The way I work: Barry Adamson

The Manchester-born musician, once of the Buzzcocks and Magazine, has also made a name for himself scoring films. Interview: Richard Smirke

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When scoring for a film, you have to make the film the master. You have to be humble enough to bow down to it and give it what it needs in terms of where it’s journeying and what it’s doing. Some directors will give you endless references of what they are after. Others don’t give you anything and just say: “Get on with it.” So you get there by various means, by trying different things out, and you get an instant feeling about knowing what works and what doesn’t.

Usually you get a scene to try out against. I’ve got three things on the go at the moment and if I get one of them that’s fantastic. My process is very much: what does the scene say to me? What’s the style that it seems to need? And a large element of it is instinct. I always like to bring the missus or a few friends into the studio so I can see what an audience thinks if I have any doubts. If that generates a good reaction, that gives you confidence to enter into the world of the film.

I agree that a sign of a good score is when you don’t notice it, but at the same time I want to be able to go: “Hang on. What was that? That’s fantastic.” I remember when I was stuck on something and I was turning myself inside out about a couple of tricky scenes. Really beating myself up. I told a friend and he went: “I’ve got to be honest with you – I never really hear the music.” As soon as I heard that I went home and did it in about five minutes. I needed to hear that because I had so much ego invested in it.

I wasn’t well at the time I got the call about scoring David Lynch’s Lost Highway. I was in a wheelchair. I was very down and I just sat down at the keyboard and started playing with these samples of brass. I thought: “That’s cool.” And it instantly cheered me up a bit. Then I put the music against the demo sequence and it worked perfectly. That’s the piece of music that’s there today. I’ve never had that happen before. It was a silver lining to a very dark cloud. David really liked it, sent me the script and then it was time to start work on all these other areas of the film.

I can really remember as a child growing up in Manchester looking up to the Hollies, the Bee Gees

Music has always been a constant in my life. I can really remember as a child growing up in Manchester looking up to the Hollies, the Bee Gees. Here were these entertainers from the north that were keyed into the rest of the world and it gave me permission to do the same.

I joined Magazine at 18 and after about a year and half we moved down to London, which was quite a big thing for me because I was so Manchester fixated. I ended up living there full time, but I was always coming back to visit my family in Moss Side and that was where the idea of [1989 concept album] Moss Side Story gradually began to emerge.

I’d got very interested in film music and I thought: “How can I make this extreme interest in film music work for me?” I couldn’t see a bridge between the punk thing that I’d been doing and the film world. That’s where the idea of doing a film soundtrack album, but not necessarily to a real film came about. So whenever I came home from touring I would work on this little side project using two cassette players and one of the first samplers, building these warped orchestral lines. Suddenly it felt like I had independence again. It really started to stir something for me.

Moss Side Story was a proud moment, as was getting the call from Hollywood off the back of it. I remember going over to have a meeting at Francis Ford Coppola’s office. They were making Dracula at the time and they said: “Can you operate a 90 piece orchestra?” I said no, when, of course, I should have said “I know a man who can” and I would have got the job.

Still, it’s all kind of worked out, really [Adamson also contributed to the soundtracks of The Beach and Natural Born Killers]. I’m not sure I thought ahead that much when I was younger. I was quite shy and introverted back then and I watched people like [Buzzcocks/Magazine founder] Howard [Devoto] and Nick Cave – people who were forceful and had very strong opinions about stuff – and I saw myself moving away from that shy person into someone who had their own ideas. Now I feel quite pleased that I’m a fairly rounded character whose opinions are listened to and that I do have interests that sustain me in different areas of the industry. Now I’m stuck in this ambassador role and the [new composers] get all the work [laughs].

In two years I’m going to be 60 and I want to release a whole body of new work that I’m starting on now, as well as a definitive best-of. I’m also writing a feature film that I hope to direct and talking to an agent about putting a memoir together. At the moment I’m picking out all these different scenes, like going for a piss when we were filming the Old Grey Whistle Test and this pair of size 15 canvas shoes walks next to me. I slowly looked up to this guy of around about 6ft 7ins and Joey Ramone met my eyes and said: “How you doin’, kid?”

I plan to write all up these little scenes and interweave them into a story of my own birth in Manchester and how it was – to a child – a scary black and white world back then. There’s quite a bit of personal stuff that people probably don’t know about. Lots of broken bones as a kid and things that needed fixing from birth. Hopefully it’s going to be interesting, intriguing and engaging. We’ll see.

The Barry Adamson-curated Soundtrack season at Home in Manchester runs until 31 Aug (

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