Neil Davidge Interview – The Art of Minimalism
Über producer and songwriter Neil Davidge sits down with MusicTech’s Dan Lloyd-Evans to discuss working on one of the defining albums of the last few decades, and how his compositional approach works for anything from blockbuster Hollywood films to million-selling video games. Neil Davidge is a songwriter, producer and composer who has worked with artists including David […]
Über producer and songwriter Neil Davidge sits down with MusicTech’s Dan Lloyd-Evans to discuss working on one of the defining albums of the last few decades, and how his compositional approach works for anything from blockbuster Hollywood films to million-selling video games.
Neil Davidge is a songwriter, producer and composer who has worked with artists including David Bowie, Snoop Dogg and Unkle, and also scored music for games including Halo 4 and the films Push and Clash Of The Titans. However, he is perhaps best known as being one of the driving forces behind one of the most important bands of the 90s: Massive Attack. Despite all of these achievements, he is happy to face away from the limelight and focus on what he loves doing.
“I just wanted to be in the studio making music” he says. “I know some people do it for money, or success, but I’m really not driven by those things… I love writing music and that’s what I want to spend my time doing.”
With the trip-hop legends Massive Attack, the sound of their seminal album Mezzanine (celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year) was in no small way a product of Neil’s long hours in the studio with the group. Not only did Neil shape the recording’s unique, genre-bending sound from a production perspective, but he also was an integral part of the writing process, acting as a central point for the members to explore ideas with.
“I had a friend who once suggested it was more like Massive Attack were the producers and I was the artist. It’s not accurate but I could see some sense to that from an outside perspective. I was normally the hands-on person and they were generally directing and overseeing. I would always be there putting the tracks together from the ground up”.
Neil went on to produce and co-produce two more of Massive Attack’s albums, 100th Window and Heligoland. Since 2004 he has been composing for film, TV and games with a host of notable titles under his belt, including Unleashed (2005), Push (2009), Clash Of The Titans (2010), Halo 4 (2012) and, more recently, the hit TV series Britannia (2018).
It’s a far cry from his early dabbling with music, where he was stretching the very definition of the word…
“I started jamming in bands as a late teenager, around 17 or 18,” he recalls, looking back at his first forays in sound. “None of us could play instruments, none of us were trained – it was the era of punk and we were going to a lot of punk gigs, so it was okay to just make a lot of noise and call it music. That’s what we did, but it wasn’t always just noise, there was humour in there and there was melody… at times.
“I began on bass, then went on to guitar, then I started buying bits of sequencing and recording gear. My transition towards studio work was very much a gut thing. I was saying ’yes’ to these projects and ’no’ to others and so I just naturally moved in a direction I was interested in.”
It’s clear that the studio is where Neil prefers to be, a place where he can focus on his main passion: writing music.
“I wasn’t into the frontman thing,” he agrees. “I love writing music and that’s what I want to spend my time doing. I worked with Massive Attack for 18 or more years, and I only played with them on stage twice, even though they’d tried to get me to do so countless times. I just wanted to be in the studio making music.
“After getting a record deal with Cooltempo, a small label in London, I managed to put together a bedroom studio with a 16-track tape machine, a small desk, an Atari with Cubase on it and Sound Tools, the precursor to Pro Tools. I was doing editing for record labels and producing other artists. That’s when I started working with [production duo] DNA, helping them, whilst also doing remixes for other people. I was working behind the scenes as an editor/producer as well as being an artist.”
Neil’s early success with DNA was marked by their remix of Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner, which hit the Top 10 across Europe and the US. But bigger movements were still to come. Being an active member of the Bristol music scene and coming in and out of local studios led to Neil befriending the members of Massive Attack.
“I met Mushroom first, at the Coach House studios in Bristol,” he says. “That was where Massive Attack recorded Blue Lines and Portishead did Dummy. There was a converted garage out back where I’d eventually moved my studio to. We would often bump into each other in the hallway. He would ask me technical questions and generally chat about music making. After many years working with DNA I decided that I didn’t want to do the pop stuff any more. Earning a living wasn’t enough, I’d lost my way creatively and didn’t care for the music I was making. I had a slight crisis, wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
“Whilst I was recording a rock EP with a friend’s band at Christchurch studios, Massive were upstairs working on a track for the Batman Forever soundtrack with the Startled Insects [the production team behind much of the album Protection]. Dee [3D] would regularly come down and check out what we were doing in the main studio. It was at that point that he and I started chatting about music and found we had similar tastes. We discovered that we’d been at many of the same gigs in the 80s – post-punk bands like The Gang Of 4, The Cure, Stiff Little Fingers and many others. We’d been in those crowds together, shared those experiences but had never met.
“The Startled Insects couldn’t finish the track, they had to leave for LA to attend the mix of a score for National Geographic that they’d been working on. That’s when I got the call asking if I wanted to help them finish the track. I helped out on a few other projects after that before they asked me to come in and start working with them on their next album.”
That next album, Mezzanine, came to be arguably the band’s most iconic and one of the most important of that decade. It hit number one in the UK and Australian charts and was listed by Pitchfork as one of the most important albums of the decade.
“Of course I was making an album for the band, but I was also making an album for me,” Davidge states. “I can’t help it; if I don’t care about the music I’m making how can I expect anyone else to?”
The creation of the album was clearly a very personal and important experience for Neil. But it’s well documented that it also caused a great deal of tension between the group and led to one of the founding members, Mushroom, eventually leaving the band.
“There were a lot of clashes, especially between Dee and Mush,” Neil reveals. “They were mainly creative differences but they have very different personalities too. Dee is very persistent and won’t let something go until he feels he’s explored all the creative options and cherry-picked from the best. Mushroom has one view of a particular piece of music and once he’s done that it’s complete as far as he’s concerned.
“I empathised with Mush but creatively I was more in line with Dee. If we had an idea, we had to explore it, it would never be finished until we’d exhausted all the options. We had to take it to a point where we knew in our guts that we couldn’t do anything better. Only then did we consider the track finished.”
So what does Neil think about the album’s lasting impact, twenty years on?
“It’s nice to hear that it still stands up today,” he replies. “Because in part it felt like, yes, we made a good record but we were just really lucky that we hit things at the right time, and that’s why it was so successful. Towards the end of working on the album, I had people telling me that we had no singles. Their manager had a meeting with Radio 1 and they said, ’We would love to support the band, but the music is too slow, could you do something faster?’ So the feedback we were getting from outside wasn’t, ’This is a great album’, it was more along the lines of, ’We love the music, but we can’t sell it.’ We were getting that from all sides.”
Fortunately, the album went on to sell well over two million copies around the world, proving those detractors wrong.
“We had no idea that it was going to be as successful as it turned out to be,” Neil says. “We only realised that when it came out. Radio did play the album but, just as important and maybe more so, the album was used everywhere for syncs, in movies and on TV in ads.”
All About the Narrative
When working on any film, TV or game project, Neil explains how getting to know the characters and their history is more important to the score than you might think.
“Writing music and writing music for visuals are almost like completely different art forms. With music you intellectualise the music, what the instrumentation should be, what you are saying with the lyrics and so on. With music for film, you are intellectualising the project itself, the characters and the scenes. Tom [Popperwell] and I spend a lot of time talking about the characters and their back stories, talking about the personalities, anything connected to the subject that might inform the score. We talk about that kind of thing more than we talk about the music itself. I get into the characters, how everything links together and how that relates to me in my personal life. Then you’re allowing your gut instincts and experiences to inform you.
“You have to try a lot of stuff out, push further than you think,” Neil adds, “hold back more than you might expect, experiment a lot until you feel connected to the show and the characters. I’m not going to go against the scene, character or vibe if it doesn’t work for the show. Otherwise it’s just an ego thing. If anything, I’ve got an ego for the complete project. You can write an incredible piece of music but if it doesn’t work for the scene, it doesn’t work, full stop.”
Coming out of a career producing one of the most important bands of a generation, Neil has now transitioned to composing music for Hollywood films and TV shows. It’s clear that he is a passionate musician who has chosen to pursue a career that gives him great satisfaction.
“My work is fun,” he says. “It has to be fun to some degree, otherwise why get up in the morning? I’m driven by creativity and the thrill of working on a piece of music. Having said that, it can also be hard. At the beginning of a project I’m often filled with self doubt: ’Will I be able to come up with the goods? Do I have what this project needs?’ I have to force myself to do anything to get the ball rolling.”
We pick Neil’s brain about how he gets creative and his overall process with writing for the visual medium.
“Sometimes I start with a simple drone and see if that triggers ideas and approach the scene from the sonics up. Or I’ll often build a cue, starting with a simple string or piano pad, feeling my way through the scene melodically, going note by note until I have a kind of map that can be fleshed out with other instruments. If I’m not sure what the scene or project needs I’ll even temp the scene myself, either with archive material of my own or by other composers and artists.
“I’m not afraid of the temp,” he continues. “It’s actually a great way to get inside the head of a director if they’ve been involved in putting it together. You can learn a lot about what works and doesn’t work in a scene, pick out hit points and even find out what tempo you should write at to begin with.
“Ultimately I have faith in the process. I do whatever I have to do, no matter how much music ends up on the cutting room floor. If I end up with a track like Teardrop, Angel or Risingson, and along the way I’ve gotten to work and hang out with inspiring and nice people – then it’s been worth it!”
When the project isn’t quite coming together, however, Neil has his own ways of getting things back on track.
“When a director or producer is saying, ’It’s not quite working’, or the picture edit is constantly changing and the cue has been hacked around so that it makes little sense anymore, I remind myself, ’I’ve been here before, I’ve been through this process, it will work out as long as I stay open-minded and positive.’”
Organisation is key
“My process of creativity involves being very organised,” Neil explains of his ongoing production methods. “I think that a lot of successful creative people are. Normally the walls of the studio are covered with schedules, the story of the show, pictures and my session folders are all nicely organised. Being organised with things like this allows me to be completely free when it comes to creativity. And it means when I have a good idea, I’m in a position where I can make the most of it.”
“I have a team around me that can help me too,” he adds. “It changes from project to project depending on the scale and type of score needed, but I have my full-time assistants Tom Popperwell and Gwydion Wheeler who help with programming, conforming, printing sessions for mixing etc. Tom will also assist with arranging, as will Drew Morgan, who I’ve worked with since Push. I’ll get them to jam along to my sketches or play in parts I’ve written, or simply make weird noises for me to play with. Drew is also a cellist and arranger so we’ll work together on orchestral arrangements.
“It’s fantastic to have a talented team around me,” he concludes, “although it does mean there are days when I’ve worked eight hours but still have actual music writing to do, meaning I’ll sometimes work twice the number of hours that everyone else does.”
Neil has also been finding success in the TV scoring sector and explains how that compositional process specifically works.
“These days, when I work on a TV show, I sketch through from the start to the end of the particular episode in one long Pro Tools session, on average that would be 35 minutes of music within a 50-60 minute episode with anything between 20 and 40 separate cues. I tend to call this my first ’impressionistic pass’; it’s like a road map melodically and sonically that will be the basis for the score.
“I won’t go past a cue until it feels right,” he adds, “or at least I feel that it points in the right direction. I’m sure I’m a pain to work with because if there is a moment that isn’t working, I won’t let us get past that until we get it right. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a flow, it’s seduction, you have to build to those glory moments from somewhere. I start at the beginning of the episode and progress through because when someone watches it, that’s how they are going to experience it. If I send them off on the wrong tangent mistakenly at a certain point, that’s going to confuse them and they’ll switch off.
“After that first pass,” he continues, “I’ll pass it to Tom to split into cues and he’ll start to flesh out sections that need additional work. I may also pass the session onto Drew and any other musicians I’m working with. They probably won’t know what each other is going to do, and I don’t know what they are going to do. I just let them follow their instincts. I’ll then cherry-pick the best ideas, fill in the gaps, make it all work together and most importantly, work it to picture.
“Then I sit down with the producer or director,” he says, “play them a run-through of the episode and take notes, make any changes necessary, rewriting any cues that aren’t working until we’re all happy and then go record if it’s that kind of score and finish off and mix.”
Working With People
Neil discusses the importance of relationships when it comes to production.
“It’s really important to be able to read people as a composer, and as a music producer. When working with directors and producers you have to tease out what they mean when they give you feedback, especially if they aren’t musical. It helps to be able to differentiate between what they say, and what they actually mean. It also helps me to read a character on screen and flesh them out and not just see them as a two-dimensional image. You need to get a sense of who they are, so when you are writing music for them it feels connected and authentic.”
Minimalism and the art of stripping back
You get the sense from talking to Neil that while he is totally immersed and in-the-moment with writing music, that he is also very conscious of his process. You can see the skills that he has picked up throughout his career influence the work he does now. Being able to do more with less is something he is currently putting a lot of thought into.
“I often have the tendency to throw the kitchen sink in,” he says, “but with Massive Attack, Dee would often encourage me to take things out. I still try to do that today. It’s like Jenga – trying to get to a point where you can pull as much away as possible and allow it to stay standing. It’s like, ’Where is the power in this track? Let’s not decorate around it.’ For me, it’s a very visual thing. If I’m trying to read something but in my peripheral vision I have someone frantically waving their hands around, it’s hard for me to focus.
“Music in film, TV or games is just one of many layers and they all have to work together,” Neil expands. “I have to have a sense of what everything else in the film is doing, otherwise when it all comes together we’re probably going to be standing on each other’s toes. Often when I’m sending stems for mixing, I’ll be sitting there and listening to two instruments playing at the same time and I’m left wishing the cue had been that simple.”
So how does he address this more minimalist tactic?
“There are two approaches,” he replies, “minimalist from the ground up, or minimalist by filtering layers out. I work the second way, throwing a lot of things in at first. If I didn’t have a deadline I could almost just keep going and adding new layers, I can get lost in that. But then I’ll strip things out and it’s like a breath of fresh air. I can see what’s happening on screen without the music distracting from it. I think, ’What are we trying to say here? There
has to be one simple headline.’ That’s the thing I’m currently trying to work on more than anything else at the moment, being minimalist.”
As our conversation comes to a close, Neil comes back to the idea that seems to be a running theme throughout our interview and his career.
“Like most things in my life and career, I’m following instinct. I can’t read music, I don’t know what the next note is going to be until I’ve played the first note. It comes to me as I go through the process. I work very hard and care deeply about everything I do, I think that’s why I’ve sustained a career in music this long.”