Before GRASSCUT’s gig in Basement at the Otherplace, I caught up with founding member Andrew Phillips to talk about his career as a film composer, the new GRASSCUT album and how he let Passenger go…
To what extent do you think that university prepared you for going out into the working world?
Well I didn’t study music at university. I studied English and Spanish and then did an MA in American Poetry. When I was in London I was into the avant-jazz scene and that was a big influence in my work. As a composer, I think that university prepared me for it academically, but as a musician I think that it’s something that I’ve picked up over time.
Was there a pivotal point that made you realise that you wanted to be a composer?
Yes there definitely was. It was in the mid-90s and I’d written this piece which combined spoken word with a Steve Reich style piano part. I played it back and I thought “This is pretty good!” and it seemed that my friends agreed too. In the early stages I was experimenting with melody, spoken word, minimalism and field recording, but I didn’t really have the tools to do it like I can now.
Nowadays, a lot of music graduates turn to teaching for fear of not finding another job. Did you find it hard when you came
out of university to get your first commissions as a composer?
I got my first commission from Thames TV after a friend of mine had heard one of my demos and played it to them. At the start it’s hard to find regular work. I’m sure that anybody in this line of work will tell you that. It’s the ‘freelance disease’. But it’s about building relationships with Directors and Producers and editors, sharing a rhythm and an understanding of how each other works. Then if you keep going things build and you get more and more work.
Is there a particular score which you’ve heard that really influenced you and your work over the years?
Paris Texas – It wasn’t the blues of it. It was the loneliness and how it was textured. It was both melancholic and beautiful at the same time.
North By Northwest – And all of the Bernard Hermann/ Hitchcock scores. They were just so powerful.
The Ipcress File – John Barry. We had the same agent for a couple of years. We didn’t cross paths but I’ve always been proud of that.
With a massive film composition scene in the US, particularly in LA, and in London in the UK, what made you settle in
Brighton & Hove?
Mainly because of my family. My wife works in television and we lived in London for a few years. Now we have two children and it’s nice to be in Brighton. We had a great few years in London and made some good friends there though. Now with broadband internet it doesn’t really matter as much where I work, so it’s nice to be in a good space, particularly for the kind of reflective music that I write.
Do you have a favourite score of your own work and what do you like about it?
Battle for Marjah (for HBO) and Fire In The Night (BBC), based on the Stephen McGinty book. Marjah is mad, electronic and very intense, and got me an Emmy nomination. Fire In The Night is elegiac, string based, and features Emma (violin) from Grasscut.
You were one of the founding members of the Passenger band, which is now just Passenger, as most people will know him. Was the split amicable? Are you still in contact?
Very much so. I think he may be coming down tonight actually. I had great fun playing in Passenger and I produced the first album, and then a couple more, even after I had stopped playing with Mike. He is a lovely guy, and a dear friend, and it though was a completely different kind of music, although I can hear parts of GRASSCUT in the production of the first album. It’s how I met Marcus O’Dair too (the other half of GRASSCUT).
Why did you first start up GRASSCUT? Was it as a musical escape from writing for film/TV?
It started out as sketches really, trying out different things with the music. It was nice to be able to do something without the restrictions of commissions. There were still restrictions, but they were imposed by us – like writing pieces for a fixed ensemble and of a certain length. But it is nice to have that control over the music and I think it helps with my other compositions too.
How do you divide up your time between GRASSCUT and your other musical work?
It does involve a certain amount of juggling. Sometimes I’ll just focus on one and take time off of the other, but when time doesn’t allow you just have to work twice as hard and manage everything at once. I think it’s very important to play live and not get stuck in the studio with your music. For me, it’s about experiencing the physical force of it, the power of the music and seeing the reactions of people when they’re listening to it.
With the first album receiving such praise from the press, did it make it a hard act to follow?
It was to an extent. We were honestly quite surprised at how well the first album was received. It was made up of pieces some of which I’d had for years, although not in that form, and we were trying to figure out what Grasscut was exactly. The second album is a transitional record, looking back on it now. There are still some tracks on it that we’re really pleased with and we learned some different skills with it. I think the new album is the best we’ve done though, as a whole.
What is your favourite thing about performing live with GRASSCUT?
Singing in harmony. Without a doubt. It’s a great feeling just singing live in harmony.
Is it difficult to replicate the music that you produce live?
Not with this album. I wrote it to be performed. The first album was very difficult to play live, as it was a studio record really. We try not to just replicate the music when we play it live. It’s more like a development or an interpretation of it.
Finally, with the new album out what is next for you both within GRASSCUT and individually?
I’m working on a new film with Channel 4 about the Charlie Hebdo, which I’m sure you can imagine is not an easy thing to work on. For GRASSCUT, we’ve got a bunch of shows lined up and some festivals over the summer and then we’re looking onwards to the next record, which is pretty exciting. But there will definitely be a lot more live performing.