Interview With Composer Steven Price

Film Music Institute > Film Music Magazine (Current) > Industry Spotlight > Interview With Composer Steven Price

There are some new composers who hit you like a bolt from the blue. But in Steven Price’s case, it’s more precisely blue meteors that impact on a crime-ridden English housing “estate” (i.e. slum), carrying with them glowing-teethed, angry black fuzzballs of agitated hip-hop electronica and fearsome orchestral stylings. These musical space invaders proceed to ATTACK THE BLOCK with seriously fun energy that’s all about “Hoodie” (i.e. young thug) electro percussion versus the dire symphonic presence of sci-fi monsters.

That’s right in tone with producer Edgar Wright’s brand of genre mash-ups like HOT FUZZ, SCOTT PILGRIM and PAUL. As Wright protégé Joe Cornish impresses with similar geek love talents in the writing and directing departments, Steven Price’s music prowls the estate halls, thrashing bicycles down its cement pathways as it samurai-swords the mutant alien scum. ATB’s score marks Price well with such other Wright composers as David Arnold and Nigel Godrich. But where both impressively combined orchestras and retro synths, there’s something grittier about Price’s work (abetted by Felix Buxton and Simon Rafcliffe of the group Basement Jaxxx). It’s an outraged, unkempt approach that’s all about some very pissed antiheroes out for payback. Damned if this music’s going to make you laugh at this very serious battle for earth’s survival. But it’s sure to make you smile with its audacious energy, a thunderclap that announces there’s a very talented new kid on the scoring BLOCK. Now after teching and playing for some of Earth’s biggest composers behind the scenes, Price is ready to make a name for himself by saving our world, grooving sci-fi Hoodie and all.

Tell us about your musical beginnings.

I was very lucky that there were a couple of instruments hanging around the house when I was young. Luckier still, my parents recognized me trying to pick out tunes on a toy guitar, and that perhaps I would enjoy some lessons. I started playing guitar at five years old, and from then on pretty much spent my entire childhood and teens playing, writing and studying music. When I left university I got an assisting job in a studio… That was great as I got to learn some rudimentary engineering stuff whilst getting into the computer audio software that was just starting to become the norm then. My shift into films happened a couple of years later, and was a strangely fortuitous story… I’d had a bad day at the studio, and decided to walk home rather than get the tube to clear my head, but stopped off at a newspaper shop on the way. The first thing I picked up was a music magazine that had an advert from a film composer looking for an assistant. The list of things he wanted from someone was pretty much a list of all the things I wanted to get into, so I applied and ended up working on and off with Trevor Jones (DARK CITY) for the next few years. That was a great education, as I got involved in all aspects of film score production, from programming to arranging, orchestrating to occasional additional composing, along with sometimes playing on the final scores. It was a pretty steep learning curve at times, but I soon found that making music to picture was the thing for me; I found the relationship between the two fascinating and satisfying, and I felt very much at home sculpting music around scenes and stories. Trevor would always record at Abbey Road, and when, some time later, the studios were putting a team together for the LORD OF THE RINGS scores, I was lucky enough to be asked to take part as a music editor. Off the back of that fantastic experience, music editing then became a path for me for several years.

What were the most important things you learned from temp tracking, and working with composers like Trevor Jones, Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer?

I’ve learnt so much from music editing generally… It’s a bit of a weird area, in that not many people outside of the industry know what it is you actually do, but for me it’s given me so much that I think it has improved me as a composer. At the end of the day, it’s all about communicating. The director is trying to communicate their story, and the composer is trying to support that vision. But film music is such a wonderfully fascinating thing that there’s sometimes a need for someone in between the two helping within that process. I’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction out of that over the years. Temp tracking is an interesting element of that process. There are obviously a lot of arguments against temping, especially when you hear scores where the composer has ended up, and for whatever reason, coming worryingly close to another track. But temping is a necessary evil sometimes when studios are looking to preview their films way ahead of the composer coming onboard. Sometimes I tried the strangest musical choices, just in case there might be a glimmer of something good in the combination of the music choice and the picture. That experience has been invaluable to me in developing a feel for what is needed for a film.

However, that role varies from film to film. With Howard Shore on THE LORD OF THE RINGS films, I was more of a scoring editor. Howard would record a huge orchestra through many takes, often in many sessions, searching for the performances that he and Peter Jackson needed for the films. I was part of the team that would then work to finesse all of those performances together to make the versions you hear in the final film. On BATMAN BEGINS, I had the more traditional music editing job, starting off with building a temp track with Chris Nolan, and then helping out through the writing and scoring process, before finally taking the music through the final dub. Working with Hans Zimmer was amazing. He’s like a filmmaking force of nature and it was fantastic to see how he approached the score on every level. I’ve never seen anyone else with such a direct link to the heart of a scene, identifying how the music might both serve the storytelling, and also work alongside all of the other elements. I was lucky enough to be sitting behind him in his studio the night that he developed some of the alternating string and synth patterns that became a huge feature of his BATMAN scores. Seeing him work out the sound that has now become a bit of a classic was fascinating. He tweaked and tweaked away until he got the sound he was clearly hearing in his head, all the while chatting away and being hilarious. I don’t think I’ve ever had as little sleep as I managed during that project, but it was a privilege to be part of the whole thing- and of course to work with Chris Nolan, who was an absolute gentleman to me throughout the film.

How did you land ATTACK THE BLOCK?

From 2009 to midway through 2010 I worked for Edgar Wright on SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. It was a musically intensive movie, and I was lucky enough to work with Nigel Godrich on the score. I also ended up providing additional composition and arrangements. The same company, Big Talk, produced ATTACK THE BLOCK and the films share the same producer, (Nira Park), editor (Jon Amos), and post production supervisor, (Mike Solinger). They were all enormously supportive in putting me forward to write on ATTACK THE BLOCK. I remain incredibly grateful to them all!

This is the first major movie for you and the writer-director Joe Cornish. Did that give you as much pressure as freedom in your collaboration?

There were lots of firsts with ATTACK THE BLOCK, not just for Joe and myself, but also for the vast majority of the young cast, and the cinematographer etc. Joe was great at instilling a sense that we were all in it together, and was very supportive, certainly during our first sessions when I was obviously keen to show that they hadn’t backed the wrong composer! Throughout the film, he was always happy to let me try different approaches, and we quickly found a way to work well together. Beyond the quite harsh constraints of time and budget, I think the main pressure I felt was actually self-imposed. I just wanted to make sure I did the best I could do, and to make the opportunity count. I’d been hoping for a chance to write for a long time, and I wanted to try to make sure that BLOCK wouldn’t end up being my composing one off!

BLOCK walks a fine line between saluting films like CRITTERS and THE GOONIES while playing the alien invasion “for real.” How difficult was it for your music to capture those tones without tilting too far in either direction?

The great thing about ATB was that everything was there in the script. Joe really did write a fantastic script. I found that as long as I responded honestly to the way each scene was played, the tones were all there for me in the way the film was put together. There were a couple of times in the process when I (probably because it was my first time, and I was keen to show what I could do) did go too far in trying to push the drama. You know, “Listen to this moving melody! Listen to that progression!!” Joe was always quick to let me know that I didn’t need to try so hard to force things, and that we could let moments play themselves out without leading the audience too strongly. That was a really good call, I think, and the movie benefited from that approach.

What were your own favorite sci-fi scores and films, and how did you want to pay tribute to them here?

I grew up in the era of the big 80s escapist sci-fi films. There’s a load of those classics that I’ve watched A LOT. I have a particular love of movies like the original STAR WARS trilogy, E.T. and BACK TO THE FUTURE for example. One of the things I love about ATTACK THE BLOCK is that has that same spirit of escapism. You enter that world for 90 minutes, and grow to like and believe in those kids. Overall, the setting of ATB led to a very different musical approach than those brilliantly orchestrated scores that people like John Williams and Alan Silvestri did. However, the tight budget did allow for a day in the studio with a small orchestra, and that side of the score did allow me a few moments to reach for some of the sweep that those composers would routinely achieve so brilliantly. There’s a couple of moments in ATB when I was thinking back to that rush you would get from the way those classic scores’ music swept you away to another world, or made you cheer for the hero.

Did you also submerge yourself in the kind of music that Moses and his gang would be listening to?

I certainly did a fair bit of research, and Joe sent me various YouTube links at the start of the process. But from our first conversations, it was also clear that Joe was trying to avoid the kind of source music-led style that would perhaps be expected for a movie set in that environment. We were always working towards a score that really fit, and complement every scene in a more traditionally “scored” kind of a way. The element of escapism in Joe’s film suggested something more “widescreen,” a bit more “classic” I guess, albeit incorporating elements of music that Moses himself might approve of! Slightly scarily, the phrase, “It needs to be unique” was used quite early on. That was the rather lofty aim.

There’s a fun recall of such 50’s “sci-fi” sounds as The Theremin, as well as the synth sci-fi scores of the 70’s in your electronics, not to mention 8-bit video game music. How did you achieve that?

I love the simplicity of the early synths and the fact they can offer up so much in the way of mood; I’m a huge fan of the work Bowie and Eno did during the Low period. There was also something in the way the block was portrayed in Joe’s film that also sent me back to their recordings. The fact that the movie is so self-contained within its environment offered up the opportunity to give it a sound all of its own, and the moog pulses and atmospherics seemed to gel well. Also, the film had that sense of impending, localized threat that I always associate with John Carpenter, and his score’s were an obvious influence for some of the pulses and repetitive patterns in the ATB cues. That being said, some of the sounds that appear to be synths are actually products of processing. There’s a lot of textured stuff that started out as e-bowed guitar, for example, and it was a lot of fun doing that. Also, I can’t really talk about the electronics side of the ATB score without mentioning my collaborators, Simon and Felix of Basement Jaxx. They did some terrific synth work on the score, and some of my favorite sounds are the ones that they brought to the table.

How did you decide where to go from percussion and hip-hop rhythms to a full orchestra?

I came onto the project quite late, and the edit was pretty well developed, so it was fairly clear where the moments where things needed to kick off musically should be. But there was a bit of trial and error involved in working out how the score should develop throughout the film. We did find ourselves pulling back on the orchestral elements in the first reel, and letting the electronics take the lead, as it felt like that approach afforded the audience the chance to get to know the kids and their world a little better in the initial stages. But the further in we go, the higher the stakes for the characters. From reading the script, it was clear that this was a world where the threat was always building, even in moments when the gang are chatting and seemingly enjoying themselves. So I was keen to always have a feeling that the clock was ticking, all hopefully helping to keep that feeling of growing menace trucking along.

Many scores that indulge in alt. electronic rhythms tend to just amble along, but your samples have real character to them. How important was it for you to achieve that?

I was really keen to make sure that the score sounded different, and didn’t lapse into predictable patterns and techniques too much. Firstly, the film’s premise was sufficiently unique to mean that doing that would be a wasted opportunity. Secondly, I think there are lots of other people who can do that Hollywood programming thing much better than me! The result is a bit more rough around the edges than a lot of scores, and intentionally so, as it seemed appropriate that the characters had music that reflected their rawness and youth. Of course, it was a load of work to reach that rougher, edgy sort of sound, and there’s are few sounds in the score that haven’t had some sort of processing or manipulation. Lots of re-amping, filtering and bitcrushing went on. Again, I was also really lucky that I was collaborating with Simon and Felix. They come up with some great sounds for the rhythmic side of the score, and this helped even more in pulling the score away from more traditional film-style programming.

ATTACK THE BLOCK ends up having a surprising character arch for its main Hoodie punk. How difficult was it to achieve emotion with this kind of musical style?

I think it was a great and brave move of Joe’s to start his film playing up to a lot of people’s preconceptions, including mine if I’m being honest, of those kids, starting off with a late night mugging by the gang on Bonfire Night. Then he invites us to get to know, and hopefully like and believe in each of those kids through the story that follows. The actor who plays the character of Moses, John Boyega, who is surely destined for great things, has such a presence that he carries the audience through that arch of emotions. Moses is a man of few words, but people listen to everything he says. So I tried to reflect that musically. In the last moments of his journey, he’s really only represented by a small four note figure. This opens out into something more substantial after we’re allowed to witness the realities of his home and background. Even then it’s quite a short, subtle strings piece, but somehow that seemed to fit his character and I felt pleased that I could support John’s performance in that way.

Tell us about your collaboration with Simon and Felix from Basement Jaxxx.

Simon and Felix had actually been involved in the project before I was. They’re based in the area where the film is set and had been asked to do a few demos, one of which was an early version of the track “The Block” that ultimately led the UK official soundtrack release. Everyone loved that track and felt there was something in the sounds that they came up with that gelled with the film. But as they were only just starting to dip their toes in the world of scoring at that time, and as Joe was keen that the film was scored in a quite traditional way, I got the call to come onboard. In the end it turned out great. Simon and Felix contributed a couple of brilliantly appropriate tracks on their own for the score, including the track “The Ends,” which closes the film brilliantly. I’d also send them cues I’d worked on, asking if they had any thoughts as to how the drum programming could be improved, or if they had any sounds to replace and add to what I’d done on the synths side. Without exception, they came up with some great sounds and parts, and provided some great material that I could then spin through the score to give it an authentic flavor. Simon and Felix were great to work with.

How do you think BLOCK fits into producer Edgar Wright’s style of filmmaking, and scoring?

producer Edgar Wright (L) and director-writer Joe Cornish (R)

Edgar is brilliant. His style is so advanced, and his ideas so original that it’s kind of amazing to think what he might do over the next couple of decades. SCOTT PILGRIM was such a finely sculpted film that there wasn’t a sound or a note in it that wasn’t there for a reason. But despite all of the technicalities involved in making that happen, the whole thing still has a flow and feels natural. Edgar is also a huge music fan, so he always gives the music the opportunity to shine. That makes working with him all the more satisfying. However, Joe’s film was much more of a traditionally structured story than SCOTT’s, so it was necessarily a very different beast in terms of how I approached the music. But it certainly focuses the mind knowing that your music needs the approval of two great filmmakers, and film score aficionados like Edgar and Joe. I was certainly rather relieved when I heard that they liked what I’d done!

Are you surprised by the film’s rave critical and audience response, especially in America?

Working on the film was such an intense and exciting experience that I had no idea until it wrapped how the movie had all turned out. I really wasn’t sure what to think. The first indication I got that things were going down well was at a really early UK screening when lots of people rather brilliantly broke a review embargo at the end, and started tweeting and blogging about how much they’d loved it. Then, shortly afterwards the film premiered at the SXSW Festival and the positive buzz really started to build, which has kind of kept going ever since. It’s obviously been fantastic to contribute to something that people are enjoying, and I feel very fortunate that my first feature break was with such a great project. It’s been an exciting time!

What’s your advice to any budding composer hoping to land a movie like ATTACK THE BLOCK?

I’ve been working full time in film music for over 11 years now, and if I’ve learnt anything along the way, it’s that all you can do is work as hard as you can, learn as much as you can, and just hope that you get a break every now and then! It’s a completely unpredictable industry and we all get our share of bad days and dark moments. But if you enjoy it, love what you do, have something to offer and are good to have around, I think there’s always going to be a place for you. It’s an exciting, and often surprising world to be involved in. I feel really lucky that I got the chance to compose for ATTACK THE BLOCK. I have absolutely no idea of what may happen next, but I can’t wait to find out!

Join Steven Price’s gang at Amazon U.K. and iTunes to ATTACK THE BLOCK


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