The inaugural interview of Theme Music: A Deep Dive is of Owen Hodgson, whose epic audio and video productions helped bring Theme Music to a new level. The focus of TM:ADD will vary from subject to subject, but each will be centered around a look back at key productions in the artist’s TM career.
Prior to Theme Music, you concentrated (almost?) entirely on original music. How did you find transitioning to doing as many cover tunes as you did? Was it the challenge of trying to reproduce the original instrumentation that intrigued you?
Funnily enough, when I initially heard about Theme Music in 2014, I wasn’t interested. I’d only done maybe three covers in my life at that point, and just didn’t think it would be my sort of thing. A little while later, I was introduced to Matt Brown online – a mutual friend had suggested he contact me about some non-musical issue he was having trouble with, so we ended up chatting. Naturally he mentioned TM, and invited me to check it out. It would have been rude to say no, so I joined and listened to a few things. I was impressed by the quality of music being created, but covers weren’t my thing, really. After a couple of weeks, though, two things happened. During the “New & Old” theme, Mark McCrite had recorded a beautiful solo version of “New Horizons” by the Moody Blues – one of my favourites – and I kept going back to listen, and found myself itching to add the string parts. Secondly, a new theme of “Sworn To Secrecy” came in – and I had a new-ish original song that fit the bill. So I went out and filmed some appropriate scenes for that around my local area, and made a video for it, and then took Mark’s cover and threw some Chamberlin sounds onto it. My first post and first hijack in the space of four days in May 2014!
So my introduction to doing covers was kinda slow. Many of my early posts were originals, plus coincidentally some of the themes that came up around then matched the covers I’d done prior to TM, so I had some ready-made posts that I just made videos for. My first actually-recorded-for-TM cover came in June 2014 (“Who Are You Now?”), and for that I did a simplified arrangement which echoed the original’s sounds.
Certainly the challenge of reproducing existing sounds and arrangements has been a big driver for me, when covering certain artists. I get a perverse pleasure out of listening in detail to a recording, figuring out what’s doing what, and then trying to match it as closely as possible. I’m very arrangement-oriented in my musical interests, so, if you like, the atmosphere of a recorded song can be as important as the lyrics and melody for me. So yes, I often try to capture that same feel – or exactly the same sounds – in covers. Or sometimes even exaggerate that.
So to answer the question more succinctly: transitioning was very gradual, not to mention unexpected, and the challenges developed along with that transition.
You worked primarily as a solo artist, but of course, had a long-distance musical partnership with Steve Jones as well. I imagine that was somewhat beneficial in preparing you for international, online collaborations. Did you find it challenging to manage the dynamics of collaborations that were more than duos?
Ha! Strangely it was my hijacking of some of Steve Jones’s acoustic recordings that set me off on that path. Certainly I had no problems with the idea of international collaborations – it wasn’t daunting, other than having to learn songs I didn’t previously know and record within a short timescale. It took me a little while to get a handle on exactly what was expected for a TM collaboration. So, for instance, the first few times I was invited to collaborate, I worried that I wasn’t note- or sound- perfect, or that I wasn’t up to the standard of everyone else. Typical new guy fears!
When did you first start making videos for your music? Please talk a bit about your initial forays, hardware/software, and so forth. When did Final Cut Pro X become the editor of choice?
Prior to TM I’d made exactly two “music videos.” They comprised odd bits of footage of nature that I had lying around, or still photos of birds and things. I didn’t like making them for my songs at all, as I didn’t want to fix the imagery for listeners. I’m one of those who prefers to be able to create my own pictures as I listen to a song. But it turns out that the first one I made “properly” was for my first TM post – “Whispers To The Wind” – another original. For that I went out, filmed some bits and pieces locally that vaguely matched the lyrics, then realised I probably ought to be in it myself. Which was a terrifying prospect. I filmed myself walking and miming, and also kneeling on the floor in front of the top panel of my piano for a headshot. And then used FCP X to hide as much of my features as possible, by blending layers and so on. I really didn’t like the idea of being on camera, and it was an uncomfortable experience both filming and editing, let along posting!
I was already using FCP X for other video projects prior to TM, and I’d upgraded from FCP 7 a few years earlier. I’d also played with iMovie a little, but found it wanting in terms of running multiple clips simultaneously. It took a little while to get used to the iMovie-like interface of FCP X, but once into it, found it pretty easy to operate.
What song for Theme Music was the most challenging to record?
Hard one to answer, as most things I’ve done have been a challenge in one way or another, but one that stands out just for its insanity was the stay-at-home Themesters’ hijack of Rocket Man for Themestock III. I think it was probably on the Thursday before Themestock that I finally accepted that I was not going to magically jump on a plane and somehow get to Atlanta for the show! I knew that the show was going to close with Rocket Man, and figured that the stay-at-home people could probably do as good a job – so I put out a call for anyone and everyone who wanted to be involved. I threw together an extended version of Elton John’s original song, with a few extra repeats at the end, and just asked everyone to play and/or sing to it, and make video.
Somehow, between Friday and Sunday, vocals, instrumentation and video from I think 20 Themesters turned up. So it was a pretty tight turnaround for getting all that mixed, and the video made. I think I was still up after midnight, UK time, on Sunday, mixing and video editing. However, for it to be a proper hijack, I wanted to include a clip of the actual Themestock Rocket Man performance. So I was up again at 5 am, running a video-capture of the end of the show from the live-stream, while making adjustments to the mix and arrangement. Incredibly, it was all done and posted by 8 am, ready for the Atlanta crowd to see when they woke up.
Which video was the most challenging to make?
Oh there have been lots! Some were complicated from an ideas point of view, for example the “walking” segments in the “Walk This Way / Stayin’ Alive” mash up. Others have been challenging from a looks / dynamics point of view. “Closer” (Nine Inch Nails) was an example of that – trying to capture some of the creepy vibe of the original video, create consistent looks for the two voices in it, and also provide a visual progression in keeping with the audio. Storyboard videos like “Thrillseeker” offer continuity and visual challenges, such as the “hanging over a canyon” shot, while for things like “Let Me Entertain You” or “I’m Just A Singer In A Rock & Roll Band” the challenge is to create a stage feel for something that was actually filmed in one’s living room.
With as many grand productions that you’ve spearheaded and been a part of, are you able to play favorites? If so, whaddaya got?
I think “Rocket Man” will remain a favourite – I think it was the point where I felt like I was part of Theme Music. Living far far away, and out of sync with the majority of group members, means that being a foreign member can be quite isolating. And around Themestock that year, it felt even more so. So doing that stay-at-home hijack seemed to bring people together a little. “Tell Me” (by Larry Cox, for Larry Cox!) is another – turning that from an idea into the thing it became was a lot of fun. Wrangling 47 contributors into a hopefully nicely balanced mix … yeah, I like doing that.
Also I have to mention Mull Of Kintyre – a certain Bob Fenster put it together in memory of the late Scott Morris. It was the song that launched me on the road to learning to play piano, aged 4, so I shoehorned my way on board and ended up mixing, and doing a couple of vocal spots. Not as big a collaboration as some of the others I could name, but one that has a special place for me, and I was very happy to be involved.
Of course, I do have some favourites among the collaborations I initiated for my own purposes too, but we’re gonna come to them below.
For a couple of years the giant “all hands on deck” song was in vogue and you did videos and/or mixes for several. Can you talk about the challenges of those productions?
When fabled Themester Jonathan Aronson was about to turn 50, his partner Velvet got in touch asking if I could put together something for his birthday – I was still relatively new to Theme Music and didn’t feel terribly confident assembling bands. So I called upon the help of that same Fenster guy, who took charge of the music side of things, while I manhandled the video.
Back in the day, it was very common for video to be submitted in all possible formats. I had mp4, mov, avi, wmv, mpeg2, and probably a handful of others too. Not only were all these formats entertaining to extract, but the aspect ratio tended to vary – some were 4:3, some 16:9, some vertical, some horizontal… And then the variety of frame-rates would add additional interest. Final Cut Pro is pretty good at interpreting frame-rates into the master project, however it doesn’t always do it perfectly. For example, a 24fps video will often be “conformed” to 25fps, which means that a second’s worth of frames (at 24fps) will only occupy 24/25ths of a second at 25fps. This slightly shortens the clip over time and means that it will drift out of sync through its length. And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s anything being out of sync. So one of the tedious jobs in video editing is stretching / contracting clips and making sure they’re in perfect sync from start to finish. This is often a process of trial and error – and when you have something like 50 different clips to synchronise, quite time consuming.
In addition, some members film directly to their cameras or phones. So there was the added task of extracting audio and sending that back to the audio project for inclusion in the mix – occasionally the format led to all kinds of audio problems, on top of video issues. In particular those times when the video format was something ancient, and needed conversion through some esoteric software, which wasn’t good at handling audio, leading to clipping and other weird and wonderful artefacts. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to extract audio by playing the original format video through a recorder! Likewise creating a video from screen capture.
The Aronson 50 video itself created some challenges. With 57 people, some sending complete videos, some sending snippets, and many sending messages for the end of the song, it was one heck of a pile to dig through. The choruses each featured a different massed vocal choir, who all needed to match, visual for audio; there were featured soloists who came in and out of prominence; Velvet had sent a series of photos to include; and somehow I wanted it to look visually appealing, and not just a bunch of boxes on a black background. Fortunately, Velvet had also sent a clip from a beach walk, and I was able to use the sand as a backdrop, and then softened the edges of all the clips with a feathered border. The positioning of the many clips was determined by aspect ratio for the most part – I tried to balance left and right sides as closely as possible. It was almost perfect! As I’m sure you’ll attest, with huge productions, something almost always goes wrong. In this case, if I recall, one contributor’s video never got to me, and I also failed to add a title with a special message to Jonathan from Velvet at the end of the song. Red faced.
One drawback to lots of video is that even the most powerful computers eventually start to lag, when trying to run 15 or 20 clips in parallel. This means that synchronisation becomes a massive problem, if the computer simply can’t display the clip in real time. It’s not safe to use the clip’s own audio waveform to try to match with the song, as often incoming video is ever so slightly out of sync with its own audio. To work around this, I usually deactivate all but one clip at a time, make sure it’s fully in sync, then move on to another, only reactivating all of them for a full render at the end.
It was a great learning exercise – both in the techniques department, but finding out about the characters of many Themesters from their contributed messages for the end of the video!
Tech talk! You use a Mac for recording and mixing audio and editing video? Any interesting specs (model, OS, memory)? What software do you use other than FCP X for video making?
For a few years I used a G5 iMac to run Cubase, but in 2010 I got hold of a Mac Pro (mid-2010, 2 x 2.4 GHz Quad-Core Xeon; 24GB RAM; OSX 10.7.5). Of course, I discovered that none of my 2006-2007 software worked on the new operating system that shipped with the Mac Pro, so I had to upgrade, which cost me a bunch more than I’d anticipated. For that reason, I’ve “frozen” my system and am not upgrading anything again until someone pays me to do so! I use FCP X (again, an old version so as to stay compatible, which means I’m missing out on the latest plug-ins!) for general editing, Motion for things like 3D movement and plug-in creation, and occasionally Compressor to convert file formats. I render out from FCP X to a MOV file, but then use MPEG Streamclip to convert to mp4s of various resolutions and file sizes, for uploading to YouTube, etc.
What DAW do you use? Any extra software for audio?
Cubase 6 is 99% of my DAW software, though I’ve occasionally used GarageBand on the laptop when away from home. Running within Cubase I have a lot of virtual instrument software: Kontakt, Battery, M-Tron, Play, etc. And within those a whole bunch of sample libraries, such as pianos, orchestral sounds, synths, drums, you name it. When I went digital, I got hold of good quality versions of the sounds I wanted most, and then a decent selection of everything else.
Can you give an overview of your recording set-up? What kind of keyboards, microphone(s), recording interface?
My current set up mostly dates from late 2006, with a handful of upgrades and additions in the meantime. I have an Edirol UA-25 audio interface, which gives me two audio inputs plus MIDI handling. For a long time I used a pair of instrument mics as my main audio input, but got hold of a CAD M179 in 2015 for vocals. My main keyboard input is a Fatar Studiologic VMK-188, a full-size, 88-note, piano-weighted keyboard, which is plugged straight into the interface. As this has aged, it has begun sending out spurious MIDI data (such as pitch-bend commands) which can be entertaining while recording, and also require some clean up in the recorded data! I also have a two-octave, play-it-on-your-knee MIDI keyboard (Samson Graphite 25) for those times when leaping back and forth across the room is a nuisance. I actually bought this for Themestock IV, so that I could play samples back through my laptop during my spot in the show. But aside from a number of the keys working loose, it’s proved useful at home too.
I also have my old keyboards from the 1980s, which are more or less on display. They are occasionally powered up if I need particular sounds: a Logan String-Orchestra string synth, probably dating from around 1980; a Roland Juno-2 synth from 1986; a Mirage Ensoniq sampler of similar age; and finally a Casio HT-700 home keyboard for all the cheesy sounds of the 1980s!
The Edge of Nowhere
11 July 2014
First of all, fuck you, you wrote this thing at 17? I’d be impressed by just the overt homages, but there’s tons of other things going on here that go past tribute. Returning to a song you wrote 25 years previously, you must have a fondness for the song. Does that go beyond nostalgia for you?
My relationship with this song is an odd one. I think the TM-era recording counts as my fourth attempt at it, yet I’ve never really quite liked it. Perhaps because it’s an overt homage. I don’t think nostalgia comes into it – just a long-frustrated sense that I never recorded it to my satisfaction. Nevertheless, its 25th anniversary provided a prod to get on with it.
Although the experimentation of The Beatles was its inspiration, writing and recording this song certainly pushed my attempts to incorporate various soundscapes and styles within a single song. Especially back in 4-track days! And if you’ve heard other solo stuff of mine, you’ll know it’s a thing that happens fairly regularly. It’s probably safe to say that many of my most significant musical influences were those that taught me, “yes, you can do that” when it came to throwing all manner of sounds and ideas at a song.
Anything else in the archive you might resurrect at some point?
I’ve got maybe 20 songs that I wrote back in the 1980s/90s (some recorded back in 4-track days, some not) that might be worth revisiting one day. Actually, a handful of that ilk made it onto my 2017 album “Erratic”, including The Edge of Nowhere, along with some more recent compositions. Whether I’ll ever get around to the others remains to be seen. I’m no longer the angsty teen I was!
The Divine Comedy
Our Mutual Friend
12 November 2014
You went with the literal interpretation of the song on this one. I imagine that was somewhat daunting. Have you done it with any other videos?
Many songs by The Divine Comedy lend themselves to storyteller videos, though I think this may have been my first. Yes, it was a little daunting, because I was committing to a lot of filming, and a lot of being on screen – a thing that I was still getting used to at the time. I’ve since done storytelling videos for a handful of other songs – mostly Divine Comedy, unsurprisingly! “Come Home Billy Bird” and “Thrillseeker” are the most recent.
You did a lot of shots in blur-o-vision — was that to mask the settings that had to pass for particular locations, a stylistic choice connected to memories, something else?
Several reasons, and you’ve hit on a couple above. First of all, I wanted to convey a sense of memory for the scenes prior to the narrator waking up – whereupon things come into focus in the cold light of day. So pre-waking, things are blurry, warm and cosy, and maybe slightly drunken. Afterwards, things are sharp, cold and sober, if a little unreal in a different way. (And yes, I really did run about a mile from the middle of town to the river for the final sequence – with pauses for breath – though the version posted to TM was shortened, musically, by about 50%.)
Secondly, the “she” in the video was played by my better half, Linda, but I didn’t want to imply any autobiographical storyline with her in real life! So the blurring served to anonymise anyone specific. Thirdly, yes, the locations would not pass without some filtering. Although we did visit a local pub for various shots, it was not a nightclub, and I had to add flashing lights courtesy of an overlay of one of the kids’ flashy LED toys. Likewise, another of the nightclub scenes was filmed in our bathroom, with a barstool, at night, to take advantage of lots of reflections from the same LED toys! Blur-o-vision helpfully hid the fact there was a shower cubicle, mirror and sink in shot!
My favorite two shots — the back seat of the car (I assume that was stock footage, but beautifully executed) and the silhouettes. No question, but feel free to comment. 🙂
The car footage is real. Linda and I drove the same route through town twice, each taking turns to drive, with the other sitting in the back seat, pretending to converse across the car, and the camera mounted precariously in between. The two halves of the footage were fortunately similar enough in timing to blend down the middle, and the resulting composite had the anonymising blur added, which helped conceal the join. So yes, you’re looking at West High Street in Inverurie. Twice.
The silhouettes for the “privately we danced” lyrics were again Linda and I in our spare bedroom with a bedside lamp shining up at us from the bed. The failing-to-keep-our-balance bit was done by rotating the footage in FCP, probably because falling over onto a Lego-covered floor was not on the agenda! Ah the reality of behind the scenes!
The list of instrument credits at the end is pretty staggering. Was that an unusual number even for you?
Actually … heh. I don’t normally list all the sounds I use in a production, preferring “Other Stuff” to cover all my noises and doings. But on that occasion I figured why not? This was one of those songs where I tried a note-for-note replication of the original arrangement. A little unusual, but less so than you might think, is the use of chamber strings (a string quintet in this case) plus a five-part orchestral string section (that’s ten separate parts just for starters!). But yes, that’s a typical list of voicings for an orchestral track – they’re all created as separate tracks, so why not list them out every so often? I often joke that in Theme Music I’ll be asked to “just add orchestra” to a song, as if I have a keyboard that just plays back a full, 36-part arrangement if I sit at it for five minutes. The majority of my orchestral arrangements are actually created the Beethoven way – by sitting down and writing out the notes in the sequencer by hand, one part at a time. And if I’m replicating an existing arrangement, that also entails listening over and over to each phrase, trying to pick out each and every note for every instrument in the original.
21 December 2014
I was unfamiliar with this project until you posted this video. Pretty epic. ONLY 12:44, eh?
I think this might still be the longest one-song, solo post in TM… maybe? 😉 Though I think Mr. Brogan gave me a run for my money in 2017.
Was this (original) project popular in the UK? If not I’m guessing that your in road was Justin Hayward’s participation. What have the Moody Blues meant to you as an artist?
Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds was very popular over here. It came at the end of the prog/concept album period, and might actually have been a little anachronistic in that regard. It was a double album based, of course, on the novel by H. G. Wells, narrated by Richard Burton, and featuring many popular musicians of the day, including Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy), David Essex, Julie Covington and others. I think I became vaguely aware of it in the early 1980s, before my interest in The Moody Blues was sparked. The orchestral-plus-rock sound was automatically epic and powerful, and later when I rediscovered it, it was very “me”!
I think I discovered The Moody Blues when I was around 13. 1985 or so. In the early 80s, I’d been drawn by pop – The Police, Adam & The Ants, etc., and a little later, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, etc. Then, one day, I heard some weird stuff going on downstairs at home. Two things struck me about the sounds coming from the hi-fi. One was that some bits sounded like a bunch of guys pretending to be choirboys (turns out that was “The Question”), but the other … A thing was going on – it was organic sounding, kinda like cellos or violins, but not quite – it was sliding from note to note in a surreal way (“Legend Of A Mind”). That sound, which I later discovered was a Mellotron Mk II, and the very natural collection of acoustic instrumentation and vocal variety in the band, hooked me. I think that balance of sounds in their early 1967-72 work was a huge inspiration – they played everything themselves, didn’t rely on session musicians, weren’t guitar-driven all the time, and had four lead singers, none of whom made it “all about them”. That’s probably why the Moodies always had an esoteric following – they were a band first and foremost, were not a vehicle for any one individual, and guitar was not the main feature – it was an instrument among many.
How do you decide when to use emulations and when to do the real instrument (assuming you have it, like the cello)?
Depends what I’m looking for, and whether I can play the real thing sufficiently well not to embarrass myself. In Forever Autumn, the original song uses real cellos as part of the string section, but they also feature quite up front in various parts. In this instance, I used my sample library strings for the bulk of the sounds, but in those up-front cello parts, with lots of tremolo, staccato and gritty bow-sounds, I scraped along with them, for a bit of added texture.
I also used cello in lieu of electric guitar in this recording. There are some very coarse and loud lead guitar solo phrases in the original, and of course, not being a guitarist, I had a choice of sampled guitar (rarely satisfying) or making something up to take its place. So I ended up playing the parts on cello, fixing my duff-notes and pitching the whole lot up an octave digitally, and running through a distortion effect. Not-very-insta-loud-guitary-sounding-thing. Likewise, I ran my flute through a distortion to similar effect.
Although some members of TM say that they don’t care about how much attention their songs get, I find that hard to believe (why post anything then?). But when you do something this long, how much of it is a personal challenge as opposed to for the audience?
Actually I think this was more of a personal challenge to the audience than to me – I mean, who’s gonna wilfully give up 13 minutes of their life for this?! 😉
Seriously, though, it was one of those “can’t miss” moments. A song I liked, from an album I loved, and one week to do it in. The question was, should I just play it on piano, or do the single version (4 minutes), or do the album version (9 minutes), do the album version and insert tons of extra bits from War Of The Worlds into it? You know me.
But here’s the thing. As I said earlier, covers were not my thing at all. It was a combination of the elements of Theme Music that drew me in – posting originals, hijacking and adding bits to others, but mostly the positive atmosphere and the feedback and obvious enjoyment people were getting from each others’ music. When I started doing covers properly myself, it was partly because people genuinely seemed to enjoy them, and the feedback was encouraging. Looking at it from an investment model, if I put a lot of time and effort into something, and a lot of people get something out of it, that makes me feel good, and it feels like it’s worth it. Conversely, if I put five minutes into something, I’m not going to worry too much if no-one cares. So certainly the feedback is important for me personally, because it drives the desire to do more.
With that in mind, approaching a song like this one was a calculated risk. I had a feeling that not many people would know it; I knew I was going to be self-indulgent and do something stupidly long; it was coming up to Christmas… But I think the momentum was there that I could be realistic in my expectations about it – so I didn’t care too much whether it was passed over or not.
Part of the joy of covers in TM for me has been seeing how well I can do something in as short a time as possible. That has played out in various ways – either having a fully-fledged song up for a new theme within 24 hours, or packing a dozen full productions into a theme, or, like this one, waiting until half way through the theme and then panicking!
I started recording on the Wednesday evening – and believe me when I say that it takes quite a while just to get the drum track done on a 13 minute long song – I don’t use loops, but did use a little copy/paste on this one. On more than one occasion I decided to give up. And my parents were visiting… But somehow, by the middle of Friday, the music and vocals were done, and all I had left to do was a quarter hour of video. The sung sections were relatively easy – I took my camera out to the riverside near my house, and did some lip-sync. But I was stuck with how to fill the long instrumental and narrated segments. Naturally, the only option available was to illustrate the story by having Martians invade London.
Out came Photoshop, some family holiday photos, and some judicious editing. I drew up a couple of tripod fighting machines, and placed them into the family photos, adding smoke, building damage, etc. Then these went into the video, with camera shake, overlays and so on, to try to make things visually interesting. But who wanted to watch 10 minutes of static Martians trashing London? I needed a reward for those brave folks who’d made it through the whole video. So yes, that 10 second long segment where a fighting machine walks into view down a street and turns and rises up … took the whole of Saturday! My poor laptop was straining at the seams, coping with the resulting 50-odd layer Photoshop file. (Before-and-after Photoshop images are on my page on Facebook!) Never did I imagine that joining an online music group would result in me figuring out the mechanics of how a three-legged machine with no knees can turn a corner. Posted it on Saturday evening. So not too bad – it even had a few listens!
The Divine Comedy
30 April 2015
At what point in the process do you start thinking about the video?
Well it varies. Usually I don’t think much about it while doing the music, but sometimes I’ll get a visual idea as I’m going, and maybe adapt that afterwards. This song is a good example of not having a clue what to do at the outset.
I’d considered recording it for the “Countries” theme, but decided against it because a) the vocals were too high and powerful for me, and b) the arrangement in the original was so over the top that I’d never be able to reproduce it. And there’s no point doing a song like this in any less epic way than the original. So I did “A New England” instead. And then I played “Sweden” again, and yelled the high vocal line along with it. Then, being moderately surprised that I a) hit the note, and b) hit the note without ripping my vocal cords out of my throat, I failed to remember to be daunted by the arrangement and – you know how that goes.
So suddenly I had a recording of Sweden in a variation of its epic eccentricity, and not the foggiest idea what to do for video. Nipping over to Sweden was not an option (though easier for me than for many other Themesters) – maybe I should have called Tobbe and asked him to lip-sync on location. Stock footage is always avoided whenever possible… Huge mad orchestra. Crazy lyrics about a country I’ve never been to… I took a shower, and while in there, realised that all orchestras have conductors… Maybe I could pretend to conduct, and … dunno. Photoshop? I … uh.
I was towelling my hair dry when I looked in the mirror. My hair was stuck up all over the place, in a mad-scientist / mad-conductor sort of way, and the video idea was born.
The Conductor makes an appearance! What kind of lighting do you use for your impressively lit shots in this?
So the set-up here was in my bedroom. I hung a black sheet over the wardrobe doors behind me, set the camera up on a tripod across the room, with a moderate zoom to head-and-shoulders. Behind my head I had a second tripod, onto which I’d sorta-hung a portable security light assembly that I use for extra illumination when needed. This second tripod was actually lower than my head at its fullest extent, so I had to sort of crouch down a little to get the light right behind my head. So for the pure conductor scenes, that’s all the lighting used, with some editing of contrast in FCP. For the verses, a bedside lamp is on at the side, as is my laptop screen, to give some front lighting. In fact, you can tell where the laptop is, because I keep casually glancing at it to remind myself of the lyrics. The piano shot works in a similar way, though obviously not in the bedroom! 😉
The composition of the overlays is lovely in this (e.g., 1:07 to 1:10). How does the arrangement of the music influence your visual choices?
In most videos, I try to emphasise the audio with visual cues that match in intensity and structure. So the opening blasts are accompanied by dramatic visuals that change on each beat – the piano chord-hits, the conductor flailing in various orientations, etc. Into the verses, things calm down and the visuals follow suit. So there’s one long shot of the lip-sync vocals, with slow gesticulations to match. Into the chorus, things ramp up again into the fast cuts for background, with overlays on top, to emphasise the various vocals in the audio. The middle section has a different feel again, as it drops off tempo and becomes more flowing – spontaneous choice of wing-like arm movements while filming and a more expressive piano-mime accentuate that feel. And then the addition of vertical blur effects on the insane vocal segments help to give the visual a distinctive edge during those bits.
Pet Shop Boys
4 December 2015
How long did it take you to design that awesome book cover?
Hahaha! A couple of hours, I think. I don’t normally have that much cash lying around, so the video and book necessitated a trip to the bank. I actually made a mess of the cover – I’d measured everything very precisely, then got it completely wrong. If you look carefully, the front cover sticks out beyond the pages of the book by about a centimetre! For anyone curious, the book is actually “A Practical Introduction To Optical Mineralogy” by Gribble & Hall.
Normally when you do a solo production you don’t bring in the hired guns for backing vocals? Do you remember why you did that here? Trying to be inclusive/fun?
Normally I’m very private and secretive about songs, yes. In part it’s because I like to get things done quickly, and opening a production up will usually mean it won’t be posted until the last day of the theme. I’ve never been keen on dump-day posts, so I try to avoid. But this song is so very tongue in cheek, and really needed a proper massed vocal sound for the final choruses and to enliven the video. And yes, I was feeling all cheerful and stuff.
Interestingly, only a third of my vocalists could make video in the time available… but I managed to include everyone visually by scouring the others’ past contributions and finding a snippet each where they were singing “oooh” or “make” (or something visually similar) and inserting those in the appropriate spots.
Loved the glimpse of British Monopoly (assuming it’s called Monopoly!) as well as the infomercial bits. Did you have to practice that creepy smile?
Imagine how weird it felt to discover that Monopoly originated in the States! How can anyone have not had the joy of buying St. Pancras station? The creepy smile is totally natural, and how I normally smile at people. Wait! Don’t leave!! I have more things to say!
Big PSB fan or just recognize that Neil Tennant is a perfect choice for you?
I’ve pretty much been a PSB fan since “West End Girls” – though I wasn’t sure about that one at the start. I never really considered myself a match for Tennant, as he’s a generally higher range to me, but the rough-edged, slightly bleak sound of 1980s/1990s Pet Shop Boys always appealed.
Strangely, though you’d probably expect The Moody Blues to have been my route to orchestral music, it was actually the Pet Shop Boys. Their 1988 song “Left To My Own Devices” was a mostly-spoken-word, electronic dance song, but with an orchestra doing stupid, totally over the top things in the middle. One of those “yes, you can do that” moments.
Badly Drawn Boy
You Were Right
23 December 2015
The original is one of my favorite songs of the century. In fact I first covered it in 2007. I don’t know whether it speaks to you in the same way as it does to me, but a more general question: do you find it more challenging, rewarding, whatever to do songs that you’re passionate about?
This was a Secret Santa given to me by Eytan Mirsky. I had a vague memory of the song from its time in the charts, but otherwise had very little exposure to Badly Drawn Boy. So this was a challenge to learn and make the most of, over a day or two in December 2015!
I suppose I approach different songs in different ways. There are some which are unalterable in my mind, so I have to cover them as accurately as possible, maybe adding a little me along the way, but keeping the essence of the original. There are others that are open for reinterpretation, though I’ll often try to keep the spirit or energy of the original in whatever I do to them. This is particularly the case for guitar-based originals, where I can’t hope to do a recreation. I definitely get a pleasure from both types of production – but I also know that I won’t attempt a song unless I know I can do it justice in some form. So yes – doing a song like Sweden above, which I really like, gives me a thrill of “Wow, I actually managed to pull that off!” Something like “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” where my arrangement was very different to the original, is satisfying in a different way – making something new out of something I can’t reproduce.
I usually only do songs I’m fairly passionate about – however I’ve done many backing tracks for other people, of songs that I’ve not known before, or (occasionally) don’t like! Those can often be the most interesting, because whichever way I go – reproduction or interpretation – they offer different styles to pick apart and analyse. “How would I do this differently?” “How on Earth are those sounds interacting?” So there are challenges and rewards in most songs, one way or another.
Lots of live instruments on this one. How motivational has Theme Music been for you to develop your instrumental skills?
Before Theme Music, I’d never imagined taking a bass guitar face plate off, soldering some joints, re-assembling it, re-stringing it, and then playing a Queen cover with it. But I definitely have now! And I do attribute that to TM: on the technical side, seeing other people repairing their instruments, and realising that a basic repair was not beyond my abilities; on the performance side, sure, I’m not a bassist, but I’ll give it a go, because you can’t learn unless you try. I know I’ve said repeatedly that I’m not a guitarist – this Badly Drawn Boy cover is ample evidence of that – but again, there’s nothing stopping me from tuning it to DADDAD, and strumming one-finger chords to get the sounds I need. Hey, if non-keyboardists can play three-finger chords on keyboards, it’s only fair! 😉
The violins were fun to do. Again, I don’t play, but I can work out finger positions for four or five notes with sufficient accuracy to record, so why not? Adds texture and is fun!
Poor Madonna. Good place to talk about the challenges of green screen and masking. Not exactly sure what my question is, but feel free to answer the question I should offer here.
This video actually uses blue-screen masking. Or maybe blue-sky masking. For the scene where I’m sat atop the local motte-and-bailey mound, the blue sky created a perfect keying colour for one of the blends! I’ve used the sky a couple of times for that effect in TM videos, and indeed grass on a couple of occasions. The Madonna-crying shot was stolen from maybe La Isla Bonita, over which I composited a shot of myself reflected in the front window of my house. Compositing is one of the most useful techniques available – the variety of options usually provides one that will do the job I’m looking for.
Masking is another very common trick. The string triplet in this video are all masked – I tried to position myself so that there would be no overlap, but that’s almost always impossible, so there are some infringements between versions of me. I usually try to minimise the visual impact by feathering the edges, and moving boundaries to suit, if possible.
The most interesting challenges come when combining green screen and masking. Pianos and green screen are one of those, as the reflection of one’s green screen in a shiny piano front leads to the background leaking through the piano – and the only way to fix that is to create a reflection of the background and put that behind the piano front, suitably masked to shape. And then you realise that the piano has shiny surfaces pointing in at least three directions, which means three separate reflections. Ahhh, we learn geometry at school for a reason, and the reason is piano reflections.
Until literally yesterday, my green screen video technique has involved two lengths of bright green cloth bought from a local dressmaker’s shop, and some masking tape. But I have a real screen arriving in a few days – plus lighting! Hopefully this will improve the video quality available for keying, particularly when filming deep in the recesses of the house. Low-light graininess and green screen are not great bedfellows.
The other Madonna trick in this video is her dancing in my neighbour’s house. While I do have the ability to track motion in Motion, for the short segment in this video, I manually positioned the clip in the doorway, positioning it frame-by-frame. While this is tedious, and not perfectly accurate, it did the job, and probably worked a little better than motion tracking, as the Madonna video was itself in motion, as far as camera positions and subject were concerned.
Uncle Green/3 Lb. Thrill
The Star Room
27 December 2015
When did you first become interested in astronomy? What does the interest/hobby provide for you?
I have a casual interest in astronomy, which extends to having a telescope or two in the house (obtained via chance loans/gifts rather than intent). I’ve also been known to seek out comets and meteors when they’re around, but I wouldn’t say I was an avid stargazer. The constellation-themed locomotive nameplates often visible in TM videos come from my days managing a railway company.
That said, when I was given The Star Room to cover for Rycopy, I knew I wanted to visually twist whatever the meaning of “star room” was, and immediately imagined a big viewing port on a star ship. And that led to the huge star-field animations, built and animated in Motion. Most of the video is randomly-generated star fields, but for the final segment, with its reference to Orion, I wanted to be specific. So I built the constellation in 3D within Motion, with stars at the correct distances, nebulae split in Photoshop and inserted in 3D layers, etc., so as to be able to fly through it.
There’s more beauty to be found in the universe than in any of humanity’s creations. We can just hope to reflect some of it in the art we create ourselves.
One of my favorite things about covering songs by friends or artists that aren’t untouchable is getting to see/hear/read reactions. You’ve heard from Thomas Walsh of Pugwash and the Duckworth Lewis Method. Have you had any other brushes with fame, and what was your reaction to those encounters?
The only other I can think of was receiving an email from Mike Pinder, the Moody Blues’ original Mellotronist, who’d heard an original song of mine back in 2009, and wrote to let me know he liked it. Which was unexpected, and nice! Generally, though, I’m very unmoved by the idea of the original artist hearing a cover I’ve done. Sure, it’s great if they do, and hopefully they like it enough not to sue me, but it’s never on my mind when making a cover, and I absolutely never push anything I’ve done in their direction.
Here’s an example of a cover where you brought in far more instrumentation than the original. What goes into the decision making process about whether/how to deviate?
I mentioned above that sometimes a song is (to me) unassailable. I can’t and won’t change it, because all the elements that make it what it is to me are right there in the recording. For a song like The Star Room, which I’d not heard before, and didn’t have any history for me, there’s more of a blank slate to work with. I didn’t want to lose the feel of the song, but knew it would be part of a much bigger project, and also my only audible contribution to the overall result. I was also conscious that the songs either side were much much heavier, so it needed to provide a contrast to them, but not just as a quiet interlude.
At the same time, there was clearly a story to the song – the anticipation, dread, and simultaneous welcoming of age, as it creeps inexorably towards us. I didn’t know exactly what the story was at the time, but it was clearly a thoughtful and personal exposition by the writer – something perhaps made even more poignant by another 15-20 having passed by since it was written. Whatever the exact details, there was both a calm and a massive amount of emotion and energy in it, and I wanted to really run with all of that. So I tried to use every instrument I had on hand to give some texture and contrast to all those sections.
And also, it was for Matt’s 50th, so I wanted to go all out. If you’re gonna give someone a present, it’s gotta be a good one.
Saxomophone? Have you played that on many other tracks (I can’t recall any)? Do you basically collect every instrument that you come across?
I do tend to collect instruments! In fact, my sax, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and bass have all come from my sister, who tried them all out over the years, then passed them on! The sax also made an appearance (exactly one note) on my hijack of Scott Erickson’s “Rio”, and later on a backing I did for a cover of “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”. It’s one of those instruments that I really ought to practice, rather than use it just for sound effects.
7 July 2016
Epic collaboration featuring the many women of Theme Music. What was the genesis of the idea?
It goes way back to December 2014. I’d been asked to join in on a song which was going to highlight and document the process of making a collaboration. A little way into the process, I was sent a list of potential collaborators… and something about the list struck me as not necessarily representing the whole of Theme Music. So I suggested that maybe some XX-chromosome members should be in on the process in addition to the XYs already listed. 😉 Anyway, that set me thinking about the talent pools of both sexes in TM, and I thought it would be cool to do something like Cornflake Girl one day.
A few months later I was feeling kinda low for various reasons, and decided to do it anyway. I think I’d contacted Karen Basset for drums on the first day of thinking about it, and then, quite literally the next day, Dara Diamant posted a fantastic version of the song – she’d been given it as a Secret Santa! Well, that put my plans on hold for a while! A year later, though, and I was feeling even lower, so I finally pulled out my fingers, and made it happen. What I didn’t do, though, was tell anyone who else was on the song. Or at least, as few people as possible (how else could I have got two drummers?). So hopefully the collaboration was a surprise to many of its participants too!
That’s pretty much how I did “Born to Run,” and as you mentioned earlier, one can get grief trying something ambitious. In this case some people were annoyed they only had one line. Oh well. I take it you’re a big fan of Tori Amos? Thoughts on the challenges of covering a female singer whose work is so tied to her personal sexuality? (And to a lesser extent singing the words “Never was a cornflake girl”?)
Yes, Tori was another “yes, you can do that” artist – in her case, basing her act around a piano. At the time I discovered her music, which was around 1998 or so, I’d almost forgotten that I played piano. I was suitably inspired to sit down and make it my own again, and not be afraid to have it as a central part of my music. In terms of singing, a lot of her stuff suits my range, if I sing it an octave down. In terms of subject matter, I rarely think about the lyrics, and more try to capture the emotive aspects. She tends to be esoteric and vague with lyrics anyway, and I don’t think anyone but she knows what’s actually going on. So yes, I suppose it’s odd to sing things like, “You best pray that I bleed real soon.” And since I never was a cornflake girl, that particular lyric is totally true. Not commenting on hanging with the raisin girls though.
How many cornflakes died in the making of this video?
An entire box.
Good place to talk about what it’s like to watch videos pop into the Dropbox folder as you piece together both audio and video, if the spirit moves you.
Every time I’m mixing a collaboration, and a new bit of audio comes in, there’s a little thrill and a grin as the pieces fall into the puzzle. There is always an extra thrill to receiving a bit of video to go with the audio. Here’s the actual person, doing this actual thing, and actually being a visible part of this thing I’m making! Ignoring the issues of synchronisation, etc., it adds an extra bit of life to the project. For Cornflake Girl, the song itself would probably have been fine on its own, but you can’t hear how many people are involved – that’s where the video comes into its own. When there are 20-odd people on screen, it emphasises the community spirit and indeed the talent that goes into a project.
The funnest part is maybe as the deadline approaches, and you’re still waiting for one key bit of video or audio. Or both. And by “funniest” I mean, “most nerve-racking”. And that was definitely the case for Cornflake Girl! I wanted to post it on my birthday in 2016, but I knew I’d be away from home at that time. So although the theme was not over, my time ran out several days ahead. So I think it was the afternoon before I headed away, and my final piece of audio came in – a key part that couldn’t be missed or replaced at short notice. The video came in as I was heading for bed. It was a late night! Fortunately, everything was uploaded, and I headed off on holiday! And I did indeed post it on my birthday.
The Girl Who Invented Brown Eyes
30 October 2016
Did the title come first? It had to, right? Actually that suggests the age old songwriting question — music or lyrics first? The rapid fire nature of the verses suggests another artist who is eluding my grasp. Anything in particular inspire the cadence you used?
The title, for sure. In fact, it came from a tale relayed to me in early 2016 by Andrea Kremer (who is the other half of my musical duo, The Aeon Wanderers). The title lurked in my head for several months, and in a burst of inspiration, the story idea and structure came together in a few hours one day in October 2016. Perfectly timed for Andrea’s 50th birthday that month!
In this case, the lyrics created the cadence as I wrote them, which in turn created a basic melody in my head, and from that, the rest of the music followed. In recent years, that has tended to be the way songs come to me, but I’ve often written lyrics with no music, and added it later. Occasionally I’ve worked the other way around, but usually that’s a case of having a tune for another set of lyrics, and wanting to write something new instead. Rapid fire is something I seem to enjoy doing – I’ve noticed that my songs often have a lot of words in them. I don’t know that I’m inspired by anyone in particular to do that: I think it’s just the result of trying to get a lot across in a short timescale.
You have some other upbeat songs, but this one is especially bright and bouncy. Do you set out to write in particular styles or genres or does it just happen?
Sometimes I go into a song with a vibe in mind, and usually it turns out sounding exactly like the last thing I wrote. So then I have to make a bit more effort to give it something unique or distinctive. I’d say for the most part that it “just happens”, because I tend to go with the flow, but occasionally I’ve deliberately set out to create something in a particular genre. Two examples – “Novocaine” was a very grungy song, played on open-tuned guitars; “You Didn’t Ask, So I Didn’t Tell” was done in the style of early 1990s Pet Shop Boys. For “The Girl Who…” I was wanting an upbeat pop type sound, and apparently I wrote something that fits “powerpop” in the process. I think the most conscious attempt to write in a particular style was for my song “June 1944”, which I wanted to sound swingy and wartime. That was an interesting exercise, as jazz chords and progressions are an alien world for me.
Where can someone get either of the 2017 releases, he asks, very helpfully? But while we’re at it — why two albums?
Someone could get any and all my releases from my Bandcamp page – which is also accessible via my website. A couple of older albums are on iTunes and elsewhere, but it’s an expensive process that I’ve yet to see any return from, so whether the new ones will follow remains to be seen.
So the two new albums for 2017 are “Subduction” – which includes a number of original songs that debuted on Theme Music (e.g. “The Girl Who Invented Brown Eyes”, “Novocaine”, etc.) – and “Erratic” which … is different. It was mid-2017 when I realised that I had almost enough material for a new album, I also realised I had a bunch of odds and sods lying around that really would never fit a “proper” album. However, with a couple of new recordings, some instrumentals from soundtracks, and so on, there was another album’s worth of weird, disconnected material that could stand on its own as an oddball, or “erratic” (in the geological sense) outlier to the usual Thinking Aloud fare. One for completists only, maybe!
The New Mendicants
High on the Skyline
14 December 2014
I’m going to self-indulgently abandon the timeline so I can talk about one of our collaborations here. You’ve done some full on orchestrations for songs you weren’t the production manager for. Can you talk a little about how this can be a challenge when you’re not the one mixing as depicted in our documentary?
I have opinions about mixing!! It’s an interesting issue, and one I’ve encountered many times since joining TM. I’ve often been asked for orchestra or strings for a song, sometimes to recreate an original recording, and sometimes newly written to complement the rest of the arrangement. Except for that terrible period during the 1970s, string sections are most often used to add body and dynamics to a song, and to that end, they’re usually carefully crafted to build, swell, or otherwise emphasise elements of a piece. What they are not, is a keyboard pad. However, there is a tendency for people to mix strings as a pad sound, at the back of a mix. (There’s a tendency for people to mix keyboards to the back, full stop, but that’s another topic.) I’ve had full arrangements be completely inaudible, had keyboard strings played over the top of my arrangement in block chords, had all the body taken with EQ out so that all that can be heard is a thin scratchy screech at the top end, … you name it!
The thing about a string section is that it’s a big sound – it takes up a lot of room in a mix, and competes with almost everything else. So the simple and most-often used solution is to turn it right down (inaudible), and/or take EQ to it and chop out all the body (screechy hissing). Neither of those is particularly satisfying to anyone. It’s doubly odd that this happens when the original song is dominated by strings, and characterised by them in some way, because it’s not a difficult job to balance everything such that the character of the strings cuts through without hiding everything else. Which is why I tend to offer to mix! Sure, everyone wants their instrument to be audible, and I’m aware of my own biases, but for me as a big fan of dynamics, I think there’s a lot to be said for getting the balance right. If you want strings, use them in the mix. If you want a pad sound, use a synth. It’s way quicker!
Knowing the answer to the question, he asks, where might one be able to turn for more insight into your process of building orchestral arrangements?
Why, it’s the Making of HOTS, The UK Files! Though I admit, my methods vary.
At 1:38 of your making of video you grapple with the “curious thing” of the transient nature of this process. You ask, “Was it worth it?”, provide a pregnant pause, and finish with “Hell yes!” You’ve probably done another 100+ songs since then and like many of us, your TM production declined in 2017. Are you finding that it’s harder to motivate yourself to make the umpteenth elaborate and original video? Are you still excited by the process of trying to reproduce a song precisely or put your own twist on it?
It is transient, and that’s an important thing to keep in mind when doing something like Theme Music. Those three or four minutes of sound and vision that you’ve just spent 40 hours creating will probably keep an individual’s attention for no more than 120 seconds, on average. In some cases, it’s unlikely that the total time everyone spends watching will exceed the time spent making. But we do it because we want to, and because there’s enjoyment in the creative process. However, we also get that little spark of happiness whenever someone watches and leaves a comment, and that can be the thing that tips the balance. As I wrote at the top, I don’t generally do cover versions. And without the interaction of Theme Music, I don’t think I would ever have done them on the scale that I have. Likewise music videos. The fact that you know someone will watch, and hopefully be entertained, spurs the creative process – peer support at its finest. How can I visualise this song? What would make this interesting to watch? Have I done this before? How can I improve on last time? Has anyone ever done this before?
But as with our sonic and visual productions, Theme Music itself is transient, and will only last as long as it continues to innovate, such that people choose to belong to it, fill it with their music, and support one another’s efforts. As with building complicated string sections, and having them buried in a mix, one can be left with a feeling of “was that worth it?” when there are fewer people around to share your latest post with, or indeed to listen to yourself. I think part of the problem is that TM, along with many of us in it, has become predictable over time. Predictability breeds lack of novelty, novelty breeds apathy, and with apathy it becomes harder to find energy to do anything at all, let alone something out of the ordinary, and a feedback loop kicks in. Other activities steal the time that once was dominated by music, and it becomes harder still to return to it with as much vigour as previously. That has definitely happened to me in the last six months – just two solo song posts since July: a vacation special that I couldn’t miss doing; and a song I recorded outside TM that was only tentatively on-theme around the time I did it! Not exactly my most productive period! 😉
Nevertheless, there are still songs I’d like to cover if the theme emerged. The big question is whether I’d spend as much time on them as I have in the past.
And now to end on a positive note: A#