Know The Score: Benjamin John Power Of Blanck Mass Interviewed

Just before everything ground to a halt, Charlie Brigden caught up with Blanck Mass to discuss his approach to scoring a film that's right on the edge.

Officially, Blanck Mass’ schedule is, well, blank. Benjamin John Power was in the middle of touring when the coronavirus put a spanner in the works and sent the world careering towards a loo roll-less apocalyptic future. While he’s performing live streaming gigs on his self-isolating lonesome it’s another of his projects that has also ground to a bit of a halt that deserves a spotlight today: his musical score for the independent Irish crime drama Calm With Horses.

His first original feature score, Calm With Horses hit cinemas in early March and didn’t have much of a chance to make a splash. Now with the film set to hit VOD this week, there’s another chance to explore his rich and powerful electronic score, which is also available as a soundtrack from Invada Records.

"I never would have thought that my first film score would essentially be a regional drama" he says. Blanck Mass’ first dalliance with music for the screen was for a one-off rescoring of the Italian horror film The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears, which was later released on the Death Waltz label in 2015.

"Well, that was a bit more of a game of consequences, actually. I was picked along with seven other artists who chose a scene for each other. No one heard any of the music that anybody else had made. I have no idea how it worked so coherently as a full piece if you know what I mean. It could have been all over the place, but I actually felt that there was some kind of shared [vision].

"My scene in Strange Colour was 15 minutes long and I tried to cram quite a lot into that space. With this one, there was a lot more emphasis on space and just trying to keep everything totally coherent without overpowering any one scene."

For his feature debut, he was asked to undergo a trial of sorts before getting the full assignment. "The director, Nick [Rowland], is a fan of my music and he sent me a couple of cuts from the film so I essentially demoed what I thought these images were trying to depict thematically. He said that he was relieved when he eventually played it and that he had actually sat on it for three days because he was too worried to play it in case it didn’t work, but when he did get round to listening to it he said that I’d gotten the emotion that he was trying to emphasise. So he said, ‘Let’s carry on and do the rest of the movie together.’"

"When I first saw the whole film," he continues, "there was still a lot of editing to be done. I did think initially that it wasn’t the kind of film that I would have first thought of doing myself. I’d always pictured myself working in horror or maybe sci-fi. Something in the sonic direction that I’m used to travelling in. So it took a little bit of time for me, but I loved the emotion invested into the film and there’s obviously a real strong sense of melancholy there that I’m not unfamiliar with.

While Calm With Horses might initially come across as a straight gangster film, the narrative concerns a protagonist who has to make a choice between different families. The protagonist, Arm (Cosmo Jarvis), is an enforcer for a local criminal family, but he also has his own family, with his ex-girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar) and autistic son Jack. Most of his days are spent running around with Dympna (the fierce Barry Keoghan), the blowhard nephew of the two kingpins of the family, and Arm is constantly being pulled between these two forces to see where his loyalties really lie, which is brought to a head when he’s asked to kill someone.

"Arm’s story is so sad," he says. "For example, there are situations where Arm is being manipulated and I really wanted to emphasise that. There’s a thread that happens a couple of times throughout the film when Dympna is trying to manipulate Arm, so that’s one particular theme that reared its head a couple of times. I wanted to portray the different tangents that Arm’s journey takes him on, and signify how he might be feeling at any given point while keeping the same sonic palette, even though some of the emotion is vastly different throughout."

He makes a further connection through the theme for Jack, and there’s a certain level of emotion within that illustrates the bond between the two. "I feel like Jack’s theme is really Jack and Arm’s theme. I wanted to signify a connection between the two. And obviously, with Jack having autism and Arm a hired heavy for these shitbags, I wanted to emphasise a connection between the two and a tenderness and almost some kind of clarity within the tumultuous world that they inhabit."

Understandably, Calm With Horses is a violent film at times and the violence is visceral and realistic, but Mass didn’t want to overstate this. "I feel like the music for something like that is overly bombastic then it takes away from the reality of violence. And Nick really wanted to depict those scenes graphically and realistically; we wanted to put it in a real-world kind of scenario as violence is a terrible thing, but also in opposition to something like a Saw movie, where everything’s hyper-real and overblown, which I feel mirrors the use of violence in a lot of films nowadays."

One of the most celebrated scenes in the film is the club sequence, where a stressed-out Arm, having been told that he needs to kill someone, sees his ex drinking with another man. "When I actually saw the first cut of the film," he explains, "there was actually some placeholder music in that scene and I thought to myself, ‘I hope they don’t have clearance for this because I really want to score that scene.’ And I did actually manage to twist their arm into it and I was really pleased about being able to do that, but it probably took the longest because I didn’t want to treat it just like a club track. It’s not only got the traditional club dynamics but it also needs to mirror Arm’s journey within. And there’s a hook in the club scene that carries on afterwards after Arm leaves, so there’s a lot of parts to that cue. There are about seven different parts and they’re also precisely synced and timed up."

Blanck Mass put the soundtrack together in order of the film, editing the cues for clarity and coherency. "It was quite nice putting the album together where you can actually hear some of these pieces more as songs", he opines, "and it worked out pretty well. Editing the club track was quite difficult for the record just because obviously there’s so much picture and dynamic to work towards when actually thinking up a cue, and I had to chop this into a tangible track for the soundtrack, but it didn’t take me too long. I loved doing it and I’m really happy that it’s coming out with Invada. Geoff [Barrow] is a good friend, and Redg [Weeks] came down to my Bristol show. But he’d just had an operation on his leg and he was hobbling around the venue."

His enthusiasm for the score and the process is mirrored in how he talks about the film music world at present. "I think it’s potentially a golden age of scoring, "he says, "especially for somebody like me. I don’t think everybody wants Hans Zimmer the whole time any more, although I am a fan. All these different artists wanting to try something a little bit different and stamp their own artistic approach, I think it’s great, and obviously it’s good news for me. I’m just really excited to work on the next one right now. I love it. I love it."

Calm With Horses comes out on VOD on April 27. The soundtrack is available from Invada

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