Ben Salisbury is an Emmy nominated composer with recent credits including feature films Ex Machina (co-composed with Geoff Barrow) and Beyonce: Life is But a Dream. Ben is particularly well known in the field of Natural History, where he has scored over 50 films - including the last three of David Attenborough's "Life of..." series. Ben lives and works in Bristol, U.K. and has many exciting projects on the horizon including director Alex Garland's next film, Annhiliation starring Natalie Portman.
How was it working on Ex Machina? That was a pretty remarkable film.
It was absolutely fantastic to work on, especially for me and Geoff, it being our first big project together. We couldn’t have wished for a better film! If you had to write down and list all the things you’d want in a film…it was low enough in budget concerns for us to really do what we wanted without big interference and really get involved in the creative side of it with Alex (director) and the rest of the editorial team. As soon as we read the script we were hooked!
It’s hard to know sometimes from reading the script how the final film will turn out. Did the final film come out as good as you’d hoped?
It turned out as well if not better than we expected. And the response to it was fantastic as well. It’s one thing thinking you’ve made something good – but another thing when it goes out in the world and it gets the response that it did for a relatively small niche film.
Were there any main synths that you and Geoff used for the score?
We’ve both got between us three or four Oberheim two voice synths. Those did a lot of the heavy noise driven sounds. A lot of the music, although it sounds like analog synths – were things like organs and manipulated brass and things put through effects. There was a big mix of analog synth stuff and real acoustic stuff. People often call it a synth score, but probably only about 30% or 40% of it was done with synths. The rest of it was done with found manipulated sounds.
What was the biggest challenge of scoring Ex Machina?
A lot of the really intricate work was creating this claustrophobic sense of foreboding and ratcheting it up very slightly. That was all done as part of a team – me, Geoff and Alex going through it with a fine tooth comb. They’re often thought of as a throw away thing, but with the drone sounds we really went under a magnifying glass with them in terms of how much to bring the ominous side of things to the fore. Sometimes it’s hardly noticeable, but a lot of it creeps in under conversations.
You’ve worked on a lot of scores for Natural History programs including: Life of Mammals, Life in the Undergrowth, Life in Cold Blood all narrated by David Attenborough. How did you get involved with these great shows?
I live and work in Bristol, and Bristol is considered the home of Natural History filmmaking. I grew up in Bristol and had always thought I was going to have to move to London. Then I met my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and she came up to visit my parents and got a job in Bristol so we were sort of stuck here. It turned out to be a blessing for me because I started getting work in the Natural History unit. Though, as much as I’ve loved working on Natural History programs, I always wanted to be a composer for drama and films.
How did you transition from the Natural History shows to more narrative projects?
I found myself being sort of type cast as a Natural History composer, and not being able to get out of it. That’s where my collaboration with Geoff Barrow (from Portishead) came in.
Have you known Geoff for a long time?
I’ve known Geoff for ages and I’ve done some string arrangements for bands on his record label and we’d always said if the right thing came along – we should collaborate. Geoff helped in forcing the door open into the world of drama. A mutual friend put us together with Alex Garland and we started work on one of Alex’s previous films to Ex Machina which was Dread, which didn’t last the course, for various reasons, but it all worked out very well. We ended up writing an album with the music that we’d done for the film. Alex said, “Look, when I’m fully in charge of a film, I want you guys back on it!” That’s how Geoff and I started working together. I feel very lucky indeed that I’m actually doing the sort of work that I’ve always wanted to do.
So now you’re able to branch out musically from the Natural History world of more lyrical, traditional styles. What sort of music do you also like composing?
Slightly more left field, and music that really messes with your head a bit. That’s why collaborating with Geoff has been amazing for me. The sort of music I was writing at University when I did a music degree, the slightly more “out there” stuff – I’m back in that head space now – and that’s fantastic.
When you collaborate with Geoff, how does it work? Are you in the same studio together?
Yes, more or less. I suppose our way of writing is very much the band formula. We sit in a room, we bash things out. One of us will be at the keyboard and say, “What do you think of this?” The other one will go, “Yeah, what about if you change this?” Geoff tends to take care of the more production/mixing side of things. I’m more versed in literal film music composition, the more classically trained side of things. But, to be honest, we both know each other’s world as well. It’s a proper collaboration!
Does that make composing faster?
No, not really. It doesn’t lighten the workload because you’ve got someone else’s opinion to think about. It does make things more fun though, and hopefully makes them better as well.
Do you remember one of the first songs you learned on piano?
I remember the first tunes I was able to pick out myself (by ear). I’ve always been a massive Beatles fan. I remember working out the chords to Let it Be at a fairly young age. I remember learning Let it Be and Hey Jude and many of those relatively simple Beatles songs. That definitely is what got me into writing music… listening to pop songs, and trying to play them and then trying to do it myself. That was the way forward.
You’ve composed the music for the Beyonce documentary, Life is But a Dream. How did you get involved with that project?
It came completely out of the blue. One of the young producers on the Beyonce film had an analog synth album that Geoff and I had done called Drokk, which is very hardcore and heavy. He was a fan of that. He knew who Geoff Barrow was and he knew about Portishead, but he didn’t really know about me. He googled my name and came across some of the Natural History stuff and thought, “Oh Wow! This is just what we’re after.” It was literally like that.
Wow! Google helps to get gigs!
They phoned me up and said, “Can you get on a plane and come over (to New York?) in a couple of days time?” I said, “Yes!” I had about three or four weeks to do the score. During the process I spoke to Beyonce a couple of times, but didn’t meet her until after it was finished. She’s so unbelievably hard working – it’s insane! From working with her team and seeing behind the curtain a little I could see she was an absolute perfectionist. It was a real eye opener, and they were a great team to work for.
Do you have a studio in your house?
No, I go off-site. I’ve got a studio in a house about five minutes walk from here, which is actually the top floor of my parents house. And then I share premises with Geoff, which is Geoff’s studio. We can record about 12 strings in there if need be. He’s got a fairly big studio.
You said that the Beatles were a major musical influence. What other composers have influenced you?
Jerry Goldsmith – Planet of the Apes blew me away as a kid. Bernard Hermann…Hearing those film scores were sort of like a gateway drug into this other world. John Williams Jaws sounded a little like Stravinsky…I’m still into all the Steve Reich minimalist stuff. When you hear something like the Cliff Martinez Solaris score, things like that, they poke out at you. Those were the big influences. John Carpenter also. I saw him in concert recently and he was brilliant!
How about any local music?
Yes! The Bristol music scene was a massive influence on me. And now I’m working with one of the guys who was a founding pillar of that scene…you know, Portishead, Massive Attack, bands like those…
What do you do for fun and recreation?
I play football (soccer in U.S.), which is actually how I met Geoff. We play on the same football team. I’ve been playing on the same team for about twenty years or so. I also play tennis and love to go skiing, when there’s enough snow in the Alps. I’ve got a young family, so I enjoy hanging out with them.
What is your DAW (digital audio workstation) of choice?
Nice!! What is on the horizon musically for you?
Since Ex Machina, we’ve done a film called Free Fire, which comes out in the states in March. It’s directed by a guy called Ben Wheatley. It’s completely different than Ex Machina. It’s sorta 90 minutes of people shooting each other, set in the 70’s. It was so much fun to work on. Geoff and I did the score more or less as a late 70’s prog band! We’re currently working on Alex Garland’s current film, Annihilation and we just finished a Black Mirror episode. The fifth one.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy | Paul Goldowitz
Extending gratitude to Ben Salisbury.