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  • Writer's pictureMartyn Wakefield

Simon Boswell (INTERVIEW)

Simon Boswell has contributed much of his composing career to horror and his origins in Giallo cinema are not behind him but have paved a career most artists could only dream of.

I will reel off some of the films, Phenomena, Demons 2, The Crying Game, Hardware, Santa Sangre, Delirium, Stage Fright, Lord of Illusions, Shallow Grave. You must be proud to have that as a resumé.

Simon Boswell:

I guess I am, retrospectively, yeah. But the funny thing about it is when you're doing these things you have no idea that anyone's ever going to see them. I mean, especially the Italian stuff that I did in the eighties, I thought that was just kind of my weird little secret. The reason that I got into doing it, I never intended to be a film composer at all. I was in bands which were not very successful and I was a record producer doing very well actually, especially in Italy. And so I was in Italy, in Rome, producing Italian pop stars and singer songwriters and stuff and that's how I met Dario Argento.

This is a long way around of saying that the first film that I did actually in Rome was Phenomena with the band Goblin. I was literally thrown into a studio with what remained of Goblin at the time, Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignatelli, the bass player. And I think they wondered who the fuck I was. They wondered who the fuck they were. I had no idea. I had no idea really what was going on. So I did that film and then people started asking me to do things, do the whole film, like Demons 2 was the first film where I did all the music and put the bands together as well. But I did that back in London. So every subsequent Italian film I did in London and would sort of fly backwards and forwards to Rome and take them the finished score and stick with them whilst they put it onto magnetic tape as they did in those days and put it on the film.

As far as I was concerned, these films I was doing in Italy, I didn't think anyone would ever see them. Nobody's going to see this stuff, I thought. So it was a very straight thing for me. And it wasn't probably for a good 10, 15 years after I'd done them that I began to realize that people like Tarantino and well all kinds of people were offering me work because of them and I had no idea who these Italian directors were or what these movies were. So it's, in retrospect from this distance, I look at them and go, I was very lucky to do quite a few ones which I think have stood the test of time. They haven't all by any means, but there are some ones I am proud of, yeah. Like having worked on Phenomena and Demons 2 and Stage Fright and Santa Sangre. And then going into stuff like Hardware and Dust Devil and Lord of Illusions and the sort of nineties ones, Shallow Grave and things that I got into doing. Yeah. Yeah, I am proud of it but it was all kind of slightly accidental.

It's always good to know. That's part of the art of it. I think you could probably vouch that, yeah, you're part of that process of making a film, but while a lot of the credit tends to go to the directors and the writers and even the actors at the front of the screen, you cannot make a great film without a great score and that's a true testament to these classics that you've contributed to there. So, you really should be proud of that. I'm sure I'm not the first and I won't be the last to say that.

Out of your library of films, what's been the highlight for you? What stays in your memory?

Well, Santa Sangre does really just because just to look at it, and even at the time, he's the only director that I knew who he was because when I'd been at college, I'd been to see El Topo so I knew when somebody rang me and said, "do you want to do this film with Jodorowsky, I was like, "oh, wow. Oh yeah". And Santa Sangre is more like a work of art, I've said this on several occasions, in a way. It's beautifully framed and shot and it's a sort of surreal masterpiece, but very moving in spite of the terrible accents and stuff and the sort of pigeon English. It's made in English with Italians, Mexicans, everyone speaking sort of in very heavy accents and that's part of its charm actually. So, that's the one that has stuck with me and think is one of the best achievements that I put for myself.

Because, and again, you have to understand I don't really know what I'm doing a lot of the time. Some of the sequenced stuff, which is kind of orchestral, but it's not... In my head I was almost willing it to sound like a real orchestra because I had hardly any budget to do these films. But when I listen to it back now it doesn't sound anything like real instruments, it sounds like it's been made through this distorted lens of craziness. And me just wishing that it was real instruments. So, I'm pleased to say it comes out to sort of strange, electronically, weird, almost prog-rockish version of things which I think suits the film. The fact that the film is a very organic film and it sort of beautifully shot and everything to have this slightly weird electronic score to it, along with the Mexican stuff. And I did all the acoustic guitar, Mexican-y stuff too, but the fact that it's got a strange soundtrack to it, I think is all to the good, but I wouldn't say that I was aware that I was doing it at the time.

It certainly matches it's sound. The first time I watched a Giallo movie, I can't remember which one it was off the top of my head, but I'm sure it was a Goblin one. And honestly, the thing that amazed me the most was the very artistic filming of the seven. That Italian genre of film. It was very arty and borderline drama, in terms of the crime element of it.


Then you get that pulsing, electronic soundtrack that just hits you. And the first time I watched it was like... I was taken aback. I wouldn't say I was wowed, but I was taken aback because I was like, "what is this?" Then the more you watch and the more you see those two kind of genres blend it is a match made in heaven. But it is certainly, I think for the time period it was in, it was different to anything else out and certainly from mainstream English speaking cinema.

That's very true. That is very true. And I think Argento is the real innovator in that regard. And one of the first people to put heavy rock music on films, to be honest. And he was doing that from the mid seventies on. Loudly as well, not just [crosstalk 00:09:12]-

It's testament to an iconic genre. You can do a lot of things to identify a film from a genre, but the music being part of that is quite unique in itself. You've managed to carry that over the other way, but as I mentioned earlier there other films that you've digressed through over the years and probably since then, that have been slightly different. You worked with Danny Boyle with Shallow Grave. That's slightly less heavy, but it's still got that electronic tone to it.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, that's just because of what I do and I'm like a lot of people who have found some of this music know a lot more about it than I do. I, like I said, wasn't intending to be a film composer. I had no idea really what... And I wasn't a fan of film music, so it wasn't like I had been listening to it and thinking, "oh, I've got to do it like that".

I remember my mum taking me to see the Lawrence of Arabia when I was five or something. I do remember the music being something that's kind of, that's interesting. All these desert shots and that theme. But I wasn't the kind of nerd that was really into it. So I was coming out essentially of punk days. Not that my band was a punk band, but we sort of coexisted with it and were more of the arty, New York side of it all, which is why we toured with Blondie. And so we were more in tune with that New York sort of television type Blondie type thing, Talking Heads type thing, Andy Warhol style really rather than punk rock.

But when I was getting into movies I was coming out of that and having produced those goth bands and things. So it just coloured what I thought I would do for these films. I didn't really make it a choice. It just was natural for me to do that, really. Use lots of synths, use heavy guitars because that's what I knew.

It gives you a unique sound and that's certainly something to be proud of. We mentioned obviously you're currently doing a special concert on December the 11th of the EartH Theatre.


That is in an aid to support funding for a Jake West docuseries, REMASTERED, which is essentially a documentary about horror film composers. So how did your collaboration for that come about?

Well, I've known Jake quite a while and I should stress it's not just his thing. We've started making this documentary a few years back and we were steadily shooting bits for it. But simultaneous with this I was introduced to these guys in America, Andrew Hawkins and J blake Fichera, Blake as he likes to be known, has written these two books called scored to death. So he's into horror film music, and he's interviewed John Carpenter and me and Fabio Frizzi. And just loads of people. And Andrew Wilkins, who's the prime mover in it all I think was a fan of my stuff. And it's just grown into something where he's helping me get my music out there. He's helping me get my vinyls which are in America, he lives in the states, so.

And where this gig came along, which originally was going to be with Goblin together, both of us, and unfortunately Claudio got ill with COVID, so he had to cancel. I just heard from him yesterday that he's over it, but he's had it really pretty badly. So when he pulled out, I just thought, well, look, I'm just going to carry on with it because it's a great venue we're doing it in. And I just, I would like to get people to see what I'm doing live because it's quite a different thing. I mean, I often refer to it as revenge of the film composer because I'm taking pieces of music from the films, but I'm also not just... Some of them, I'm just playing them as they were, others I'm turning into weird songs or songs with what would in a pop song be called a middle eight. A middle eight bars, that turns into 64 bars of complete mayhem. So it's like being taken on trips.

So then I reedit the film to fit my music. And it's not the whole film. I'll be doing four, five minute chunks of music, but I'm reediting the visuals in a very different way. So the whole thing becomes a psychedelic experience, really taking you on a weird sideways trip through the music into what those films meant to people. And I'm using the best images from all of these films, which I'm very lucky to do.

But this particular gig I've expanded my band and it's kind of a new band. My band used to be called The And. The And. Which turns out to be almost the most ungoogleable combination of words. Too Googleable that there are billions of things come back with the and. So anyway, I had used the word Caduta Massi, it's Massi with an I on the end, back on the Demons 2 soundtrack because I didn't want all the tracks... I wanted it to seem like there were some other bands on there and it wasn't just a few bands in my score. So Caduta Massi is an Italian road sign which means danger falling rocks.

That would be a long album title.

Caduta Massi. Massi being boulders, rocks, big rocks. Caduta meaning tumbling, falling rocks. And I thought to myself that is the closest I'm ever going to get to being the rolling stones.

I like it. That is brilliant.

So that's what the band's called, but the band is that is expanded so we have... There's going to be 11, 12 people on stage, including a string quartet who will be playing along with some of the orchestral stuff so it's more organic sounding. And we have two keyboards, two guitars, bass drums, percussion vocals. It's going to be quite a big thing. And because it's a big thing, I decided to carry on and film it anyway, even without Simonetti and Goblin because it's just a good opportunity to do it.

And so, because of that decision, the decision's also been made to incorporate what I was doing with Jake into this project with Blake and his book scored to death because he has already interviewed all these different horror composers. And I said to him, "why don't you make it a series? So you make a concert with each of these composers and interview them and make a documentary with flashes of the live concerts in between." So, that's really the plan. That's what we're trying to raise funds for this initial one and then carry on and make it a whole series about everyone that's doing horror music.

Wow. That certainly sounds unique.


I can't wait. That sounds absolutely brilliant. I was lucky enough to see John Carpenter to do just basically go on the road and play his music. It was about three years ago now. And honestly, I think there is an advantage to seeing a film, hearing film music, seeing the performer live outside of the context of watching it as a film, because you appreciate the music so much more.

Exactly. And as you say, the music, it's a very strange thing to even describe to people. Most people that I meet who are not geekily into the whole thing have no idea how people come to put music on a film. They have no idea of the process of it or what it's doing there. Or I know most people are only subconsciously aware of the music that's probably going on a lot more than they think it is. You know what I mean? So, yeah, it's a different lens through which to see a movie, but generally speaking when you're actually writing a score it's so different. It's a collaborative effort. You've got to work, like you say, with the director and the actors and the sound of squealing tires and gunshots. That sounds like a good album title.

So yeah, it's a very much a collaboration. And all film music, whether it's horror or not, has something to do with dipping in and out of people's consciousness and vaguely manipulating them. Not vaguely even, but manipulating people in certain ways, clearly with horror scare people but also sometimes to do things which is at odds with what they're watching. And it was... Well both Dario and John [inaudible 00:19:08] who impressed upon me it's really good to have the music not telling you the same thing you already know, which is what most film schools seem to do. They're sort of underlining the thing with a big black pencil, especially Hollywood movies which is probably why I haven't worked in Hollywood much. But it's sort of giving you that popcorn experience. If it's a car chase, it's car chase music, if it's a love scene, it's very love, you know what I mean?

So it first came about, but I asked this question of Jodorowsky in Santa Sangre during the scene, spoilers if no one's seen it, but where the main character's mother get gets her arms cut off and there's blood spurting out from her shoulders. And I said to Alejandro, I said, "do you want me to write something really horrible here?" And he said to me, "no, no, no, it must be uplifting. This is a sublime moment of ecstasy for her. It's a religious experience for her having her arms cut off". So, so I've made it sort of very choral and uplifting as if she's going to heaven.

And it's very interesting, especially with art films not mainstream films that you can use music to actually draw people into what they're watching. So even to confuse them a bit, to make them more involved in what's going on on the screen. So in that sense, I feel blessed to have settled upon the horror genre, though I've done lots of non horror films as well. But you are able to manipulate people in ways which is not just to scare them but to make them think about what it is they're watching and get some sort of resonance between the music they're hearing and what's going on in screen which makes them more interested, I think, in what the thing is about.

Absolutely. The musical terminology of "quite, quiet, bang", which pretty much how I sum up 80% of the horror genre music now because it's silence, silence, silence, and then huge inaudible screams. And I blame Hans Zimmer for that because even though he's not the horror genre, he knows how to get people's attentions with a great big foghorn.

Yes. Well, we could blame Hans Zimmer for lots of things, but yeah, let's not go there.




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