10 Questions with composer Dan Watts

Welcome to the first of my new and uncut “10 Questions with”. I have no idea how often I will do these, but let’s hope it will remains a feature on this blog for some time to come! So without further ado let’s kick off.

The terribly nice Dan Watts is a music composer who is perhaps best known (along side his brother Sam Watts) for work on the Doctor Who spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures. He has also worked on a number of other BBC, ITV, HBO programmes.

Dan Watts

Q1. How did you get into this and at what point did you realise you wanted to be a composer?

As a kid I got mildly obsessed with film scores. I made audio tapes of the Star Wars trilogy by putting a tape recorder next to the TV as it played the film back  so along with the score there was also the sound effects and dialogue on there too! I used to walk about listening to them on a Walkman. Highly illegal but I was only 8. I had no concept of copyright law!

Years later when I listened to the score in isolation I could speak all the dialogue along to it. GEEK! I also adored Ghostbusters (when asked when I was 10 what I wanted to be I always replied ‘A Ghostbuster!”) and Danny Elfman’s score to Tim Burton’s Batman too made a huge impact on me. The Brass is just fantastic on that. Such great themes too.

It wasn’t all Film music though. I adored TV music too. Theme tunes like Grangehill, Telly Addicts (great bit of guitar work by George Fenton) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Patrick Gowers) and Stingray (Barry Grey) were big favourites. I loved all of the themes for Gerry Anderson’s stuff but Stingray is my favourite. Those drums and Horns just sound amazing!

I discovered the guitar at 14 and spent all of my free time in bands for many years attempting to gain rock stardom and failing miserably! Realising just playing the guitar wasn’t going to be enough I taught myself the piano and bought a load of recording gear and taught myself to use it. I’d always had a connection with film and TV music though so it wasn’t long before my rocking out took a back seat to my trying to write music to picture.

About this time Sam was at Uni studying music and had set his sights on becoming a film/TV composer. It was his enthusiasm and drive that gave me the kick in the butt I needed to start looking at that career too.

2. In terms of composing, who inspires you and which scores do you love?

This is a tough one. Depends on my mood and what time of day it is! I am constantly listening to music though. I rarely do anything without having music on in the background. John Williams was an early influence. Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind… The list goes on. Danny Elfman was another that captured me early. As I mentioned earlier, his Batman score is still one of my absolute favourites (along with Planet of the Apes, Wolfman and Mars Attacks are also brilliant).

I’m a big John Powell fan. The Bourne scores redefined action music. Any spy movie now has elements of ideas from those scores. His sense of melody is amazing. He writes these short but highly memorable themes that are just perfect. It’s very hard to fit a large grand theme into a couple of seconds which is sometimes all you have. His best works seem so effortless. He also has a very distinct sound.

Hans Zimmer is another. I adore his more recent works like Inception, The Dark Knight (with James Newton Howard) and the two Sherlock Holmes scores. He goes for mood over theme. More motif, emotion and drive. His production skills are probably the best in the industry. He takes risks and pushes boundaries.

3. What is the piece of music you are most proud of?

Tough to pick one piece but I’m proud of the Lost in Time episode in The Sarah Jane Adventures (SJA). I did all the WW2 stuff. I had a lot of fun writing in the style of war films. All orchestra and no electronics. Different for me.

4. How did you and Sam get involved in the Sarah Jane Adventures gig? And how does your collaboration work? Does one of you write in a particular style, or do you split episodes/scenes?

It’s Sam’s gig really. He’s been lead on it and has been from the very start. Russell T Davis heard Sam’s showreel and asked him to score Invasion of the Bane. It all took off after that.

So Sam scored the first episode and got me to do some source music (music actually used on screen in the show) and to engineer/mix the score. I have fond memories of tweaking a mix at 4am on the morning before delivery for the show! Those we’re the days before fast broadband and with Sam and I in different places there was a lot of files being sent back and forth. It wasn’t the first time we’d worked this way but it was a steep learning curve.

Next came series one. Sam scored 99% of series one by himself with just a handful of cues written by me. I was again, in charge of mixing the music. The schedule was very tight with a lot of music needed. Sam was absolutely worn out afterwards so when series two came about he thought he’d get me to write more so he could have at least a bit of a life! Creating 22 to 25 minutes of full orchestral music per episode over six days is very draining. Especially when there are twelve episodes in a series.

I wrote more music in series three and again more in series four until we we’re almost at a 60/40 split for series five. We wrote series four and five back to back.

Each episode is split between us. After the spotting session with the director Sam would have a list of timecodes for the music cues needed. I’d watch the episode then we’d chat over skype or the phone (Sam lives in the South and I live in the North) about what was needed, mood, pace etc. I’d make a note of which cues were mine and then get to work. It slightly changed for series three as we got scripts before the edit to work on themes for new characters so we’d come up with a lot of ideas then we’d cherry pick the best ones. This is how we came up with the theme for Androvax (original demo).

We wrote quite a few of the main themes together. For example I wrote the melody for Rani’s theme and Sam adapted the chord progression. Then for Captain Tybo I wrote the chords and Sam wrote a melody over the top. We always seem to write things the other wouldn’t think of so we compliment each other very well.

Style wise we do have different leanings. I think Sam has a very romantic style. His theme for Lady Jane Grey in episode nine of series four for SJA is just sublime. Having said that his bombastic robot theme for the two robots in episode 7 & 8 is probably my favourite thing he’s ever written. I’m a bit more modern and technology orientated incorporating synths and guitars (I’m a guitarist, Sam’s a pianist although we both play both instruments) along with the orchestral elements but I’m more modern film score rather than classic John Williams in style.

Once the music is written it’s sent off for approval and if needed, any changes are made. Sam then relocates to my studio for mixing. I mix every cue then they’re sent off to the dubbing mixer ready to be placed in the show for the final mix.

5. Can you give us a little more insight into how you compose – ie. methods you use, how things come to you – perhaps something on the nuts and bolts you use to compose (eg. equipment used etc.).

That’s a large subject to cover. A lot of it is sitting at the piano playing along to the picture or after reading the script until I come up with something that works. However, melodies and ideas don’t always appear when you are in the studio working. I record a lot of myself singing, humming or whistling into my phone so when I am in the studio I can turn those rough ideas into something I can actually play to someone!

For an orchestral score I usually start with a reduced score. What I mean by this is I have only four tracks (usually pianos) in Pro Tools and write on those. Melody, counter melody, bass and extras. That way you can write the main idea and orchestrate it later. If it’s a mainly electronic score though I just get stuck in finding the sounds I want and write adding instruments as I go along.

As for equipment, Sam and I both use Pro Tools as our sequencer on Macs although we have both recently invested in PC’s to use as slave machines with Vienna Instruments VE Pro software to ease the burden on our Macs. We use a lot of sample libraries. Far too many to list but all of the top ones for orchestral work like LASS, Symphobia, Albion, Spitfire Percussion and East West. You need a massive hard drive just for the sample libraries these days! We both use Genelec speakers for monitoring and mixing. There are lots of plugins we use in Pro Tools but the Focusrite Liquid Mix (which is part plugin, part hardware) is something we couldn’t live without.

6. Like me you have a young family to think about. How do you think this impacts your work?

Juggling work with looking after one child seemed to work well. Two kids is an altogether different kettle of fish! Luckily my wife also works. This means I’m looking after the kids a couple of days a week and so is she. We split it between us fitting work in around them. It’s a demanding way to work as they take a lot of time up but it seems to work. Well. So far. I have a busy summer planned work wise so the real proof will be how we all cope then!

7. What would be your ideal composing gig?

I don’t have one. Honestly I don’t. I know a lot of composers want that high brow, prime time TV show. Something with real drama they can get their teeth into but I’m just happy to be creating. Every job is different with it’s own pros and cons and each job requires different skills and approaches. Doesn’t matter if it’s a psychological drama, light entertainment theme tune, a documentary about social uprising, a track for a cooking show, a chase scene or even a theme tune for a talking bionic bear (no, really!) it’s all fun in it’s own way. I know it sounds slightly smug and self serving but I’m just very happy to be able to write music for a living. Dream job.

8. If you weren’t a composer what would you be?

I left a job managing a warehouse for a kitchen company (I’d been there eight years) to try and make music my profession. It’s taken more than a few years and a lot of support from my family to get there. If it wasn’t for Lizzie (my wife) telling me to quit my job and to ‘just go for it!’ and Sam for always pushing me and giving me some much needed support, not to mention taking me along for the thrilling ride on SJA, I think I’d probably still be there.

9. Do you ever feel you are type-cast as a composer? Do you think this might be a problem for some composers?

Yes and no. SJA is a kids show so everybody seems to think that’s all you do. It isn’t. And besides, how many kids shows have the aesthetic of SJA? Not many!
I love kids telly though. I think it’s overlooked and seen as a bit of a stain on broadcasting. It isn’t. I believe it’s very important. From pre school right up to high school there’s a chance to inform, educate and entertain. There is a lot of cheap, rubbish kids TV out there but there’s also some truly great stuff. From Charlie and Lola, Abney and Teal and Peppa Pig to The Sarah Jane Adventures, Young Dracula and Horrible Histories, there is some really, really great TV out there! If we’re not careful, we could loose a lot of that.

Ok. I’m off my soapbox now. ;0)

10. What next?

I’m producing a couple of tracks for a singer/songwriter at the moment and we have a few other exciting projects lined up. None of which I’m afraid I can talk about just yet.

Thanks Dan, for taking the time to answer these questions. If you don’t already, you can follow Dan on Twitter, be sure to check out his website (www.danwatts.co.uk) and showreel. And to end with, here are a few of my personal favourites (non-SJA based) from his collection:

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