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