Benson Taylor is a composer who splits his time between the UK and the USA. His music can be heard in many TV shows, including Orange Is The New Black, Two and a Half Men, 90210, The Big Bang Theory, Ray Donovan, and the NFL Super Bowl, and has scored shows such as The Discovery Channel’s Unusual Suspects. His most recent project has been scoring Mathew Cullen’s film adaptation of the Martin Amis thriller novel, London Fields.
Benson, thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Let’s begin with your latest film project, London Fields. When and how did you get involved?
Not at all, thanks for having me.
London Fields, for me, arrived in the autumn of 2013, so it was quite a while back actually. I got a call from the Music Supervisor/Executive, Amanda Borgerhoff, who had been meeting with Chris Hanley, one of the producers, and they were looking for composers. Amanda had suggested that myself and Pablo Clements (of UNKLE, now Toydrum) collaborate on the score. Everyone thought it was a great idea, so after cramming in the audiobook version of the novel, we met in London and headed over to near Hackney in East London (where London Fields was being shot) for our initial meeting.
We all just chatted about different music & artists for a good hour or so and then went down to watch the shoot. We caught up with the director Mathew Cullen, the cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, and some of the cast and crew. It’s the first time I’d actually been on set during a shoot so it’s definitely a day I won’t forget in a hurry. Always nice, if not slightly mad, to see an Oscar winning cinematographer creeping up on, and delivering a bear hug to an unsuspecting Jim Sturgess. From that day on we seemed to be in London’s Groucho club A LOT, basically trying to convince Chris and the team that we were the right guys for the job. One day I guess he finally gave in, as I left the club with the rough cut of London Fields on my laptop.
The premise of the film is a clairvoyant woman tangled in a love affair with three different men, one of whom she knows will be her murderer. How did you approach the score? Did director Mathew Cullen come to you with a specific vision for the music?
It’s a thriller with lots of twists and turns in the storyline. There are several main characters that are all entwined with Amber Heard’s character, Nicola Six, who is controlling them at the helm. Billy Bob Thornton has a pretty heavy and dark narration throughout too, so the overall tone for the music was set early on, and obviously the vision of Martin Amis’ grim London helped.
Yeah, both Mathew & Chris had strong and great ideas on how the music should be. I think one thing that really benefited everyone was the temp; we kept temping and replacing, temping and replacing, basically trying out every possible genre and sequence of music. We exhausted pretty much every avenue, before ending up where we are today.
The score delivers a lot of atmospheres and tension throughout, with some sleazy and psychedelic moments around individual characters, maybe even weirdly playful in part.
What was the most surprising thing that you experienced throughout the process of creating the score to London Fields?
Simply how long it took. It’s been a very creative and lengthy process, not just in the score, but also in the movie as a whole, I’ve seen a lot of different edits rather than just the final one to score. It’s been a big part of my life.
The soundtrack to London Fields also features additional songs from yourself and other artists, such as Toydrum. Were these all written specifically for the film?
Yeah, on top of the supervision, we did some featured songs specifically for the movie as well.
To emphasise Nicola Six’s impending midnight murder on Bonfire Night, we recorded our cover of Patsy Cline’s Walkin’ After Midnight with Bat for Lashes. It’s a cool, dark & brooding, bend-y, atmospheric version. This is the first piece of music you hear in the opening of the film too so it really sets the tone. It comes back later on as well so it kind of bookends the story.
We also recorded a cover of John Lennon’s How Do You Sleep? with James Bagshaw from the British band, Temples. Toydrum had done a remix of the original John Lennon version a couple of years back and it was in our temp, so we decided to record a new cover specifically for London Fields. An ambitious task one might say to cover John Lennon, potentially heightened even more when it’s a track from the Imagine album, but it’s come out so well. It’s a gritty track that sits in situ with the score and overall tone of the movie, whilst retaining original Lennon influences from that era with big eastern string arrangements. It was a proper process, there have been a few different vocalists and treatment ideas, including potential choral sections, recordings made in Budapest, recordings made in the UK etc. It was a similar process to the score of building and stripping, building and stripping, trialling ideas until we found the right combination of what we now have in the film.
For when you meet Nicola Six for the first time, we’ve done a remix of Meshell Ndegeocello’s Black Is The Color of My True Love’s Hair. Again, it’s a kind of atmospheric, really washed out (with reverb) version. She bursts into the Black Cross Pub where her 3 lovers await, and the journey begins.
Your music also appears on TV in many other ways, from composing music to shows like The Big Bang Theory and The Super Bowl, to writing songs featured in series like Ray Donovan and Orange is the New Black, and right up to being the primary composer on Discovery Channel series like Unusual Suspects. Is having your music on TV in all these different capacities something you intentionally seek, the product of the opportunities you’ve encountered, or a bit of both?
A bit of both for sure. I could never become complacent and expect things to land at my door, so I’m very active with my management and agent in finding the right projects that are creatively challenging and exciting to be involved in. Some days I wake up with mad plans to write a symphony, and then by the afternoon I could be rewiring and soldering a bespoke synth together. It’s that freedom that allows me to create, and that’s definitely something I intentionally seek.
You’ve also created plenty of music for trailers and motion picture advertising. Given how formulaic it can be (sometimes by necessity), and how crowded the scene is with composers, how do you keep it fresh, both for yourself and for the rest of the world?
Yeah, it’s pretty much where I cut my teeth actually from a filmic angle. I’ve got a strong orchestral style that I’ve developed over the years, that’s always evolving, and I always keep my electronic elements bespoke to each project I undertake.
What instrument, piece of hardware, or software plug-in has to always be within your reach in the studio? And what are your favourite tools and toys?
My MS20 synthesizer. It goes on everything. I’m a big fan of creating my own sounds from the ground up when the project allows. My other favourite would have to be my old, battered Schimmel piano, a composer’s best friend for sketching concepts.
Considering your diverse array of styles and forays into numerous musical worlds, was there anything in particular, or one moment in your life, that made you think, “music for film and TV – that’s what the world needs from me”?
Not really. A friend, back when we were younger, asked my band to do some music for a TV commercial that his agency was producing. It worked out okay so it was either continue to do that or become a doctor or something, and I think I’m more suited to this.
Seriously though, I love all genres of music and the only place that really allows you to fulfil creating them all is writing for Film & Television.
What would you consider is your most adventure so far – whether it was musical or not? Or perhaps the strangest or the most unexpected?
My biggest adventure to date would have to be my wife and I making our way from Venezuela down into the Amazon basin. Mental experience with sights you can’t imagine will ever meet your eyes. Obviously I was recording weird sounds and samples on my phone from the rainforest to chop up when I got home, so the musical part of the adventure wasn’t all lost.
How do you keep your life balanced in this hectic business, especially given the fact that you split your time between England and the USA?
My children keep me in check when it comes to life balance. Their school is not far from my studio so I walk over most days to get them and we always spend a few hours getting into trouble before I head back.
I’ve always enjoyed being in the US too. It’s my home from home. It’s never felt like work.
Thanks to Zoe Wilson for her role in making this interview happen.