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In the Studio With Neil Davidge

July 1, 2014
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Self-taught musician and producer Neil Davidge invaded Massive Attack, scored on Halo 4, and now BREAKs out with his enchanting solo debut, Slo Light

LIKE THE musical equivalent of finely aged, artisanally crafted wine, Neil Davidge’s work transcends the proclivities of generations, genres, and trends; it’s gourmet music. His own creative processes and abilities grew out of decades of self-teaching and refinement by experience. Even if the product is not your thing, to not appreciate it could betray your own ignorance.

After a dalliance with the British dance production team DNA in the early ’90s, Davidge was in his mid-30s by the time he hooked up with Massive Attack in the mid-’90s. Initial collaborations went so well that Davidge became like the unofficial third member of the trip-hop progenitors, and served as the co-producer and co-writer for the bulk of what we’ll call Massive Attack’s timeless period, the albums Mezzanine (1998), 100th Window (2003), and Heligoland (2010).

Between the latter two albums, Davidge capitalized on opportunities to become a seasoned film composer, first on scores with his Massive Attack cohort Robert Del Naja (2005’s In Prison My Whole Life, 2008’s Trouble the Water), and later as a solo composer. His knack for capturing urgency and energy in music helped him score the blockbuster 2012 interplanetary war game Halo 4, using instrumentation—mostly—available to Mozart.

Now returning to the comfort of the pop song format, Davidge has released his debut solo album, Slo Light. For one hour and 11 mesmerizing tracks, Slo Light dazzles your auditory perception. From song to song, you won’t be sure if you’re hearing the best ’90s electronica outtake ever, anachronistic cabaret music from a Baz Luhrmann period piece, or simply the next great chill room cocktail-swilling classic.

Although seven female singers appear on the 10 vocal tracks on Slo Light, the songs all emanate from a common emotional dramatism; those that aren’t as driving and danceable sound like they could be Bond themes from the year 2100. Remove the vocals, and Slo Light easily could be the raw material for the score of a sci-fi noir thriller or a sweeping, picturesque documentary. We caught up with Davidge in his Bristol, England, studio on the run up to the album’s release.

You’re already working on your next project after Slo Light?

I’ve been working on a film score for a few months for a movie called Good People. It’s got James Franco and Kate Hudson in it. It’s definitely not a rom com. It’s pretty gory at times. I’ve had a lot of fun; we’ve got maybe another week to go before it’s all done and dusted. We’ve been pretty hard-core as well, working seven days a week, 17-plus hours a day. That’s kind of the norm. That’s something people don’t realize when they want to get into film scoring or even the album-making game; it’s just the amount of hours to get something done.

What about film scoring requires so much extra time? Are you collaborating with more people, watching dailies, etc.?

It’s not so much that it takes longer to make than an album; it doesn’t. If you squeeze the amount of time I’ve had in the past to make albums down into a few months, you have to probably make twice as much music as you would for an album to score a film, and sometimes three times as much. It’s intense. You have to write, record, and program very quickly to get everything down. Sometimes things don’t go quite the way you’d hoped. Maybe the director or producers have a different view on what the music should be doing. You’ve got a bunch of creative people who all have an opinion. Ultimately, you try to get to a place where the score first of all satisfies me, but also satisfies them. It can keep you up at night.

I can only speak from personal experience, but it takes me quite a bit of time to get my head back into it when I’ve had some time off. Once a project gets to that serious stage where we have maybe a rough edit of the movie, and we’ve got to map out the score, I choose to work on it seven days a week, because if I’ve had two days off, it’s three days by the time I actually get my head back into that world, that story.

Do you compose the score in your studio and then record musicians elsewhere?

It depends on the project and the budget. For a smaller-scale movie, there isn’t an orchestra budget; it will be more of an electronic-based album, so we probably do 99 percent of the work in this studio. I work with Andrew Morgan, and we’ve got another younger guy who does a lot of sound design, beat stuff, and extra bits of programming. We pass tracks between us and try to get it to where it feels like it’s a live band or orchestra playing it, but it’s all been programmed—quite a painstaking process. When the budget allows, we’ll sketch out orchestral parts and go to a studio—possibly to London to Abbey Road or Air Studios, or nip over to Peter Gabriel’s studio [Real World], which is about 40 minutes from Bristol.

If the score is on a small budget, but it wants to be an organic score, we have to be creative about the way we give it an orchestral sound, while keeping the sessions down to a minimum. Maybe just tracking a solo cellist and either processing what they’ve done or adding various synth or sampled stuff. Still, ultimately you gotta touch those places that only music can touch. Electronics—that’s my instrument, that’s my tool—but I’m still trying to touch those same places that an orchestral score would in your gut, in your heart. It’s easier if you can afford an orchestra, because we can sketch things out we know will sound great. If we can get that past the client, then we can record it with the orchestra and get that extra thing that we human beings can do [laughs].

The song “Slo Light” went up on Sound- Cloud in May 2013. How long did the whole album take to make?

That was the first song I had for the album about three years ago. I started working on a possible solo album, and then I got to do the Halo 4 score, which took two years to make. Then we got back onto the album and probably finished the core of the album around April last year. It has been sitting for a little while whilst putting together the press/PR, videos, and the like. I did another small film score last year: Citizen Koch, which was made by the same guys who did Trouble the Water. So I’ve been doing other things, and I’m not very good at juggling things, much to the frustration of my management and record company. I tend to focus on one thing and give it my full attention. But sometimes a project comes along and you go, “I have to do this. It’s too good to turn down.”

Was Halo 4 one of those projects?

Yeah. I’ve been playing the game since it first came out. I was a huge fan. I turned my daughter onto it, and when I was working with Massive Attack, we’d play the game on down time. When the opportunity came along, it definitely was one of those projects I couldn’t turn down. It was a big thrill.

Was scoring a game significantly different from scoring a movie?

Yeah, very different. I struggled at first, because I was expecting to tap into experiences I’d had scoring movies. When I watch a movie, there might be a lot of fear in the beginning, but eventually something comes. I get into what’s happening, and I experiment until something hits. You get a lot of interaction even just from the film itself, let alone the director, the producers, the editor, and the musical director.

With a video game, you don’t really get that interaction. When I sat in the studio on my own with a few slides of the scene and maybe a paragraph of description, I found it a real struggle, because I was expecting more input. In the end, I had to go into myself, and—it sounds really cheesy—but create the movie of the game inside my head, so I could score to something. That was tough. It was probably a month or more before I started thinking, “Okay, I can do this.”

Did you have to learn any new skills, like for the music to adapt to the gameplay?

I did try to consider that as I was writing. I had to imagine how this piece could be organized so it could run indefinitely without getting boring and without people wanting to turn it off. But I’ve always tried to not let the technicalities bog me down. Initially I would start by following my gut instinct to create the best piece of music I could. I sent that over to the guys at 343 Industries [the Halo developer], and they’d come back with some thoughts and possibly even re-edit the piece to give me an idea of the structure. Then I would go back into the piece and rewrite it so that it fulfilled me whilst also hitting all the points they needed. I still don’t properly understand that concept, but that’s where you have to work with good people—people you trust. They had a great music supervisor who’s also a composer. He gave me very good instructions and took some of the weight off my shoulders about how this was going to implement into the game.

The Halo 4 remix album was also great and featured people who have also remixed Massive Attack. Do you help choose those remixers?

I was trying my best to maintain my vision of the game itself, so I could actually complete it. When people were talking about who could remix the pieces from the game, I had to trust all those people involved. The only recommendation I had was to get Apocalyptica. Throughout working on the game, I was thinking that those guys would be great; they’d really kill it on this cue. You have traditional remixes, but I’ve always been interested in getting someone to do a remix who doesn’t do remixes. We did that a bit with Massive Attack. We got people like Damon Albarn and Primal Scream to do remixes. That excites me. But you have to have your head in that universe. When you spend 17 hours a day, seven days a week making music, you don’t get a lot of time to listen to it [laughs].

How did you pick the guest vocalists for Slo Light?

Stephonik Youth and I met in Brooklyn a number of years ago. The singer from TV on the Radio sang on the last Massive Attack album, and we were just messing around with those guys in their studio. One day Stephonik, a friend of the band’s guitarist Dave Sitek, popped in, and we got on really well. We stayed in contact via email, and I tried to get her involved in the last Massive Attack album in Bristol for a week, but none of that worked out. But I played her an idea that I had, and it was the basis for “Slo Light.”

I’ve worked with some great people: Liz Fraser, David Bowie, Snoop Dogg—people who have very strong characters. It’s always been a struggle for me to find people who frankly I can be bothered to get out of bed to work with in the morning. I listened to countless demos of singers pushed to me via publishers and managers, and [Welsh solo artist] Cate Le Bon was the only one I actually liked. My old publisher sent me a copy of her first album [Me Oh My], which I loved. But that was just before the Halo thing, which hit like a sledgehammer.

I completely forgot about her until I bumped into a guy who has a studio in Bristol. I said, “have you worked with anyone interesting? I’m desperate to find someone who’s doing something different.” He mentioned Cate Le Bon, and I said yeah, of course, yes! [Laughs.] So we got her to come over one day, and we got on really well.

We had [’60s and ’70s British pop singer] Sandi Shaw, someone who I’ve loved since I was a kid. She was one of the first people on my list of singers I would like to work with, and coincidentally her management company inquired if I’d work on something with her. So that was a no-brainer. Claire Tchaikowski was a friend of Andrew Morgan. Everyone apart from Cate was someone I’d bumped into or requested.

The album as a whole has an incredibly refined, nondigital sound, especially the keyboards and synths. Can you describe how you capture some of those sounds?

There’s no really convoluted miking techniques; no particular mic preamp or mic I use. Often I’m actually using sample library material. Some of that material I’ve created myself. I’ve got an old Arp 2600. I’ve got Wurlitzer and Rhodes keyboards. I’ve got an old Finnish stringed instrument called a kantele, which I play with EBows. I make sounds with guitars and turn them into keyboard noises. A lot of the time it’s just a process of experimentation—shoving sounds through various plug-ins, distortion pedals, sometimes through amps, but actually these days I don’t feel such a need to do that because the plug-in technology is so good. I’ve been using a lot of the [Universal Audio] UAD stuff. That’s great sound; so incredible. I’ll always try to push plug-ins to do things they don’t normally do or try to find new chains of processing. I’m always trying to find something unpredictable, where I hit the keyboard, and it doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to. It’s not so much about the instrument or plug-in itself; it’s about the feeling I want to get. I’ll use whatever I have at my disposal to achieve that.

Do you separate a lot of the sound experimentation from the composition process?

It works best for me when those two processes are deeply entwined. I’ve been mixing a track, and I’ll come up with a crazy sound, so I’ll rewrite or rearrange the track because I’ve discovered something new that’s even more inspiring. If I hit a keyboard and get that kind of noise, that inspires me to add a certain note, or give it a certain groove. Arranging, writing, mixing, processing—it’s all part of the same process. That’s when I work my best. Sometimes I sit down with a guitar and actually write a song in the traditional sense. The track “Riot Pictures” that Sandi Shaw sings—I sat down with some lyrics and actually played the guitar and sang it through. But tracks like “Slo Light” were very much about a sound that began the process. That sound made me play those notes on the guitar, and that made me write that string arrangement, come up with that groove, and ultimately informed the vocal. To keep moving forward musically, you have to find new ways to inspire yourself. If I just sat behind the piano every day writing songs, I would get really bored.

On Slo Light, your pop music and cinematic sounds bleed into each other. How does your time in one area affect the other?

They really do bleed. The Massive Attack album Mezzanine got used on a lot of films. It was one of the most licensed albums possibly ever and influenced a lot of film scores I think. I’ve watched many films and thought, God, that sounds like something we did!

Some of the music I’ve made in the past has influenced a progression in film music. The film music has taken a step forward from there, and I’ve brought that back into the albummaking. I’m like a big sponge. Everything I see, hear, and experience goes into one pot, and I have to think, what is applicable to this project? I don’t think there’s any surprise that an album I make also has a very strong filmic sense, and when I’m writing stuff for a movie, maybe there’s an aspect to a piece that could almost be the track for an album.

When I see the first rough cut or some gameplay footage, I might have a week or two of completely free-form writing to come up with as much music as I can. Sometimes that music will be wrong for the project, but it will be great for another album, film, or interactive, installation piece.

I’ll just write for the sake of writing and try to put those feelings onto the computer and get that coming out of the speakers. In my head it all molds into one thing. Where I actually have to start thinking is when I’m applying the music to that medium. For a movie, I can’t have something that sounds like a song completely overpowering a scene. I have to best serve the project.

You’re self-taught as a musician and producer, correct?

Absolutely. I remember at school trying to go into music lessons on my lunch BREAKs and got thrown out because I couldn’t read music. Since then, I’ve wanted to make music, and I’ve been jamming in bands and learning how to record, sequence, engineer, write songs, sing, play—everything’s been self-taught through first-hand experience.

Maybe that’s why you feel like you have to keep developing musically, because you’ve been doing it the whole time.

Yeah, every corner that I turn around there’s some new lesson. I’ve learned so much from working on this film now. It’s been a nightmare at times, but the projects you learn the most from are the most difficult and challenging. You have to push yourself to reach places you’ve not reached before. That keeps you fresh. That keeps you from not getting too up your own ass. It just keeps you a normal human being, rather than someone who believes the rest of the world should be listening to what they do because only what they do is right. I don’t feel that way at all—never have.

Will you continue to work on solo albums?

I like to change it up. Prior to the album I was working on the game. After I’ve spent a good deal working on songs, I want to work on instrumental music again. I just finished this film. I’ve got another film coming up fairly soon, but I’m very much up for putting out another album at some point. I don’t think I’m going to dive straight in. But as I’m working on the film score, if I create pieces that would be pretty cool for an album, I’ll put that to one side. So in some way, I am working on another album. At some point I’ll listen to all the ideas and work out whether I have something or not.

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