‘The Suicide Squad’ Composer John Murphy Isn’t Interested in Rules [Interview]

‘The Suicide Squad’ Composer John Murphy Isn’t Interested in Rules [Interview]

John Murphy brought rock to The Suicide Squad. The composer, known for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, picked up his custom-made, one and only guitar, and let it rip for James Gunn‘s film. Murphy wanted to mix things up with his guitar and a huge orchestra, which as he told us, on paper, doesn’t necessarily read as the brightest idea.

The self-taught musician was encouraged by Gunn to experiment, and experiment he did. From his control room in Los Angeles, Murphy told us all about scoring The Suicide Squad, why he’s glad he didn’t attend music school, and writing music for King Shark, Ratcatcher II, and Polka-Dot Man.

How are the acoustics in that studio of yours? 

Really good, yeah. It used to be a stable, so we had to kind of gut it and really start from the ground up so that just meant we should get it right acoustically with all the soundproofing and frequencies and stuff. It sounds great. We’ve been here three years now. This is actually the first film I’ve done here. I did something for the BBC just when it was built, Les Mis.

Since it was the first movie you scored there, how did how you designed that space influence the sound of the score?

I really wanted it to sound hard, so I had a lot of arguments with the acoustic designers because I wanted to have a very reverberant, hard sound in there. In the old studio, I would record in bathrooms or record in the toilet, or anywhere that had a really nasty, hard sound.

So I thought, “Well if I’m going to build another studio, I should probably remember that when I’m setting up the recording area.” I always remembered when I grew up in Liverpool, the first recording sessions I did was in a studio called Amazon Studios, this legendary Liverpool studio where Echo & the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, Orchestral Manoeuvres, China Crisis, all these cool bands recorded at this same studio.

I remember they had this round room where they used to record drums, and it was all this really uneven stone and the sound in there was so amazing because it was all this natural, really edgy stone. If you went in there drinking at night and you leaned against the wall, you’d be bleeding. It was crazy. I always thought if I ever get the chance I’m going to build a room in this same stone.

So when we got to build this new studio a couple of years back, I thought, “I’m just going to go for it.” So the actual recording area’s got this natural Venetian stone, so we recorded all of The Suicide Squad in there, but the hardness and the edginess and the brightness from the room were amazing. It made a big difference to the sound. It’s the perfect movie for it. It’s like hard, edgy, in-your-face, so it all worked out.

A lot of guitar in this score, so did you still start with playing the music on Ned Flanders? [Note: that’s one of his acoustic guitars that happens to feature a character on it that looks like Ned Flanders]

F**k, Ned Flanders [Laughs]. I did for some stuff, but because of the way I approached this right from the get-go, I had to spend a few days with James in Atlanta when they were shooting, and we kept seeing the same weird attitude. So I thought, “Well, maybe I write this in a different way and I just have my guitar with me, amp turned on, and foot pedals out. You write in a way very much dependent on what you’ve got in your hands.

If I write at a piano, I’m very grown up and thinking about it, and it all becomes very academic. But when I write on a guitar, especially an electric guitar, you’re more chilled out. You can have a beer. You can walk around the room. You can throw pedals in, and you write different stuff. And I thought, “Well, maybe I just start The Suicide Squad with the pedals, the guitar, the amp and see how far I get.”

But the interesting thing that happened was because at a certain point in the movie, the story begins to open out and the scale of the story begins to open out in a way that you don’t expect, and then the characters become a bit more heroic and things start to change very much naturally through the movie, and I didn’t want to have a point where there was a transition into the big orchestra and the big crowds.

Even though it’s a James Gunn movie, and we expect it to be kind of brave and edgy and funny, there’s still a lot of expectations with the genre of a superhero movie. So we knew at some point, to do the story justice and to do the images and the beautiful cinematography justice, I knew I would have to just explode it out into the huge, big orchestra.

But I was trying to work out how to do that seamlessly and to keep this attitude, which I’d gotten from writing the first half with the guitar. So what I decided to do was write the orchestra pieces, not on the piano like I would normally do, but still with the guitar and the foot pedals, which was f***ing wild. On paper, it’s the worst idea in the world.

If you have to write a big, complex, epic, gothic f***ing scene that you know is going to be a huge orchestra, and you know it’s going to be huge, big choirs, you don’t pick a guitar up and start jamming. But that’s actually what I tried to do. And something interesting happened.

What I found was playing on guitar and writing these themes and riffs, it was possible but it was done in a very different way. Because if I sit and write a staccato part for brass and strings, traditionally, you’d sit there with your piano, you’d write. But on guitar, if you’re thinking that you have to write that kind of feel, you end up f***ing tw***ing the guitar. I ended up writing all these big orchestral pieces. The original, write nothing, with fuzzbox guitar, a Vox 8015. And then once I got something that had loads of attitude, I felt nice and rock and roll or a bit punk.

Then I would translate that to the computer and then start mucking it out from that with the brass and with the strings and the choir. But what I missed was that original energy of the guitar, so it ended up being a mix of both. Once I’d got the basic six or seven-minute big action scene dealing with the orchestra, and then it sounded like a superhero movie, I was then, “Well, f**k this. Let’s get a load of guitars into and track it up.” And we ended up with this really big sound that when you first hear it, you go, “Oh, it’s a big superhero orchestra thing.”

But if you listen to it closely, you hear that it’s just got that different feel. You can tell that it was written on guitar, and then you can hear the other guitars tracked up, playing along with the brass and playing with the strings. So it was just an experiment, but it ended up giving the sound of the movie very much its own thing.

How’d you make those transitions from guitar to orchestra so seamless?

I think there was work. I think part of that is because I didn’t go to music school, I came into doing movies from being in bands and that was my thing. I didn’t do the typical sort of journey to Hollywood. I started off as a guitarist in a punk band and then I became a session player, and then I toured.

I was and still am very much a self-taught musician, so none of my orchestral stuff is that complex anyway. Even when you get to the root of a lot of my orchestral stuff, even for Sunshine, the big “Adagio D Minor” thing, it’s really from a pop past. There might be big strings, but really, you can tell it’s not somebody who went to music school for seven years. So it’s easier for me to mix the orchestral or the classical with the rock and roll or the punk or whatever because nothing’s that complicated, to begin with. It’s all coming from the same DNA.

I mean, it’s not as hard as you would think. For me, it’s all the same. It’s like whether you go to a string somewhere or you go to a telecaster through an amp playing the low note, it’s all the same stuff to me. There’s no difference between classical or The Clash. It’s either f***ing great or it’s s**t, to be honest. It either has an effect on you musically or emotionally as an audience or it doesn’t. I think the more the movies have scores that do embrace such an eclectic feel, the easier it is for audiences to take. It’s not such a huge, big deal to have orchestral stuff with a bit of punk or a bit of whatever, you know?

Do you think not going to music school made you more open to exploring music rather than following rules?

Yeah. I mean, now I do. I’d get a lot of kids coming out of Juilliard and they’re sending this incredibly complicated stuff to say, “Can I come and work for you for a bit.” It’s really impressive, complex stuff and some of these kids are like 18 and 19. God bless them, a lot of it sounds the same and it’s like there is that arpeggio or there’s that twill that they must have all learned on that day. For me, because I was never a great orchestrator, and I taught myself to orchestrate. I didn’t have a wonderful education.

But because I didn’t have those things when I first came to Los Angeles, it forced me to make up for it in other ways. So I became very obsessed with writing memorable themes, and I became obsessed with making sure the sound of things was emotional. I went down my own path and never came back for better or worse.

But now, I appreciate it and now, yeah, I do think it helped me. But the first few years being in L.A. and not even being able to read music was a f***ing nightmare. I’d have orchestra sessions.  I remember one time, this big session, and I’d only been in L.A. for about six months. I knew one of the brass things was playing the wrong note, and there are like 80 amazing players in this.

There are directors behind me and the producers are there, and I’m trying to tell the conductor that one of the brass guys is playing the wrong note. But I didn’t even know what the f***ing instrument was called, you know? And he’s like, “Is it this?” and I’m going, “No, it’s not the trombones. It’s that one.”

I’m having to point like a kid, like, “That one, dad.” And in the end, I’m like, “No, the f***ing round one that looks like clamming,” and the whole orchestra just cracked up, you know? And then I was like, “Oh, s**t. I’m really getting found out here,” you know what I mean? And you could see all these amazing musicians, guys who played on Star Wars, and all kinds of classic stuff just looking through the glass going, “Who the f**k is this guy?”

So the first few years I wish I’d gone to school, but now, I just do my own thing and if people want to hire me, they do. And so I feel that helps. For a long time, it felt like an obstacle, you know?

Do you read and write music much?

I can read slowly, but I just don’t go there. I never ever write things down. I mean, I learned how to orchestrate in my head a bit a long time ago. I know Mozart could play a whole entire orchestra in his head, but I can do about four or five sections and play things back in my head.

I can’t get past that, but I can write something in my head and then put it to one side of my head and then write the chord behind it, and then write the counterpoint. I can get that far. And then at that point, I usually just get out of bed and just sing it into my phone or something or play it into whatever. I don’t even go there with writing stuff down in that way. I’ll play it on a piano and I’ll figure it out. Then I’ll just work it out once it’s on the computer.

What guitar were you using for The Suicide Squad?

This is my favorite guitar I had this custom-made. It’s a handmade Pistolero. But it’s a one-off because the guy who designed and built this is a friend of mine. He’s actually the brother of my main engineer. I worked out all the different bits I liked from different guitars and made this Frankenstein wish list with different pickups and a different neck, and all these different stuff. This guitar doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s a real kind of Frankenstein. And I said, “Can you make me a guitar that has all the favorite bits of all my favorite guitars?”

And he went, “It’s weird but I’ll try.” So he made this guitar and it’s just perfect, everything about the feel of it. And this was the main guitar on Suicide Squad. In fact, the very opening riff of the score was written on this. It’s the f***ing theme. It’s hilarious. It’s like one-note [Laughs]. I love this guitar.

What’s unique about the sound to you?

Well, it’s got this beautiful, chimey, British kind of chimey sound on this pickup here, which is very sparkly. It’s almost like whatever amp you put it through, it sounds as if it’s going through a Vox 8030. It’s got that real lovely chime. I mean, it’s hard to explain because it’s not plugged into an amp right now, which is kind of a telecaster lipstick pickup.

But I think it’s a Lollar pickup. But it’s got this really lovely chime to it. But then you’ve got this pickup down here, which is pure punk. It’s almost like that really old, safe sound but it’s so gnarly and nasty. So you’ve got this real mix of sounds within three inches of the guitar which is amazing, and it’s incredibly loud.

How much tracking did you do?

Yeah, f**k. We did loads of tracking. Because one of the challenges on this movie was obviously the whole situation with COVID, and when this was happening, there were loads of composers all ringing each other and emailing and saying, “What the f**k do we do? We can’t get orchestras here.”

Or when we could, the orchestra size was much smaller because there were only so many people allowed in a room. There’s a whole batch of movies that were scored around this time where no one had a full orchestra. So instead of having this beautiful, big, 80-piece, 100-piece orchestra playing, we all had to record the sections separately. So the strings would be done one day.

Then they’d have to clean up and sanitize the place, and the brass would be done another day, and they were all cordoned off from each other with masks on. And then we did the woodwinds another day. You really had to think about what you were recording. But even with just doing the strings in one section, I think we were only allowed 40 strings or something or 44 strings, which is really small certainly for this type of movie.

And then the same happened with brass. We couldn’t get as big a brass section as I wanted. So everybody had to get creative around this time. What I did was instead of just using samples, which is what you would normally do to make something bigger, once we had the orchestra stuff back, I then tracked up a lot of the orchestra parts with guitar and FX pedals. So a lot of the brass stuff was tracked up with that guitar and about five other guitars going through foot pedals. Each guitar would have a different foot pedal and then that would play the brass lines.

You mix that fuzzy sound in with the brass, the low brass and it was huge. It’s something I’ve never done before, and I only did it because the brass sections were small. But the sound was huge and it meant I could really widen it because you can put different foot pedals, really hard left and right stereo.

So out of trying to deal with the problem, again, we ended up with a sound that it sounds like the craziest brass sound sometimes when it’s playing really low. But it’s not just brass. It’s detuned guitars going through foot pedals, going through different amps and made hard left and right, and the sound was f***ing awesome.

I’ll definitely do it again. We did stuff like that even with the strings when I felt we didn’t have enough soaring sound of the strings. Again, we’d pull a guitar out, something that really creamy-sounding like a Les Paul, or I used this Yamaha Revstar quite a lot. It has these really thick, dark P90 pickups. They work beautifully with strings if you get the right kind of distortion with them and then you put them through delays. I’ve got a pedal that really replicates the old delay pedals of the ’50s and ’60s.

And so you put it through that and then you mix it in with these soaring violins, it just makes the violins sound huge. So it was a lot of tracking the orchestra up by necessity, but we ended up with a sound that was even bigger because it was just this thicker, echoey, amazing sound, so it all worked out.

What did James Gunn think about that?

When you’ve got someone who doesn’t give a s**t about you doing stuff like that, you just do it. Some directors will be very purist and go, “Oh, I don’t want you playing fuzzboxes over this beautiful orchestra.” James will be like, “F**k it. Just do whatever you think.” We just met those challenges with guitar pedals basically and just made the sound bigger that way. But yeah, I mean, I’ve recorded more guitars on The Suicide Squad than probably all the other films I’ve ever done put together.

There are just so many guitar tracks. I think towards the end in that final third of the movie, some of the action stuff had something like seven or eight fuzz basses recorded just to get the sound thicker because I love using fuzz bass anyway. But again, that was something that we did to make the brass bigger.

It was funny when we came to mixing the music, I always mix with Gustavo Borner, and he was looking at me laughing and he said, “Remember on Sunshine, you had six different basses. I’m looking at this track sheet now and there was something like 11 fuzz basses just on one track.” We thought that was hilarious.

For Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, you knew what the soundtrack was before scoring it, which helped you. Did James Gunn’s song choices influence you at all, too?

Absolutely. I knew right from the beginning because James has made these decisions from the script. They were actually in the script. So it’s not something he thought of later. I mean, to him, he’s a music nut more than anyone I’ve worked with, and he gets it. Seeing that from the script, I mean, it wasn’t anyone song influenced the score.

It was just good to have those signposts of sensibility, so you know that there’s something that’s going to be a little bit punky, and you know this is going to get a bit ironic, and this is going to get a little bit metal here. So those things helped out. Those signposts helped especially when you’re scoring up to a track because you don’t want to be in a certain key that when the song hits in, it’s a downer, you know?

I was riding up to these tracks. Whenever a song would finish and the score would come straight after it, I would always write in a good key that worked well coming out of it. So it had that feeling of being seamless, same with Lock, Stock. I knew all the songs before, so I could write into them and write out of them.

And that really makes a difference to an audience because it feels like they’re experiencing one musical journey then instead of like, “There’s the score. Oh, and now’s the song. Oh, there’s the score again.” I knew what all the songs were going to be, so I worked with them.

How was it leading into and following “Hey” by the Pixies? And when you hear a song that fantastic, what goes through your mind as a musician? 

When I heard that song by the Pixies, the first thing that came into my head was being at a party at a friend of mine’s house, Jeff Cardoni, the composer, and getting smashed out of my head with Joey from the Pixies [Laughs]. The last thing we were saying was, “We got to do a movie together one day.” I haven’t seen him since. This was a few years back. Joey is stellar, so soon as I heard that track, I was like, “Oh, s**t. I got to see Joey again.” That was the first thing that came into my head. My head was just how we were like the drunkest people at the party, the two of us.

[Laughs] Sounds like a good time.

Well, we were having a good time. Joey is just the best. With that track, what I loved was how it was all filtered to start with and then it just opened out, and then that sound, when it goes to full frequency and it opens out, it was just perfect. I love it when you have that kind of laconic vibe. That slow, draggy, laconic drums and the way the vocal was pitching and aching, I mean, I love s**t like that. It is one of my favorite needle drops in the movie. It inspires you. You don’t go, “Oh, how do I deal with this?” You go, “F**k! It’s like Mars. I’m after it.” It just inspires you.

Obviously, we covered the rock and punk sound, but for Ratcatcher and King Shark, you get to communicate a gentler side of the film, right? 

Well, it’s funny because you do some movies and you know what’s expected or what’s best for the film is to have a very organized, tight score with a correct thematic structure, and there’s a whole mass to this stuff, or by the rules. You figure this out and you wake up the shape.

From those first few days with James, it’s clear that we were just going to go out for entertainment. We wanted just every scene to be as entertaining as it could be. If it was going to be scary, it’d scare the s**t out of them. If it was going to be sad, make them cry. We didn’t talk about rules. Let’s look at every tectonic movement in the film and figure out what’s going to kick ass. When we got to scenes that were very much standalone scenes like the King Shark thing, like the Ratcatcher flashback, I didn’t have to worry about blending the sound in too much with the rest of the score.

So I just wrote stuff that worked for the scene. In those instances, it’s a sound that doesn’t really come back again. But it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that that moment felt emotional. So I tried stuff that I knew wasn’t going to come again in the movie, and James didn’t even question it.

The King Shark moment, it has bit of a horror movie sound.

It was very much King Shark’s moment where he’s being introspective and you’re getting into his head a little bit. I thought, “Well, it’s a standalone thing, so what would fit for this?” Then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny because he’s so innocent? And we’ll try something with a little la, la, la, ’60s kind of retro, low-fi, French film?” because I love all that s**t too.  It had so much humor and so much heart to it that James loved it. He said, “It’s all the nuance it needs and let’s just go with it.” So I could jump in and out of the score whenever we felt that it was worth it, basically is what I’m saying. There were no rules.

Even with Polka-Dot Man too, when he has his moment to explain his backstory and, in a way, he’s separate from the other members of the squad because he has very unique sort of powers and he doesn’t want to be there. He wishes he was dead.  I thought, “Well, his sound would be very different to these other people.” And then I thought, “Well, I’ve got this big Moog [synthesizer].” I wrote this really retro-ey, mid-’70s Moog piece for him. And again, it’s like it’s got nothing to do with the rest of the score whatsoever.

Over the years, several pieces of music of yours have been reused in movies. When I hear your music in other movies, it takes me out of the experience, but how do you feel about it?

It’s kind of annoying, to be honest. I mean, it’s annoying sometimes. Sometimes it’s used really, really well. But I wish it was used in just the good stuff, you know? The only thing I didn’t mind doing was on Kick-Ass because we were being a bit ironic, kind of a bit like tongue-in-cheek with it. But even now, I mean, I got slated a bit to doing that because I’ve worked on Kick-Ass 2 and people are like, “How the hell could you destroy this 28 Days Later tune?”

But I just wasn’t taking it that seriously. For me, Matthew was adamant that he’d had it in the test screenings and everybody loved it. So the compromise we made was okay, if you’re going to use that, then at least let me do a version that’s specific for Kick-Ass, so that was where we met in the middle. It was fun but I still got slaughtered for it.

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