Interview by Natalia Shinyaeva

Published August 18, 2014
Rolling Stone / Rolling Stone Russia


Rolling Stone: The very first sentence of your biography is quite intriguing – it says that you’re a self-taught musician. Is that right? If so, how old were you when this idea of “self-teaching” crossed your mind for the very first time? Or has it always been in your subconsciousness because of the Liverpool music legacy?

John Murphy: It’s true, but it wasn’t like it was a conscious decision or anything. I was a kid, maybe nine or ten, and I wanted to play guitar and piano. It didn’t occur to me to have lessons. And the place I grew up in Liverpool wasn’t exactly the sort of place to have music colleges. I’d have hated all that shit anyway. I was happy to teach myself. I learned by listening, not by reading. But that was true of all the kids I knew who were getting into music. If one of us learned a new chord, or a song, or a new way of playing something we’d show the others. It had nothing to do with the legacy of Liverpool music. We were too young to understand at that age. It was a working class thing. If you wanted to learn something you worked it out yourself.

RS: Have you ever felt like you needed some academic background for writing music? Sorry for this dilettante question, but what is your way of composing – do you usually recognize and play specific notes or you put down chords first and play it then?  

JM: When I first got to Hollywood and started doing studio films there were many times where technically I was way out of my depth. Even though I’ve composed and arranged  forty movies I still can’t read music. I would be at orchestra sessions at these huge, world famous studios, and even though the orchestra would be playing exactly the notes I’d written, I wasn’t able to communicate how I wanted it to feel. I just didn’t have the language. So I’d be waving my hands at the conductor like a fucking lunatic trying to explain exactly how I wanted them to play for each section. And you could see all these world class musicians peering over their stradivarius’ thinking “who the fuck is this madman?” It was insane. Eventually, Paul Broucek, who was the VP of Music for New Line Cinema, found me an ‘interpreter’ ; an orchestrator called Stephen Coleman. Stephen got me from day one, and as well as orchestrating for me, he stood in the control room next to me and translated my mental sign language to the orchestra.  
So yeah, there were times I cursed not having an academic background. But those times became rarer and rarer. And now I’m glad I got by without it. The funny thing is, every time I decided to take some time off to finally study this stuff my agent would plead with me “Don’t do it! You’ll ruin everything! You’ll never be the same!” It was funny. So I just never bothered. And to be honest, it’s so easy these days to write something in your head, work it out on a piano, and then layer it up with a synth orchestra that you don’t actually have to understand all the musicology of it as long it works. And it’s obvious when it’s working and when it isn’t. And that’s basically how I do it. I write the themes at the piano and then layer them into the film, instrument by instrument, until it feels right. Then I hand it over to Stephen to transcribe it for the orchestra. 

RS: Having been in Liverpool I noticed a very interesting thing. On the one hand, Scousers adore the Beatles and can proudly talk about them for hours. But on the other hand, sometimes they feel like they have to do the music in hoping to excel the fabulous four. Did I get that right?

JM: You know you might be right! Yeah it’s true, we are all immensely proud that we come from the same little city that spawned the Beatles. But secretly we all want to be bigger than them! Seriously, I think we’re just conscious that people expect Liverpool musicians to have the secret ‘Liverpool ingredient’ you know? And we play on that a bit. It’s probably the same for bands in Nashville or New Orleans or Seattle. Maybe people from Memphis feel a little bit Elvis. 

RS:  What was your reason for leaving Liverpool (despite its huge music legacy) and moving to the different place to settle down? Was it the only way to further your music career?

JM: It was a tough one. I was settled in Liverpool and all my family and mates were there. But after Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels I started getting offers from the US and there really weren't that many films happening in England at the time. I loved doing films and wanted to carry on so I went where the work was. 

RS:  It’s not a secret that there has always been a music competition between Liverpool and Manchester. How do you feel – does it still exist? How is it possible to explain this phenomenon?

JM: The rivalry will always be there. It’s been there for hundreds of years. It’s not just music, it’s everything. Industry, football, fashion, music. Even though we’re so close geographically we’re two very different cultures. The fact that both cities have had so much success at alternating times is what gives the rivalry it’s edge.  It’s a tribal thing. 

RS:  Let’s keep on talking a bit about North West English music. Isn’t it strange that so many bands from Manchester got some commercial success while Liverpudlian musicians have been usually seen as more underground?

JM: The tide comes in and the tide goes out. Liverpool dominated music in the 60’s. Manchester dominated in the late 80’s early 90’s. It’s just a cycle. Liverpool will have it’s day again and Manchester will have it’s day again. 

RS:  And about yourself – what was the defining moment of your music career when you woke up once and understood that you were famous? Was it after working with Guy Ritchie? What life would you have had without this collaboration?

JM: Well for one, I’ve never thought of myself as famous! Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was definitely a turning point in that it raised my profile within the industry. And it helped that the score was considered a bit edgy and left field at the time. But I’d actually already scored my first Hollywood studio film ‘The Bachelor’, a few months before I did ‘Lock Stock’. But The Bachelor came out just after Lock Stock and went to #2 at the US Box Office. So it’s hard to say if it all hinged on ‘Lock Stock’. Both films were successful within a few months of each other so I think it was more of a double whammy. Just good timing really. 

RS:  What is the most difficult in working with world-famous directors? Have they ever tried to control you?

JM: All directors try to control you! Even if they’re giving you a lot of license to be creative, like say Danny Boyle or Guy, or Stephen Frears, they know that in terms of filmmaking  music is one of their most powerful weapons. And being the ‘director’ they ultimately have to have control of that as part of their process. The trick is to learn how to take control back without them noticing. And to answer the first question, the bigger directors are actually easier. And more respectful strangely enough.

RS:  I read that you’ve criticized your, so called, colleagues, blaming them for the lack of passion and real feelings. What is your source of inspiration and real feelings then? What is your professional secret?

JM: I don’t remember ever criticizing any one specifically. But I have said that I feel like too many composers in Hollywood are playing it safe right now and drawing from the same wells, you know? And with studio pictures especially, the more formulaic the movies get, inevitably, the more predictable the scores become. There are still some original scores coming out, and there always will be, but they’re becoming few and far between.
So I don’t think the blame lies completely with the composers. I’ve been there and I know what it’s like to sign onto a film after a great ‘creative’ meeting only to have the music exec present you with a temp score and say “This temp score has tested great… can you do your own version of it?” And they’re not asking you, they’re telling you. And then it’s a battle from beginning to end to get anything original or meaningful onto it. No film composer wants to play safe. It’s just where Hollywood is at right now. 

In terms of my own source of inspiration, apart from the guys I love like Ennio Morricone, John Barry and Bernard Herrmann, it’s the film itself. A good film should contain everything you need to compose a good score. If it doesn’t then you dig into your own wells and your own experiences. And I don’t have any professional secret. I wish I did. I just work from instinct until it feels right.

RS:  What is your favorite place to work?

JM: Home. My studio is a converted garage next to the house. I work mad hours so I couldn’t do it any other way. If I had to drive to a studio every time I wanted to do something I’d never see my kids. 

RS:  Can you feel these moments, when your muse coming into your studio? Do you have the power to summon her? How does she/he/it look like?

JM: If I waited for my muse to come I’d never get anything finished! On a typical film, you have thirty or forty days to write, arrange, record and mix maybe forty or fifty scenes. And that’s without playbacks and rewrites. You have to hit the ground running or you’re in trouble. There’s no waiting around for inspiration. You just force it out and hope for the best. And if that fails there’s always vodka.

RS: Don’t take it personal, but sometimes ordinary people don’t consider writing music for adverts as something serious. And some musicians even find it humiliating to sell their songs for commercials. So, what about you - what are the biggest positive and negative in composing music for commercials?

JM: To be honest, I’ve only written music for four or five commercials and that was a long time ago. Most of the commercials that have featured tracks of mine actually licensed tracks I’d already written. So I didn’t actually work on those commercials. I can see why there’s a stigma attached to writing music for ads but I think it’s a little unfair. Even the great classical composers relied on commissioned work to survive. And if the only way you can earn a living from music is writing music for ads then what’s so wrong with that? 
From my own experience, writing music for commercials is like being blindfolded while smiling, trendy people spin you around and around, shouting riddles and gibberish at you. And then suddenly it’s over and they write you a check. Which arrives two years later. That’s exactly what it’s like. 

RS:  I know that you had some experience in being in a band and you weren’t very excited… But has the idea of working with the rock/punk/pop-musicians ever cross to your mind? I bet every day you’re receiving a lot of such offers?

JM: I actually loved being in a band. It was the touring that got to me in the end. It was great at first, being nineteen and gigging around Europe and Japan nine months of the year. Who wouldn’t want to do that at that age?  But there’s only so much fighting, hangovers and tour bus porn you can take before you start wondering if there’s maybe more to life. So when I got the chance to write some tracks for a film, I think I was twenty five, I decided my band days were over. 
I do miss it now and again though. And there’s been a few times when I’ve been close to saying yes to doing it. But I was always committed to something else. Maybe I’ll try doing what Clint Mansell does and put a band together for a few shows a year. I’d like my kids to see their dad play at least once!

RS:  Could you please tell us in details about your upcoming album?

JM: It’s called anonymous rejected filmscore and it will be released on Taped Noise on August 18. The title is a bit of a giveaway but a few years ago I had my first score thrown out. It’s happened to better composers than me so I got on with it. I don’t actually like most of the scores I’ve written and some I can’t even listen to. But this one was a bit more original and I actually thought it was good. So in my head it became this kind of 'lost score'. And I thought it might be cool to open up the sessions one day 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 thought it would be more interesting to take the themes and pull them apart and mash them up. Just to see what would happen. 
It was a bit eerie but also very liberating working on this ‘film score without a film’. There were no phone calls, no playbacks, no meetings, no grinning producers in shorts turning up to piss me off. It was wonderful. And I could keep everything in house. Tyler Barton, my engineer for the last eight years, produced it, Scott Somerville, my second engineer, did the sound design and some programming, and my wife Charlotte did the vocals. I even had the kids doing voice overs and stuff on it.  And apart from the drums, which Ty played, and of course the strings, I played the rest of the stuff myself. It was the fucking Partridge Family with fuzz boxes! Good times.