What is the driving reason or thing that got you into music?
If you are born with an artistic soul, you will probably find some way in which to communicate through the abstract. I do not recall a first impulse, but I do remember a sense of great excitement as a child especially towards singing and a sense of wanting to express something that I could not see. But there is definitely a driving force of creative energies that motivate you. It’s an invisible property really. Somehow you magnetize that area in your life.
Dead Can Dance was released on the renowned 4AD label how did that come about?
We were performing in Australia and I was working as a soloist, with a Yang Chin, as well as playing piano, accordion and I met Brendan who was at that stage in a group called ‘Marching’ and he put together a group which he called ‘Dead Can Dance’. We became very close friends and I filled in and so anything that where there wasn’t a person to play, I would play or pick up that instrument. He would teach me to play the part whether it was a percussion, bass guitar, cymbals, triangle and harmonica, whatever was needed I would learn the part. Essentially, providing a service to him.
We then had a day where we went to a studio in Belgravia at Ron’s new studio, and Ron had offered to record some of my solo piano accordion pieces, and I was surprised about that and so much so that I took them to Brendan in case he wanted to come along. We performed the first piece we ever wrote together which was called “Frontier”. It was done with kerosene cans and the Yang Chin. Brendan sang a droning voice and I sang over the top. It was a really exciting piece and we were both quite surprised by the result of the collaboration in writing. So, we started to further that interest.
Brendan, had a very strong composition angle, much stronger than me, much more abstract and he was also a great musician. So, then I started to sing with Dead Can Dance and then I started to write with Dead Can Dance. Brendan and I realized we had something going and we were both passionate to work with each other.
We then saved money to go and record so we could try and get a record deal. We were in London for two years and nothing came to fruition. So, we approached a few indie labels and nothing happened. Then we dropped of a tape to 4AD records and a few weeks later they, contacted us to say I cannot stop thinking about the music in the song “Frontier”. He stated it is really haunting him and that he I didn’t want to sign us because he had a lot of people his label now and had a certain budget and I didn’t think he could get involved with Dead can Dance. He stated that he would love us to set up a concert together. So, we went around where we lived and we found someone that could sort of play drums Peter Olrich, and we had Paul Ericsson who we had worked with in Australia and he came over to London and eventually we did the concert. Then we managed to discuss using a local hall where we lived. It was at that point that Russell stated he just had to sign us. He gave us £5,000 to record an album of the songs we wrote in the beginning really.
After Dead Can Dance, what was it that drove you into composing for the moving image?
Brendan and I were working on an album, which followed “Spirit Chaser” and I had done some things for ‘Baraka’ and also with Graham Ravel and tried my hand at being a singer whilst he wanted five singers. Yet because of the style I was singing in I was able to accommodate him in a fashion, for what he required for this film. I realized at that stage that I was actually able to do this and when Michael Mann contacted me, I thought well I could sing for people that know how to compose music for film but I wouldn’t know how to score the music.
Then Michael contacted me and stated he had used my pieces in “Heat” and that he’d listened to some work that I had been doing on our Apollo album, and stated he wanted that energy in his film. I said I don’t film score, but I could help him with some singing but that I didn’t write music. Michael than said all I know is that I’ve got this movie I need to make and I need you to write music in three days.
So, he rebuilt my studio and I thought how exciting! Michael stated he would get me some help; some great editors and that he would help me. I then stated to my friend at the time Peter Burke we had already recorded “Duality” together) and said to him do you want to do this thing and he said sure why not. So, we took off together and I thought if at least Pete is there we will be able to knock it out together and figure out what to do. So, we basically took off and went to Los Angeles and wrote some pieces together for the film, which Michael really liked. In that period of time which didn’t end of being three days but instead a few months.
We end up going over and spending the next four or five months writing there and that was for the film “The Insider”. Suddenly we were getting nominate for Golden Globe awards, which I consequently had never heard of – no one believed at the time (and so I made sure I was very quiet about it). It wasn’t our area or a line that we would have followed. So having not being at all interested in Hollywood films it was not something we would have really known about.
From that point on, other people in the industry started to get excited by the work we had done with “The Insider” and then Michael handed me a contact who wanted me to do the Gladiator – and I said I would love to come over and try some things. Then Ali, and then I supposed it had really started to take off.
It wasn’t by design; in fact, I still to this day do not know how I arrived. But it is amazing the knowledge you pick up, especially working with Michael Mann – it’s like going to university, he teaches you so much about what and what NOT to do because he doesn’t like generic film scores. So, he created a completely different line, which could facilitate what I was doing.
So, do you have any directors that you have mentioned that you have worked with that really stand out? Are there other directors that you admire?
I admire everyone I have worked with. There are moments where I have great intimacy with a director – one example being with Nicky Cairo who directed Whale Rider. I really enjoyed working with her because it was the first independent film project per se that I had worked on and I was able to indulge the luxury of having her totally and utterly attentive to me. Nicky was very hands on and a great artist.
I’ve found all of them fascinating and they all approach things very differently; quite complex adorably difficult with their desires to meet a standard that I’m sure has never been achieved before. I think they all have that affliction.
I’ve just recently worked with Jonathan Kaminski on “Burning Man” which has not been released yet. I found him fascinating because he is so completely and utterly single minded about everything. In fact, I call him the ‘General’ because he is just so straight down the line as he has a very clear vision of what he wants to express. There is absolutely no way around that. You just have to come to the party.
But with Jim Loach from “Oranges and Sunshine”, he was astonishing to work with. He said he wanted a piano and strings and he wanted things to be kept very minimal – he did not want things to overwhelm his picture. Everything was extremely fragile and very held back. It was the same with Balibo that was a very similar experience. I find that Australian film directors have taken a completely different approach where music plays the subject of a shadow around a story that is already solidified. They do not want the music to ‘fill in the gaps’ or make things work that don’t actually work. They are in charge of the artist’s process and they’re not dealing with a lot of political issues; where a producer demands input and where suddenly the director has to compromise.
Obviously, over the last decade the digital age has really changed the music industry, is it going to have a similar effect on the way you work?
I think you are under estimating the cynicism of the reality, because in the film industry whole new sets of DVD releases won’t be so easily copied. It is worrying for people in the industry because there is new software coming out that can copy a DVD faster than you can burn a CD. But if people want the whole experience (the surround sound etc.), they will want to go an experience it with that quality. There is also the point that there is the visual point of view of having something in your hand that is an artistic release. So hopefully it will bring up the standard of packaging, where you have something that is creatively and outlet. I think it is very exciting. I mean it is scary from the point of view that you can release an album and you get no return. If you put your own money into it and you want to make some money so I can record my next album and it’s getting to the stage where that is now almost becoming impossible.
Unless you are playing concerts it is really hard. There are pluses with the Internet, where there are sites that facilitate up and coming groups, so they can acquaint themselves with the new distribution’s opportunities. People are turning to a more alternative group, which is really exciting. It’s just that because they have to have a day job to survive, they are not able to commit completely to the work that there doing, which is a really pity. That’s the way things are and we just have to work with it. We will see what happens.
Are there any other artist and or composers that you personally really admire?
Many. In fact, I think I admire everyone that chooses to take the path I’ve taken. It is tough there are certain chunks or marble that have to be chipped of to your own personal sculpture if you want to survive in this industry.
And some final words?
You have to be extremely humble, especially when you are accommodating the vision of someone else. You really do need to dedicate yourself to their interests. You can’t be a diva on anything. There are moments where you must absolutely put your foot down and say look, we can do something else, but bear in mind that this is here and you may want to return to it to see the whole picture together.
Sometimes you just know that although this might feel terrifyingly like its overwhelming at this one point, in a whole it will actually be a compliment to the film. Sometimes working to get a director’s trust on that level can be hard, but you have to preserve and be honest and do the best you can with something else. Sometimes that can come back and they will start to say well do you want to have a go a doing something like that over this area – and they get braver as they realize that the music is not overwhelming everything.