Scottish musicians on their soundtracking sidehustles

Scottish cinema has had a resurgence of late, and the same can also be said for film music being produced by Scottish musicians. We speak to a range of different artists working in film to get a handle on how they approach this side of their practice

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 04 Oct 2019

For a country with such a vibrant music scene, Scottish musicians are responsible for surprisingly few great musical moments in cinema. There are Mark Knopfler’s rousing scores for Bill Forsyth, we suppose, and Simple Minds' Don't You (Forget About Me) bringing The Breakfast Club to a memorable close.

But there’s little to shout about beyond these scraps. From Under the Skin (London artist Mica Levi) to Rob Roy (American music genius Carter Burwell) to Highlander (Queen at their most bombastic), we tend to ship in our composers. Even Trainspotting fails us. Primal Scream may have provided the title track, but it’s songs by Iggy Pop, Blondie, Lou Reed and Underworld that helped provide iconic moments. Perhaps, though, there’s a change in the air.

Beats, Boyz in the Wood and Belle & Sebastian

Over the last few years, Scottish artists have been increasingly in demand by movie music departments, both at home as well as abroad. Earlier this year, Edinburgh Film Festival opened with Boyz in the Wood, a rambunctious action-comedy about four working-class teens being hunted down by demented aristocrats in the Scottish Highlands. A significant proportion of its pleasure is derived from its psychedelic orchestral score by Glasgow producer Alex Smoke. Then there are the hilarious raps spat by one of the quartet – a wannabe hip-hop star who’s dubbed himself DJ Beatroot – which come courtesy of Glasgow-based producer S-Type.

Speaking of Glasgow, the Glasgow Film Festival closed with another great music-filled Scottish film: Beats. A coming-of-age movie set in West Lothian during the summer of 1994 when the UK government was cracking down on the country's rave scene, the film’s period soundtrack was assembled by Optimo legend JD Twitch, who made sure Scotland was represented alongside The Prodigy and Leftfield with Hudson Mohawke’s epic Scud Books closing the film.

And just last month, Belle & Sebastian released a soundtrack album for the forthcoming Days of the Bagnold Summer, the directorial debut of Inbetweeners star Simon Bird. The cult Glasgow band’s brand of happy-sad pop has long been a staple on film and TV soundtracks, popping up in everything from Juno to High Fidelity to The Devil Wears Prada. They also wrote original songs for Todd Solondz downer Storytelling, and frontman Stuart Murdoch provided the music for his solo project God Help the Girl, but this is the band’s first OST.

Stuart Braithwaite on Mogwai's soundtrack work

One Scottish band who might outdo Murdoch and co’s on IMDB soundtrack credits is Mogwai. The mighty post-rockers’ instrumental work runs the gamut from serene and melancholy to pensive and brutal – sometimes in the same song. In other words, their music is a dream for any scene that needs a wash of atmosphere, whether it’s sunny or disturbing. “I think our music can be quite cinematic and emotional,” suggest Stuart Braithwaite, “which works quite well for film and TV.” The band aren’t delighted with every application of their music over the years, though. “We stupidly allowed a song of ours to be used in a Nike advert featuring Lance Armstrong – so bad on so many levels.”

The band's first score proper was in 2006 for Douglas Gordon and Phillipe Peron’s experimental documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, which tracks the legendary French footballer during the course of a single match. In the same year, they collaborated with Clint Mansell and Kronos Quartet on the music for Darren Aronofsky’s metaphysical sci-fi The Fountain. Since then, they haven’t looked back.

They’ve composed the music for a gritty action sci-fi (Kin), a creepy French horror series (The Returned) and for Mark Cousins’ powerful cine-essay to mark the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing (Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise), Braithwaite's favourite of Mogwai’s scores. They recently completed a score for the upcoming ZeroZeroZero, an Italian Mafia series from the makers of Gomorrah.

At this stage, film and TV work sit side-by-side with Mogwai’s music-making. Not that the band see them as being exactly the same, necessarily. “I think the main difference is that soundtracks are collaborative and you are working with many people,” says Braithwaite. “On your own records, you only have yourselves to keep happy.” There’s also less room to manoeuvre. “Lots of times you’ll need to write very short pieces of music for scenes with exact start and end times,” Braithwaite explains. “Our own music can be very free, so being so concise has been something we’ve had to learn.” The attitude of the collaborator also contributes significantly. “On Kin, the director literally came to the studio and had very definite ideas of the music he wanted, whereas with Zidane the directors gave us free rein. It varies a lot.”

Anna Meredith on soundtracking Eighth Grade and Living With Yourself

One of the most memorable and innovative scores in recent years was found in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, a coming-of-age film centred on Kayla, an extremely awkward adolescent girl that’s both sharp and tender. What made Eighth Grade's music – written by genre-defying Scotland-raised composer Anna Meredith – so special is that its electronic blaring and bleeping directly tuned us into the anxiety of the film’s cripplingly shy 13-year-old protagonist.

Meredith reckons she got the gig because very few other musicians fitted the bill. “Bo Burnham was looking for quite a specific thing: a classical composer now working in electronics. And came across me – hurrah!” The music Burnham asked her to assemble isn’t what you’d expect for your typical indie movie about an alienated teen. The score is huge and strange, and seems to be part of Kayla’s psyche in some way. “I think it [feels that way] because Bo told me to really lean into her thoughts,” Meredith explains. “It’s not judging her or stepping back and observing her in a cute/distanced way. These discomforts are huge things for Kayla, so I tried to write them as if they were her equivalents of diffusing a bomb!”

Meredith's next score, for Netflix show Living With Yourself, in which Paul Rudd plays an average shlub who’s replaced by a new and improved version of himself after a spa treatment, reworks some older tracks with new ones. “There's a LOT of music in it!” Meredith tells us. “They had some bits where they’d worked a lot with these older tracks so I was balancing that up with newer material, which ranges from various kinds of drama and tension to full-blown love themes, which was fun to do!”

Anna and the Apocalypse and Animaniacs

Another memorable melding of Scottish film and music in recent years has been Anna and the Apocalypse, which as far as we’re aware is the first film in the sub-genre of 'Christmas zombie musical comedy'. Blending the upbeat song and dance of High School Musical with the self-aware pop-culture shtick of Shaun of the Dead and you’re half-way to picturing the film’s demented flavour. Responsible for the horror-comedies infectious toe-tappers – which range from a shameless Hall & Oates rip-off to an arena rock number sung by the school jock boasting about his zombie-killing prowess – are Tommy Reilly and Roddy Hart, both solo singer-songwriters who were trying their hand at the musical form for the first time.

The pair have been friends since touring together back in 2009, but Anna… is their first time trying to write collaboratively. “We just felt it was the first great opportunity for us to work together and that’s really as simple as it was,” says Hart when we ask how the collaboration came about. “We just both thought, ‘let's have a go at this and get in a room together and see if we can make it work as a team’, because movies – especially for a musical – are these big onerous projects and we felt it's very important to have somebody else to work with.”

“I sort of understand now why a lot of musical writers and score composers are duos," adds Reilly, "because there's quite a lot to deal with, from the studio to the direction to everybody else, there's lots to juggle.” Writing as a duo is also a lot more fun than grinding out songs at the piano alone. “That's been the big takeaway for me from all the years of solo songwriting and making records and touring, it did feel like a lot of it was on my individual shoulders. So it's been very nice to have a big team of people around.”

As well as musical numbers, Hart and Reilly were also tasked with Anna...'s score, which had its own challenges. “Our director was mad keen on a real journey throughout the film from a Christmasy, Danny Elfman-type vibe through to that kind of dark electro synth-pop of the John Carpenter movies when it becomes this zombie horror film.”

“The fun part was trying to smash this warm, festive, mildly romantic music with really cold, horrible synth noises and big banging drums," says Reilly. "We ended up making something kind of Halloweeny in some respects, where it's got this twinkle to it but it's also menacing, and that was a joy.”

This collaboration wasn't a one-off: the pair have clearly got a taste for the movie business. Next up they’re providing a very different type of score for Our Ladies, Michael Caton-Jones’ adaptation of Alan Warner’s rambunctious comic novel about six teenage choirgirls cutting loose in Edinburgh. “Michael, the director, was all about simplicity for that score,” says Reilly. “So we stripped everything down to one string section, piano, the key elements.”

Caton-Jones is known as one of cinema's great taskmasters; his mantra is “Pain is temporary, film is forever.” How was he to work for? “Michael, he's numerous films into his career, and he's worked in Hollywood as well as over here, so he knows what he wants," says Hart. "He's worked with some amazing film composers over the years, so gleaning some insight into what his processes was an amazing experience.”

If it's not clear already that this pair have range, they're also currently working on a reboot of The Animaniacs, the manic animation series from the 90s produced by Steven Spielberg. Having grown up watching the show on Saturday morning TV, the boys are finding the prospect quite surreal. “I think my head's going to explode when that's all done,” laughs Reilly. “ I was really thinking, going forward, I would like to just move away from songs and gigs and touring and try and get into sound design, I was happy to get into any aspect that sound on film and move away from the song format. But we've been very lucky that our old jobs have come round to haunt us. And we're being asked to write songs in this film world and write underscore as well. So creatively we're kind of having our cake and eating it."

ZeroZeroZero comes to Sky Atlantic and NOW TV in 2020; Living With Yourself streams on Netflix from 18 Oct; Our Ladies has its world premiere at the London Film Festival; Animaniacs comes to Hulu in the US in 2020, with UK release still to be announced