Vinyl Music And Movie Film Stock: Shaun The Sheep Composer Ilan Eshkeri

Film composer Ilan Eshkeri looks for authenticity in his sounds.

The upcoming HBO series Vinyl will be set in the world of the music industry in the 1970s, giving us here at Den of Geek an excuse to look at the period’s sounds and visions. The decade was known for its excesses and its achievements. Movies broke new ground, using different types of film stock to achieve both the beauty that the depth of the stock afforded and the raw desperation that could only be caught by the gritty nature of the celluloid. There have been arguments about digital versus analog recording which are soon to be things of the past as digital technology captures the warmth and saturation of the sounds of the old reel-to-reel tapes.

Composer and musician Ilan Eshkeri is an expert on capturing the right sound. His work in the studio is a constant quest for the authenticity of sound. That could mean putting a microphone inches from a violinists bow for intimacy or against a Marshall stack to catch the power of his beloved heavy metal, as he recently did in Shaun the Sheep.

Eshkeri was nominated for a Breakout Composer of the Year award after he scored the films Layer Cake and Stardust for director Matthew Vaughn, who he also worked with on the the film adaptation of Kick-Ass. Eshkeri’s also put music to The Young Victoria, which was nominated for an Best Original Film Score Ivor Novello Award, Ninja Assassin, Dino DeLaurentiis’ Hannibal Rising and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.

Eshkeri sat for an exclusive talk with Den of Geek. He was an interviewer’s dream. He is enthusiastic about his work and clearly enjoys talking about it. He comes across as a guy who really enjoys getting up in the morning and going to work. Whether his job is happily recreating a Beatles recording session with the original instruments and mics, or sadly searching for the lost chord that will encapsulate the experience of Alzheimer’s disease, as he did in the film Still Alice.

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I wanted to start with Shaun the Sheep. How could you do a film about sheep and not musically reference Pink Floyd?

You know, now that you say that I feel like such an idiot for not referencing them. That’s terrible. I’ve even worked with David Gilmour. I did his tour and solo albums. That’s terrible. And I went on tour with him once as well. I put in all kinds of references in my songs, all the time, especially in comedies. You throw little jokey things inside the music that you might not even hear, but the musicians will be giggling and it just brings the right spirit.

For example, in Shaun there’s a bit where we pantomime a whole chase. And the bad guys are in the back of a horse. And he puts a little ski behind the horse and I put a little quote off this E-program that we were watching when we were growing up called Ski Sunday. So I’m upset I didn’t think of that.

When you were studying music in school and getting into bands, did you expect that one day you’d be recording heavy metal one day and full orchestras the next?

No although I think I would have been pleased about that because I was definitely – when I first got my guitar – I was a real metalhead. I loved Iron Maiden and Metallica and Megadeath and liked to get into that power stuff. When I was 13 and I got my first guitar that’s what I did. I know those albums back to front. I was very pleased to be able to do the heavy metal because I finally got the opportunity to use some of that knowledge. And also I’m playing with Tim Wheeler whose in the band Ash, whose not so huge in America but is a very big deal in Europe. Tim, I found out, also played violin at an early age so we had that in common.

Have you electrified your violin yet?

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I have not but I have played the electric violin before. I’ve never gotten round to buying one, I borrowed one for a little time from a friend of mine that was in the electric string quartet called Bond. Some of the technique is quite different. I keep hoping that one day I’ll start practicing the violin again so I can get back to doing what I was doing.

I loved Alice-

Still Alice? Thank you, I really appreciate that. It’s amazing because I wrote that in the middle of writing Shaun the Sheep. Very difficult, I’ve never had such a difficult time. I’m definitely a shut-up-and-get-on-with-it kind of a guy. I don’t have a lot of pretension about my work. I don’t have a lot of artistic pretensions about my work. I’m just grateful that I get to do what I do. But actually, it really was, emotionally, the most jarring and difficult shift to get from Shaun the Sheep to Still Alice.

How do you get the emotional impact of Alzheimer’s across with nothing but notes, rests and time signatures?

The way I like to work is I like to find concepts and build my music around the concepts. The same way as when you try and find something funny and put it in the music so the musicians are laughing when they play it. So I try to find some idea to build the score around. In Still Alice, it started with instrumentation. What is the most intimate instrumentation, because it is a very upfront, very personal film. The piano is an obvious one because Alice is a homemaker and the piano is an instrument of the home. People are very familiar with pianos. Most people have been around a piano or touched a piano or played a piano before. It’s not like an electric guitar which is an instrument of rock gods. It’s a very informal thing that we’re used to being around.

Then we talked about string quartets and we talked about the way it should be recorded. Not a lot of reverb, very upfront so you can hear the sound of the bow touching the strings and it feels very personal. I had this idea that instead of having a string quartet, I’d like it to be a string trio. The reason for that is because there isn’t a lot of trio music. It is infamously one of the most difficult mediums to write for and a lot of composers shy away from it. The reason is the way harmony works, there are three notes in a chord. Two notes are not a chord, you have to have at least three notes. So if your top line is the same as your bass line and you only have three instruments then you’re going to have one note missing from the chord. That’s why it’s such a difficult medium to write for. It’s a constant jigsaw puzzle. You’re constantly trying to make sure you’re not missing the completing note, and with that idea with the trio, the idea that there’s something missing and you have to find it. That was inside the music.

On the other side of the spectrum, you were writing the Baa Baa Black Sheep Choir.

We recorded the Baa Baa Black Sheep Quartet. I had to write that song, which I wrote with Tim Wheeler. We did the song, I played it live on the piano and we mapped out about where it was going to be in the animation. We each were a character and we sang a song and we mapped it all out and they videoed it. Then I wrote the thing that was going to be in the video and gave them that to animate.  The animators using the video reference, animated the whole thing. I was always going to replace some the voices, because I’m singing in it and you don’t really want me singing on a record. Maybe I’m alright on backing vocals, but not up front, and I’m the second sheep that sings. But they said keep it. Now every time I hear it, and when I see it on the cinema, it’s my voice coming out of this sheep’s mouth and it’s very bizarre.

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Who is your engineer?

My engineer is Steve McLaughlin, he’s also my producer.

I’ve heard you used more overdubs on Shaun the Sheep than you had ever used in recording.

I think I would just say, in general in Shaun the Sheep, it’s not that there was a lot of overdubbing in each individual piece, but the list of credits, the musicians were so varied. We have every kind of guitar or ukulele or banjo or harmonica. We had harmonium. We had upright bass. We had electric bass. We had every kind of instrument you could ever imagine. We had heavy metal, giant symphonic music, you name it we had it. We wrote a pop song. We wrote a rock and roll song. We had a rap song in the end. Every conceivable style of music and musician and the talent that was brought together to create the music for Shaun the Sheep, it was on a scale larger than anything I’ve done.

What’s the difference between what you get from the room sound and what you get from digital amplifiers that come in the pro tools? Do you get a different sound for a metal recording or a pop band from the way you record it initially?

I tend not to use onboard, in-the-box sounds. The reason is I like to, how do I put this? It’s about authenticity for me. I think if you want to make something sound like a Stones record and you got the Stones in the room do you think they’d be cool with the amp sounds inside Pro-Tools? No, they’d have an amplifier and they would have a microphone and they would play really fucking loud, right? For me, if you want to create that, that’s what you’ve got to do. The authenticity comes from how we interact with these different kinds of players.

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It’s about what are they going to bring to the table. I’m not trying to make them fit into my world, I want to make my world open into whatever they bring to the table. If I’m doing a rock and roll thing, I don’t want a session guitarist who can play anything. I want a rock and roll guy who is used to being on stage in front of thousands of people. Maybe he can’t play that funky chord but he’ll that thing that’s a bit more rock and roll. If you have a guy who plays the ethnic flute and you write this thing and that flute doesn’t have that note, I use what’s natural. What’s idiomatic for that instrument? For me, idiomatic for a rock and roll electric guitar is a Marshall stack with a mic right up against it. For me, that’s doing it for real, the authenticity of interacting. The little weird sounds in the dial, now that’s real. That’s something special.

I heard your arrangement of “I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends” for the Dementia Friends. Tell me about your relationship with the Beatles and what you learned from George Martin.

“I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends” was actually quite easy, for this reason. There’s a book called Recording The Beatles, I’ll send it to you. It was a limited run and they’re quite hard to get. These guys took every single Beatles song and they literally mapped out, they went through all the archives. They found everything. It literally tells you how they recorded. They tell you where Ringo was stacked at which spot in studio two in Abbey Road when they recorded it. So what we did is, we got the RTD book, Recording the Beatles, and I rang up Abbey Road and asked – you know that Hammond that you used, have you got the RTD book? They said yes. Set up the room, get the “Penny Lane” piano that they recorded for this as well. Get that on. And this other thing that they used. And we hired exactly the same amps, used exactly the same microphones with the same serial numbers that they to record it. We set up the room identically. Same instruments that they brought. It was a massive nerve bath. It really was.

So where does the music fan end and the composer begin in a situation like that?

I don’t know. There’s no real gap between the two. I love it. I’m excited all the time by what I’m doing. I guess a fan’s a fan, but the composer in me feels like, hey am I really a bit of a fraud? Maybe I’ve just been lucky until now and someone’s going to found me out. That’s your composer there.

Sometimes filmmakers edit the film to music and sometimes they give you the finished piece and say score it. Do you have a preference?

What I love is variety. I’ll go one direction to the pub, but when I come back from the pub I’ll walk back round the other way. I love changing things. I don’t like routine. A lot of composers have a template that comes up. But I change my template all the time. I love working with somebody in a new way. It feeds creativity because if you do the same thing the same way all the time that diminishes creativity. If I pick up a guitar I tend to, automatically my hand goes to a G major chord. If I’m not thinking about it. I don’t know why. That’s just my sort of habit. If I sit at a piano I tend to go into E major. I don’t know why. There’s no reason for it. It just happens, right?

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So if I change things up. If I have a new tuning on my guitar, if I’m working with a new director who is going to ask me to think in a way that I haven’t before, ask me to write music to a script or saying we’ve got two weeks to get the whole thing scored, it creates a different inspiring environment. So I love a challenge. The only thing I can’t change is that I’ve got synesthesia, when I hear music I see colors. Certain timbres of equal colors and I color code all my sequences. For me, the violin is green and the horns are red. It’s so obvious to me because it’s that way. If it’s colored in a different way, it’s like fingernails on a blackboard. I can’t handle it.

So your music comes pre-animated.

Yeah. In an abstract way. As a child, my mum hired a pianist to show me some Chopin when I was a baby and I got caught up in colors and abstract stuff. I remember learning  the violin at four or five years old and the pieces I was playing were full of colors in my mind.

When you’re writing for characters, do you imagine yourself composing and recording in the celluloid universe you’re writing about?

What I try to do is try to imagine what it’s like to be that character. If I’m trying to write music for a character I ask what music would this person listen to? What emotion is this person going through? And I try to take those things and express them. Which is why I really don’t like to do horror movies, very rarely, because I’d just sit around thinking: What does it feel like to be a serial killer? And try to express that emotionally. To take it to a dark place.

I guess you’d have to use 12-tone. Have you heard of the HBO show Vinyl? It’s going to be about the seventies music scene in New York City, with all the drugs and sex that was in the industry. Is it still that much fun and was it ever actually as much fun in London?

I think it was definitely that much fun in London. The industry’s changed. I grew up with rock and roll bands, a lot of British bands, I’m their friends. Without mentioning any names-

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Oh go on and mention them.

Not too many of them have that kind of rock and roll party lifestyles. It’s become a really professional attitude to the music business. It’s more business sense. In a way, it’s a shame but in another way it was kind of inevitable. You couldn’t really carry on with this massive, crazy party forever. People are a lot more business-minded than they were in the seventies and eighties. I don’t think they make the money, comparatively to those times, to they have to be more business minded.

These friends of yours, do you jam?

I think they’d fall about laughing if I picked up a guitar and tried to jam with some of them.