With an eclectic list of credits to his name, British composer Daniel Pemberton has rapidly made a name for himself as one of the most exciting musical talents currently working in the UK. Having honed his craft working in British television on the likes of Clash favourite Peep Show and cold war thriller The Game, the last few years have seen his CV expand considerably with a successful transition in to film.
Since then, he’s gone on to work alongside some of the biggest names in the industry, including Ridley Scott, Gareth Edwards and most recently Guy Ritchie on spy caper The Man From U.N.C.L.E. His latest pairing sees him joining forces with Danny Boyle on Steve Jobs, a barnstorming biopic of the Apple founder, based on a screenplay from The Social Network scribe Aaron Sorkin. It’s a score that sees him expanding on a diverse body of work, which straddles many a disparate genre and stands out as one of the year’s boldest film scores.
With Steve Jobs now on general release and Pemberton already hard at work on his next big project, Paul Weedon found him on fine form when he sat down for a chat recently to discuss his influences and the unique experience of working with a director quite as musically conscious as Danny Boyle.
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Hi Daniel. I gather things are quite hectic at the moment. You’ve been travelling around a lot, right?
It’s been quite mental. Normally I’m sat at home doing fuck all but playing music and you seemed to get me at the one time where I wasn’t doing that, living this vaguely glamorous lifestyle you think composers live.
Talk me through how you came to get the gig on Steve Jobs.
Well, it’s kind of weird. There had been these phone calls saying that Danny Boyle wanted to meet me, which was quite exciting, obviously, but it kept not happening. And the big thing that I heard was that he wanted to come around to my flat and see my studio, because I work from home. And my flat is a tip, so the big question, whenever you told people this they’d be like, “Fuck – you’ve got to clean up your flat when Danny Boyle comes round.” I haven’t got a cleaner, so it became this running joke. “Is Danny Boyle coming round to your flat? You haven’t got a cleaner. It doesn’t look like he’s coming…”
And that sort of kept not happening and I didn’t know what it was about. But obviously what was happening was all the behind the scenes stuff on the film with Sony and all that nonsense [Sony had previously pulled the plug on the film before Universal acquired it] But eventually we met, not for very long, probably about half an hour or and hour, just in a restaurant. We talked about the film, talked about how I like working, how I try and approach film, which is… I try to do it slightly differently to the more kind of conventional way, and he was like, “Well, we’ll give you the script.” And I said, “Cool. Well let me know when you’ve met everyone else. I’d love to be a part of this,” because obviously you’re never going to say no to a film by Danny Boyle with a script by Aaron Sorkin.
No. That’s a hard one to turn down.
And he said, “Well, we’re not going to meet anyone else.” So that was weird… So then I got given the script, which was this insane… You had to have special apps to open it on your device because it was such a hot script that no one could see it apart from you. Even agents weren’t allowed to have it and you had to use all these weird bits of software to get it working. And I just remember reading the script and thinking that this was one of the best scripts I’d read - amazing. But I also remember thinking, “What the hell am I going to do?” It was 185 pages of dialogue. And I initially thought there wouldn’t be a whole lot of music in the film, but when I first met with Danny, he had this great way of describing the film, which was the film is in three acts – the first act is vision, the second act is revenge and the third act is wisdom.
That was a really exciting way to start the process of approaching a film. And we talked in our very first meeting about doing three different scores and that’s kind of how we started trying approaching the film. He was shooting on three different types of film and there was a very clear three-act structure in the film, so we decided to try and do that as well with the music.
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On that note, one of the things that struck me listening back to the score in isolation is it doesn’t adhere to the conventional structure of a Hollywood score. There are so many disparate genres in there. You manage to capture all of the different musical stylings and tastes of Danny Boyle, in a way.
Well, in some ways as well, the film is about trying to capture the different aspects of Steve Jobs, who is a very layered, very complicated individual. And the film itself is a very unconventional way to tell this. This biopic is a very unique and inventive way of telling this kind of story. And when you’re on a project like that, you’ve got to come up with something similarly unique and inventive if you want the film to work and stand out. And so my original ideas were for 1984, which is the launch of the original Macintosh, the idea of that was to celebrate the kind of optimism and potential that technology kind of promised people. They were the future and they were these kinds of things that were still pretty unknown and felt like something very futuristic.
I wanted to sort of use something that captured that feeling, but also was very representative of the era. So the first act is pretty much all written on 1984 era synthesizers. I got a load of vintage synths that were available in 1984, or before, and I had to work with them and I had to write on all of those, and that was fascinating because you’re sort of trying to write the music of the future from that past, so you’re using these things which are now kind of like vintage relics. They’re over thirty years old – even older in some cases – but they still have this kind of symbolism of the future, which is what computers had then. And that was fascinating, working with these old synths, because you’d suddenly face these problems that someone would have working with technology in 1984, because I was trying to use them in the same way.
What kind of challenges did you face?
They’d have things like they’d go out of tune when the heating comes on. They’ve got no memory on them, so you have to kind of manually recreate every sound and in the old days you’d have this very painful process of having to draw these big diagrams of where you’d put all the knobs, but now I can take a photo on my iPhone, which is still a pain to set it back up again… And one of the synths – this thing called the Roland SH-1000 – you can only play one note at a time. That changed the way I wrote… You’d have to play all the notes by hand, so it meant that you wrote differently. It meant that you wrote the music in a way that someone would in that era and I think that definitely influenced how that part of the film sounded.
And the second act?
The second act is set at the San Francisco Opera House and Danny had this great description of it as this very theatrical Shakespearean revenge tragedy. And the whole setting was very dramatic and ornate and we wanted to get that across with the music. So we had this idea: let’s write an Opera, which is one of those kinds of ideas I love throwing out there early on in the film as an intellectual concept, but sometimes, often, they don’t work.
But this time it stuck.
Yeah, it was quite amazing. It sort of stuck. I mean, yeah, we did a lot of work on it and there’s so much stuff that no one will ever hear. And when you see the film, it feels, not simple musically – it’s not – but sometimes to get to bits of music that are very pared down, or very minimal and seemingly simple is a very complicated process. But we ended up writing huge orchestral numbers. Even the opera stuff is all translated in to Italian. They’re all singing about computers.
[Laughs] Yeah. I mean there are lots of nerdy little details like that, like even things like the synths in the first [act], I tried to use a lot of the CS-80, because that was the Vangelis synthesizer that Steve Jobs liked a lot because he used it at the very first Mac launch – they used Chariots of Fire and that was one of his favourite pieces. I actually ended up speaking to Vangelis’s engineer about it and he really liked that music because it symbolised, for him, this kind of transition between classical music and technology. And so I was trying to get some little things like that in there, which is pretty nerdy and no one will spot it, but if you’re a kind of die-hard tech fan, you will.
So we went for the big opera piece and there’s all kinds of crazy stuff in there. The bit where the orchestra is tuning up, that was all scored to picture, so the tuning ended in a particular way, or would mould in to the next track – lots of sort of slightly complicated technical things, which shouldn’t feel complicated. They should just feel part of the film. So that was showing a different side to Steve Jobs – the showman, the conductor, the ringmaster of this sort of grand circus, which is those product launches. But also, I quite liked the sort of P.T. Barnum aspect of him, because if you think about it, that’s why we all know who Steve Jobs is, because he’s a showman. There are lots of other people who have fronted big advancements in technology, but we don’t think of them in the same way because they don’t have the same levels of showmanship. So it was very fun doing that part of the film because that’s a very different aspect to Steve Jobs.
And also, in that act, you’re playing off the production design, the way the sets look, you’ve got this really beautiful rich red and gold setting, so you’re playing off that as well.
And the third?
In the third act, what I call ‘the digital act’, it’s 1998 and computers have become as powerful as we were promised they would be in 1984. And I write everything on a Mac, I use Apple software and I think one of the things that’s amazing about Steve Jobs and Apple is they were the first people of influence in technology, I feel, who really understood the artistic potential of technology and computing. And it wasn’t just a machine for improving accountancy or databases, which is what I think it was seen as before.
And what I like is that fact by the very last act I can write and express myself as an artist just using this computer as a tool. It allows me to be so much more powerful as an individual and as an artist, I wanted to kind of embrace that for the third act and start off writing a more digital score, which was kind of in the computer and it also reflects Steve’s personality at this point – it’s a very ambient, cold, introspective, emotive act in the film where he kind of realises that to get to where he gets to at that point he has to make various sacrifices and choices.
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It’s a very ambient, cold, introspective, emotive act in the film...
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Aaron Sorkin obviously set the bar for the tech biopic, as it were, with The Social Network. Did you look at what Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross did on that, because that’s obviously got a very bold and distinctive sound in its own right.
Yeah, it’s weird - we looked at that score and I had a lot more respect for it the second time. I think the first time I liked it but I thought it was kind of slightly overrated because I felt that if it was done by some British TV composers everyone would be like, “Yeah, whatever.” But actually they do some very clever things in that score. But I think also people were expecting this film to be The Social Network again.
I was very keen to see how we could tell this story in a very different way. When you’re dealing with Sorkin dialogue, it’s unbelievably important that you can take everything in. And there was so much dialogue to take in. In lots of films you can kind of… dialogue’s not even that important sometimes, but in this, every single thing you’ve got to hear and you’ve got to take in, so that is the most challenging part of these films – how do you create a score that has a strong enough identity, yet doesn’t overpower the performances or the dialogue and helps the film work as a whole.
And another big thing about the way I work and why Danny was interested in working with me is because I like to get involved right at the very beginning of a film. So I got involved before they’d even started shooting.
And that’s quite a unique stance as I guess it affords you time to start thinking about themes independently away from images that have already been shot.
Yeah, so it basically means you can experiment a lot more and you’ve got a lot more time to experiment and try something different. The later you come on, the less time you have to do something bold, because if it doesn’t work, the film’s still got to come out. So that’s why people always play it safe. But if you get involved early, you’ve got plenty of time to try out something different. And Danny Boyle is an amazing director to work with for music because he really loves music, so he embraces that as well. We’d have this thing where he’d be off in San Francisco shooting, I’d be working like crazy here, just firing out ideas. I’d be getting rushes in, I’d be responding to rushes, colours, the designs of how the film looked, so there’d be this great back and forth all the way through the process between us both, which I think is a real key to why you feel this film does feel different and doesn’t feel like every other movie.
That’s kind of how I like doing movies. It kills your life, but you get a good result at the end of it, hopefully. And a unique result, because I think there’s so much that you can do with film music. I mean, it’s music, you can do anything, but it’s kind of annoying sometimes how little it feels unique in film music, because so much of it is temped with music from other films, which is temped with music from other films and everyone’s just eating each other’s scores over and over again.
There are some nice nods to other composers in there though. Certainly on the Revenge track there are shades of Philip Glass there.
Yeah, but even that was kind of like a conscious sort of… we tried lots of different ways of scoring that and Philip Glass is a modern opera… If you think about who is the most important modernist opera writer. I would say that it’s either John Adams or Philip Glass. So, again, that was trying to fit in to this other aspect of the opera and the orchestra.
Danny Boyle is obviously renowned for his use of music. I know you touched on it, but in your initial conversations with Danny did he offer a frame of reference for any particular points in the film. Did he at any point say, “I want it to sound like ‘x’” for example?
No, he just sent me great playlists. He’d just send me tracks I loved. And there’d be really crazy stuff, like Fuck Buttons or Mogwai or M83. He’s got really interesting, up-to-date tastes. And he loves absorbing music and he writes fantastic notes… I’ve never worked with a director before who takes so much care over documenting and making notes on the stuff you send them. He’d have a notebook and he’d write down notes about every piece of music I’d written in it and you’d see him in the edit room looking at it going, “Let’s try this”. He’s a very fastidious director who is over every element of his film.
How does that compare to working with Guy Ritchie? Music is obviously integral to his films too, especially if you look back at the likes of Lock, Stock… and Snatch.
Yeah, the way Guy works is very, very different to Danny, but music is an incredibly integral part of his films. I’m really proud of that score [on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.] Guy’s approach is very different to Danny’s. It’s very much like, “Let’s find something really big, really bold, really strong and you can take over the film.” But he’s used some of the greatest commercial tracks of all time. He’s always got great tracks in his films, so that was, again, a massive challenge, to be like, “Oh, shit. I’ve got to come up with…” He wanted everything in his film to sound like a classic track. He didn’t want it to sound like score. He wanted each piece to sound like and individual, iconic track. And I had to do 24 of them.
That’s no small task, is it?
No. Because often in a score you might have three or four big cues, and on that it was just relentless. But it turned out really good, so it was a journey worth taking.
It may be slightly obvious link to make, but it struck me that a lot of the synthier pieces on Steve Jobs drew on your experience composing for videos games. Obviously, game music has its roots in 8-bit music and such like. How much did that influence what you were doing?
I don’t think it influences film. What I think influenced it is my kind of love of technology growing up. I love everything from a crappy mono 8-bit chip set to a 74-piece orchestra and I love all the difference. The power that a 909 kick-drum can give you can be more powerful than a 100-piece orchestra. And at the same time the power of a 100-piece orchestra can totally whip a 909 and it’s knowing about which arsenal to draw on and which one’s going to give people the greatest reaction in a film. And so I love that kind of aspect of being a film composer, because I think one of the greatest things about being a film composer, or any kind of composer, is you get to do so many different things.
When I started off in TV - I used to do stuff for Ninja Tune years ago and records - what I found funny was people always thought I was sort of selling out and not really very artistic and I found it very funny, because I basically got to play with so many different aspects of music and stretch myself as an artist in so many different arenas. When you’re in a band, you have to do the same things over and over again. I’d find it really boring. You’d get your sound… it’s like becoming a can of beans. Once you’ve become the best-selling can of beans, you’re not allowed to change the recipe, whereas I get to change the recipe every week. And that’s the best thing - this year I’ve done 1960s spy music with bass flutes and harpsichords and two drum kits at once and the next thing I’m doing it’s like modular synths, opera choruses, huge orchestras and me just sitting in front of my keyboard fiddling around with some knobs. And I love that aspect of this job. If you embrace it properly, you can sort of just absorb so many different aspects of music.
And it sounds like you can do most of that from your home studio?
You can write and stuff from your home studio, but the more you get live musicians involved, or players, the more exciting it gets. Again, it all depends on the score, but when you get real musicians, they bring something to a piece of music that’s really unique. And I’ve got this slightly cheesy line about this film, but the first act we used analogue technology, the third act we used digital technology and in the second act we used the oldest technology, which is an orchestra, because if you actually look at what an orchestra is, notation is basically data – if you look at a piece of music notation all that really is is data, it’s the same as code if you give it to a computer, but instead of giving this data to a computer, you’re giving this to 74 of the greatest musicians in the world and they’re going to interpret that in a very different way, which has never yet been surpassed by technology, which is why they’re still around. Because they sound fantastic and they bring a nuance an emotion to music that technology can’t always do.
You’ve obviously got another big project on the go at the moment. Is there anything else on the cards beyond that? You strike me as the kind of guy who’d have plenty of projects lined up.
Well, it is at the moment. I don’t want to be the guy who takes on 20 films, has 20 assistants who write everything and ends up with scores that all sort of sound the same. I kind of want to take a couple of projects on a year, if that, and just do them really well. And I think that’s they way… You’re not going to get rich, but you’re going to create better film music and all I really want to do is create some cool film music. Or just create some cool music that happens to be in films.
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Words: Paul Weedon
Steve Jobs is on general release at cinemas across the UK now. Daniel Pemberton’s score is available to download at iTunes.