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Interview with John Murphy

John Murphy

John Murphy Snatch. and Sunshine

FSC:  What inspired you to compose film music?

JM:  I remember watching Fistful of Dollars when I was a kid and suddenly being aware that there was music playing. I must have been about five or six. I’d never really noticed the music before and I thought why would they do that? And I kept listening to see if it happened again. And then it hit me. It’s better when the music is there! That’s why they do it! And after that I always listened for it. And a few years later I saw Dr. No and I heard the James Bond theme for the first time. It just blew me away. I didn’t want to be James Bond, I wanted to be the guy who played the guitar riff! I’d just started playing guitar and I used to sit in the bathroom for hours playing it over and over. That was the first time I thought what a great job that must be.

FSC:  You’ve collaborated a fair amount with director Danny Boyle.  What has that been like for you?

JM:  I did five films with Danny, and up until Sunshine, it was the easiest, most creative collaboration I’d had. Every director is different and they all have their own weird ways of dealing with music. But a few, like Danny, and Michael Mann and Frears too… they’ll talk more about the actual film than the music. And that always worked better for me. So with Danny we’d talk about how the film should feel, the backstory of the characters, how we wanted the audience to feel at all these different moments… all that stuff. But where the music was concerned he’d basically leave me alone to experiment and work it out. He’d never say, “this has to be this kind of track,” or, “this has to be strings”… or piano or whatever. He was savvier than that. He knew he’d get something more original if he left me to it. And once we had something we were both into then he’d either get involved or he’d say that’s it. But when he did get involved things usually got better for it. He knows his music and he understands how important it is with film.

FSC:  Some have compared your dramatic scores with those of Hans Zimmer.  What is your reaction to that?

JM:  Really? That’s the maddest thing I’ve heard all week.

FSC:  In fact, a more specific example is I’ve seen where you’re music has been compared to Zimmer’s work on Inception.  Not too bad, huh?

JM:  I haven’t seen Inception yet but I remember when it came out seeing a few posts on the social media pages comparing it to Sunshine. But by all accounts Inception is a fantastic score. So if there is something in there that reminds some people of Sunshine then I’d take that as a huge compliment. Hans is the man.

FSC:  “Adagio in D Minor” is a fantastic piece that has a lot of weight to it.  What were you trying to accomplish when composing this piece?

JM:  With my own stuff, meaning tracks I’m not writing for a film, I never really sit down to write a certain thing, or set out to accomplish anything specific. It’s just me doodling aimlessly in my own world. Although ‘Adagio In D Minor’ appeared in Sunshine, and later on in Kick-Ass, I actually wrote it in Liverpool in ’99. It was a rainy Sunday morning and I’d just got in from an all-nighter and couldn’t sleep. I was slumped over my piano with a banging head ache and it just came out all in one go. Once I’d played that first round I heard the rest of the track in my head so I just kept on playing to the end. I rearranged it later for strings but really it was all there the first time I played it on the piano. Some tracks are just like that. So no grand vision sadly. Just me with a hangover trying to play as slowly and quietly as I could.

FSC:  But what does that say about your talent? If you could just come up with that piece of music without a specific intent to do so?

JM:  To be honest, it’s much easier for me to write when I don’t have any specific agenda. That might sound strange coming from someone who’s spent the last sixteen years of his life composing film scores  –  but when you’re writing a score, so much of your headspace is taken up with working within the parameters of the film, emotionally and dramatically, and the technicalities of making it all fit together musically, that a lot of times the quality of the writing, the actual music, suffers. But when you’re just writing something for the sake of writing it, without having to take all these other things into consideration, and without pressure or deadlines, it becomes simple again. It becomes about the writing. When you’re doodling for the sake of it it’s just about the music. You have an open road before you and it can go wherever it wants.

FSC:  Anonymous Rejected Filmscore – what can you tell us about it?

JM:  A few years ago I had my first score thrown out. This happens a lot and to better composers than me. What bothered me was it was one of the few scores I’ve written that I actually liked. And in my head, it became this kind of ‘lost score’. So I promised myself that one day, I would open up the sessions again and finish it the way it originally sounded in my head. And that’s what I did. Only instead of just finishing the demos I decided to choose twelve of the tracks and mash them up to see what happened. On a film you’re inextricably bound to do what’s best for the film, almost always to the detriment of the track. And I’m fine with that because that’s what you’re being hired to do. But suddenly I had all this material no one cared about so I could do whatever I liked with it. So I took the original themes of these tracks and messed around with them to see what happened naturally; let them be what they wanted to be. No playbacks, no meetings, notes. It was fantastic. The only downer was, because it was just a pet project, I had to grab days here and there in between ‘proper’ work to work on it. So it was done in bits and pieces. But it was still a blast.

Tyler Barton, my engineer of the last seven or eight films, produced the album, and it will be released on Taped Noise on August 16.

FSC:  What is your favorite film genre to compose music for?

JM:  I’m not sure I have a favorite genre as such but I definitely feel more at home with the darker stuff. It’s just a deeper well to draw from. And I much prefer doing indie films to studio films. I’ve always found it more difficult to be creative with studio films. The bigger the budget the less chances they’ll let you take. So anything dark and indie I would say.

FSC:  What would you say distinguishes you from other modern film composers?

JM:  If I’m going to be honest I would say it’s my weaknesses. In terms of film music I’ll never be an all-rounder and at best I’m an average orchestrator. If I was lego I’d be duplo! But those weaknesses forced me to over compensate when it came to original ideas and strong themes. I didn’t spend time with complex orchestrations because I didn’t know how to. So I used that time to experiment with different ways of achieving the same things. I knew my weaknesses so I worked hard to come up with ideas and ways of doing things that weren’t obvious or mainstream. At the end of the day, in terms of cinematic music at least, I think it’s original ideas that show your DNA, not how complex or technical your music is. That’s my excuse anyway!

For more information, visit John’s website at

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