Tales From The Loop Premieres April 3rd on Amazon Prime
Richard Guérin: So first of all tell me where you are in the world right now? I’m just coming into knowing your music, and before this I didn’t know much about you.
Paul Leonard-Morgan: I’m in my studio in LA (which is a converted guest house at the end of our gardens). I’m currently head down in scores, so nothing really changing for me with social distancing at the moment. Us composers never leave our studios! I’m Scottish and also have a studio in Glasgow, so there’s something about being surrounded by nature which I love. When I had this studio built, I insisted on there being tons of windows, so I could look out and see the trees and the mountains. They complained at the time, saying it’s much harder to make a studio with glass sound good, but I’m so pleased I persevered as right now the view is keeping me sane.
RG: I loved your work on Dredd and the movie itself. I suppose that was my first notice of you. Were you always on a track to be a composer for film and media? What’s your musical background?
Thanks! Dredd was a fun one, though so different from my collaboration with Philip! Hard core electronica in that one… My mum was a music teacher, so I was always surrounded by music, I studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now called the Conservatoire.) I was writing clarinet concertos there, and working with large orchestras. Glasgow had this thriving music scene in the nineties (and still does), so I ended up working with tons of bands at the main studio in Glasgow – Cava Studios. I got work with people like the amazing producer Tony Doogan, getting to do string arrangements with bands, and working with the lovely guys from Mogwai, Simple Minds, Texas, Isobel Campbell from Belle and Sebastian, etc. This led me into discovering electronica and synths properly. Then I started getting into scores when a director heard my work with bands, I got a BAFTA award for a little film I did, and then it all just kind of took off. I was in LA and doing some programming on No Doubt’s album when I got the chance to score Limitless which was my first big “Hollywood” film, which in turn led to me scoring Dredd. Then Dredd got me into working on games soundtracks. Meanwhile I got to collaborate with amazing film-makers like Errol Morris where I got to revert to my classical roots but with a modern twist, which led to me getting theatre work – a score called the James Plays which played at the National Theatre for a few months. I like to think that everything you work on should push you in a direction you wouldn’t necessarily think of, which then leads to different fields to write music in.
RG: It’s funny how you say this led to this and that led to that. I suppose that’s normally how things go and no trajectory is the same. Here in Philip’s world it was different in a way for him coming out of the arts scene in lower Manhattan in the ‘60s. By the ‘80s he had given up his cab driver’s license and was pleasantly surprised to find that for the first time projects were coming to him. Tell me, how did both of your trajectories end up at this point where you two were working together on this.
PLM: Wait, how did I not know Philip was a cab driver? Now I know who to call when I land at JFK… Trajectories are funny things. I never really set out to write film scores, it just kind of happened. I never plan what I’m going to do, from a commission point of view, I just love writing music. I’m a firm believer that you should stay true to yourself, write music that you find interesting and is from your heart, and people will come to you. It doesn’t matter if it’s heard by one person or a million people, there needs to be an authenticity to what you compose or what’s the point? So many people imitate other people – it’s the nature of art – but if you can establish your own style, and experiment with those techniques, it gives other people, be it directors, theatre producers, whatever, food for their imagination and they end up calling you. I think Philip is such an incredible composer, his versatility, yet uniqueness of style – that’s why people love working with him. He never settles for just re-hashing the same old thing, he’s always trying different things. I recently saw his final part of the Bowie trilogy – so unique!
RG: Philip has collaborated in a lot of different ways with a lot of different people. Though it must be said that collaborations with other “composers” are actually very few. What I mean by that is that for Philip he has constantly ventured outside of his own tradition (western art music/classical music) looking for other things that he doesn’t understand (as a vehicle for his own evolution.) He has worked with other composers like on Fantastic Four with Marco Beltrami which was a big commercial project. Can you describe how the collaboration worked?
I’m aware of that with Philip. He was telling me about that, and not just to do with music either. I think there’s a certain sort of mindset to being a composer which makes you want to understand things and to experiment. He told me that I was the second Scotsman he had collaborated with – I’ll take it! We started off chatting over coffee at his house, chatting about what style we wanted to this score to go down, what instrumentation, etc. He then sent me some manuscript of a bunch of ideas about a week later with various comments on – try this, try that, etc. I then went and expanded on his beautiful chord sequences, adding some melodies of my own, trying things out. From there on, the process was so organic. We would send stuff back and forth, chatting on the phone about what instruments we might try (The Egyptian Ney, the lithopone, the recorder, etc) to create a unique sound for the world of The Loop. His ideas, my ideas, his melodies, my chords, his chords, my melodies! It really becomes this process where you’re not sure whose sound it is thought, as we’re both scoring hand in hand. The process on Tales from The Loop was unusual, in that we were brought on before a scene had been shot. So we wrote our initial ideas looking at the beautifully evocative images of Simon that inspired the series. Then, as things were shot, we got to start writing to picture. It’s not often that you get around 3 months to collaborate with a director (the fantastic Mark Romanek) on an episode of television, let alone another however many months working with the other directors. It’s all been such a wonderful collaboration between artists.
RG: Can you tell me a little bit about Tales from the Loop? I’m really excited about seeing it tomorrow.
Tales from The Loop is based on the artwork of Simon Stalenhag. It’s about a town where strange things happen, due to a weird and wonderful experiment centre, the Mercer Institute, which is built under the ton. It’s Sci-fi, but not in the usual sense. It’s not about the technology itself – there are robots and weird things going on – but more about human connectivity. It’s incredibly emotional and moving. Each story is about how individuals have an effect on each others’ lives, and how what they do affects the others. The stories work by themselves, as self-contained films, but also as part of the larger series. The cinematography is beautiful, the acting incredible, scripts are perfect – I genuinely have never seen anything like it. The fact that in one episode there’s around 20 minutes of just music and no dialogue – when was the last time I got to do that as a composer?! I can’t wait to see what you think of it!