Interview: Daniel Pemberton
But he is one of the most decorated British TV and film composers of recent years. He’s won an Ivor Novello award and numerous BAFTAs for his compositions across a wide range of visual media.
From video games to Hollywood blockbusters like Ridley Scott’s latest film, The Counselor, he’s adept at marrying sound and image to great effect. If you’ve ever seen Hell’s Kitchen, Love Island or Peep Show, then you’ll have heard his work.
Meanwhile his film credits include The Awakening starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West and directed by Nick Murphy; the live action short Ghost Recon: Alpha directed by Oscar-winners Francois Alaux and Herve De Crecy and of course his latest work with Ridley Scott.
Before music, he also enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, co founding the Shoreditch Twat fanzine, writing for i-D magazine while also finding time to design the sounds for fashion shows by the likes of Vivienne Westwood.
We quizzed Daniel about his career writing music for the screen and the health of the video game industry…
How did you end up working with screen music?
I started off making strange electronic music and had a weird record out when I was 16 called Bedroom. It caught the ear of a director called Paul Wilmslow and he asked me to do a documentary for Channel 4. It was at a time when they were doing loads of crazy, interesting programmes.
I did that when I was still at school almost as a hobby after I’d done my homework. Then he got some more jobs and I carried on working with him. It went from there and has never really stopped since.
Did you always see yourself working with film and visual media?
I’ve always loved film and TV music. I definitely pushed hard to carry on doing it once I’d managed to sneak through the door. It’s great but you don’t think about what you want to do at that age. Stuff sometimes just happens.
What are the big challenges you face when writing for the screen?
Judging what a film needs. Sometimes that’s really apparent and very easy to grasp. Other times, it can be really complicated and can take numerous revisions until you get something that works.
Once you have it, it’ll sound really obvious. But half the battle is not writing the music, but getting to a stage where the music works and everyone is happy with it.
Are video games as big an industry as film for composers?
I was a video games journalist for a long time in the 90s and have always been a massive advocate of the industry. They’re definitely being taken way more seriously than before. But there’s this sort of misguided perception of the artistic worth of video games based on the amount of money they make.
In fact, video games are a really important artistic medium. There’s some great, exciting stuff being done in video games music. Heavy Rain and Red Dead Redemption have scores I really like. At one stage, it was constantly trying to ape film music. Now you’re getting scores which are more innovative and original.
There are problems with the industry. It’s only recently that there’s any recognition of people being artists rather than just employees. That’s a good step because they’re not just content providers.
However, there is still a long way to go. Games take years to make, far longer than films. So there’s a couple of very big artistic jobs but not the proliferation of smaller artistic jobs you’d get in the film or TV industries.
Are there other areas of opportunity in visual media?
I started out during a golden age for certain types of music and worked on a lot of small scale docs at a time when Channel 4 had a really innovative and experimental culture. TV shows were being made because directors wanted to make great TV shows. Over the last few years it’s become increasingly corporate. The industry has gone through huge changes where independent production companies now see their prime concern as profit.
If I was starting out, the stuff which is most interesting are the indie games. You want to work with people who are independent and doing things because they believe in them – that’s how you’ll find interesting work.
Is the industry in good health?
I think the TV and film industry is a slightly closed shop in a way I can understand but I don’t like. If you’re a composer, we all think the most important thing is the music. For directors and producers, it’s just another thing to get done. You always think that they spend ages racking their brains to think of the best music. But they don’t.
They’ll often go to people who have a reputation for doing the music and getting it done on time. So it’s difficult to get your foot in the door as a new composer. But once, you’re in you can have a really good career as long as you don’t fuck it up. Catch 22 – how do you get in? Everyone has to work out their own way.
I always liken it to a party. Once you’re in, you need to hang around as long as possible. There’s a big bouncer on the door. You somehow get through him thanks to a friend or director. Then as long as you don’t mess up, people will keep speaking to you.
I don’t agree with that personally – it’s not my ideology. Many people don’t take risks and they always go for the safe option. You’ve got to push them to take a risk.
What are you working on at the moment?
I finished The Counselor with Ridley Scott which was pretty amazing. I haven’t got my head round that. I’ve been doing another project with him.
Do you find it hard to work on these different projects?
Sometimes it’s great to concentrate on one project solidly. Other times working on different things is great to get a bit of distance. Sometimes I hate it, sometimes I come back to something with a renewed sense of purpose. But generally you’re not in control. You’re at the mercy of directors, producers and schedules. I’ve never worked on a project where they’ve stuck to a schedule. I get it and just don’t look at it. I base my schedule on how much I get shouted at.
This Ridley film was a validation of what I’ve been doing. One of the most important things you need to do as a composer, is do the best, most interesting work you can. Whether it’s a feature film or short film. It builds both your reputation and your confidence.
What’s been good for me was getting the Ridley Scott gig because he was a massive fan of a movie I did called The Awakening. The movie came out and wasn’t as big as everyone thought it was going to be. But I poured a lot of effort and energy into the soundtrack. I’m really proud of it. It only takes one person to see it, clock it, spot the music and it can end up being a life changing moment.
The Counselor was done between Abbey Road and my flat – it went from orchestras to weird guitar noises in my home. But both are equally valid.
Did you feel constrained to more conventional sound?
Ridley responds really well to interesting and unusual sounds. So as a composer who likes making unusual sounds, that’s exciting. It was daunting but he was great to work with and up for experimenting. Some would stay in the film, some would go, but he made the process a lot less scary than it should have been.
Behind every good score, there’s a good producer or director. They’re the people fighting your corner. Every time you hear a good score, think of the director and producer.