the discussion surrounding Denis in the last year has been around Blade Runner, so this film has kind of been under the radar, so it has come as a surprise to many that it actually exists.

Image © Jónatan Grétarsson

And of course many will be scrutinising this as an indication of what we can expect from Blade Runner 2049. Did the subject matter of the movie give you the opportunity to experiment in new sounds or textures?

Arrival is very unique. It’s a science fiction film that’s quite unlike any we’ve seen in a while. It’s very exciting, tense and suspenseful – so it’s very entertaining – but it’s also full of very interesting philosophical and metaphysical ideas. Like all great science fiction it makes you think about possibilities. This particular story is about the arrival of alien spacecraft on Earth and finding out their purpose here. Amy Adams plays the main protagonist, a linguist who is part of an elite team tasked with finding answers to this mystery, so she is tasked with trying to communicate with them.  

What was the dominant theme that you latched onto?

The film is about communication and language, so that immediately led me to using vocals on the score. The second idea was to use tape loops; I was intrigued by the circular way of working and thinking. For the vocals I worked with a number of different singers and vocal ensembles. Most notably I used Theatre of Voices, which is a prestigious classical and avant-garde vocal group, and several other singers from the worlds of both classical and alternative music who have carved their own sound. This included Robert Aiki, who also provided vocals for Sicario and someone who I collaborate with regularly. I also used the voice of the very eminent soloist Joan La Barbara, who is featured in one of the pieces. While vocals are a big part of the score, there is also a lot of orchestral writing and a lot of textural sonic experiments, but they are all very analogue in origin. There are almost no synthesisers on the score; it’s digitally processed, but it’s all from analogue sources.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind famously used music as means to make contact with aliens. Is this something you were keen to avoid, particularly John Williams’ popular score?

In Close Encounters that was an integral part of the story, but in Arrival it’s a very different story, so that was not an issue at any point.

Did you record the score in Hollywood, or in your current home, Berlin?

I recorded in many different countries. Theatre of Voices I recorded in Copenhagen and I did quite a lot recording in Berlin, London and the Czech Republic. I recorded in Iceland as well, so as is quite normal with my projects, I like to travel around to work with people face-to-face in in the studios where I can.

Image © Jónatan Grétarsson

Arrival is your third film with Denis Villeneuve. Have you now developed a shorthand with your director where you can second-guess what he’s looking for?

This was an interesting case because I had already written a lot of music before he started filming. I’d done a lot of the vocals and tape experiments in the weeks when he was doing pre-production so I was able to send him a series of ideas at the beginning. He asked me to take a couple of those ideas and develop them further – one of these ideas then became one of the central motifs of the film, which Denis was listening to throughout the filming. He had my music in his head and his ears – he had the score while he was filming the movie.

How important is to be there from the very beginning. Do you want to be involved at script stage or are you more inspired when the footage starts coming through?

For this one I wasn’t actually on set for reasons of scheduling. For Prisoners and Sicario I was on set and I really enjoyed that because the landscapes inspired me. But this film is more studio-based so it didn’t feel so important to get to the set. It’s very inspiring when you start seeing the footage but in this case the script got me thinking immediately, especially seeing some of the concept art. I got a strong idea of the mood right from the beginning. The fine detail always evolves throughout the process of creating the film, which comes from a really close collaboration between Denis, myself and Joe Walker the editor. There are some films where you come in during the last two months when the film is almost finished, but Denis likes to work in this organic way where every part of the film comes together at the same time. I love writing film music. I don’t prefer THIS method to any other method, but it helps you be bolder and more adventurous in the way you use music, to take risks and experiment with new approaches.

Bold and adventurous. That feels like a good segue into Blade Runner 2049. Congratulations on being assigned the enviable gig – were you the choice from the outset? 

Thank you. Denis told me at the beginning that he wanted me on board, but obviously it had to go through more people than normal to make the decision. It helped that it’s the same producers [Broderick Johnson and Andrew A. Kosove] that I worked with on Prisoners so it felt like a natural thing to keep the same team. Denis is as director who likes to create a strong team that he can rely on, so he likes to work again and again with the same editor, cinematographer and composer to create a working relationship that is lets creativity flow.

What is your relationship with the original movie?

For many people of my generation Blade Runner was a really seminal film. When I first saw it as a teenager I was entranced by it. I was a fan of the works of Philip K Dick, and read his the original book Do Androids of Electric Sheep? Over the years I have watched it and re-watched it – the various director’s cuts and the various amendments and changes that Ridley Scott had made to the film.

As you’ve grown older, have your thoughts changed about the movie?

No, I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s one of the best science fiction films ever made.  

The movie currently has a release date of October 6 2017, which is just over a year away. Does that timing feel about right, or is there never enough time? 

There are many film scores composed in much shorter a time than a year, so it’s actually a privilege and a luxury to have so much time to work on it. Of course I am doing other projects as well – it’s not my only project. I’m releasing a solo album in September called Orphée and there are concert tours and other projects.

[Orphée is Johann’s first album for Deutsche Grammophon, his new label, and is a meditation on beauty and the process of creation. It traces a path from darkness into light, inspired by the various re-tellings of the ancient tale of the poet Orpheus, from Ovid’s to Jean Cocteau’s.]

In October you’re touring North America and then December it’s Europe, before returning to the States in the spring. When performing live is it gratifying to get the instant reaction from the audience? 

Oh sure. I haven’t don’t a lot of touring in a while but that’s really where I come from. This is my origin as an artist. I started as an album artist that makes records and tours, and then film music was something that I gravitated toward as a result of film-makers listening to my solo work, so it’s kind of getting back to my roots in that sense – which I’ve never really abandoned. I’ve been working on this record (Orphée) for six years and even if the last four or five have publicly seemed like the bulk of my work was film-related, I have actually been writing a lot of non-film music as well. A lot of that music is will come out in the next couple of years. My aim is to keep a balance between the two – the film music and my own music – and the ideal balance is 50/50.

Will those coming along to your gigs get that same mix of soundtrack to non-soundtrack? 

The tour will focus on the solo album, with one or two pieces from films but it will definitely have a heavy focus on Orphée.

I can’t let you go without talking about your Oscar nominations, first for The Theory of Everything and then this year for Sicario. While I’m disappointed that your stunning score for Sicario didn’t win, I guess being in the same company as John Williams, Ennio Morricone and Thomas Newman does make a win more difficult?

Thank you. It’s a tremendous honour to be included in their company as my co-nominees, and that was enough for me. That was a tremendous and great pleasure and I was very pleased that this particular work was nominated and given this amount of attention and recognition. It’s a very individual score and I felt like it was a bold move on Denis’ part to encourage me to go in this direction and I’m very glad that the film-making community acknowledged that and gave us the support to continue in in our sonic explorations. It’s also testament to how Denis and Joe work and how to use music in film. It’s quite sparsely used – it’s not wall-to-wall music – so I was very pleased that our work was recognised in this way. 

For details of Jóhann’s upcoming tour dates (North America and Europe) visit

The score to Arrival is released in November 2016 by Deutsche Grammophon.

The full interview appeared in Film Score Monthly Online. Subscribe for the industry's premier resource on film music.

Jóhann is at London's Barbican on 9 December 2016.

Monday, 26 September 2016

John Carpenter: Taking the show on the road

Master of Horror John Carpenter is facing a tour schedule that would scare the fainthearted. But then, this is the man who brought Halloween mainstay Michael Myers into our nightmares and established a synth sound that still resonates today. He may be in his sixties but he’s pretty laid back about what the year is likely to bring and is looking forward to hitting the road to perform to his fans.

Take a look at the reviews of successful recent movies like It Follows and Midnight Special and you’re likely to find mention of the soundtrack channelling John Carpenter or being ‘Carpenteresque’. His is a style that’s synonymous with 80s synth sounds – repeating motifs overlaid with ominous chords – and not only did it influence his fans, it clearly resonated with composers who are now providing homage to this soundtrack sub-genre in their own work. And while one might reason that the resurgence in the distinctive sound might be down to the lack of new product, nothing could be further from the truth.

In February 2015 he unleashed John Carpenter’s Lost Themes, an album of tracks for movies that never existed. Quite simply, these were snippets and sketches from movies-yet-to-come, or would only ever live in your mind. A collaboration between the composer, his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies, the album made enough of an impact to warrant a follow-up a year later, and this time they’re taking the show on the road.  

While this might be his first tour, it’s not the first time that John Carpenter has been in a band. You might remember the music video to Big Trouble in Little China featuring a performance by Coup de Villes with Nick (The Shape in Halloween) Castle and Tommy Lee (Halloween III) Wallace supporting Carpenter. He chuckles at my suggestion that this new tour is really a front for getting a reunion of the group, conjuring up images of ‘The Blues Brothers’ antics in getting the band back together. “Yeah, that’s it,” he deadpans. But did the experience of working with the Coupe de Villes help ground his expectations of what the forthcoming tour might bring. “I have no idea what to think. I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” he confesses. “I have no idea. I’ll just take it as it comes. It won’t always be perfect and it won’t always be great. It’ll be up and down… but we’ll see.”

We caught up with the composer in the week that La-La Land released its 30th anniversary edition of Big Trouble in Little China and his first gig on the tour officially sold out at LA’s Bootleg Theater. If ever he had any doubt that there was an audience for these gigs, this surely put that fear to rest? “Well, we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.” It’s an optimistic caution that will be prevalent during our conversation. As we go to press, Los Angelinos still have the opportunity to grab a ticket to see the show at the Orpheum Theatre in June.

The tour is evenly split between major cities in the US and European venues including Germany, France, Italy, Iceland and Greece. Tantalisingly, the London gig falls on October 31st – what better way to spend your location for Halloween? – while the German gig is part of Oberhausen’s Weekend of Hell Festival.

Let’s pause for a moment – the composer has gone from never touring before to 30 gigs in a year. In fact it grew from 26 to 30 in the two days between me looking at the schedule and could well have grown by the time you read this. “That’s quite a schedule isn’t it?” Carpenter offers. “Quite a lot of time on stage, but there are interruptions along the way.” As opposed to the lengthy ‘living from a suitcase’ press junkets he’s previously experienced. “It’s not as intense as talking about the same movie, all day, every day. We’ll perform for a few days, have a week off and go back again. That should make things a little easier… I hope,” he chuckles.

International tours of this nature don’t just ‘happen’, so what was the catalyst? “It started off with my son and godson who said ‘Hey, why don’t we tour this?’ I spoke to my wife and she said ‘You’d better do it’ and then it just grew…and kept on growing… and here we are!” For someone who has always had a passion for music, it would be easy to assume that Carpenter had always held a desire to tour, and this might the last chance to do it. “On no, not at all,” He gently corrects me. “It was just an opportunity for me… at my age… to go out with my kids and play. And why not?”

It’s not unusual for a performer to bemoan the fact that the crowd are only there to hear a certain signature song, and that must be true for many of the fans who have purchased tickets to hear the main themes from Halloween and Escape from New York. But with a tour that spans seven months isn’t there a chance that Carpenter himself will tire of playing the soundtrack of a certain Haddonfield serial killer for the umpteenth time? “Oh no, I don’t see THAT happening,” he counters. “Hey, it’s going to be fun. THIS is all fun.” Ask him what tracks the band will be playing and he’s understandably tight-lipped, but does reveal the likely ratio split in the material. “I would say it’s 75-80% soundtracks and 20-25 % from the Lost Themes albums.”

Fellow band members Cody and Daniel are co-composers on the Lost Themes albums and by being one step removed from the original movie soundtracks they are able to be impartial and suggest improvements for the live performances. “They help with everything,” Carpenter clarifies. “They help adapt [the score] to make it work well live. Hey, we’ve got a six-person band on the stage.” Inevitably, concessions need to be made between what can be recorded in a studio and what sounds good performed live, but this doesn’t trouble him. “You have to adjust for a live performance – it can’t be exactly the same. You have to make certain changes, but it’ll be close – it’ll be as close as we can get it.”

Carpenter has a presence on social media, boasting active accounts on both Twitter (nearly 120k followers) and Facebook (over 260k followers). In a recent post he asked his Facebook fans to let him know what tracks they’d like to hear performed live. The 700 comments were a great way to confirm what he probably already knew were the favourites (Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13), while less expected was the request to include the underscore from the deleted bank robbery scene from Escape from New York! “Ha, yes, I saw that,” he recalls. So does it amaze him that out of EVERYTHING in his oeuvre, that one track should be singled out? “Does that amaze me?” he repeats the question. “Everything amazes me now. I’m just so happy to be around doing this.” And of the immediacy of social media? “It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s not going to influence what I do,” he confesses.

In April 2016, Sacred Bones released John Carpenter’s Lost Themes II, a follow-up to the previous album which re-established ‘the Carpenter sound’ to a chart audience. The composer recalls how it all happened “The story for the first one is that Cody, Daniel and I were ad-libbing some music that we’d put together and created what was a basically a score sampler.” The tracks were composed and compiled over a number of years. Cody had previously scored his father’s ‘Cigarette Burns’ and ‘Pro-Life’ episodes of Showtime’s Masters of Horror, as well as contributing music for Vampires and Ghosts of Mars. Daniel, among other projects, had co-scored horror feature Condemned. “I’d got a new music attorney who asked me if I’d got anything new,” Carpenter senior continues. “I sent her this stuff and four months later I had a record deal [with independent label Sacred Bones Records]. It was that simple,” he shares.

Popular enough to create demand for a sequel, the new release was put together at greater speed – something that Carpenter is used to (he famously had one day to score  Assault on Precinct 13 and three days for Halloween). He also directed the music video for lead track Distant Dream, his first directing gig since 2010’s horror flick The Ward. As with most contemporary releases, Lost Themes II has also been released as a limited edition vinyl – in raspberry swirl! The fact that both Lost Themes albums are sequenced with a Side A and a Side B I wonder if Carpenter yearns for the days of the 12-inch record, or is he happy to embrace the latest digital mediums? “I love ‘em all!” he emphasises. “Vinyl reminds me of the old days. But it doesn’t matter what the format is – everything’s good when it involves music.”

John Carpenter’s father, Dr Howard Carter, was a music professor and a founding member of The Nashville Strings. It’s little surprise that John has such a passion for music, which he has passed on to his son. “I grew up with music. It’s always been there,” he states matter-of-factly. I recall an incident the previous week on public transport where someone’s cell phone rang in a packed train carriage – it was the main theme from Halloween? Does he witness events like this, and what does he make of a 38-year-old improvised score still making its presence known today? “Yeah, that also happens to me! My wife (producer Sandy King) has it on her phone, but that’s fine - it’s ALL great.” But surely that’s just being too modest?

Disasterpeace’s score for It Follows and David Wingo’s for Midnight Special have a sound that critics are very quick to describe as ‘Carpenteresque’. Is imitation the greatest form of flattery and is he happy to take the compliment? “I’ll take any compliment anyone want to give me,” he admits. But is it lazy journalism to compare any 80s throwback synth score to Carpenter’s work. “Man, I don’t really know. I just do what I do, and that’s a particular sound on a synthesiser. Other than that I don’t really know what it [the comparison] means.”

Carpenter has frequently described his greatest music influence to be the great Bernard Herrmann. I ask him what that legacy was. “I think that everybody has learned THE Bernard Herrmann chord. Other than that, it’s that every one of his scores just was a signature for the movie. The only person close to him in modern times is composer Hans Zimmer; his scores provide a signature – he’s amazing.”

Looking back at his early movies in the mid-1970s it’s astounding to see that John Carpenter not only wrote the movies, he directed them and composed the scores.
Was self-composition out of necessity because there was no budget for a composer, or was it a choice job that he wanted to hold onto for himself? “I was there, saying ‘I don’t have any money for this.’ I could do something simple but make it SOUND big with the synths.” In much the same way that Carpenter uses anamorphic lenses to give his movies a widescreen feel, he used synths to make the films sound like they cost more than they really did. “That’s something you’re always trying to do,” he reasons. “It was just me trying to service those movies, to support the big scenes and give them some feeling.”

Official video for Distant Dreams for Lost Themes II

While Carpenter predominantly scores his own movies, on occasion he handed over duties to others – Shirley Walker for Memoirs of An Invisible Man, Jack Nitzsche for Starman and Ennio Morricone for The Thing. Was it hard to do this when he himself could have tackled the task? “I never thought like that. A lot of the time it was such a big project and I needed that help. In the case of Morricone… I got to work with Morricone!” The Italian maestro recently had two of his unused tracks from The Thing soundtrack used in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Does Carpenter feel that music should transfer between movies in this manner? “I haven’t seen The Hateful Eight. He used the same tracks? Hmm, he’s done that in other projects too.” So, it’s not something that he would do? “Who me? Oh no, that’s just not my style.” Being a huge western fan (and writer of TV movies Blood River and El Diablo), might we one day get to hear a western score by him?  “I don’t know.” Pauses. “There’s probably one resting in there somewhere.”

Our time is drawing to a close, so a couple of quick-fire questions. At the end of the tour, and after a well-deserved break, might there be a Lost Themes III? I couldn’t say one way or another. You never know,” he offers. What’s coming up next? “I’m working on several things but I can‘t share any of them with you right now,” he apologises. But he’s not planning on retiring any time soon? “I’m semi-retired now, but I’m loving life,” he laughs.

I sign off with the promise to catch up with Carpenter and the band at his London gig on Halloween, looking forward to hearing the date-perfect rendering of his seminal score. “Oh, really?” he mock teases at the suggestion he wasn’t going to play it that day. I warn him, in the words of Brit pop band the Kaiser Chiefs, that if he doesn’t play the track then I predict a riot. “Oh, OK, I’ll remember that,” he suggests, making a mental note, though somehow I think that Michael Myers’ theme was always going to be present and correct this October.

Official John Carpenter website

This interview original appeared on FSMO. Subscribe now to the industry's premiere film music resource.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Why Star Trek matters to me

With Star Trek’s 50th anniversary here, it feels like a good time to reflect on just why this sci-fi franchise means so much to me for six important reasons.

1.       Mego action figures: My first sci-fi toys – A good couple of years before Palitoy released their 3 ¾” Star Wars figures in the UK I was given a 8” Mr Spock figure by my parents. I loved it. A Klingon, Captain Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and The Keeper (Balok the puppet from The Corbomite Maneuver) followed in due course, but how I loved the removable phaser and communicator. Even when McCoy’s leg broke at the knee and I had to Sellotape it solid, nothing diminished my love for these toys, which were also compatible with the Mego Planet of the Apes figures, thus allowing a crossover of the franchises some 40 years before IDW’s comic book.

2.       1971 Star Trek annual: My first sci-fi book – In hindsight, the World Distributors Star Trek annuals we’re pretty poor. They seemed light years away from the show that I was watching on TV, but they were in full colour, unlike what I was watching on our small black and white set. And I could read the stories whenever I wanted. I didn’t have to wait for the next episode to be shown on – this was Star Trek on tap. The 1971 one was acquired for me second-hand from a jumble sale but it was a great alternative to my other comics and kid literature.    

3.       Tony Todd interview: My first professionally published interview – Having read starburst as a child I finally felt that I’d made it when my first interview was published in the magazine. Interviewing the Candyman actor at the 1997 Starfleet Ball in Bournemouth, the experience was exhilarating, Todd was an affable guest and there was a real thrill seeing the article in print with my name next to it. 19 years later and the thrill of interviewing a guest is still with me.

4.       Leonard Nimoy interview: Meeting my hero – Of all the people I have ever interviewed, Leonard Nimoy is the one where I was most star struck.  Even as I was asking the questions, inside me I could feel the inner fanboy screaming ‘Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! Ultimately he was just, of course, an old man with a hearing aid, answering questions he’s heard umpteen times before. But he was gracious enough to treat me as if he’d never heard them before. They say you should never meet your heroes as they are bound to disappoint. Nonsense. You just need to choose the right heroes. When he died in February last year I shed some big tears. I felt like I’d been robbed of a part of my childhood.   

5.       Patrick Stewart: My first official licensed interview – While meeting the good Captain Picard was not my first Star Trek interview, it was the first to appear in the official, Paramount-licenced Star Trek Magazine. What a buzz in seeing this as the lead cover story and knowing that this was being sold around the world. Mr Stewart (not yet a Sir) was at the Starfleet Ball in Bournemouth and I caught him in a break between photo and autograph sessions. He asked for a drink – it wasn’t tea. Earl Grey. Hot. Reality kicked in.   

6.       Star Trek Experience: My new wife’s first Klingon encounter – A mere two days after our wedding in Vegas, Justine and I visited the Star Trek Experience in the Las Vegas Hilton. We squealed as Borg implants dug into our back during Borg Invasion 4D, we gasped as we materialised onto the bridge of the Enterprise in The Klingon Encounter, we ate tea in Quark’s Bar, marvelling at the menu which included s alas called Sulu Toss.  Sadly, its shut down 2.5 years later in September 2008, just before the new films revitalised the franchise. As you’d expect, we also did the behind-the-scenes tour, and Justine’s first printed document with her new surname was a certificate proclaiming that she’d survived the encounter.
And that’s just the tip of the warp nacelle. I’ve also watched over 700 episodes, 13 movies, read countless articles, books and comics, interviewed 50 actors within the Trek-verse (including George Takei, Brent Spiner, Kate Mulgrew), collected Weetabix cards, attended exhibitions, conferences, conventions and concerts, and gone as Spock in fancy dress (not cosplay, that didn’t exist as a phrase back then). I’ve also written a 20,000 word history of the first 40 years of star Trek. As you can see, Stark Trek and me - we’ve got history.
Happy 50th birthday. LLAP!

Friday, 24 June 2016

Pearl Mackie shoots Bill’s first location scenes for Doctor Who

 There’s an old adage that if you throw a stick in the air in Cardiff you’re likely to hit a Doctor Who film crew, and while that might have been true for the last 10 years, it’s been a long time since Doctor Who has been out on location in the Welsh capital.
As such, it was with great joy that the fans massed at the gates of Cardiff University in late June, barely a stone’s throw from where Danny Pink was run over in 2014, and in the shadow of the Temple of Peace, a location featured in at least half a dozen episodes.
The Cathays Park campus is a resourceful location for filming, and also encompasses the National Museum of Wales. Eagle-eyed locals had spotted the tell-tale yellow arrows pointing to the location the night before, and the  white  ‘fake snow’ lining that was laid out on the lawn of the building was a giveaway that filming was imminent.
After a furious morning of activity where crew added fake trees and generally making the site more wintry, Pearl arrived on set a little around 2pm to film her first scene under the public gaze.
Mobile phones jostled with paparazzi long-lenses and everyone strained to look what new companion Bill was wearing. She was carrying a long bendy tube wrapped in Christmas paper and made her way to the front of the of the building, which was now  identified as St Luke’s University, Bristol.
Supporting players were wrapped in scarves and woolly hats while the crew wondered around in shorts and flip-flops. They threw fake snowballs and huddled on benches to keep warm as our new companion re-trod her steps two or three times for multiple takes until the director was happy.
And then the camera relocated to the top of the building, allowing an overhead shot of the students at play with Bill making her way through the slight snowfall, snow machines belching fake flakes into the atmosphere.

A lengthy ten-month shoot lies ahead, but surely it’s the trip of a lifetime and I have no doubt that she’ll have an entourage of the fans following her wherever she goes.