This avid interest in TV – and an accompanying appreciation of theme tunes – has served him well. From the Ski Sunday opening music to Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, he’s learned the ropes from tuning in to others.
That’s not to say he follows a blueprint; Tandis pushes the boundaries using technology and unfettered technique, which lacks the bind of scholarly rules.
And it’s this unorthodox approach that’s getting him noticed. In October, he became the first ever composer to win a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit Award – an accolade usually reserved for rising stars of film, television and games.
Altogether, he’s written soundtracks to 19 short films, including one which was nominated for a BAFTA Cymru Award in 2005. And last year, Tandis received his first TV broadcast credit last year for the BBC documentary Martin Luther King and the March on Washington.
We spent some time with Tandis to learn how he’s cracked a notoriously difficult area of music…
What sort of music did you grow up with and how has it influenced your own music, if at all?
We had the TV on more often than we had music playing, but in a way I was listening to the TV more than I was watching it. I was obsessed with TV themes when I was a kid in the eighties and would even dance to some of them when they came on: Ski Sunday, Dallas, The A Team, Grange Hill, Airwolf, Doctor Who, Knight Rider, Doogie Howser MD (!)…the list is endless. I also had a JVC cassette walkman but for a few years had only three cassettes, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad albums. They were so good I didn’t need any other music, and I’d listen to and analyse them down to an extraordinary level of detail. I think a lot of my music appreciation skills came from those three cassettes. Alongside all of that, I was constantly discovering as much music as I could: jazz, bossanova, heavy metal, Britpop, hip-hop, R&B and of course film and classical. I think being familiar with so many genres of music has been very important for me as a composer.
Your musical output spans film scores, music for adverts, stage, fashion shows – is there a place where you feel most affinity?
I’ve always had the greatest affinity for film/TV music and pop. In regard to film music, Ennio Morricone and John Williams’ music in particular opened up a sort of parallel universe, a form of escapism perhaps into another world.
Do you always approach each project in a similar way or does your method vary depending on what you’re writing for?
On a film or other visual media project, I’ll usually wait to receive video files before I start to write. The main reason for this method is the ever-shortening turnover times, and also the way films are edited nowadays on computer. But that aside, I respond best to visuals anyway, whether it’s a film, a painting or something I have in my head. I like to have face-to-face contact with my collaborators, which might seem like an obvious thing to say, but composers are increasingly collaborating with filmmakers over the internet and across continents without ever having a physical meeting. I think James Newton-Howard and Peter Jackson collaborated on the King Kong movie via Skype!
How do you work through a brief? What are the first things you look for?
I look for an immediate positive emotional response, full of inspiration and excitement (doesn’t always happen!). I recently scored a short film by Amy Coop called The Treehouse. She gave me the script early on and when I’d got to the end of it, a tear ran down my face. This had never happened to me before from just reading a script, so it was a clear sign that I had to score it.
How has your music evolved since your first commission?
I’m able to create much more complex and layered music than when I first started out, and I’d say the general production quality of my work is far better. Technology has helped a lot with this, but I’m always looking to experiment and try new ideas. I’m constantly learning and always will be. In the end though, it’s about creating a cracking melody, theme or overall mood, whether it’s with a huge orchestra or a single drone on a synthesiser.
You describe yourself as ‘largely self-taught’ – can you elaborate?
I got up to grade eight piano which gave me useful skills in so far as being able to read music and knowing my way round a keyboard. However, I never studied composition or theory, so in terms of writing music I’m entirely self-taught, not something I’d recommend. Most of my musical development has come from listening to and dissecting other people’s music, and I’ve recently been getting into following sheet music to well known pieces of classical music. Tarantino has been quoted as saying, ‘When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them – “no, I went to films.”’ I can relate to that: I didn’t go to music school, I just listened to music.
How important is the do-it-yourself attitude for a young composer?
Vital. Gone are the days when a composer would learn to write a piece of music on paper and then have it played, recorded, mixed and produced by others. You’ve got to do it all yourself unless you have the money or the contacts, of which I had neither. Even away from the music-making, there are so many other things I’ve had to teach myself out of necessity in order to promote my work such as video editing and graphic/web design.
How difficult has it been to establish yourself as a screen composer and do you have any tips for other starting out?
It’s been a huge challenge on many levels and it’s very much a closed shop. My tip is to work your way up with other people at the same level as you whether they be directors, writers, producers or editors. Also try to find your own sound. There is often a lot of pressure to imitate other composers, especially Hans Zimmer, but you’ll get the most demand (and satisfaction) once you find your own voice.
What single thing would improve your experience as a composer?
A music budget sufficient enough to allow for a live orchestral recording or the opportunity to work with amazing solo artists such as Yo-Yo Ma.
What are you working on next?
I’ve just completed a documentary score for National Geographic, and next up is a commercial, with a couple of features in the pipeline. Away from commissions, I like to keep myself busy with personal projects and collaborations with singers and songwriters. Quincy Jones is the blueprint for my career…a doddle, surely.