Electronic music DJ, record producer and three-time Grammy nominated remix artist Photek (a.k.a. Rupert Parkes) has always had a full plate when it comes to his career in the music industry, but his newest role as composer for the hit ABC crime drama How to Get Away with Murder definitely stretches his talents to the fullest. In a new exclusive interview with Music Times, Photek spoke to us about scoring the Viola Davis series, working on tight deadlines with short turnarounds, his relationship with showrunner Peter Nowalk, and taking on the composing world as an electronic producer.
How did you get into writing music and composing for film, TV, & video games? Was it something you'd wanted to do, or did the opportunity arise on its own?
Well, I think I've had a lot of inspirations from film scores and movies, you know, and I've always thought my music would suit it well. As time went by, more people would say "hey, you should be doing this, your music is very cinematic and it would make total sense." Then around 2001, I got asked to do the score for a TV pilot with Paramount Pictures and that was my first opportunity and I've loved it, you know. I think over the past few years I've gradually done more and more of it.
How did How to Get Away with Murder come about?
I got the script from my agent and I read the script on a flight to San Francisco, and I'm a pretty slow reader [laughs] but that script, I got through on the hour flight to San Francisco from LA, and I was immediately hooked. It's not often you get a script that's such a page turner and I think just reading, I immediately got a sense the pace of the music. So much was on the page that when I met with Pete Nowalk, the creator and showrunner, we were talking the same language as soon as we met. That's how that came about- I got the script and was just immediately hooked.
What's your professional relationship with showrunner Pete Nowalk like? It sounds like you have a pretty close working relationship with him. Can you speak a little more on that?
Yeah it is; Pete's got really great music sensibility and instinct as far as what the picture needs. He's just never wrong [laughs]! I never question what he asks me to do even when it's something pretty bizarre, and he's sort of led me down some really unusual music and picture decisions that I have total trust for what he's asking me to do. Throughout the process we talk in great detail down to, specifically he has particular instrumentation he doesn't like in a particular type of scene. In the process of doing an episode we'll have at least two meetings to discuss music and you're doing an episode a week pretty much, so we've spent a lot of time together. A lot of what I do is interpret his needs for the show. So we have a pretty close working relationship.
For each episode, there's a request for about 25-30 minutes of music to be produced in a 48- to 72-hour window ...
Yeah, that's about right!
... Is this a challenge or do you enjoy working under this type of pressure?
Well there's definitely a huge amount of pressure but I take a sort of sick pleasure of being able to get it done in the amount of time available [laughs]. I've spent my whole life making whatever music I feel like on whatever timeframe I feel like. I had my own record label when I was pretty young-in 1994 I started that label-and I merged into record producing after that. I've had a whole lifetime of doing whatever I want, and I actually loved the boundaries and structure of working on somebody else's project and trying to hit the mark for somebody else's needs, rather than getting up in the morning and you have a blank canvas every day. It's actually a much harder challenge to work with a blank canvas than one where you've got to fill in the gaps. So although it's extremely demanding and there's a lot of different skills and disciplines that you need to work with picture and work as part of a team. I like the challenge of making it happen in a short space; it's been actually liberating [laughs].
Does that process hinder or allow for more creative freedom?
It forces me to be more creative. There's no question that you're restricted, extremely so, but you have to come up with a creative solution. I guess it's like if you were a packaging designer trying to brand a product or something, you'd have all kinds of things that you weren't allowed to do, but it doesn't mean you can't come up with something genius that fits within those lines. I think it's a similar challenge to that. You've basically got to help the director tell the story and they're deciding what the story is. You know, with any slight nuance of sound you can make a very serious and intense scene laughable by putting the wrong sound with it. So you have a lot of power to f*ck it up. [Laughs] You could, very drastically. You have to be very creative. You have to satisfy yourself; you have to satisfy the director, the producers, the creators, and ultimately the picture. I found myself pushed to all kinds of things I wasn't sure I could do. I think it's added to my artistic abilities and my sort of range of skill.
Will this process continue for season 2?
I think so, yeah we've established some recurring themes or types of queues that we know will occur. But I think the whole crew, from the producers to Peter, I think we all want to make sure that things are fresh, so we probably won't have quite so many recurring themes that you might get in a more classic show. The show's very exciting; there's always new information happening, and I think if we all start to feel we've heard queue too recently, we'll all sort of come to the conclusion: "Well let's do something that does the same job but a completely new piece of music." So, I think it's going to still be pretty intense.
Is there anything else you share about season 2, are you excited about it?
I am super excited and word is I get to see new picture somewhere towards the end of July. I can't wait to see that! I'm full of questions about what's going to happen with the show next. I'll ask Pete and some of the other people in the crew, "how are you going to take this any further?" and they're like, "I don't know, but we'll figure it out" [laughs]. We've got some of the best writers in the business here and they always do, you know? Just when you think they've sort of boxed themselves into a corner with the story, they always find a way out. I admire their writing skills and their ability to keep you interested; it is quite an art.
Would you agree that, as an electronic producer composing music for TV and films, that you're in a minority of composers in this industry since most composers use orchestration and "classical" approaches?
I think that composing and scoring is generally a classical space, but there's definitely a cultural shift which television and film need to follow, so of course they need to apply some current, modern music into their creation. I think guys from like Hans Zimmer all the way to Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell and these kinds of guys, they use electronics. They've incorporated skillfully and tastefully electronic music into their composing work I mean Hans I think actually was originally a Fairlight programmer, a Fairlight operator so he has a very strong foundation of electronic music but obviously a lot of his work is this huge orchestral stuff. I think that they're all very aware and very capable and where the classical composers aren't, they're usually willing to work with somebody who's got expertise, who's specialized for a particular style or a particular area. I think they're very flexible in their approach and I think everyone's open to electronic music but by and large the majority of it is still classical. Having said that, it's pretty tough to score in these kinds of deadlines with a full orchestra, that's a real skill. You've got to be a very seasoned composer to make that happen. But I think everybody's very open to all kinds of music. I think you'll see more and more electronic music and then probably a backlash over the next few years where people want to go more classical, more organic sounding. There's always room for something in new in film and TV scores.
You've worked with some amazing talent over the years like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Daft Punk, and Bjork, to name just a few - are there any artists out there that you're hoping to work with in the future?
There are so many great artists out there, I think what I've decided is, my focus right now is composing so I tend to think less about that and more about what directors I'd like to work with or what producers. I'd like to work with somebody like Michael Mann on one of his epic films. I tend to think more now in pictures than I do with other musicians. I'm very lucky; the background I come from I got to work with Trent and obviously met Atticus Ross at the same time, they've both gone on to win Oscars [laughs] and score movies themselves. I guess that was a dream come true at the time and now my dreams have shifted focus a little bit. Now I think more like how I would love to score a Paul Greengrass Bourne movie or a Michal Mann crime thriller movie...I think in those terms more these days.
Are you working on anything else musically right now?
Well you know it all points to How to Get Away with Murder kind of looming and I've been taking some time out, actually working on music for my own record, which, you know, the pressure's off I can take as much time as I like making my own music now. So I've sort of been taking it easy in the few months off that I've had, working on my own music at the same time.
Do you have any advice for aspiring producers and/or musicians?
I guess I'm pretty new myself but I suppose my first step into this world was about you know, ten eleven years ago...I guess what I would say is, what I've learned is always be a positive force and never the guy who's complaining because it's pretty easy to feel the pressure of what you're being asked to do. So I'd say never whine, never complain, always say yes you can do it. I would say remember it's not your project, the picture and the producer or the director is the most important thing, so it's never about what you think about, it's what you can do for them. If I could give two bits of simple advice it would be that. Don't complain, always say you can do it, and remember it's not your project; you're playing a supporting role. If you have that in mind you'll have a fantastic time [laughs]!
For more information of Photek and his work, head over to his official website!