Friday, September 24, 2021

Interview: Composer Benji Merrison Talks ‘SAS: Red Notice’, His Creative Process, and More! [EXCLUSIVE]

An Emmy Award and IFMCA-nominated British composer making a name for himself in the world of music with his experimental and improvisational style — this is Benji Merrison.

Benji Merrison has worked on globally renowned projects across film, television, and live events, with a list of credits that includes BBC’s Dynasties, General Magic, Britannia, Victoria, Class, and more. He’s classically trained in composition and performance, and also adept as a music producer and engineer, which is the perfect storm of skills to allow him to compose, arrange, perform, and mix his scores. Merrison holds an appreciation for the traditional recording techniques that he learned from, but nowadays he writes with emotion, utilizing an experimental style to build his impressive, growing body of work.

The action-packed thriller SAS: Red Notice, based on the novel by Andy McNab, is due to premiere shortly. The movie follows the story of a special forces operator who must work against the clock to save a train full of hostages trapped in the Channel Tunnel from a team of heavily armed war criminals. Merrison worked as the composer on this gripping film, creating an evocative soundtrack that ties in beautifully with the intense action and artful style of SAS: Red Notice.  

Ahead of the release of SAS: Red Notice and its accompanying original motion picture soundtrack, Nerds and Beyond had a chance to talk with Merrison about his work on the film and his experiences as a composer.

Laurence Malkin

Nerds and Beyond: SAS: Red Notice is a layered action film with an underlying narrative on psychopathy, and your soundtrack greatly complements the deeper levels of the film while still paying tribute to the high-energy scenes as well. Can you talk about your approach to crafting this type of score?

Merrison: Great question!

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Yes, I see the SAS: Red Notice score as being highly chiselled and defined in terms of its thematic language, at least at the beginning of the movie. It felt very important for me to define this musical language, keeping it very simple. 

From this point, I could then disrupt and distort these themes in and out of each other. This subversion of the themes is, in a way, a musical metaphor for psychopathy. It is kind of learning how to ‘emulate’ an emotion, but never fully understanding it, so the themes and musical language is always somehow crumbling away. It was an interesting challenge to try and represent a psychological state that, in part, involves the ‘lack of’ emotion … a unique musical challenge!

Nerds and Beyond: Can you expand upon the way that you improvised during the producers’ sketching session for SAS: Red Notice?

Merrison: Absolutely! I’m generally quite an improvisatory composer anyway. My main instrument is the piano, and I play a lot of jazz, so I am very comfortable writing in the moment. Whilst I have classical training, I’ve actually felt the need to undo some of that formal training, and learn to write from a more instinctive, ‘in the moment’ kind of way. Improvisation is a great way of achieving this.

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The session you mention involved me, Larry Malkin (producer), and Peter Clarke (music editor). I had a cool Cubase template prepared with loads of interesting instruments all stacked in a session, so I could go from an intimate piano sound to a full orchestra with mad synths and pulses mixed in. I had programmed some midi controllers to do all sorts of things to each instrument, including pitch bending the different layers (some going up, some going down in pitch). With this template, I started off jamming a simple ‘English Country Garden’ style riff, whatever fell under my fingers easily (this became the Tom Buckingham Theme) and then gradually wigged out more and more with the midi controllers until this massive, intense, swarming orchestral sound hammered out! Larry and Pete were like “What was that?!! That sounds like psychopathy right there!” This developed into cues such as “Emergency Response,” “Two Psychopaths” and the end of “Finding the Player.” As a matter of fact, quite a bit of the score came from this one improvisation. I find that funny and inspiring.

Nerds and Beyond: Do you have a particular favorite track from the score for this film? And could you walk us through your thought and workflow process for developing that track in particular?

Merrison: Ha! There are quite a few actually. A firm favourite of mine (and others who have seen the film so far) is “3m23 Emergency Response.” It’s a real action romp type of cue, but also combines a perfect blend of the distorted, fragmented Tom Buckingham theme along with the “Psychopathic String” signature lines. It is basically ‘orchestral heavy metal’ masquerading as a soundtrack cue, which really appeals to me!

Nerds and Beyond: What would you say are the biggest advantages of utilizing an improvisational approach in your line of work?

Merrison: Every project is different, every composer is different, so I couldn’t say what the biggest advantages are. For me, improvisation provides a direct line to musical ideas. A purely instinctive, human approach. It stops me from thinking about things too hard, which is almost always a bad thing.

Also, it can be quite overwhelming in a world where digital technology has enabled us to create almost any sound in the universe at a moment’s notice. I find the simple act of sitting down at the piano (or singing, or playing guitar etc) and improvising ideas very liberating, and allows me to connect with ideas without the distraction of all that sonic wizardry. I kick in with that stuff later in the process!

Matt Maude

Nerds and Beyond: Is there any specific film or television genre that you’d like the opportunity to branch out into with a future project?

Merrison: I was just chatting to a producer friend of mine today about this very thing! I would absolutely love to smash out an 80s inspired synth score. I’ve got all the synths because I’m such a synth nerd, and they scowl and tut at me every day as a reminder of their untapped potential. I’d also love to do a pirate score … and I know exactly how I would do it. It would be very different!

Nerds and Beyond: Can you cite any specific composers or musical arrangements that have influenced or inspired you over the years?

Merrison: It kind of changes all the time. I’m playing lots of Mozart sonatas, some Liszt and Debussy on the piano at the moment. I’m also going through some Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans transcriptions and learning loads from the amazing voicings and their stunning musical instincts. I was listening to Rite of Spring for the first time in a while the other day, and it still sounds fresh and timelessly contemporary to me.  These kinds of things have always been an inspiration. 

In terms of film scores, I remember hearing Howard Shore’s score to Fellowship of the Ring for the first time and thinking “Wow, I wish I could make something like that!” Actually, come to think of Leonard Rosenman’s score to the original 1978 Lord of the Rings is also quite cool, I love that film. More recently Sicario, some Jed Kurzel stuff is nice. Ozark is cool. Lots of great work out there right now.

I could go on and on about this subject!

Nerds and Beyond: Do you have any advice to aspiring composers that are interested in branching out from traditional training to pursue their own experimental techniques?

Merrison: A great question again!

Absolutely, I have many things to say on this. 

I’d say the main thing is to step away from the DAW rig regularly! Get used to recording, programming, and exploring your own sounds. Learn to change the way you write regularly. Always remember that it isn’t what it looks or feels like when you are recording stuff, it is how it sounds when recorded. Be wary of muscle memory and its limitations.

Experimentation is about being wide-open and curious about new ways of doing things. If you find you are regularly reaching for the same sound source, or you are writing at the same instrument again, you are probably just making a variation of a similar thing. Despite the amazing tools we have nowadays, try to ignore the marketing hype and current trends, as most of that will make you end up sounding like gazillions of other composers out there. Experimentation is about exploring the full, untapped potential of your own musical identity.

Merrison’s original motion picture soundtrack for SAS: Red Notice is set to release via Lakeshore Records digitally on Friday, March 12, and it can be pre-saved or purchased here. Nerds and Beyond exclusively premiered a track from the album early, “SAS The Suite.”

SAS: Red Notice will be available through Sky Cinema in the UK and Ireland on March 12, and will arrive in the United States and Canada (via Vertical Entertainment and Redbox Entertainment) in theaters and on premium VOD the following week on March 16.

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Lindsey
Lindsey joined the Nerds and Beyond team in 2018. She has spent a large portion of her life dedicated to her first love, photography. When she's not behind the camera, she's likely reading books and comics or dabbling in creative writing. Otherwise, she's probably yelling about something Star Wars or Marvel related on Twitter @lindyysolo. Contact: lindsey@nerdsandbeyond.com

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