Photek: How to Get Away with Scoring
June 19, 2015

Photek: How to Get Away with Scoring

Photek, photographed by Faria Raji

Photek, photographed by Faria Raji

Dapper British ex-pat Rupert Parkes, better known as Photek, made his name as a DJ in the burgeoning British electronica scene of the 1990s. His album Modus Operandi is a bona fide drum 'n bass classic, suffused with cinematic soundscapes and dark ambience. Looking back it's no surprise that he would end up scoring for TV and film, especially for projects as dark as How to Get Away with Murder. We spoke with Photek in between seasons 1 and 2 of the smash ABC show - the perfect time to reflect on his work so far, and talk about what he hopes to get away with in the future. 

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2014 was a mammoth year for you. You’re no stranger to TV and film music, but it seems like there was a shift in your focus last year, with How to Get Away With Murder and Gang Related both at the same time. Why did you decide to focus more on TV?

Around January [of 2014], I just got back from a tour and I was thinking “I want to stay at home more.” I still want to be productive working on producing music. I’ve always been about being a creator of music rather than a performer. My first love of music is actually making it. And I thought, “What am I doing in Los Angeles if I’m not working on film and TV as a priority?” I could live anywhere in the world doing what I do. And I made that decision. Literally the next day I got a call from Allen Hughes, the director, who heard some music of mine on the radio and said “this is the sound we want for our show.” That’s what led me off to Gang Related. From picking that sort of commitment in my mind, 24 hours later, I’d been asked to do a score.

Had you ever done a full series before?

I had, yeah. I’ve done a show called Platinum which was like a pre-runner to Empire - that kind of concept for a show. I did that back in the early 2000s. And I’ve done additional music on various movies and one score for an independent movie. But this is the first time I’ve sort of committed to it in my mind. And then of course from Gang Related, right off the back of that came How to Get Away with Murder, and I really couldn’t have asked for a more credible show to be associated with. It’s been phenomenal ratings. We’re going into season two in a month or two, andI haven’t looked back since.

It’s interesting that Allen Hughes discovered you when he heard a song of yours on the radio. It suggests that by hiring you, he was trying to access a specific sound that you brought to the table.

Yeah, I think it was a very specific track style which I’d just started doing. I thought “I want to do this grinding, heavy, half-time, pounding electronic music that you know it’s not dubstep but it’s definitely slow, heavy, electronic music.” And this track was “Slowburn” that I released. And I was into that kind of style at the time, and then I did the remix for “Moby” called “Lie Down in Darkness,” which got me a Grammy nomination a couple years ago. And it was actually that remix that Allen heard on the radio, and he said “This is what I’m looking for. It’s cinematic, it’s electronic, but it’s not cheesy dance music.”

Was there any back and forth between you and Allen about the actual sonic palette for HTGAWM? Or was he pretty much immediately down with what you could do?

He was immediately down with just about all the cues that I wrote or demoed. I think once or twice he said “not too much strings. Let’s keep it cutting edge; I want this particular sound for the show and it’s gotta be bold.” But sonically-speaking, he’s got an incredible ear for music. He’s from a music background. And when I sketch things out, [he’s like] “the kick drum’s gonna come through harder than that, right? Because this doesn’t have the mix that your track ‘Slowburn’ has.” I think a lot of visual people generally say “that’s the vibe I’m looking for,” and then you’ve got a bit of time to scramble and satisfy your own needs to get the sonic quality exactly right for the record guy. Allen was looking for that right from the get-go with the score, so that’s a director with a really strong feel for music and a deep understanding with how music is put together.

How did that work with How to Get Away with Murder? Which, you know, is yet another aspect of this sort of vintage Photek sound.

How to Get Away definitely has four or five distinct types of cue that we keep coming back to. And Pete Nowalk is the showrunner on that series, and he has a very broad taste in music. He’s not from a music background but he’s got very particular sensibilities about what sound is telling the story in the right way. So it’s not a record guy you’re talking to but a storyteller. And his instincts on storytelling lead the way I create the music.

There’s certain palettes that I’ll understand he likes, but he’ll talk about story and occasionally pick out “I generally don’t like jangly guitars” or something like that, and I’m like, “Okay, got it.” That’s really clear and we can avoid that. With Pete, it’s definitely a more story-driven look at music, and that’s a great exercise for me. We’ve got some of the smartest people in the business on the show, and they’ve all got feedback on music. All of their instincts are always dead-on.

I have to say, you do your first pass on something and you think “Oh, this is genius! I totally nailed the scene!” and then you sit with Bill D’Elia, the executive producer and director, and Betsy Beers who’s running the show alongside Pete, and they have the same intelligence when they’re looking at music and picture together. I’ve learned a lot from them throughout the process, too. I mean there is as much “misdirection” as there is supporting the drama.

Can you give an example of a suggestion they gave or something that they pointed out that you wouldn’t have thought of?

Well my favorite suggestion that I’ve ever had is Betsy saying, “You know what? I think you should just, you know, go and f**king score it.”

::laughs::

The most specific ones have been “You’re pointing us in a direction which we’re expecting...because you know what happens next in that episode, you’re pre-empting that. What we need to do is set the scene for what we know so far, or what we might suspect.” So musically, you could respond to that in a lot of different ways. But in terms of scoring to picture, that’s a [good] bit of advice.

Talk about the idea of recurring themes in the context of the show. Do you have any of that? Is there material that repeats, or that follows the characters around?

We have musical themes in the conventional sense. There’s one cue called “People Are Capable of Terrible Things.” And it’s got a piano melody that’s thematic and that does reprise in the normal way that themes would. And that signifies, usually, an extended scene involving a lot of duplicity, and people being dishonest with each other in the show.

That’s a very straightforward, classic approach to a theme. But then you have other themes in sort of sub-genres that we’ve developed for the show, like the courtroom scenes for example. 90% of the time it will be played in a very upbeat and playful kind of way, because there’s a lot of cat and mouse in their preparation for the courtroom, and you see their strategies working over the course of time. A lot of courtroom drama is played as heavy drama or melodrama, and Pete was very clear from the start that he wants the courtroom scenes to be entertaining. And the way the students view a case is often like “Yeah, we’re gonna get this,” rather than “Oh my god, we’re gonna send this person to jail for the rest of their life.” So we’ll have a genre theme, the courtroom scenes, for example, which are sort of upbeat four-to-the-floor. A sort of cheeky, disco-y kind of piece of electronic music which you’d never expect in that scenario.

In the episode I watched, “Best Christmas Ever” [watch the full episode here], there were a lot of transitions between courtroom and classroom and the outside world. And then, of course, there are a lot of flashbacks as well. From a musical perspective, it must be really hard to bind those all together in a way that doesn’t seem like it’s an animated cartoon, you know?

Some of these just happen to come together during the writing process, and some of them you struggle [with] for a long time. Maybe one of the cutback scenes, the music that was playing previously that needs to continue, is completely inappropriate for that scene. So we’re endlessly tweaking some of these cues. Some of these cues will end up taking as long as the rest of the episode in terms of how much work I’m putting in. Because you’re right, you’ll have a flashback to some horrific moment after you’ve just had a courtroom gag, and you need to continue with that courtroom humor. And then again, the flashback, you’re not even sure it’s true or even happened. A lot of these flashbacks are the lie, and then some of the flashbacks are what really happened. So some of them are extremely tricky to deal with. It’s just a little bit of finessing here and there that makes them all tie together. And some of them come a hell of a lot easier than others.

It’s like you have to consider the tone of what you’re writing, almost more than the actual melodic elements. Like you can build this sense of something questioning, or something propulsive, that will guide you through, instead of a melody that will work in each of four situations.

Yeah, and I think that’s why melodies only occur in a couple of different things. I may be wrong, but I think we got about three recurring themes that signify a particular type of drama. And then you’re right, often it is just setting the tone, because you need to have a little bit of flexibility depending on what you’re coming back to. If you put humorous music to a scene that’s really not supposed to be, you could really wreck it. But if you put slightly moody music into a scene that’s humorous, you could get away with more. We err on the dark side generally, and then you can bring in a fun element for a second if you need to. But then it does end up being a sound bed or an atmosphere rather than a melodic theme a lot of the time.

EDM is a very rhythmic form of music. Do you have to think about rhythm differently when you’re scoring to picture as opposed to building a dance track?

Yeah, it’s such a different discipline. I think there are such great music supervisors out there who find the perfect complement for a driving bit of dance music and put it with a scene that just makes it seem like dance music always works. And the truth is, it hardly ever does. It has a very distinct purpose, most dance music. And sometimes you’ll get a brilliant fit, where you couldn’t even compose a piece of score that would do the same job.

But a lot of the time, you’re playing a supporting role to picture, and the groove comes secondary. And you know in EDM, you might spend a whole day on a groove, or longer. And if that ends up not working for that scene, you have nothing to fall back on. So you have to approach it a different way. You can’t place everything on a rhythm on the majority of scenes. And, you know, you’ll get lucky in some scenes where you can just see right from the get-go, “Oh yeah, this just needs something to drive it along.” But that’s less frequent than you think.

To make the kind of electronica that you make, you can’t just think about rhythm anyway. You’re working a lot with ambience and mood to begin with.

Yeah. And also one of the main things about dance music, it’s very much on a grid. It generally takes twists and turns in 8, 16, 32-bar increments. It spills to another moment where it transitions into another section of the track. And dance music generally stays on one course. And that’s usually opposed to what score needs to do, which is to be able to change appropriately and in a cool way. If you go one and a half bars and then you need to change for another 2.8 bars, it rhythmically becomes a mess! And the whole purpose of establishing a groove in dance music is immediately lost.

You’ll hear it in bad music editing in a lot of visual productions where that completely rubbed me the wrong way, because somebody just tripped it halfway through a beat. It switches to another part of the song and it sounds horrific. As a music person, that stands out to you. I guess a lot of stuff slips through and ends up being horrifically edited together. I try to make sure that absolutely everything that is rhythm-based, I’ll set a tempo that happens to fit with the editors’ tempo that they’ve established.

Photek wins an award for his score to How to Get Away with Murder from ASCAP’s Jeff Jernigan

Photek and ASCAP's Jeff Jernigan at the 2015 ASCAP Film & TV Music Awards

What’s the biggest adjustment you have to make, mentally or creatively or otherwise, when you’re making music for screen as opposed to the more dance-oriented stuff?

I think the biggest adjustment that you have to make permanently -- it hit me years and years ago now -- is that you are secondary in this process. And you really are serving someone else’s vision. I remember the first couple of things I was asked to score, I came with a whole aesthetic for the show which hinged on music. You know, “You need to make the show like this because then this music would fit!” It’s a very naive and, I think, a very common approach for anyone coming through from the recording world. And as soon as I understood that I was serving someone else’s vision and ultimately the picture, it became a hell of a lot easier, and I also became much more creative. I’ve got to say that the more that I’ve worked with picture, the more versatile I’ve become and the better my repertoire has become.

Is it always just you in the studio creating score?

Pretty much. I have a couple of guys, assistants who help out and do arrangements, pull up sound palettes and play stuff around, and I’ll yell from the next room “What’s that thing that you just did?” ::Laughs:: Generally it’s me running the whole operation, so I probably spend about 50% of the time making music and 50% of the time liaising with the production. And that’s another big learning curve for me, which is you’ve got to keep communicating. If you spend half a day working on something that’s not appropriate for the showrunner or the director, then you’re giving yourself major problems. Time is of the essence and you’ve got to do your best work in the shortest amount of time possible.

That was a big adjustment, because the previous couple of decades, I’d just lock myself in a room and I’d call people back when when I was done with my record. You’re working with a completely blank canvas, and you know nobody wants to tell you what to do even if you ask. ::laughs:: I think working at someone else’s very strict pace is also something you’ve got to learn how to do. I see now that there’s not a surprise why there’s some great recording artists out there who don’t score movies, because knowing what it takes to make one happen, you’ve got to know that they’re gonna do what you need them to do when you need them to do it. And I don’t think many artists are used to being told what to do too often.

Are there routines or tricks that you have to get into that frame of mind where you’re ready to produce at your best in a short time frame?

One of the main routines I had to keep reminding myself is keep trying new things every 30 seconds. None of it’s in the arrangement but, you know, if you’re sitting there listening to a loop for more than a minute, you’re wasting time. You’re ruling out the possibility of coming across some fantastic new sound you hadn’t thought of using. The golden rule is to keep moving and keep creating, and keep trying ideas at a very high rate, so you don’t have time to sit with something for ages and ages and finesse it and then figure out after half a day that it actually is not the right sound. You’ve got to keep moving. Don’t sit there gazing off into the corner of the room while you’re working. Keep looking at the picture and keep trying new things.

Are there ever times where you fiddle around with a cue and then you realize at some point that it really makes more sense not to have any music at all?

Yes, that happens. And as much as you don’t want to admit that you’ve failed to improve the picture by music, sometimes you have a 15-minute stretch of an episode where it’s wall-to-wall music, and actually it would be more effective to go to silence. And that’s happened on both my most recent shows. I remember there was one particular episode of Gang Related where we sat at the mix and everything had been approved and we all looked at each other and thought “You know? There are three major, core cues here that just need to be pulled.” The good thing is, you get to use them a different way on another day. If they were working very much with that cast and that show, you’ll be able to come back to it. There must be at least 10 great cues that we haven’t heard in the show yet because they ended up not being appropriate at the time, but we love them and we know they’re gonna fit somewhere.

And it’s a bonus track on the first score soundtrack.

::laughs:: There’s a bunch of them on How to Get Away, because sometimes we’ll go on a crazy mission to try three rhythmic dance tracks that actually come out so great, and I think I’ll release these myself. And they’re like, “No no no, we want to save this. We’re not gonna forget about it.” I have a small library building of things that are waiting to be used on the show.

At the end of the “Best Christmas Ever” episode there’s a song that plays, it almost sounds like a Sigur Ros song. Was that also you or was it a licensed track?

That’s a licensed track. There’s probably about 25 minutes of original score in each episode and then usually three to four major licenses.

Do you have to work your score around that or integrate it in any way?

There’s been a couple of cues where we couldn’t find a good segue between the licensed track and the score, and I ended up starting an arrangement based around the licensed music, fixed the tempo, and I basically built on an additional layer over the end of their track which sounded like part of their song. That was interesting. It’s something I’ve always thought was a great idea, but this show was the first time I really heard that happen. I think most artists would rather their songs stayed, but not get messed around with a little bit. But then you can’t attach or write anything to it. And so you know you add this layer at the end of a needle drop, and then it segues perfectly into the next cue and everything works just fine.

Well it sounds like a cool challenge for you. Maybe you get to bring in instruments or textures that you hadn’t brought in earlier in the episode.

Yeah it’s great fun for me because that’s basically DJing ::laughs:: I need to get from this song to this song, and they’re both in different keys, and they’re both in different tempos, and how does a DJ deal with that? Well I’ve got much more time to figure that out right now and I can actually write a bridging piece between these two pieces of music. So I love doing that. And especially I think it’s cool for artists to get music licensed into a show like this, and I love to make this solve that problem. Because they stand a chance of not having their song licensed if it doesn’t fit. And I think “Ah, I love these guys!” And sometimes I’ll talk with Alex Patsavas, the music supervisor, and she’ll say “We really want to make this work. Can you fix the end?” I’ll give it a go. Usually it works out.

You said you’re in a break in between the first season and the start of the second season. Do you have any sense of what the second season is gonna sound like?

Sound-wise, I know that Pete Nowalk does not want to ease up and say, “Oh we’ve got this covered. Let’s just recycle things.” So I’m not expecting it to be a walk in the park. But I think we like what we’ve established, so I think we’ll be building on that palette. I’ve got a feeling our courtroom stuff might take the same format, but maybe evolve a little. But you know the main thing is that none of us really know what’s going to happen in season two! ::laughs::

I saw the whole cast and crew last night at the screening, and everybody’s asking the same question and nobody really knows the answer. “What’s gonna happen? What’s the format gonna be?” You can’t really predict with this show what’s going to happen next, and often the writers leave things very open-ended, and try to leave as many doors open as they can, because it leaves room for them to take unexpected twists and turns.Even on a macro level, we’re not quite sure how season two is gonna go down so it’ll be as much of a surprise to me as everyone else.

You get to be an audience member again, just waiting to see what happens.

Yeah. That happens week to week, you know. About halfway through the season I decide not to read the scripts anymore. You go to the spotting session, there’s usually at least 10 of us in a room, producer, director and showrunner and everybody else, and often we’d all be watching it for the first time. You’ve got the editors and a couple of the producers who’ve seen the latest cut. And we’ve been reacting like a TV audience, sitting on the couch. Pete would be able to say, “Oh wow, that’s not the reaction I was anticipating. Let’s pause right here and let’s talk that through and hear what you guys think is going on here.” That will have an immediate effect on the music direction, like “Wait a minute, you thought that that piece of action meant that? That’s not what I wanted you to think. Let’s talk about how we’re going to redirect people with this.” So a lot of it happens on the fly with this show.

Are there any musical crimes you hope to get away with in the future?

I’ve got a bunch of new types of movies or people that I’d like to get to work with, but there’s some stuff that’s a little bit out of my lane that I’d like to do, as well. I’d like to score an animation. I think that’d be a challenge for me. And a comedy as well. Most people don’t think of my music as being comedic. And I think what a lot of creative people have, is once they’re known for one thing, people assume that that’s what they like in their life. Like, I’m sure that Marilyn Manson will sometimes laugh, and sometimes just kick back without the make-up, you know? Watch a romantic comedy. ::laughs:: But what he does in his life is a separate issue from his artist persona. So I’d like to try some things that no one would expect from Photek that I could score as a composer. Maybe even some crazy children’s program. Maybe Photek does Yo Gabba Gabba or something like that ::laughs:: It’s some cool music on some of these shows.

You’re in the process of joining ASCAP now. What makes you want to become a member? Why do you care about this company?

One of the major things is how much ASCAP’s tried to do to protect the rights of people who write music. There’s so many people talking about  what artists need to be doing who don’t understand what it means to create music. You’re not a pop star, you’re not a DJ, you might be a songwriter, you might be a composer or someone who writes fantastic music that gets performed by somebody else who’s famous, and the vast majority of people making incredible music that matches to other people are behind the scenes.

I always follow the Twitter feed from ASCAP, and I see what they’re doing in Washington. In this country and all around the world, you need a really dedicated team with some leverage who can actually go out there and defend music makers’ rights. And that’s a big appeal for me with ASCAP. You guys are looking far ahead and approaching some really big issues that individuals don’t get to tackle, because they’re too busy trying to make ends meet, too busy trying to make the next genius song. It’s a great critical mass to join in terms of defending what little there is left for musicians out there. And you know, it’s musicians, it’s their families, and it’s all the other industries that are attached to the music industry that stand to lose a lot if there’s not somebody out there fighting for those rights. I respect and appreciate everything ASCAP’s doing.

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Find Photek online at photek.fm

Watch clips of How to Get Away with Murder on the ABC website

Watch the full episode “Best Christmas Ever” here