April 23, 2018

Interview: Catching Up with Will Bates


Will Bates breaks down the process of composing for the documentary format.


Interview: Catching Up with Will Bates

Will Bates talks about his process of writing scores for documentary films, his newest being We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.

When you think of documentaries, truth and subject matter usually come to mind. While those initial impressions are true, music is crucial to setting the tone. The Topanga Messenger’s film reviewer recently had an opportunity to catch up with composer Will Bates to discuss his latest work on We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.

The subject matter is obviously heavy, how much of that goes into the creative process when crafting pieces?

The story is indeed pretty heavy and it was important to convey that, but I think that the main focus for me as I was composing was getting the voices of the characters right. These are some fascinating individuals, both heroic and tragic figures and getting inside their heads, trying to figure out their motivation was the real challenge.

Your production company, Fall On Your Sword (FOYS), has done a variety of films. What difference is there between composing for documentary and regular film? Is there one you prefer?/

I think in the end it is all about telling a story, particularly with Alex Gibney's style of filmmaking, where there's always that cinematic narrative that needs to come across in the score.

I tend not to think of the process as being that different for a documentary or a traditional narrative. It's still about identifying themes and getting the tone right. I guess in a practical sense, docs tend to have a lot more music than a traditional narrative, so that is one difference. This movie, in particular, has a lot of music mainly because so much of it is based on the chats [via text] between Manning and Lamo, so there was very little dialogue at points and a great opportunity to do something interesting with the music and sound.

Listening to the soundtrack, there’s a seamless blend of ominous synths with strings and percussion. What was the intention behind that?

Pretty early on in the process Alex and I had discussed the need for a blend of richly cinematic orchestration with more technological sounds. There's an obvious "espionage," "thriller" side to the story that needed to be conveyed but there’s also the focus on technology. Blending synths and weird sounds with conventional orchestration has been a focus of mine for the last couple of movies I've scored.

Going back to the contrast of the two sounds. I think it’s inherent to channel your influences. For a person who makes music constantly, what do you listen to?

My influences are kinda all over the place and I listen to a lot of different stuff. I grew up wanting to be a jazz musician (sax) so until I was in my late teens all I really listened to was jazz from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. Then I discovered techno and started putting dance records out in London in the late ‘90s. Then I was the lead singer of an indie rock band for a few years once I moved to New York. The jazz influence will never go away. I still secretly busk along to Miles Davis records when I know there's no one in the studio, and I still get some kicks knocking out the odd tech jam here and there, but I think the thing that's been a consistent influence for me is film music. The first record I bought was Ennio Moricone's score to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and it was Vangelis’ score to Blade Runner where I truly fell in love with synths. I also listen to a lot of classical music and have lately been on an opera kick. I recently dragged my wife to Wagner's entire Ring cycle when it was at the Met.

“Ecuadorian Balcony” and “Post 9/11” are two of my favorite cuts. Do you tend to look at your work as a whole or are there particular tracks that you love a little more?

I try to look at the bigger picture but there are always favorites that I tend to have. Incidentally, “Post 9/11” features my father-in law, Richard Bereza, on clarinet. He and my mother in-law were visiting us in New York for the weekend and I had just started on the score. He's an orthopedic surgeon and one helluva clarinet player. I wrote out some parts that we recorded for some other cues but on “Post 9/11” I just played the track and he recorded an improvisation in one take. Another secret jazz guy.

FOYS also performs live. What was the genesis on that and as a musician do you see yourself as a composer or performer?

The project before FOYS was my indie rock/post punk band, The Rinse, so the early songs and members of the group came from that project.

Then the success of the viral videos happened (“Shatner Of The Mount,” etc.) and the show became very much informed by those videos—a multi media/live band experience. As far as the balance between performing and composing, it tends to go in waves depending on what is on my plate at one time. I would say that right now I'm in more of a composing/studio phase but that can quickly change.

I thought the soundtrack was great, but I enjoyed it just as a piece of work without the thought of being a soundtrack. Any thoughts on a record outside the confines of film?

Every time I put a soundtrack album out I try to turn it into a piece of work that can stand on its own without the film.

The music is essentially the same, but expanded upon to allow the arrangements to make more sense without picture. And every time I do one it does make me want to finally focus on a FOYS album that is not directly related to a movie. There is something in the works, but it keeps getting shelved every time a new movie comes in. Watch this space.

What’s next?

I just finished a horror movie directed by Larry Fessenden. Perhaps it's more of a monster movie (a giant killer fish attacks a group of teenagers on a lake). That one was really fun and a great sorbet after Julian Assange!

The soundtrack album will be coming out on Milan Records along with the movie later in the summer. I've also been continuing to make Fall On Your Sword art installations. There have been two shows this year featuring interactive video and sound art pieces and there are plans for a third.