Popping Out! M talks to Ross Godfrey

Ross Godfrey formed the pop band Morcheeba with his brother Paul in the early 90s, embarking on a trajectory that is still yielding critically-acclaimed albums and sell-out world tours nearly 20 years later.

The duo soon became a trio when the brothers bumped into singer Skye Edwards at a party circa 1995, and shortly after they released the debut album Who Can you Trust? through China Records.

The album’s lush instrumentation and sultry vocals fitted well with the emerging trip-hop scene, and the Godfreys were dubbed pioneers of the genre. Their music became sought-after by film and television directors eager to harness a slice of cool. This musical repositioning, together with band’s huge love of classic film scores, prompted Ross to consider composing specifically for cinema.

He relocated from London to Hollywood, and has since worked on the Steven Soderburgh film The Girlfriend Experience and, more recently, the eco-documentary Snow Mobile for George. Here he talks to M about his experiences.

How did you get into scoring for film and TV?
I’ve always loved film music since I was a kid and when I formed the band Morcheeba with my brother our biggest influence was the soundtrack to the film called Performance, starring Mick Jagger and James Fox. The score for that, which is done by Jack Nitzsche, also features lots of other great musicians like Ry Cooder, Randy Newman and Merry Clayton, and we just thought it was great because it wasn’t just them making a record, it had another reason for being.

So we really loved the music from that. We also really love the greats like Ennio Morricone, so film music was always a big thing for us as a band. And then later, when we had made a few records I started getting interested in making music for film. People had always used our music within films, for a long period we were the most licensed band on Warner Bros. Our music was in tons and tons of films and we thought, ‘I wonder what it would be like if we made the music specifically for the film, instead of a licensing job’.

Did it help that you had such an established name and that Morcheeba’s music had already appeared in lots of films?
It does help in a way, to get your foot in the door. But it depends where you are doing it. In Hollywood, for example, it’s a very, very competitive area so there are a million guys from British bands that want to do music for films there. It can only get you so far, having a band that people know. You have to be able to prove your worth as an individual, and you have to build up contacts on your own merit, just because they want to know you are going to do the job and you are not going to delay the production of their film or waste loads of money. They don’t really care if you’re famous or not, they just want to know that you’re going to do a good job.

More people I know from Britain that have become successful in Hollywood aren’t from very successful bands. They’ve had careers in music but they’ve gone on to prove themselves more as composers than during their recording careers.

Who would you put in that category?
There’s a guy called Ed Shearmur who does very well. I know he used to play with people like Annie Lennox – he’s great. There are a lot of people that came from the Hans Zimmer camp when he recorded in London. Particularly successful is John Powell, who’s a friend of mine. He’s always up for Oscars now and charges a million dollars.

How do you go about finding the opportunities?
It’s important to get an agent and all of that, but they don’t really bring in any work. You have to find it yourself. You can do it by working from the ground up, on projects by up-and-coming directors like film school students, or by seeking out very low-budget things where the directors are happy to have you work on it. Your reputation rides along on the reputation of the film, and at some point, hopefully, you work on a film that does very well.

Or you can do it by networking – by socially becoming friends with people and trying to make things happen. Which in Hollywood is generally the way to do it, it is all about who you know. I guess you have to be a bit of a charmer and have talent to back it up.

Can you talk to me about the scoring process and how it differs from songwriting with Morcheeba?
There are a few very big differences. I learned that you are not writing for yourself, you are employed to write for someone else. So it’s not up to you whether you like it or not or whether you think its right. Of course your contribution is important, but you are supporting another medium; it’s not just a record people are going to listen to on its own. You are trying to support the picture so you have to be very aware of what’s going on there.

The other thing is, when the director, or the producer or the music supervisor talks to you, you have to be aware that they don’t really know music terminology and they can’t really explain exactly what they want in the way someone that works in music would. Its not that they don’t know what they want, it’s just that they don’t know the terminology. So when they tell you they want to speed it up a couple of octaves you just have to grin to yourself and try to figure out what they mean!

You have to translate what they are saying into what they mean. Ordinarily the thing they are saying is not actually what they mean. There’s mind reading going on. You have to be careful and very aware of what they want. A lot of the time directors don’t even know what they want and you have to do a load of things until you hit upon something they are happy with. Then when you have a reference point you can expand upon that.

As you said earlier, you are composing music for someone else, another purpose. What do you get out of it on a personal level?
It’s not that composing for film is not as good as making a record – I like it just as much. There are a lot of benefits; first of all the responsibility is not just on your shoulders to entertain everybody. So you can take a breath and you can do things that you can never do on a record. I mean, you can hold just one note for 10 or 20 seconds and that’s all it needs and its really beautiful to be involved in something that works really well.

You can have a lot more space and a lot more diffidence, and things you would never do on a record because it would sound really silly. You are working in tandem with the picture so there is a feedback mechanism between the two mediums.

In some ways, it can be really liberating, even though it is part of someone else’s vision?
Yes, it’s very different, it’s a great thing to do. So if you’ve spent your whole life making records and trying to come up with hit songs, it’s incredibly liberating. It’s a fun and wonderful thing to be involved with. And if you can get the opportunity to sit in on a session and watch how a composer works, they come at music from a completely different angle, which is very refreshing.

At what stage would you be involved in the process?
You can be involved from the very beginning. You could read the script and write a theme to it – I know that’s what people like John Barry used to do for the Bond themes. But then I think generally what would happen is that you would get the job, they would have been filming and have a rough edit to send to you, and you would have a spotting meeting, which is basically you, the director, the producer and the music supervisor sitting down in a small theatre and watching the film and at each point they want some music to begin and end they will say ‘Right, here on this frame, at this time, we want this piece of music to start and it should be in this style and it should end at this point’. Someone will take notes and at the end of the meeting you will be given a bunch of notes that basically gives you the frame numbers and times and ideas about what you’ve discussed.

So, it’s kind of like going through and storyboarding the music?
Yes, kind of. You then go away and try to come up with things. Normally they have a temp score on a film, which can be very distracting because they’ve just used music from another film or records that they like, and they get very attached to those. So sometimes you try to sound like the temp and sometimes you’re going to try to sound really new and different. At which point you’ve got to then try to sell your ideas and make them forget what the temp score was like.

So, once you’ve submitted your ideas they give you notes and it will bounce back and forth for a little while. The edit will change, something that can be very frustrating for musicians is that they’ll write a piece of music for a scene and then an editor will cut out 10 frames of it. It’s impossible for you to cut out one beat of a bar so you have to adapt to the fact that timings change on things. If you’ve already recorded an orchestra, obviously that’s very difficult to do. But that is just the sort of thing that happens as part of the process. It can be very frustrating, but then the best ideas can come at those times. They might move a piece of music from one scene to another and it works much better and it might end up becoming the theme to the whole film and it was just a piece of incidental music. So sometimes those happy accidents can turn out for the best.

When you’ve got everything approved, you do a final recording and you’ll do a mix. You’ll give them stems – which are stereo track, actually LCR (left-centre-right split) and you would give them drums, and one with keyboards, one with strings, guitars, and then maybe one with ambience and sound effects. They would then take that to the actual film mix. The film mix has a huge huge desk with all the dialogue and sound effects and your music is down the end and it all gets mixed together and compressed. Most composers say that’s where your music goes to die and you are lucky if you can ever hear it when you go to the cinema!

Do you sit in on that process?
You can do, but I think it’s very heartbreaking. It’s best to just hand it over and trust the mix engineer to do their best. You don’t even get to do the mix of your music; you give it to them in big chunks and they get to choose. They might at the last minute like a piece of your music better without drums in it, and as I said earlier, it’s not up to you; it’s not your record. You have to just leave it to them to use what they want to use.

This interview was conducted for the M magazine feature Popping Out, which you can read here.

Read a related Popping Out interview with Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory here.

Also in our Popping Out series, we caught up with James Brett at Abbey Road Studios to watch him record the score to Batman Live. Watch the video here.

  • Pingback: Popping Out! M talks to Ross Godfrey | M magazine: PRS for Music … | Writing Hit Songs()