Solomon Grey on writing music for TV drama

How Solomon Grey created the atmospheric music for BBC drama The Last Post and a TV adaptation of JK Rowling’s novel The Casual Vacancy

Musicians Solomon Grey (Tom Kingston and Joe Wilson) created their first TV soundtrack in 2015. Their music for a small-screen adaptation of JK Rowling’s novel The Casual Vacancy was an eerie mix of strings and synths and operatic vocals – an unexpected sound for a Sunday night BBC drama set in rural England.

The musicians (who met when Wilson was at school and Kingston at university) landed the job after capturing the sounds of the Wild Atlantic Way for a Tourism Ireland campaign. The pair spent two weeks travelling along the coast, recording wind, wildlife, crashing waves and meetings with local poets and musicians. They have since released a self-titled debut album and created the music for BBC One’s new drama The Last Post: a six-part series about a group of Royal Military Police stationed in Yemen in the mid 1960s.

The series has received mixed reviews but the cinematic score aims to capture the atmosphere of a crumbling British colony in the Middle East.

Kingston and Wilson created the soundtrack before the series before it was filmed using a script and photographs of Yemen.

“When you look at [the landscape in Yemen] it’s kind of got this otherworldliness to it. There’s sharp-edged volcanic rock everywhere and for us that was a fun thing to try and represent with the music,” explains Wilson.

“You have this base which is a community working within a bubble … and outside of that is this completely different world that looks quite alien,” he continues. “We wanted to reflect that sense of juxtaposition … so we mixed what you might think of as more classical compositions with ones that are maybe more ambient or atmospheric.”

The music combines ambient sounds with strings, synths, pianos and Middle Eastern instruments including the qanun and the oud. Some of Wilson and Kingston’s tracks are inspired by particular moments in the script but the pair were keen to avoid dictating where or how a piece of music should be used.

“The trick is not to give that information – because then you have the added bonus of things being put in places that you’d never have thought of or used in a different way,” explains Wilson.

“We try and write songs that work on their own without the picture … then we give the editor and director a library or a playlist of music and offer them up the stems of those tracks as well  so they can pick and choose and meld them together,” he adds. “It’s a really collaborative process. It’s almost like you’re giving them the ingredients or the component parts of things to create a musical collage.”

This often results in music being used in ways that a trained musician would not have considered. “Some of the best musical moments in film are when someone lays a track over a sequence and you think ‘that should never have worked – but it does’,” says Kingston.

In episode two, a guitar piece from one track was coupled with sounds from another and used at various points in the episode as characters prepared for a mission. The music wasn’t created with those scenes in mind but it helped build tension throughout the episode.

“We can’t take much credit for that because it was the editor who took that [piece of music] and put it under all those moments,” adds Kingston. “It’s like [the directors and editors] are searching through a shelf in a library –  they’ve been given all this music and they’re looking through it in a different way, with a particular scene or character in mind … so they’re seeing things we might not have seen when we wrote it.”

The project is Solomon Grey’s second collaboration with Jonny Campbell (who directed The Casual Vacancy and three episodes of The Last Post). Campbell commissioned the pair to work on The Casual Vacancy after coming across their work for Tourism Ireland (you can hear music from the campaign here).

“The director was a big fan of what we did [with Tourism Ireland] … we’d never done anything like that before but I think it did end up reflecting the Irish coastline,” explains Kingston. “Because of the importance of place and Englishness and identity in The Casual Vacancy and the questions the book and the TV show raised about how that fits or works in modern Britain … I [he] thought we could apply the same kind of approach.”

Wilson and Kingston visited the West Country to record the sounds of rivers, forests and church bells near where the show was filmed. They also used ambient recordings in their music for The Last Post – the show’s theme features the gentle hum of a generator in the army base where it was filmed.

These sounds are subtle and often go unnoticed but can be integral to creating an atmospheric score: “As subtle as it might be … it gives everything an atmosphere or flavour,” adds Kingston. Recordings are not always used but they are always useful and can help provide some much-needed inspiration for Kingston and Wilson.

Michael Gambon and Julie McKenzie in The Casual Vacancy © Bronte Film and Television Ltd 2014. Photographer: Steffan Hill

Solomon Grey’s music for The Casual Vacancy included a mix of classical and electronic compositions to reflect the mix of young and old cast members. It’s an evocative soundtrack and one that also informed the look of the show: “The set designers and art directors listened to all of the sketches we’d done for the score while they were dressing the set and choosing colour palettes,” says Kingston. “That’s maybe the most rewarding thing for me to know – that the music didn’t just get added on at the end, but actually had an influence on the colouring of the set.”

Wilson and Kingston approach their own music in a similar way to TV soundtracks: “We’re always using imagery when writing our own music,” says Wilson. “We’ll make a kind of collage of images and ideas and films and things that inspire us and have that in the background when we’re writing as a band and we were sort of working in that way before we even did soundtracks.”

Abigail Lawrie in The Casual Vacancy

“We’ve done it even more with the new album we’ve just finished,” adds Kingston. “Starting with a story and images in our head is just a massive inspiration to us creatively.” This doesn’t mean that music must stick to a certain narrative or set of visuals – but it’s the process of piecing together these ideas and images that inspires the pair when writing music.

Working to strict deadlines for TV has helped the pair produce their own music quite quickly (they made a second album while working on the music for The Last Post). Handing over music for directors and editors to experiment with has also helped them learn not to worry so much about whether something sounds perfect.

“We learned a lot from working with another producer who made us realise that art is just what you do in a specific time. If you [made] it at a different time it would be different – it might be better or it might be worse – but you’ve just got to embrace what you do at a specific time rather than saying ‘maybe I can make it better tomorrow’,” says Kingston. “That’s helped us a lot with our production ethic – just learning to embrace things with what they are and work with it rather than trying to be a complete perfectionist.”

The pair are now taking a break before going on tour and plan to release their second album next year. “We’ve worked so intensively from August last year until around a month ago – so now we’re just enjoying having a bit of [time] to catch up on things,” says Wilson.

Still from The Last Post

The Last Post airs on BBC One on Sunday night. See solomongrey.net for more info on the band’s music.

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