“[The BBC] were really impressed with the film but at the same time they were nervous as to what TV audiences would think – would they all be ringing up complaining about the lack of voiceover?” enthuses former Sheffield DocFest and current Adelaide Fringe director Heather Croall “but what actually happened was the total opposite – they put it out on BBC4 somewhat nervously with barely any marketing and it picked up the highest ratings of a Sunday documentary of that year. Twitter went crazy, everyone really fell for it.” Crossover Labs’ Mark Atkin concurs with her sentiment, adding that “ in the end the BBC] bought it and showed it as part of their Storyville series. They were still a bit sceptical of it though, and didn’t really give it any publicity but people on social media watching it started tweeting ‘whatever you’re watching right now, turn over to this’ and it ended up being the most-viewed Storyville of the year.”
The pair are talking about the film they co-produced and worked on with both the BFI and British Sea power, From The Sea To The Land Beyond, a narration-less visual love letter to the British coast as seen through a century of archive footage showing the varied facets of our landscape backed up with a suitably evocative score. Even now, the pair talk with near-tangible pride of their 2012 project, independently effervescing for a full ten minutes each at its mere mention. With good reason too, because not only has a project first intended as an addition to Sheffield DocFest and an excuse to work with British Sea Power had an extraordinary lifespan (live performances were still taking place last year), it’s morphed into something much, much more. On the back of it further commissions came in the form of The Big Melt (with Jarvis Cocker soundtrack), Love Is All (Richard Hawley), From Scotland With Love (King Creosote), Girt By Sea (The Panics), Show Of Shows (Sigur Ros) and Atomic (Mogwai). But Croall and Atkin’s work is arguably emblematic of a greater industry shift towards contemporary artists branching out into soundtrack work, with veterans such as Mogwai and Saint Etienne being joined by the likes of M83, Summer Camp and Field Music in embracing the opportunities afforded by film scores.
“I love soundtracks, so I’ve always wanted to do it,” says Jeremy Warmsley, who has worked on scoring for teen movie retrospective Beyond Clueless and a horror movie equivalent, Fear Itself. “We [Summer Camp] were lucky enough that the Beyond Clueless gig basically fell into our laps – then Fear Itself was another happy collaboration with the same director (Charlie Lyne). It’s very rare for a filmmaker to directly approach a musician with no experience in scoring to screen.” Pausing to consider his inspiration for getting involved in the projects, he adds “for me, it’s just really fun. I just love crafting music that supports or juxtaposes the onscreen action. I also get to try out different genres, which is fun – just this month I’ve been doing some Kraftwerk-esque tunes for an Eastern European Soviet-era driving game (Jalopy).” Back in 2014, a transcript from an interview with King Creosote in relation to From Scotland With Love similarly extolled the virtues of the ability to experiment, with Kenny Anderson proclaiming “I really enjoyed mapping the film out and working out our music to suit it, seeing whether we could take themes from one song and squeeze them into another, extrapolating instrumental pieces. Doing a soundtrack gives you the chance to explore a lot of different musical styles.”
“What I like about film soundtracks is the way that functionality [of music] is acknowledged and is absolutely necessary” – Jeremy Warmsley
For Warmsley, in an interview from the run up to the release of Beyond Clueless, the appeal also lies in the increased – and also totally different role – that music can play in creating an immersive experience, as part of an all-encompassing cinematic experience. “Music is functional in one sense or another” he begins “people listen to it because they want it to do something for them – they listen to music because it makes them feel something, or they want to be distracted, or because they want to create a certain atmosphere where they are. But we don’t outwardly acknowledge that when we’re making music – we tend to talk about in these hushed reverential terms as this special thing that stands on its own. What I like about film soundtracks is the way that functionality is acknowledged and is absolutely necessary – either a score works for a scene or it doesn’t and it’s easier to know what you’re doing and what you’re about and whether what you’re doing is right or wrong.”
“Its those moments when film and music combine to create a kind of magic greater than the sum of the parts that inspire me” seconds Saint Etienne’s Pete Wiggs, who has worked with acclaimed British film maker Paul Kelly for over a decade on a number of projects including Finisterre, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day and most recently How We Used To Live. “There are more constraints than writing pop songs but I like the challenge of being creative within those limits. You’re concerned only about whether it works for the film and not worried about airplay/club charts. Films and their soundtracks were a big part of growing up for me and Bob [Stanley, Wigg’s bandmate], they influenced the music we ended up making, and making music became a way into that world.”
On paper at least, the notion of bands and musicians who have been used to marching to the beat of their own drum suddenly suddenly finding themselves confined within someone else’s thematic and artistic framework and exacting standards is a recipe for a clash of egos. Yet, talking to musicians who’ve branched into soundtrack work, you discover that most actually find it a refreshing change from the clean slates that their own album sessions can sometimes create. It’s especially true for Field Music’s David Brewis, speaking from experience on the back of scoring 1929 film The Drifters as part of a commission for the Berwick Film Festival (an experience which, in his words “didn’t really impose on our musical ideas at all they just suggested the film and the venue”). Comparing the experience of creating a soundtrack versus the process of making one of their many ‘normal’ studio albums, Brewis says “In many ways we were allowed to be much freer than when we’re writing 10 or 15 songs for a Field Music album. We’d never dream of having longform improvisation an a normal Field Music record! We set our own rules for the score. So we knew we wanted it to be built around improvising. We knew we wanted it to sound like us playing as a band and not to just churn out a few “cinematic” motifs.” “Working to a brief, within the creative constraints of the visual guidelines provided by the film itself, is incredibly inspiring” agrees Warmsley. “A totally blank canvas can be very repressive to the creative instinct – having a starting point, even if it’s just an image or a description, is the best.”
As someone who has orchestrated a number of films which demand a high degree of collaboration between musicians and directors rather than the latter’s usual autocratic methodology in more traditional projects Mark Atkin suggests that it can actually prove to be more of an adjustment for the directors than it is for musicians; “because the directors are used to being in total creative control in every single element of the film and here we’re asking them not to be, it can be completely mind-blowing for them.” While he enjoyed working in this collaborative approach on From Scotland With Love, interesting comments from Kenny Anderson suggest that the demanding directorial culture in more traditional working practices can be off-putting to the uninitiated. “I’m glad I didn’t try to do a soundtrack earlier on in my life because I’m not sure I’d have had the confidence to push it through. I think it also helps if you already have a back-catalogue of stuff that’s already been accepted, because if you do it too early in your career it’d be very easy to be bullied by directors.” He pauses, before ending on a point of empathy and understanding by adding “they can be very exacting, and they have to be given the money they’re spending – or wasting.”
Similarly taking the ensuing score on the road, with many works eventually expanding into a series of live shows, are also to many a new experience – and not only in the terms given by British Sea Power in 2013: “We definitely don’t drink multiple pints of vodka before these shows! Maybe a little nip of whisky. When you’re sat down for that length of time and drink too much you end up needing a piss halfway through and that’s just plain uncomfortable”. Joking aside, there can be several key differences for a performing point of view, including the possibility of playing with backs to the audience (“which may seem a bit rude to begin with” added BSP, as part of their DIY interview, “but people soon realise they can just settle in and absorb the film rather than watching us”). For Pete Wiggs, a controlled work plan during the time with his Saint Etienne bandmates and film maker Paul Kelly gave way to a more surprising chain of events for his first solo scoring project, “the How We Used To Live live performance was not an intention, so I was slightly freaked out when asked by Sheffield doc fest if we’d do it live at the Crucible. Luckily it translated very well to live performance (thanks to Gerard Johnson’s transcription and conducting). We settled on the idea of using a small ensemble featuring some multi instrumentalists, with some synth parts backing them up, and a click running in our earbuds for timing references. It’s very nerve wracking and a totally different experience to a normal gig but also electrifying and you really feel part of the film.” Warmsley, meanwhile, found the experience altogether more straightforward, admitting that “to be honest the only real challenges were technical – getting everything synced up to the onscreen action was a nightmare. Otherwise we just approached it like any other gig: we already had the music written and arranged so it was just a case of figuring out how to play it live.” That said, he’s quick to add that caveat that the style of music they’d created helped in that regard, suggesting “the Beyond Clueless soundtrack is relatively unusual in that it incorporates several pop songs, which are much easier to perform live with a small group of musicians than multi-layered instrumental music.”
“These are relatively obscure art projects so they’re not really doing it for the money but rather as a new artistic opportunity” – Mark Atkin
The importance of the live performance element to a project can’t be overstated, a fact confirmed by those we spoke to. During the course of our conversations, the question was raised as to whether the soundtrack route offered a new revenue stream for musicians, and in turn explained some of its appeal. It was swiftly rebuffed, with Atkin audibly laughing at the suggestion, saying “the amount of money that we can afford to invest in the musicians is much lower than what I suspect they could get elsewhere. These are relatively obscure art projects so they’re not really doing it for the money but rather as a new artistic opportunity”. Pete Wiggs, for his part, attests that “its very easy to plough most of the fees into new equipment/ software.” But if direct initial monetary gain is unlikely, then the ability to grow a fanbase is undeniable. Stories around the time of From The Sea To The Land Beyond suggested that British Sea Power, following its broadcast, saw a jump in album sales measured in the hundreds of percent, and the market for live soundtrack events is growing too, allowing further exposure. “Though data is extremely hard to gather with there being no formal reporting for live cinema events, almost 50% of independent exhibitors and festivals are now including live cinema events in their programme” says Lisa Brook, who has been instrumental in the UK’s first national industry research into live cinema events through her work via Live Cinema UK and has spoken on the topic at SXSW. “By far the biggest category for live activity is live scores: silent film in particular is easy to license as there is no existing soundtrack to replace, but we are seeing more contemporary films with live scores getting huge audience figures on a national scale. Though we have only been looking at events over the past 18 months, we often hear from exhibitors that a live element to a film screening will bet the biggest seller for audiences in the cinema or festival programme. Live cinema attendees are regular live music attendees, often drawn by the band in question, which always helps, but less known or more niche artists can draw huge audiences just because the event is a live event.”
For Croall, live scoring events were instrumental in building the profile of Sheffield DocFest during her tenure, with British Sea Power and Jarvis Cocker later being joined by Saint Etienne, Summer Camp and more for a host of performance-based evenings, moving the festival away from being perceived as an industry closed shop and instead more public-welcoming. “One of our big plans was always to get more local people attending” she says “it’s always been something of an industry festival and it’s one of the major meeting opportunities for people who work in the documentary sector, but beyond that we also wanted to service the public. We wanted them to know that one of the best documentary festivals exists on their doorstep and all manner of guests are just walking round the streets. Over the past six years I’d wager the public audience has grown about tenfold and there’s a special interest in music docs and live soundtrack events. We tried to offer more of that to the wider public because we’ve noticed they’re the sorts of things that people respond to.” For Mark Atkin, “people who tuned into a Storyville show have been exposed to music which they might otherwise never have heard and fans of the band are watching film that they would never otherwise see. The films get shown not only in cinemas and at film festivals and on TV but also at music festivals; we’ve been to Latitude with From The Sea To The Land Beyond, Love Is All and Show Of Shows. With Show Of Shows it’s almost too ambitious to perform live given the number of people you’d have to get together, be it orchestras and choirs and what have you – with rehearsals and the shows and the touring costs it’s impossible to finance. But even just showing it with a Q&A or something still expands it beyond expected audiences. The ones that we have performed live, I think they love it. Every time I’ve seen From The Sea To The Land Beyond it has been slightly different so they keep developing and tweaking it – it’s a special moment each time you see it and it’s something that can only ever happen live.”
With soundtrack work and the attendant live shows gaining ever-greater cultural recognition – Atkin and Croall’s Velorama came as part of the celebrations surrounding the UK leg of the Tour de France, From Scotland With Love was a part of Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games, Atomic is to get the live soundtrack treatment as part of Edinburgh’s International Festival – the question is, where next for the sector? “On a day to day basis, we get more and more requests for ‘what live cinema events can I book for my venue?’, or ‘how can I do a live score?’” says Lisa Brook, adding that “Live Cinema UK aims to be the go-to point for this matching of artists and exhibitors, as it’s clear the demand to create and exhibit events far outweighs the productions currently available. I want to see more touring models such as those utilised by Asian Dub Foundation and Saint Etienne, where the production is thought of as a tour from the outset, not just a premiere event for one venue or festival.” Warmsley echoes Brook’s concerns about the number of those looking for opportunities outweighing the number of opportunities themselves (which in itself goes some way to proving the strength and lure of the scoring field) adding “I don’t think it’s for everyone – and to be honest, finding work in this field and getting a starting point is really tough. There is a lot of competition out there for not many jobs, and I count myself as very fortunate indeed.”
For Mark Atkin, the sector’s growth has come at a time – and perhaps even as a result of – the changing technological landscape, as he says that “we are now in an era of musical convergence where we’re breaking down the artificial barriers between the different types of media. That ability to go to music festivals as well as film festivals is a special thing, allowing them a bigger artistic space and I’m sure bands will want to embrace that.” Taking a holistic view of things – where the growth of contemporary musicians/scoring tie-ups has become a feelgood hit of the last few years and with little sign of the credits rolling any time soon – it’s hard to disagree.