Darkwulf chats to Ben Salisbury about the inspirations and recording techniques behind his collaboration with Geoff Barrow, 'Drokk'.
BR: Drokk has a very distinctive sound throughout the album. Was this intentional from the start or something you decided on while working together in the studio?
The synth element of the sound was very much decided upon from the start. Geoff had recently got his hands on an Oberhiem 2 voice synth and he came to me with some demos he'd been doing for a possible film project and asked me if I'd like to get involved. I didn't take much persuading. So the overriding style and tone was set in stone from the start. The other more organic, manipulated acoustic sounds came later when we realised that we might need a different but complementing colour.
Do you and Geoff intend on performing Drokk live in the future?
Yes, we played a gig at Orbital Comics in London and plan to gig at special locations. We want to take the music to NYC. We are rehearsing at the moment… The old machines are right pain in the arse!
With the obvious exception of an actual film to soundtrack did you guys use any visuals in the studio to help in the creative process? Like Goblin would with Argento’s films and Carpenter his own?
About a third of the album was written to specific pictures or rough cuts of scenes when we were initially working on the film project. For the other two thirds, although we might not have directly used visuals, we did almost always invent scenarios or storylines to work things around.
Drokk sounds very old-school in its production. Was the entire album made with live instruments? Tell us how you guys went about writing, performing and recording. Spare no details.
We were very strict about the recording process. All the synth stuff was done on old analog synths (almost exclusively the Oberheim 2 voice, although a very crusty Yamaha c5 was used on "Iso Hymn", as when i started on that, the Oberhiem I bought on eBay hadn't arrived!). I must admit that at first I was tempted to add some more traditional movie score elements, but Geoff was adamant – and he was absolutely right. So we would have these scenarios where I would say "we really need a string line here" and Geoff would say "well let's just do it on the synth then!"
Quite a few of the tracks are simply recordings, or cut-down recordings, of a live performance on a single synth. Or a track might be made up a combination of different performances. Other tracks are more layered affairs using all three synths or overdubs, although we definitely made a conscious effort to avoid over polishing things with editing and the like.
The only other musical element on the album (apart from an appearance from Geoff's other band, Beak>) is the use of digitally manipulated acoustic instruments - and these too are all based on live performances. On tracks like 'Exhale' and 'Dome Horizon' we would take a simple bit of a recorded solo instrument for example, and slow it down massively using various time stretch software. To add harmonies and other lines, would then be a case of guessing what might work and playing it as fast as possible on various instruments that we had lying around! Then when it was slowed down and messed around with we could sort of collage things together – but it was a massive case of trial and error and happy accidents, and the original "real-time" takes sound like some bizarre scat jazz score to a weird Czechoslovakian animation!
Some track titles are obvious in their meaning; however others like “Miami Gunman” and “The men who never learned” seem more vague. Are these song titles inspired from any particular Dredd stories?
Sometimes our working titles were very literal and dull like "tension and fight" for example. When it came to renaming things, we didn't want to be too prescriptive. Unlike other soundtrack albums there is not an existing film that you can reference when you are listening to the music. It is up to the listener, if they want to, to invent any visual or narrative scenarios for themselves, and so we wouldn't want titles to get in the way of that process too much. I suppose,then, this is a rather long winded way of saying…Um… No comment!
If Dredd had been made in the early 80s by John Carpenter, 'Drokk' is exactly how I imagine the soundtrack would sound like. As a sound tracker, how much influence has John Carpenter and other artists had on your career/body of work?
John Carpenter was obviously a big influence for us this record. But I think a general nostalgia for loads of synth based sci-fi film scores (Terminator, Blade Runner etc) also played an important part. I know that Carpenter in particular has had a part to play in lots of Geoff's and portisheads work. For me though, this was probably the first time that I have been able to get really involved with a type of music that was so important to me growing up as a film fan. That's probably why it was so much fun to do! I've always loved 70s and 80s synth music – whether it be from the film and TV score side or even the pop world, but equally important to us was an sense of being really concise and trying to use as few notes as possible to create an atmosphere or convey an idea. And in this respect we were influenced not only by carpenter but also by some of the other great films score composers like Morricone and Herman.
With an actual Dredd film due for release this year, was there ever any talk of submitting this album as the OST for the film?
The origins of this project are very much tied up with the upcoming Dredd film actually. In the very early days of the films post production, Geoff met up with the scriptwriter Alex Garland, and started writing some demos for the score. Then I became involved and we actually started scoring a very early edit of the film. For various reasons we weren't able to continue our work on the movie, but we had this material - some of it demos, and some of it actual score - that we felt we wanted to take further and completed after the film entirely. Geoff using the comics as an inspiration.
We gave ourselves quite clear briefs on how the tracks should be created. It always had a sort of filmic impulse to start it off and that didn't literally have to do with a Judge Dredd storyline from the comic, it was more to do with actually the sort of scenario that might happen in a everyday Mega City One scene. It could be as simple as "Tension & Fight" it could be literally that simple, or ''madness'', theres one track called "Scope the block" and thats quite literally us doing a track of "scoping a block". Geoff is the Dredd/2000AD fan & thats why he was approached by Alex Garland and although I knew of 2000AD & Dredd, it wasn't part of my background and very early on I asked should I get into this? Geoff said no, come into this from an outsiders point of view, a soundtrackers perspective. So it was good having an non-fan's perspective to allow us to not go up our own arses into Dredd world.
Did you find working on Drokk to be any different from your other recording work?
Lots of differences and lots of similarities, there are lots of similarities in any soundtrack I write. You're always trying to do the same thing, if its for a nature program or a drama or when we were working on the film (Dredd) and subsequently you are always trying do the same thing, hit that right emotion & atmosphere. The big difference with the type of writing we were doing using the synths and the time stretch stuff we did on a purely technical point of view was I'm used to working with orchestras for the nature programmes quite often and it was very refreshing to be, thing is, even when I work with orchestras, I get this wrong, but I'd like to think theres a beauty and this is what Portishead/Geoff does so well, that theres a beauty and elegance in being as succinct as possible. Using the most powerful thing with most minimum ammount of material, and this disc was the absolute apex in that way for me. Which was brilliant. I love trying to do the orchestras, the richness of them but there is an element of using them for the sake of it (which I am guilty of as well) and theres a definate sense in Hollywood films of people just reaching for the same bombastic sound that becomes just noise no matter how well written or how well played it is, it just becomes exactly the same as the last big blockbuster soundtrack.
Are there any plans to make more Drokk albums?
There are definite plans for working together again (with Geoff), who knows what that will be? There are plans for live gigs. I would be surprised if we did another Drokk album as we would like to do something new. Our future collaborations will be inspired by the film in the same way Drokk was with Dredd, a sound that is particular to something else. I would be surprised if we did a straight forward Drokk 2, but you can never rule anything out. Watch this space. Working with Geoff has been great for me because its great to collaborate, I'm usually composing myself, stuck on my own. He has a great ear and sensibility about him.
Do you have any dream projects you would like to work on? For example, sound tracking Ridley Scotts rumoured sequel to Blade Runner or a James Bond film?
Yes, well you can never say no to Ridley Scott, especially the sequel to Blade Runner! But its fairly unlikely to happen. Me & Geoff would absolutely love to keep writing together on another project. I'm a jobbing soundtrack composer and Geoff has his bands (Portishead/Beak>) we have our sort of day jobs. I'll do soundtracks Geoff wouldn't go near, I'm doing a David Attenborough soundtrack just now but what would really excite me would be working with Geoff again on the right sort of project. It would be a bonus if it was a low budget film where we were really able to be experitmental and different. Hopefully a young director, the next Duncan Jones becomes available to work with and would be more attractive to us than say, working on a James Bond film. Although, if you want to give me the money for the next James Bond film I'd never say never.
It’s obvious the subject matter which the songs were inspired from is something you and Geoff are passionate about. What Judge Dredd storylines were on your mind when you while recording this album?
This would be a question to ask Geoff. However after making the album I have read some of the comics. Stuff like ''Muzak Killer'' and ''America'' recently, especially "Muzak Killer" thats written in the 80s referencing pop music of that day but its set in the future and were writing this music that is essentially a homage to late 70s sci fi, but how late seventies saw the future so hopefully were not being retrospective, theres definate nostalgia on our record we would never want to deny. Soon as Geoff turned on the synth and played me some tracks I was straight back to my childhood watching weird beta max films or even the cheesey stuff like Howard Jones. That synth brought back waves of nostalgia. Judge Dredd from what I have read does that as well especially the old stuff, this retro future that fits perfectly with that sound.
Thanks for finding the time to do this interview Ben.
Not a problem Darkwulf.
Posted: Thu 7 June 2012