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Interview with John Powell

May 1, 2013

On october 10th 2000 Hans Zimmer performed live in Gent at the Flanders Filmfestival. He was accompanied by the likes of Lisa Gerrard , Lebo M, Pete Haycock, Heitor Pereira, Rupert Gregson-Williams and John Powell. The day after the breathtaking concert I spoke to John Powell about the concert, about his musical background and about Media Ventures. While I’m waiting in the lobby of the hotel Hans Zimmer walks by. Well, ‘stumbles along’ would better describe it. He grunts a “hi” and falls into his wife’s arms. Not long after John Powell enters the lobby. He too looks tired. Later John told me that after the concert they partied until 6 o’clock . The interview takes place at noon . You do the math.
(From the Archives – by Peter Simons)

What is your opinion on the concert?

JP: “The concert was a good experience. I was lucky not to have too many responsibilities. I was the third percussionist from the left. So I got to sit in the back and groove with the musicians. I didn’t have too much to think about, in terms of ‘will I hit the right note’. I could sort of stand in the shadows.”

During Crimson Tide you were standing next to Hans Zimmer. What exactly were you doing?

JP: “I sometimes wonder that myself [laughs]. Crimson Tide needed a lot of keyboard players, so I had to go out and play. We were doubling french horns, to try to get close to the original sound. And in The Thin Red Line there’s a big bass-sound that I had to play. He [Zimmer] was playing other things, so he couldn’t do it. But for the most part I played the percussion. It was a very pleasant and easy gig for me, really. It was fun. We rarely do these kind of things. I used to be in a band, but I haven’t played live for ten years.”

Are you a percussionist?

JP: “I’m a folk percussionist, an honoree percussionist. I’m not really. The other percussionists were very kind to me. I just played along. I had a good time, I could just groove with the musicians, but obviously I lack a lot of technique. After three days of rehearsals my knuckles were killing me, it’s very painful and I hade to tape them. I don’t play an instrument particularly well. My father always used to call me ‘a jack of all trades’. Which means you can do a lot of everything not very well. It’s pejorative, it’s not a compliment, to say the least.”

But in filmmusic it’s probably good to be a jack of all trades?

JP: “Exactly. I found that in this industry they do need jack of all trades. I started in jingles were you have to be that.”

Are you satisfied about the concert?

JP: “Well, we always knew it was going to be an experiment. We didn’t know how well it would turn out. Judging by audience response it worked well enough. We joked about doing a world tour! By the end of the tour we might really get it good. It’s a very difficult thing. This music is made in the studio, for the studio. And to interpret it to a live event has been difficult. It’s made possible because the Filmfestival provided everything we could ever need. We had a fantastic facility. The audience seemed very happened. We didn’t deliberately planned it, although the second part did have more rhythm. Gladiator was great fun too, that fight scene was one of the most exciting pieces of music.”

Conductor Dirk Brossé told me you had to re-orchestrate everything?

JP: “Yeah, everything had to be looked at. Roll Tide [the original] probably had eight horns, the strings were double the size [of last nights orchestra]. The thing is: we use a lot of brass for this kind of music, huge amount of brass, way more than you’d have in a regular orchestra. Eight horns, five or six trombones, two tubas. Hans doesn’t use trumpets very often, actually. It’s a tradition. I’ve been helping him to get excited about trumpets for the last few years.”

There’s lots of brass in Antz and Chicken Run.

JP: “Yeah, I overused them maybe [laughs]. My father was a brass player, so, I feature the brass a lot, because I like the sound. But the concert was a success, but there were definitely things we could have done better. There a lot of people on stage that are control freaks. That’s what we do for a living. We pick at the details. So it’s difficult to get that many people who really care about how exactly you make the music and how exactly it’s going to sound like. To have that little control over it in a live space like that, it’s very difficult. Some things we had to improvise, other stuff we had to compromise. It’s a mixture of successes.”

Can you tell me a bit about your musical background?

JP: “I was born in the south of England . My father was a professional musician. I started playing the violin at age 7. I’m a very big classical music freak. I always describe myself as a classical music fascist, because I didn’t want to hear any pop or rock music. My older sister used to listen to rock and I was very disapproving until the age of 13. Then you start getting interested in girls and girls don’t go out with classical musicians, they go out with rock ‘n rollers. So, you change your opinion very quickly [laughs]. I played a little piano, little guitar. Then synthesizers, bit of trombone, bit of percussion. Everything I could do, I’d have a go at. Then I went to a sixform college [age 16-18] specialized in music, at that point I was playing the violin, but I got much more interested in composition. I worked towards getting a place at the London colleges [age 18-22] in composition. It’s very difficult, because there’s only one or two places per year per college. I knew I wanted to be in London , not anywhere else. There’s no point in being anywhere else. I you want to work in this business you have to be either in London , New York or Los Angeles . I had to at least start with London .”

Then you did performance art. Can you tell me more about that?

JP: “The already was a group, Gavin [Greenaway], whom I met at college and I joined it at age 19. We worked with the American artist Michael Petry. We did very entertaining performance art. Which is just an excuse for being crazy. Gavin and I would write music, do sound design, anything that was necessary. But the group broke up quite quickly, as these things do, but Gavin and I remained working with Michael Petry. He’s done installation art ever since. I did a piece with Gavin and Michael during Face/Off for a German brass trio that toured Europe . We did very modern music, with screens and lots of electronics. We’ve done an 70 minute chamber-opera [ An Englishman, Frenchman and Irishman ] together in Bonn . Fourteen musicians, some singers from the Bonn Opera and a few musicians we brought from London . The installation art was all mixed multi media. You’d enter a room and there’d be big giant fans blowing at you and at the end of this dark room there’d be a little video and Michael would have made the video and we would have done the soundtrack that fills the room. It goes on a loop for about four months. Those kind of pieces.”

And then you wrote jingles.

JP: “We had just done the opera. I’ve done jingles in London since 1990. Maggie Rudford used to be Hans’ agent in London and Hans used to work for the same company, Air Edel, which is a jingle- and filmmusic- company. They had 18 composers. When I was younger I just went along, I was lucky they took me on. I sent a demo with mad pieces of music that we did for the installation art. They gave me demo to prove I could to do this. So I got this advert, that had been done many times. Let’s just see what you can do. I borrowed some equipment over the weekend and apparently did a good job, so I became one of the eighteen composers. Slowly work your way up, get clients, become more successful. I’d been doing advertising for a long time. It’s good money, there are lots of experiences, but at the same time it makes your heart black. You really don’t gave a shit about music if you keep doing it too much. It was good for us [Gavin and John], we’d take the money to pay for doing the installation art. We had all the facilities to do other kinds of music, but we were very busy and you’d get greedy so you take the money.”

If doing commercials made your heart black, is that the reason why you left for the States?

JP: “I always wanted to be in Hollywood, ever since I saw The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape , lots of Elmer Bernstein scores. As I kid I liked Bernstein and films and how filmmusic works.”

That explains Chicken Run?

JP: “It’s not just me. It’s The Great Escape with chickens, basically. What happened is, they temped it with The Great Escape . Obviously I knew the score very very well. Harry never heard it before. We had very different opinions. It was the hardest thing, to replaces this temp. The directors actually tried to buy the original and we were worried because they probably didn’t think we could do it. And it took months and months to get that opening right.

And now you’re in Hollywood!

JP: “Yeah, be careful what you wish for!” [laughs]

Do people hire John Powell or Mediaventures?

JP: “Well in the beginning… Let me tell you about Face/Off . John Woo wanted Hans to do it, but he was too busy. So Hans said: ‘I can’t do it but I knew a man who can.’ And at that time I worked very hard to get Hans impressed and he had some faith in me. He thought I’d be good for the film. Hans said to Woo: ‘let John do some stuff. I’ll give you a guarantee that if John starts on the film and fails I’ll fix it.’ But I wrote themes that they like, I never did crash. Hans never wrote anything. He’d guide me when I was weary. I did get help, but from Gavin, he did some great sequences. We had to do 115 minutes of music in ten weeks.”

Face/Off was originally to be scored by Mark Isham.

JP: “So I’ve heard. I think John Woo is a big fan of Mark’s but he had just slightly different plans for the film. It had to be a little heavier, more rock ‘n roll.”

Before we run out of time: What is Media Ventures? Obviously we know what it is, but how would you describe it?

JP: “It’s constantly changing. It’s a moving target to describe it, because it depends on how you want to talk about it. As Zimmer-clones? We all come there, bow to Zimmer and sound like Zimmer. To tell you the truth: you want to pay us money we can sound like Hans Zimmer, you want to pay us money we can sound like Jerry Goldsmith or Lalo Shifrin. I’ve done jingles, if I need to do a style I can do a style. If you want to bitch around about how everyone sounds like everyone else, you’re bound to lose, because everyone does sound like everyone, always has and always will. It’s very rare when breakthroughs are made in technique or juxtaposition. When something new is written it’s usually in use, not in music. No one ever writes a highly original piece of music, they always write a really good version of somebody else’s music and use it in a new way. And very often that’s the directors vision. Stanly Kubrick is probably one the most important filmcomposers ever. In my mind he’s a guy who has significantly changed filmscoring. Okay, so he’s never found a composer who could write what he wanted so he used existing pieces of music. In a way they work, they’re unique. Even Wendy Carlos’ versions of Beethoven. Kubrick is as great an influence as any composer. So Mediaventures is a place where you have facilities, advice and a community of composers. It’s a physical building, a studio with equipment. There are young composers and there’s Hans. You go there and help Hans, he’s got these crazy deadlines, lots of films and he likes to have people around him that come up with ideas and can find solutions. He likes having a band around him. It’s kind of like a university with the professor and the students are very supportive of the professor’s research work. They do the research work sometimes. Sometimes it’s like that. Other times it’s just a place to work, you can sit there and no one knows you’re there and no one cares. You just do your work. Sometimes it’s like a family who walks in all the time. It’s whatever you want it to be. It is Hans’ organization, Hans’ building.”

Is it also Hans’ sound?

JP: “The Media Ventures sound is a commercial reality. Simply by the fact that Hans created a sound that producers like. The continuation of that sound is a commercial decision. Not an artistic decision.”

Antz and Chicken Run don’t sound like Zimmer anymore.

“Neither does The Borrowers, Harry’s a comedian too. But there are lots of cues in The Rock and all over Armageddon that are typically Zimmer. That Germanic big grand sound that producers like and ask for. But at the same we do things like Borrowers. Hans would never write like that, neither would I. Harry and I have certainly been celebrating the differences. And Hans is responsive to that. If you can have a success with any style of music, he’s happy. He’s actually most proud of us when we do something different.”

Do you have a studio at Media Ventures?

JP: “Actually, a couple a years ago I moved out of the Media Ventures building, bought a house and set up my studio in the basement. Because didn’t see my wife [while I was at MV]. One of the good things about Hans’ place is that if it’s 4 o’clock in the morning and you’re stuck on a scene you can wander over to the other studio’s and you’ll find someone there. You can say ‘shit, I can’t figure this cue out.’ So you help each other. But this can be a terrible thing as well.”

Special thanks to John Powell and to the Flanders International Filmfestival.

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