Q&A: John Parish
By Andy Malt | Published on Wednesday 10 April 2013
John Parish first emerged as the drummer in shortlived new wave band Thieves Like Us in 1980. After that band fell apart, he switched roles and became frontman of Automatic Dlamini in 1982. Then, in the late 80s, Parish met PJ Harvey and invited her to join the band, kicking off both her career and a long line of collaborations between the two.
Even before that, Parish had embarked on what was to become a parallel career as a record producer. As well as producing several albums for PJ Harvey, including 2011’s Mercury winning ‘England Shakes’, he has also worked with artists like Eels, Goldfrapp, M Ward, Peggy Sue, and more recently Rokia Traore and Jenny Hval.
Parish has also remained a performer in his own right, releasing solo albums, collaborating on dance production ‘Kireru’, and scoring several films. It’s in the latter role that his latest release has come to light. ‘Screenplay’, due for release through Thrill Jockey on 15 Apr, is a collection of tracks from his various film scores. To accompany the record, he is also touring, with UK shows at The Borderline in London on 5 Sep and The Green Door Store in Brighton on 6 Sep.
Shortly before kicking off the first European dates of the tour later this week, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with John to find out more about the project, and his career to date.
AM: What was the idea behind ‘Screenplay’?
JP: The Filmic Fest people in Bristol asked me to play a concert of my film music for their festival this year, and it focussed my attention on the fact that I’d scored several movies over the past few years but never released ‘original soundtrack’ albums. I wanted to put something out to coincide with the festival, so my choice was to either release a series of OSTs or to try to put one album together with a selection of music from a number of films. I thought the latter was potentially the most interesting route and would hopefully result in an album that worked whether you had seen the movies or not.
AM: How did you select the tracks on the record?
JP: It was a fairly lengthy process. It wasn’t difficult to pick key tracks so much, but I had to work out how to keep the identity of each individual score while also connecting them to each other, making them flow as a whole record.
AM: How did you get into composing for film?
JP: Belgian director Patrice Toye approached me to score her 1998 debut ‘Rosie’. She’d been using an instrumental piece of mine from the ‘Dance Hall At Louse Point’ album while she was writing and also shooting the movie, so she decided to ask me to write the music for the whole thing. It was fortuitous timing, as I’d just finished writing and recording a number of instrumental pieces which I thought were very filmic, but at the time had no outlet for them. Patrice immediately adopted one of them as the main theme for ‘Rosie’.
AM: How is it different from writing a ‘normal’ studio album?
JP: The main difference, of course, is that the music is a part of the finished whole, as opposed to a ‘normal’ album which is a standalone piece of work. So you are aware that the music has a specific context in which it needs to work – this can be both liberating and limiting. Also, I very much enjoy the combination of my music with ambient movie sound and/or dialogue.
AM: Are you involved during the making of, generally, or do you write with the finished product in front of you?
JP: I’ve been brought on board at various different points. There’s not been a regular pattern. Sometimes I’ve been asked to provide music for the director to shoot to, other times I’ve been given a fully finished and edited film to work with – and all points in between.
AM: What other film composers inspire or influence you?
JP: Many others – classic John Barry and Ennio Morricone of course, but also Michael Small’s work on ‘Klute’, Wim Mertens on ‘Belly Of An Architect’, Nino Rota, and more recently I’ve liked Italian composer Teho Teardo. As to whether I can actually hear influences in my work… I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that they have fed into the way I hear and think about music, so my music would sound different if I hadn’t heard them.
AM: How easy has it been transferring the music from ‘Screenplay’ to the live stage? Had you performed any of this music live before?
JP: We played the first Screenplay show at St Georges in Bristol last month, and later this week we’re heading out for a small run of European shows. We’d played a couple of the older pieces before, but mostly this is the first time these pieces have been heard live. I think they’ve translated really well – it’s my (mostly) usual five piece band – Jean-Marc Butty (drums), Marta Collica (keys/vocals), Jeremy Hogg (guitar/lap steel), Giorgia Poli (bass/vocals) and myself on guitars, keys and vocals.
AM: You’ve worked with PJ Harvey throughout her career, starting when she was a backing singer in Automatic Dlamini. It must have been amazing to be such a close observer of her progress. Did you imagine she would be come so successful?
JP: That’s not really the kind of thing you imagine before it happens. She’s a great artist and fully deserves her success – but that is not an automatic equation – there are many artists who do not get the success that their work deserves, and there are also many artists who are over rewarded.
AM: You’ve released two albums as PJ Harvey & John Parish, including the previously mentioned ‘Dance Hall At Louse Point’. How do those records differ from your other collaborations in terms of their creation? Do you specifically decide that it’s not a solo record ahead of starting work, or does that become apparent later?
JP: The two albums that Polly and I released under joint names were different because they were 50/50 collaborations – in the writing and the recording. They were intended that way from the start both times
AM: Your last collaboration was ‘Let England Shake’. The writing of that was a fairly lengthy process. At what point did you become involved and what guidance did you give?
JP: Polly always takes a long time writing. She doesn’t like to repeat herself and sets the bar high. I was indirectly involved from fairly early on as a sounding board, then directly involved (as a musician and co-producer) when we started the recording process.
AM: You’ve also worked in various capacities with a wide variety of artists, including Eels, Goldfrapp and Peggy Sue. How do you choose who to work with? Do people tend to approach you first?
JP: Yes – it is almost always that I am approached. I choose whatever seems to be the most interesting thing on offer at any time – provided I have room in my schedule. There is no master career plan.
AM: Do you have a particular approach to producing other artists, or does it depend on the artist themselves?
JP: For me, any production is always a collaboration between the artists and the producer. There has to be a mutual level of trust and respect, otherwise it is unlikely to result in a good record. Each project differs and the way we might go about recording can also differ wildly. There is no ‘right’ way to make a record. You go into the studio trusting in your own and each other’s abilities. I’m looking for the artist to deliver a special performance, the artist is looking for me to recognise when that is happening – and to make sure it’s captured.
AM: Recently you’ve produced the new albums by Jenny Hval and Rokia Traore. What were they like to work with? Both seem to have a strong idea of how they want to present themselves.
JP: I’m very proud of both of these albums – and they’re so different. Probably the only similarity is that both Rokia and Jenny are very strong characters, and yes they do have a strong idea of how they want to be presented, though both were also very happy to experiment with new ideas. I found both sessions very inspiring – Rokia’s album has just come out and is getting the most amazing reviews in the UK. Jenny’s album comes out at the end of next week – I hope it receives similar attention.
AM: What other projects have you got lined up next?
JP: Well, a bunch of ‘Screenplay’ shows of course – Europe in April, then the UK (and probably more European shows too) in September. I’m hoping to play some more ‘Kireru’ shows – the collaboration between myself and Rootlessroot Dance Company from Athens. Then I also have a couple of albums to produce – Swiss band Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp, and the Danish pedal steel player Maggie Bjørkland – again, two very different projects which I’m really looking forward to.