How being a musician affects scriptwriting and storytelling –
The second in a series of short (ish) articles –
WARNING: contains autobiography –
2. Craft work
I’ve been thinking about a gig I went to with some friends, and the support act was your classic modular synth guy: sat on the floor, in front of the stage, boxes of blinking lights in front of him, building up drones and beeps to a distorted crescendo.
That’s a reductive description, obvs, and in general I enjoy electronica very much – but afterwards an open-minded friend who loves many different kinds of art said to me: “I just don’t get why people make that kind of music.”
It’s stuck with me because I feel I understand the disconnect between making electronic music and hearing it.
In fact it’s one of my favourite things about electronica: the appreciation, when listening, that comes with understanding a little bit about how it’s made, the mystery of never fully seeing it.
Unlike a violin or a drum kit, you can’t immediately grasp how a box of electronics does what it does. There aren’t all that many visual cues, a sense of cause and effect. But if you’ve ever played or programmed a modular synth, you’ll be familiar with the tension and joy that comes from nudging it into the right place, plug by plug, switch by switch. There’s a drama involved in navigating the wires, the untold combinations of settings. It can feel like being in charge of something dangerous, or creating magic from the basest of components.
And I’m thinking about all this now because Sleepdogs are working on a project that will dramatise some of this work as part of a feature film. A horror, in fact. Not because electronic sound is weird or ‘other’, but because it’s natural territory, a core part of my life. Here’s how that happened.
I think I’ve only ever had one definitive idea of a job I’d like to do – as in, a place I’d go to work, a career that might come from it. And that was aged 10, when I decided I wanted a job at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. I figured that if I couldn’t muster the skill to read or write a musical score then I’d still try to elbow my way in as a designer of sound effects. I at least knew that the sound of the TARDIS from Doctor Who was generated by scraping a key up and down a piano string. I knew that Dalek voices were put through something called a ‘ring modulator’, even though I didn’t know what one looked like, or how you operated it.
Creating unearthly noises, that was my idea of a vocation. I had several vinyl and cassette albums of strange music that came out of BBC Maida Vale, and even if I didn’t ‘like’ all of it, I most sincerely wanted to know how it was made.
When I was keen to avoid being beaten up at secondary school, a kind teacher found me a lunchtime refuge in the music wing. Along with learning how to programme the more modern synthesizers I found a neglected store cupboard full of ancient synths and electronic devices no-one was interested in any longer; or at least, they felt ancient at the time… most were only a decade old. They came without manuals. Through trial and error I learned how they worked, connecting them together, recording onto multitrack tape, making wonky sentimental music people sometimes liked, and sometimes very definitely didn’t.
Then, when deciding what to study at university I concluded I still couldn’t read music with any great skill so I focused instead on drama and screen courses, where I figured I could set myself up as a composer-in-residence for my fellow students – and that was pretty much what happened. Armed with the bits and pieces of kit I’d saved up for in my teens I created soundtracks for about twenty different projects over three years.
Along with the education, it kept me fit: my main instrument was a keyboard workstation that weighed 25kg and, as I didn’t drive, I had to regularly carry it across Bristol. This continued well into my first few professional gigs – with no pro-quality means of recording at home (this was the early 90s) I had to haul my instrument to London and plug it directly into the SADIE machine. When working with Edgar Wright I sometimes literally played along to the edit, like a silent movie era pianist, Edgar shouting instructions like “Epiphany coming… wait for it… wait for it… now!”
For most of my first few jobs after graduation, I was effectively mimicking existing styles of music, creating low-budget impersonations that came close to the originals but wouldn’t get anyone sued. But in my spare time, I was pushing the same instruments to the extreme, making music I loved but couldn’t categorise – still aiming for that BBC paycheque for appallingly dissonant electronic services.
In those first few jobs I was also working with Matt Lucas, and in a typical act of generosity he gave my band Angel Tech some money to buy a portable digital studio – maybe he was concerned for the amount of sweating I was doing, lugging the keyboard around. This was 1998, and just at the point where I might have been able to commit some of my masterpieces to a demo CD… the Radiophonic Workshop closed its doors. Years later, recording a radio drama at Maida Vale studios, I wandered around the corner to see those doors, nothing much visible through the hatched glass.
The pain wasn’t exactly existential – not for long. Later in 98 my band signed a record deal and I was able, for a short while at least, to make esoteric pop music for a living. I’m still no more happier than when manipulating noises and messing around with deliberately hard-to-control Russian synths. I use it as much for meditation and mental health as I do for any set artistic goal.
But my wider point is that I see this as a craft like any other. Because I’m happy for influences to cross disciplines, I find it easy to think of the niche or the apparently abstract as art with a history, a timeline, with a vibrant ongoing everyday life. Nothing weird about it. Music tech is part of a series I’m currently working up for BBC 3. I’ve got a long-suffering novel on the go where a big chunk of the story hinges on a bizarre Russian synthesizer with a mind of its own.
In development, writers are often asked “but why will people care about x?” Why will people care about a chess tournament / failing cock-rock band / 18th century portrait painter / translation robot and space farmer? Unfortunately the best answer is unhelpfully huge: as storytellers, one of our most important jobs is to make you care about pretty much anything.
We’ll be including electronic and radiophonic music in our Sleepdogs horror film in the same way the tradition and craft of poetry weaves through Potter’s Orlando, or dressmaking in Phantom Thread. Most times when I’m accused of being wilfully odd or experimental in parts of my work, all I can see is the latest expression of a long tradition. It’s why Sleepdogs almost never label anything we do as ‘experimental’, because as far as we’re concerned we’re usually just building on stuff we love.
(The first Arc Of Noise is here.)