Daniel Pemberton spoke with Solzy at the Movies about scoring The Afterparty and writing “Strange Game” with Mick Jagger.
It’s been a busy year for Pemberton’s TV work as he scored a pair of Apple TV+ series, The Afterparty and Slow Horses. In addition to these two shows, he also scored Welcome to Earth for National Geographic/Disney+. On the movie front, you can currently hear his work in The Bad Guys and in the upcoming Enola Holmes sequel, Enola Holmes 2, arriving later this year on Netflix.
How did you first become attached to working on The Afterparty?
Daniel Pemberton: I’ve known Chris and Phil for a really quite a long time now, even before we started working together in a professional sense. We’ve kind of done Spider-Verse together. Chris phoned me up. I remember very clearly because I was cycling my bicycle home from Abbey Road at some ungodly hour and he started telling me about this new show. I was like, I don’t want to do any more work. I’m exhausted.
He started explaining the idea of the show. I was like, Oh, that’s a great idea. He said it was like a murder mystery set a school reunion. I thought that you know what, actually, that sounds really interesting. He was like, not only that, every episode has different film genres within it. It’s just one of those things I was like, oh, man, that sounds so complicated. But I was already into the idea. I love Phil and Chris so I was just like, Okay, I’m in. Therein began the massive task of trying to score the entirety of Afterparty.
How much fun was it to write music for the series?
Daniel Pemberton: Yeah, it’s really good fun. It was a very tough series to write for because it was just so much material you had to do. It’s got so much depth from every level on that show, and musically, you weren’t just writing the score to a quite complicated TV series and trying to create that whole sound world and a really recognizable set of themes, sort of narrative arcs, and the music but then within that, you’re also trying to do 10 different film genres, score those plus all these extra hidden things like producing the songs, doing the Hungry Hippos music for 30 seconds, making a Hall and Oates song that doesn’t sound too much like Hall and Oates so no one gets sued. So yeah, it was a big task but it was fun. It’s a great show.
I loved it. It’s one of my favorite new series of the year.
Daniel Pemberton: Oh, good. That’s what we like to hear.
Given that each episode is a different genre, did you have a favorite episode as far as composing goes?
Daniel Pemberton: It’s kind of interesting because weirdly, I quite enjoyed doing the rom-com episode because I don’t really do rom-com music. It’s not that I don’t do it. It’s more that every time I do a project or film, I’m always trying to work out ways of making them not sound like what you’ve heard before. Generally, if you look at most of my work, I try and make it feel different. But if you’re trying to do stuff that has to be genre, you have to work out what makes something feel a certain way, what makes it feel like this genre? What are the kinds of musical tropes and languages that really make something feel like a rom-com, thriller, or an action film? With the rom-com, I got to write music that was kind of over the top, slightly cheesy emotional stuff and it was surprisingly quite fun.
When you’re writing the music for some of these genres that you haven’t really written for in the past, were you watching movies to get an idea of what you wanted to go for?
Daniel Pemberton: Kind of pretty much everything in there, I’ve done kind of before in some way. I think the one that was weirdly the most taxing in terms of trying to work out what it should be was the Danner story in Episode 7, which is her cop backstory. The reference points were films like Training Day. What’s interesting is trying to find out what makes a genre of film feel like a genre and what is the musical language? Some of them are very strong and obvious but that was a tricky one because it’s trying to work out what makes this feel like that type of film and how can you make it feel more and more like that. On that one, I probably leaned a bit more on heavy percussive elements and synth textures.
One of the things I do a lot in this is also think about how each of these genres were written and recorded. Someone doing a cinematic thriller film has probably got access to a big orchestra and they’ll write in that kind of style. Whereas, when you look at things like the 2000s house party movie, one those kinds of movies, they’re gonna spend nothing on the composer. The composer is gonna turn up with no money and have to put a score together. They’re not really going to care about the score because it’s all about licensed tracks so I’m gonna write that the same way. I’m going to use presets on my synthesizer, which I would never do but that’s what those scores often sounded like—someone just bashing it out. It was quite fun for me to try and lean into sounds I would never touch with a bargepole normally.
When it came to recording the score, what were the some of the biggest challenges in terms of your usual process that came about because of the pandemic?
Daniel Pemberton: One of the biggest challenges was the fact I got Covid during this show and I still had to finish the show. I learned that if I was close to death, I would still finish the cues I was meant to finish, it turns out. I had Covid during the last block of doing this show and it was exhausting. I’m so exhausted and there was so much to do. I’m a soldier so I had to battle on until it was all done.
Oy. I hope you had a speedy recovery.
Daniel Pemberton: Yeah, it wasn’t speedy but I got better.
What is your typical process when it comes to composing?
Daniel Pemberton: Every job genuinely is quite different. I think, in some ways, one thing I do try and do is try and work out what is the sound world with this film? What is going to make this score feel unique? That can sometimes be a melody, that can be a palette you work with sort of approach? I try and think about what that should be. With The Afterparty, one of the things I worked on first and quite early on was the theme, which is a neat little piano sound that I have a live rendition if it loads up. (He plays the piano theme—you can hear the full theme in the YouTube video below.) The first thing I did on that was probably work the theme out, which I did on the piano. Every job is different. Sometimes I will fiddle around with synthesizer or guitar or make sounds. But yeah, The Afterparty, I started writing that theme. That was the first step.
Did you start before seeing footage?
Daniel Pemberton: I can’t remember now. They were sending me stuff. I probably started at scripts. I read the scripts first and then I probably started from there. It’s all a bit hazy, that period partly because of pandemic, being locked in and every day just all merges into one day for the past years.
March 2020 was one giant month.
Daniel Pemberton: Yeah.
Is there a genre that you like writing for more than others?
Daniel Pemberton: Yeah, there are some genres I enjoy more than others but it’s difficult because it all depends on the film. I try not to write genre music. It really is about what I think will go best with the movie in a way. The most genre type one I probably do is heist music because I seem to have done a lot of movies that have heists in them and that kind of fun, rhythmic-driven, bad guys just had a big high score, I guess Ocean’s Eight. That is actually very good fun to do because you’re leaning on giving musicians a lot of ability to perform.
You also did Slow Horses this past season and got to work with Mick Jagger on the “Strange Game” theme song. How did the theme song come about?
Daniel Pemberton: I was scoring the series and we always talked about trying to have a song to open the show. I’d kind of come up with this idea. I’d sort of written this track, and we were like, let’s see if we can turn this into a song. We had a list of people we’d like to approach. James Hawes, great director, was like, let’s put Mick Jagger on the top of that list. I was like, we’ll never get Mick Jagger. Let’s not even bother. We’ll never get Mick Jagger. He doesn’t do anything. He’s never done anything like this in his entire life. There are certain artists who do stuff—that’s not him, doesn’t do anything.
We had a great music supervisor called Catherine Grieves and she’s got some great connections through music, just working hard. She had a connection with somebody in Mick’s camp and so we kind of reached out. I expected to hear nothing back. But weirdly, they were sort of into the idea. I sent the track to Mick. He knew my other stuff so he’d liked the work I’ve done before. He was kind of intrigued. We had a Zoom and we got on pretty well on Zoom. A couple of days later, I’m like, yeah, he wants to do it. We just wrote a song together virtually. It’s amazing. It was amazing because it turned out so great as well. He was great to work with, kind of put it together pretty quick. We’d just snatched bits here and there when we get some time with him. It turned out turned out really great.
How did you first get an interest in composing?
Daniel Pemberton: I got very into music when I was about 10 or 11. I went to a planetarium, where they had a laser show and things of space. They played this crazy music. There were all synthesizers, it was Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, and it kind of blew my mind. I’d never really heard music like that before. After that, I was like, I’ve got to discover what this is all about and that was what kind of started my path into composing.
Are there any composers that had an influence on your style?
Daniel Pemberton: Anytime I hear something I like, I find something in there for me and always have an impact like any composer, really, because you’re kind of absorbing anything that excites you. I try and write the music I want to hear so I’m taking all the things I like and then trying to put them together. But in terms of film composers, my all-time favorite is Ennio Morricone and you can probably hear his influence over quite a lot of my stuff. But it’s so different. The Afterparty has kind of got a sort of bit of Michel Legrand kind of feel in some places to it. That’s a long list so I don’t know where to start with that one.
All episodes of The Afterparty and Slow Horses are currently streaming on Apple TV+.
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