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The Last Post (Solomon Grey) + Interview

October 28, 2017

THE LAST POST

Solomon Grey, 2017, Mercury Classics
16 tracks, approx. 33 min.

BBC’s latest war-drama The Last Post is a pretty (in)tense show. Not least thanks to the eerie score by Solomon Grey. The soundtrack is available now; and Synchrotones had a chance to catch up with Joe and Tom from Solomon Grey.

Review and interview by Pete Simons

What is it?

The Last Post is a new BBC drama created by Peter Moffat (Silk, The Village, Hawking) starring Jessie Buckley, Ben Miles, Jessica Raine, Stephn Campbell Moore and a host of other excellent actors. Set in Aden (Yemen) in 1965, this is the story of a British army unit fighting a Yemeni insurgency in the Middle East and the women and children who were there with them. Whilst there are moments where, I think, disbelief needs to be suspended, the show is mostly well-written, incredibly tense and occasionally downright brutal. The original score is by Solomon Grey (Joe Wilson, Tom Kingston), who you might remember from The Casual Vacancy, which was released as the album Selected Works.

What does it sound like? And is it any good?

Solomon Grey, known best for their electronic soundscapes, may not seem as the obvious choice to score this period/war drama. That said… it all depends on the show’s creators and how what role they see the music playing. In case of The Last Post, the music very much enhances the (often tense) atmosphere. It does not, I don’t think, specifically address any particular action or character; even location is only occasionally hinted at. What SG have created is rather an other-worldly sound, which actually seems quite apt. For most viewers, army life in Yemen five or six decades ago will be unimaginable – the desert landscapes, the lack of home comforts, Christmas in the sun, the ever-present danger of attacks and for the wives the utter boredom… So actually, maybe SG’s ambient score makes more sense than you’d expect.

The score is synth heavy, but also features live strings, brass, piano, vocals and ethnic instruments. The album also includes a few snippets of dialogue (really, just the odd one-liner). These fragments are clearly processed and help give the soundtrack a ‘concept album’ type of vibe. I’m not usually a fan of including dialogue on score releases, but here I think it works really well (because they’re short, and because they’re at the start of a cue so they don’t really interfere much). But let me get back to those synths for a moment, because they are spectacular. SG used a number of great machines and together it creates a warm, rich sound. There is something about SG’s synths that stands out from the rest. I hear a lot of synth-based scores and many of them all sound alike (because they’re all trying to emulate the same retro sound); but SG’s work here (and on previous albums) sounds pretty unique and very pleasant to me.

The album opens with “Clouds” for piano and synths. You hear this sort of thing a lot these days, arguably thanks to Thomas Newman. Elsewhere the use of synths, organ-like sounds and sparse piano actually reminds me of Interstellar (for example “Thirst”, “White”, “Moths”, “Steel – Nowhere”). “Leaves” stands out as it’s a waltz for plucked strings and violin. Like the rest of the score it is bittersweet. Naturally one associates a waltz with care-free dancing, but the sparse orchestration makes it feel uneasy. Cues like “Monkey”, “Sapphire”, and “Nighttime” rely on Middle Eastern percussion, qanun (a plucked string instrument) and vocals. These tracks sound pretty authentic to me; there is no ‘westernisation’ going on, as far as I can tell.

The album (almost) closes with a reprise of “Clouds”, though this time it’s performed quite virtuously on piano. I love this piano sound; it’s smooth and warm. It’s a wonderful track. Final track is “Water” which features a soprano vocalist. She doesn’t really get to sing in a traditional way, but rather lends her voice to add an unnerving eeriness to the cue. When you hear it on-screen it’s quite unsettling, because of the sound itself, but also because it’s so atypical of what you might expect to hear. I have to admit I was taken aback a little by the score during the first episode; but as the show continued the score grew on me and it really heightens the tension. As an album it makes a very nice listen. The inclusion of the dialogue really makes it feel like ‘an experience’. An ambient one, make no mistake about it, but that is what these guys do, and they do it very well.

The band have uploaded a five minute video about the process behind their music, which you can view on YouTube.

Interview with Joe and Tom from Solomon Grey

It’s quite an unconventional score for a period/war drama. How did you get on-board the show and what musical direction were you given?

“We were invited for a meeting with the two execs and the director for the first three episodes, Jonny Campbell. We had worked with Jonny and producer Mark Pybus before so we just went through how we worked, what they could expect from us and a few thoughts about the important moments within the script. We are very lucky because mostly when we get asked into a meeting people are familiar with our work and want us to do our thing. Peter Moffat’s scripts were incredible, so we were genuinely extremely excited to talk about the project. We ended up working on it for nearly a year.”

The music feels quite impressionistic to me, as if it’s enhancing the overall atmosphere rather than accentuate specifically what’s going on on-screen. Would that be a fair observation? What was your approach to scoring the show?

“We wrote most of the music pre-shoot so in fact the laying up of music in most cases is left up to the director and the editor. We adapt and change some stuff as we go but normally about 75% of that work is done during the assemblies and then refined. That always seems to give a solid relationship between edit and music since there has been very little replacing of cues, and edit points are already working to the music that we have written. We ended up handing in around 40 pieces before they started to film, which really means you are integral to the palette of the show from the get-go – rather than being introduced later when a lot of those decisions have been made. We found some fantastic Arabic musicians, did a lot of recording sessions and used sound recording from locations and from the set during filming. We always tend to work like that but this time we tried a few new methods on top. For instance, we took music to set for actors to hear, and for this project we also put the whole score onto analogue reel-to-reel tape and recorded it back again – which gave it a real character. In fact we ran it through the tape machine hotter as the series went on so it felt more worn and saturated as the story developed and the characters unravelled…”

Joe also acted in the show. I bet that was exciting! Did you take anything away from that experience? Do you think it led to musical ideas that you otherwise might not have arrived at? 

“It was great. I hadn’t acted for a while so was very pleased when everyone on set was very lovely to me – and I made some friends for life. We filmed in South Africa so the chance for one of us to be out there was brilliant. I could write and discuss ideas with Jonny, work closely with the sound recordist Derek Mansvelt and collect recordings on my own. Tom and I have worked together while in different countries before so in fact it didn’t seem to hold us back when it came to composing. And, as I said before, I took some of the cues and played them to actors for their bigger scenes. For example, Tom Glynn Carney, who plays Tony Armstrong in the show, asked to hear the music from the scene at the end of Episode 1 when he returns from the desert. I ended playing four or so of the contenders for that moment and think it was lovely for him to hear them. I’m not sure how much it helped but these things are just enjoyable to share! We always loved the Ennio Morricone idea of playing the “hero returns” cue on a huge sound system as the sequence was being filmed, but we didn’t quite pluck up the courage to convince the director to do it. Maybe next time……”

There are plenty of interesting soundscapes in your score. For the techies amongst, what are some of the synths or software that you used?

“This time we went and did a few sessions with a beautiful Yamaha CS80 that our friend let us use. For those not in the know this is basically one of the main synths that Vangelis used for the original Blade Runner score, and is considered one of the greatest (if not the greatest) synth ever made. We also made sample instruments out of the Arabic instruments we had tracked in our sessions. We got a few channel strip settings in software that we used throughout the score, which was particularly useful to us for getting a sound up quickly. We used a mix of Lexicon reverbs, pitch-shifters (Soundtoys’ “Little Alterboy”), filters (Soundtoys’ “Filterfreak”) and a lot more. We also have a few options in software for banks of instruments which normally contain a organ and string samples, as well as a mix of plug-in synths including the Arturia Jupiter-8V, Prophet V, and G-Force Mellotron. These are used for the more harmonically rich passages in some of the cues.”

And for the non-techies, what acoustic instruments did you use? 

“We had a 22-piece orchestra to record most of the big cues – 18 string players and four brass. Then we recorded Arabic instruments, including Qanun (Maya Youssef) as well as Arabic tabla drums, oud and vocals (Hassan Mostafa). The soprano Susanna Fairbairn is someone we have worked with before so she came in and sung all of the operatic parts. We also played several different pianos in various places ourselves, and we did a few sessions playing anything we could get our hands on while in our own studio. We normally experiment a lot: in the early days of working on a new project you would probably find us hitting chairs with sticks or recording the train tracks from the window outside our studio.”

The soundtrack album features fragments of dialogue, processed; was this your choice? I think it works beautifully and gives the album a sort of ‘concept album’ feel. Is that what you were going for, or am I way off the mark?

“On mark! It was definitely our choice: we wanted an album that worked independently of the show, but using snippets of the dialogue gave it another layer which felt like it enhanced the listening experience and made it more transportative. We treated the excerpts from the show with reverbs and filters, which seemed to create a really fascinating and slightly altered perspective – and gave the soundtrack a “story” of its own. Overall it really helped with the journey through the album. We do put a lot of thought into things like that.”

Aside from being the score to a great show, what do you hope listeners will take away from listening to your album – either emotionally, or… are there certain tracks or moments you (perhaps secretly) hope the audience will pick up on? 

“We really want it to put people in an ambient surreal place. To transport the listener and also work on its own without the context of the series. Good music should work with or without picture. If it can do that then we are happy.”

You’ve got quite a unique sound and style. How would you describe yourselves and your music? 

“Always such a difficult question! We try to be cinematic and emotive and want to take you somewhere else. We hate saying this stuff but if you had an emotional connection and felt some detachment from your normal mind-set then that would be a big tick for us. We want you to escape and enjoy the wonder for a bit – which is kind of what we do when we make music that excites us in the first place! And if it’s a little trippy on top then all the better.”

Have you got anything in the pipeline that we can look forward to? 

“We are just wrapping our new album up in it’s lovely artwork and packaging. It’s our second record as recording artists and we’re really proud of it. We should be touring at the beginning of next year around the release of the album, and will be announcing the details very soon. So into the next “cycle” of album and tour! We have so much stuff to tell everyone: it has been a massive year. We are really looking forward to getting the new music out there, and performing it live – that’s when it comes alive for us. See you there!”

Thanks very much for your time!

“Absolute pleasure thank you Pete.
Joe and Tom.”

Special thanks to Kate @ToastPress.

Tracklist:

01. Clouds – Theme (1:55)
02. Sky (2:07)
03. Redsky (4:20)
04. Thirst (2:20)
05. Hydrogen (0:50)
06. Leaves (1:40)
07. White (2:04)
08. Moths (2:29)
09. Steel – Nowhere (1:49)
10. Monkey (2:12)
11. Sapphire (feat. Maya Youssef) (2:35)
12. Fields (1:58)
13. Sand (1:19)
14. Nighttime (2:40)
15. Clouds (Piano Reprise) (1:03)
16. Water (2:16)


Review (C) 2017 Synchrotones

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