In Orbit With Dave Long

TMU: Dave, when I look up your Wikipedia profile I see you listed as Musician, Composer and Producer, and you’ve worked on most of Peter Jackson’s films of the last few years. Which ones have you worked on, for the record?


DL: I worked on all of Lord of the Ringsfilms with Plan 9, we did the music for Middle Earth and also the sound design for the Ring element. We did musical sound design on King Kong, then The Lovely Bones… Brian Eno did the score for that and I was brought in to bridge some sections which in the end turned out to be 20 mins of score in additional composition.


TMU: So… working with Eno… is it a bit like working with God?


DL: Yeah (laughs) I was actually working over and around him, but yeah, he’s probably my biggest musical hero. Peter and Fran (Walsh) flew a few of us over to meet Eno and I was terrified! Because as well as doing all the music I’d done, I also had chopped up some of his iconic bits of music and played other music over the top of that, so I was sure I was going to music hell, but Fran had asked Brian about it and he said it sounded great. Probably out of anyone in the world he would be interested in someone reassigning his compositions, so it was a great gig.


TMU: How did you meet Peter Jackson in the first instance?


DL: I first met Peter at a party when I was in my early 20s and someone said: “A friend of mine has got a film he’s just made, and we’re showing it upstairs in the living room”. We all went up and we watched Bad Taste and I remember thinking 'woah, this is good'. Then I didn’t have anything much to do with him until I worked on The Frighteners. The Muttonbirds [Dave Long’s first band] did a cover of Don’t Fear the Reaper, so we saw Pete then, but it was Fran I knew better through the years. But then when the whole Lord of the Rings was happening Plan 9 and I knew they’d be using someone big like Howard Shore so we contacted them saying that the music of Middle Earth should be different. And they were interested in that and asked us to do some demos. This set up the relationship which has been great.


TMU: How was recording Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper for a major movie, it’s such a classic?


DL: I actually didn’t know the song before we did it and no one else in the band could believe that! I did a heap of quite full-on guitar feedback and a bit on a theremin which a friend had made me. I had a lot of fun with it. I remember we sent the WAV file (this was back in ’96) from London to NZ and it took something like 12 hours to go down the phone lines!


TMU: The Misty Mountains theme you composed with the guys at Plan 9 turned into one of the most covered tracks of the 2000s. I’ve seen heavy metal versions, folk versions, acapella, can you tell us a bit about this and how this rolled out?


DL: It’s popular because LOTR and The Hobbit were so big. Peter and Fran had asked us to do something to Tolkein’s words. And we gave them maybe half a dozen versions and they chose the one that just seemed to have a lucky melody that seems like it’s always been there. They loved it and put it in the first trailer. I can remember showing that to Kirsten my wife and suddenly there were 24 million views. She said to me at the time that will be the piece of music that will be the most heard that you’ll ever make, and yeah there are hundreds of covers. It hit something and sparked all these covers off.


TMU: In the film I remember they spend so much time on that song. They’re sitting there and there are long close ups of them all singing around the fire and it just goes on and on…


DL: I tuned all of those dwarves! Some of them could sing well, but there’s that thing that they had to feel like it was coming from a people that had always sung that song for generations. So I spent about 3 weeks of my life taking those dwarves’ voices and tuning them. You can’t get them too in tune otherwise it sounds synthesized, so I had to get them just right so it felt rich and chorused.


TMU: So I guess one of the obvious things people will want to know is what’s it like working with Peter Jackson? He’s up there with Lucas, Spielberg and Coppola…


DL: Yeah, Peter is so big now it’s all via remote these days. We’re doing some more Hobbit music right now for them. We send them stuff and we get feedback. Their time is very carefully managed by their people now because there is only so much they can do in a day. It wasn’t always like that but it’s quite a remote relationship. On LOTR we were around them a lot more, but after LOTR went ballistic it all changed. The stress of that would have been huge.


TMU: So when you’re approached to compose music for a feature, documentary or TV series how does this work – can you talk us through the process?


DL: Quite often first I’ll sit with the director and talk about what their approach might be. It may be mood or stylistic… then I like to get pictures. After the first sit down with the director I’ll go home to my studio and I’ll always write a whole bunch of musical and thematic ideas. Quite often one of these will go on to become the direction we’ll go in for the final pictures. For The Luminaries they wanted me to provide music for the editors to cut to; I wrote a whole lot of music to the script, which was the first time I’ve done that.


TMU: You mean you wrote music just to the words without seeing any images?


DL: Yes. I probably did about 45 demos and about half of those figured. There was one I wrote to a speech a character does which I felt was emblematic of the whole show, and that became the main theme. Weirdly when I got that scene I had to do a very simplified version of it because the actor delivered the speech about twice as fast as I imagined. But the theme became the theme of the show.


TMU: Would you normally see so kind of rushes or rough cut for timing etc?


DL: Yes for sure that would be standard procedure. For example, you see what the lighting is, the mood, tone and pace, and that affects which way the sound is going to go.


TMU: So is there a difference between your process in features, TV series, docos or are they pretty much the same process?


DL: The documentaries I’ve been doing have been feeling more and more like features. In the last few years where you’re doing dramatic narrative arcs. Sometimes I’m doing a doco where I don’t want to say as much as in fiction/drama.


TMU: How do you mean?


DL: Sometimes I feel that I don’t want to editorialize too much, so if something feels sad, or someone is saying something sad, you don’t automatically go into a minor key. In documentary very often I feel like people need to make up their own minds about a subject, so music might be more about pace, I don’t want to lead them too much. This is especially true if it’s a political documentary, or something topical like that, whereas something like a documentary about Bruce McLean the race driver, I was composing for speed quite a bit, but also composing for his interior stuff, bringing things out. Ultimately finding ways of making the ebb and flow of the film work.


TMU: I guess sometimes the gaps or silences in scenes are just as important as the composition itself as a statement?


DL: Yes, I think that most things have actually got too much music these days. If you have a lot of music it stops meaning as much, whereas if you wait, it allows the music to have much more power. When music is used to manipulate the viewer to thinking a certain thing or a certain end result, it can be frustrating. Often editors like to throw some music in as it helps their process and give the scene a bit of steroids, but if the actors are doing a good job, let them get on with it! There’s a really great sound supervisor called Walter Murch who did The Godfather who talks about how he likes music to come in at the end of scenes. He talks about music being the collector and convener of the emotions that have been built up in the previous scene. I really like that idea of the score coming in to sit with us, as we think about what we’ve just seen.


TMU: Do you have any genre like of dislikes? Anything you can’t stand doing?


DL: I absolutely love doing kids stuff! (laughs) It’s very often where you can get to being really inventive and push things. When I first started music I would put myself up for anything but now more and more I get selective. I don’t want to do sports stuff for TV , or stuff that feels macho. That said, I did a documentary on rugby a few years ago called The Ground We Won but when they asked me to do it I hesitated and said look, I’m not your guy, imagining they wanted stadium rock;  but they came back and said no ,we imagine the score is like a string quartet - it actually turned into a beautiful art film – about rugby...


TMU: You’ve also recorded three solo albums, written pieces for string quartets and chamber orchestras. What’s next for you?


DL: I’m talking to Stroma who are a chamber orchestra drawn from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and doing some more for them. I’ve done a bit in this area which are on Bandcamp or Spotify.


TMU: Does your music go out independently on these types of platforms?


DL: Fortunately I’ve got a publisher who does all that. Sometimes you do music for something that doesn’t feel like it can live by itself but some scores do and can be released as a free standing thing.


TMU: So if a Director reading this interview wanted to get in touch regarding working with you on an original composition for a short film, TV series or feature, would you be open to that?


DL: Yes, of course (laughs). Film and TV, it’s where so much great art has been made. I’m obsessed with how music plays against moving images, it’s so exciting.


TMU: Do you often have projects where you never meet your client and only ever communicate via Skype or equivalent – are you comfortable with that process?


DL: I’ve done quite a few but often there will be a physical meeting. For the latest BBC series I’m doing I met the Producer but then worked remotely for almost the entire series. I’ve done that with a Canadian series and couple of other UK things.


TMU: Any word on a reunion with The Muttonbirds?


DL: We’re doing a tour in February! We’re doing a couple of festivals, then doing the main centres around NZ. We’re doing 14 shows.


TMU: And how about your new band, Teeth?


DL: (Sighs). We started rehearsing a few months ago and then I got stupidly busy and had to pull out. So the idea is that next year we do another album. Teeth is one of my favourite projects. I love The Muttonbirds and saw myself sort of colouring in Don’s [McGlashan’s] songs, but Teeth is a wilder, crazier affair and I’m happy that I’m doing a musical project like that at this point in my life!


TMU: If someone was an aspiring composer, what advice would you give them?


DL: It’s always hard. Just start doing things to pictures, thinking about the relationship of how music works to picture, how it can bring out meaning, and start doing things with friends and contacts. If you’re good and you believe in yourself, things will start to build slowly outwards. Get into composing for short films or similar. I did a lot of composition for contemporary dance, another friend of mine did a whole lot of composing for theatre, but these days there’s a lot more film around. When I first got interested in film, it was just so rare and expensive!


TMU: What advice would you give to your younger self?


DL: Don’t be so worried about stuff. It will probably be fine. What would your advice to your younger self be, out of interest?


TMU: Hmmm. Dare to be yourself. The greatest prison people live in is the fear of what other people think. F*ck that!



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