Chris Clark is a man with a fascinating brain. Obviously 15 years spent pushing the boundaries of electronic music speaks to that, but he’s also renowned for giving great interviews. Even over email his answers seem to evolve as if in real time, thoughts whipping back and forth, punctuated by sudden leaps and exclamations and rhetorical questions.
His new album, out now on Warp, features music both from and inspired by his score for Sky Atlantic crime thriller The Last Panthers. A stunning collision of electronics and organic, natural sounds, it’s another great release from arguably one of the most underrated producers around (this no doubt the result of his consistency rather than anything else).
Presented as a standalone album rather than a soundtrack, The Last Panthers also features new material inspired by the mood of the show alongside the original incidental cues. You won’t mourn the loss of images – Clark’s work is more than capable of doing the heavy emotional lifting on its own.
We wanted to know more about the recording process, and the difference between making albums and scoring for TV, and Clark was more than happy to oblige:
Hey Chris. Where are you right now?
I’m sitting in my studio crevice in Malmo, which is nicely soundproofed. I’ve been singing into a very expensive Neumann mic, through a lovely preamp and then into a Behringer desk for grit. Mixing on some quite horrible Genelec speakers – I can’t wait to put some nice headphones on to be honest.
Tell us about composing for film and TV. How far do you allow yourself to be led by the images, and how much is experimenting with sounds to see what fits?
Images have always been problematic for me. I wanted to be a painter as a kid and I would paint terribly, earnest little scribbles that my parents indulged for about a week. But picking out melodies on the fiddle was always a piece of cake. It took me a while to realise I have quite a basic mind re: making images, but that my idiot superpower was deffo making music.
I have a very strong idea of what I like and don’t like in film/image, just no practical technique to execute it. So the idea of working with directors whose work I really love is amazing. It’s just that thing of putting specialists from different fields together, it’s exciting.
I like immersing myself in the narrative thread and seductive pull of certain images and stories, it feels… luxurious. Stories have always been my bag really. I like all my tracks to tell a story, a non-literal and oblique one if preferable. You can’t kill a many-headed snake, if you get my drift. So in this love of stories I’ve found film work to be quite a natural progression.
Where was the Last Panthers score recorded? What was your setup like this time round, and what instruments were you using?
It was dead simple, a few of my favourite synths, contact mic, viola. I also used the most powerful musical arrangement system on earth, the…… laptop! Someone needs to make laptops a bit glamorous again. FKA twigs? She’s done Google Glass, I don’t see why laptops should be off limits.
I’m writing another score at the moment and mixing it on a Behringer desk. Not sure if you’ve heard of them, they are seen as the grottiest of all time, but I love it. I’m mixing bling synths on it, sort of feels like having kebab shop chips and oysters all on one plate. I can’t wait to get back to my nice Berlin studio though.
You’ve mentioned you found the process to be both fun and panic-inducing – is this different to doing an album for Warp, and do you feel any similarities to when you were first working on Clarence Park?
I think if there isn’t an element of panic in making work at some stage, then something is going a bit wrong. I’m finishing a dance score called Sentinel at the moment for Antony Hamilton, it’s amazing. He’s at the panic stage now and it’s making me think the work is even better than I did before, for some reason. Stuff is at stake, you know?
Panic involves endorphins, adrenalin and much acute joy too, though. At least my interpretation of panic does. What’s that Bonnie Prince Billy lyric – “by fear I’m amused, by dread I’m inspired” – it’s good, but what about panic? Panic is like the jazz fusion of those two emotions.
How do you feel your process was affected by not having to focus on rhythm?
Oh, it was a relief. I can’t be arsed with a rigid metric tempo half the time. Too easy, I never want to use it for the sake of it. It feels too emotionally manipulative, like you are spoon feeding people a certain formula. “808 snare rush are you ready….here comes the big aeroplane!” I like to embed the music with tension and movement with other forms of structural development. Never say never though, I have kind of been craving id music too. I want to write some club bangers to stop me getting all pompous and lardy-dah.
Do you find that it’s easier to decide when your work is finished when doing a soundtrack?
When an album track stops giving me pleasure I usually stop making it. Whereas the moving parts and editing process of film make it much trickier. I’d much rather only take feedback from the director, in general though. Things get confusing. Too many cooks / ruined broth etc.
Usually though, the images I get to work with are properly inspiring and can trigger all sorts of new ways in. It’s like seeing the canvas from different perspectives rather than doggedly pondering it, day in day out, like some one man island of isolation. I’m all for reaching a consensus with people from diverse fields. Put me in a room with another producer and some synths and a consensus would be harder to reach.
Have you watched the show back since finishing the score?
I haven’t actually. But I saw each episode about 5435843 times in the edit, so I might have to wait a bit.
Who’s the best fictional panther – The Pink Panther, Bagheera from The Jungle Book, or Panthro from ThunderCats?
I only know two of them! Panthro for sure!
How did you go about editing all the final cues into a 50-minute album?
I’d been making music for the show for about a year, but there wasn’t an album until about four weeks before the deadline. I did it all in three or four weeks, I Airbnb’d a cottage in the middle of nowhere, got up every day at 5am and made music till about 11pm. That seems to generate results. And loads of other totally different work that I can use elsewhere too.
With the new material that was composed for the album, were you still using the show’s visuals as a prompt, or just trying to tap into that same atmosphere?
Nah, I’d had it embedded into my subconsciousness at that point. I had a distinct interior picture of the atmosphere I wanted to create. ‘Want’ didn’t really come into it at this stage, it just happened. As vaguely naff as that sounds. “Hey I’m a musician….vibes just sorta happen, man….”
If you could work on a project with any director, who would it be?
Gaspar Noé, although I’m not sure what he’s up to at the moment. I would say Lynch, but that would be a diss to the wonderful Badalamenti. Alex Garland is doing Annihilation which I would friggin’ love to score. I really want to see High Rise, great book. I’d love to score science fiction but with acoustic instruments. Heavily processed/butchered.
I’m surprised at how much Blade Runner gets referenced. It’s (of course) very good but we can move on from that now. I read the other day that “the problem with cliché isn’t that it isn’t true, it’s that it’s not the whole truth.” I like that. We all need a reference cart. But we don’t need to endlessly carry on whipping the Blade Runner horse.
Being futuristic is pretty retro these days. “Oh you use computers… to make music? #CYBORG #FUTURE!…who would have thought!” I don’t want to sound futuristic, and I don’t want to make pastiche retro music either. I make music for these times, for NOW, no more no less.
Growing up, what were some of your favourite soundtracks or theme songs?
Point Break and the metal track at the start of Funny Games spring to mind. And ‘Batdance’, by Prince. Unfuckable electro tune, that. I remember copying the Hammond organ solo for about four hours when I was a little 12 year old. Ennio Morricone? Everything should start and end there really. Cliché though it is. Oh no, I’ve dropped a cliché!
Last question – what’s next for Chris Clark?
Spinach and songcraft.
The Last Panthers is out now on Warp.
Images: Alma Haser