An Interview With Richard Pleasance

   "I hope you're not a Toto fan!"

   There's a shared laughter as I reassure Richard Pleasance , former member of Boom Crash Opera and current film & TV composer, that my music sensibilities haven't been offended by his take on the band. As we share our cross-hemisphere chat, him situated in Australia and myself in England, our conversation has turned to composing music and the pros and cons of intuition over study.

   Pleasance, I learn, is a composer who has picked up classical guitar at the age of nine inspired by pop. "Back then the Beatles were still being played on the radio. We just went nuts for them. There were a few Aussie bands I loved back then too which got the juices flowing and, yeah, I think I just totally fell in love with music and guitar. I didn't realise it was something I could do for a living until late into my twenties."

   Yet, despite his own wealth of study, Pleasance admits an admiration for others who may intuit more when writing or performing - it is the autodidact Talking Heads which serve as a framing point, and an antithesis to, the " Africa " performers. "I mean sometimes when you listen to naive musicians and naive composers they can really set you on fire because they don't really know what they're doing," Pleasance states.

   "They chance upon really brilliant things and they don't even know it. I kind of like that as well. If you listen to a band like Talking Heads, for example, they're way better than a band like Toto who are super trained and super technical.That's a great example of how training can get in the way of emotional music." I state, in agreement, that I'm a huge fan of the spiky anguish and explosive rhythm section of David Byrne's band but that the over-produced style of Toto leaves me cold. Pleasance concurs: "I mean I don't want to hang shit on them either but you know what I mean. When there's no ceiling to their technique, they can become a bit acrobatic rather than something good to listen to."

   Pleasance is unique in the musicians I've previously interviewed in that, aside from his current composing success, his background includes a successful stint in a band and he had not specifically studied composing during further education. "I went to uni and studied music though I didn't actually finish the course. Back in those days the only courses you could do were Music Teaching - it was a four year course and the last year they specialised in education. I'd long gone by then. I'd got a taste of being in a band and being with like minded people and I was off."

   I recall his earlier declaration that he hadn't even thought about making a living in the music industry until his late twenties and wonder at what point he'd considered switching his talents to composing and score writing?

   "Even when I was in the band I was making music that wasn't for the band - just stuff I liked. At some point I saw the writing on the wall - you can't keep doing the same thing for the rest of your life, you've got to explore other things. "How, I ask, did he set about transitioning fields? "I just started pestering a few people I knew who were involved in getting composers work on film and TV and eventually, years later - it took a long time - one of them said: 'Oh there's this thing going round, you can throw a few tracks at if you like' and I did. And  that show ( Sea Change ) became a huge success here in Australia. It sort of went from there really."

   In listening to Pleasance's work, and through viewing his studio , its quite clear that his process is rather different to many currently active composers - whereas many score writers will often nowadays use the absolute bare minimum of kit, a laptop with Pro Tools and Cubase and a keyboard is enough for some, it's clear Pleasance seeks something much more sonically expansive in his work.

   "Its a conscious effort to try not to sound like everyone else," the musician confirms to me. "I think I can see a day coming where there's a composer on every street because everyone can put their hands on Pro-tools or Cubase, as you say, and you can get quite a good sound with very little money and a laptop and a keyboard these days."

   He is, it should be noted, rather critical of this approach though. "It sounds quite slick and professional but it doesn't necessarily mean its going to sound original - everyone can do that but to set yourself apart from the pack you've got to really try and play things for real. Don't use a cello sample, get a cello! Don't use a drum plug-in, get some drums and start hitting them, putting them through fuzz boxes, and you've got to really strive to make things sound different from everyone else. Otherwise everything sounds like Britain's Got Talent. That sort of sound it's just - oh! - it's insane! I'm not saying I never use sampled strings, because I do, but I blend them. Most things I try to play in myself - like guitar or a real piano rather than a piano plug-in. All those sort of things."

   Peering through Pleasance's online studio gallery, there's a number of fascinating instruments that catch my eye - an oud, sitars, a double bass and cellos in particular pique my interest. I wonder if he's learned to play each of these himself. My suspicions are confirmed. "I live in the bush so sometimes it's much more expedient for me to do it myself than hire someone - I've got the time to get it right."

   Having, with various degrees of success and failure, attempted to teach myself a plethora of instruments, I enquire about how the Australian musician has fared in learning such a diverse array of instruments. "Well," he reminisces, "because I started with classical guitar - classical guitar is quite technically demanding on your hands. Classical guitar is written in a funny sort of way - its on one clef but its like two clefs, like its on a piano, because there's often a bass part which you're playing with your thumb and melodic parts going on with your other fingers. Once you get good at classical guitar, its sort of a necessity that you've got good co-ordination - you can do that thing where you can divide your brain up, where you can split parts open and do all that sort of stuff. So if you can play classical guitar you can get your head around things like ouds and cellos without too much difficulty. Cello is a sort of forgiving instrument, violin would be bloody hard! There's no way I'd ever play violin."

   I note, as this point, violin is one of the instruments I failed in my attempts at learning. "I used to play viola when I was at school - it was hard. My hands are pretty big so I could never get my head around a violin, no way." He's far from the only one, I add. "I've got kids in school, if you ever go to school bands there'll be horn sections - they might be rough but they'll sound okay. But the violins sound shit for a long time. It's very rare that you'll get a kid on violin who sounds good. It's a hard instrument!"

   I'm interested, too, in not only learning how to play the instruments in isolation, but how they get added to his composing process. I wonder if he writes songs with, for example, sitars in mind or if there's another method for integrating them?

   "Its always a bit of trial and error. You can't always use them. But, if I'm there in my studio and I've hit a cue and I'm scratching my head of what to do, I'll start pulling in different sounds and instruments and something will lead to something and then off I go. I just doodle and things turn."

   Pleasance gives me a further example of how he experiments during composition - his blend of analogue and digital scoring is never more apparent than in his work on Wentworth. Throughout the show, a tense, pulsating sound often provides the on-screen action with a stress-inducing aura. It is, I learn, a sound created by recording and manipulating fans. "I started that on season one. When you record that and slow it down and play it backwards - its that sound you get when you're a bit anxious, you can start hearing the blood going through your ears, that sort of sound."

   As season five approaches, Pleasance is working on episode four as we speak via Skype, I ask about the difficulties of working on a show for so long. In pop music, a song is self-contained - at the end of its three or four minute running time, it's over. For a long-running series, not only does the music have to capture the emotion of each particular instance it is used but must, also, fit into the consistency of the larger series as a whole. How does he, I ask, find ways of keep his sounds fresh whilst maintaining this level of consistency?

   "Sometimes I will actually use a previously used theme but I'll stretch out certain parts that aren't going long enough, or that are going too long, and I'll completely refresh it. I'm constantly trying to refresh just to keep it interesting for me - i'm trying to refresh things as I go." Indeed, he tells me of his innovative idea of providing a new theme for each new series of Wentworth to keep the show feeling fresh.

   "I thought that would be really cool. And there have been subtle changes but the executive producers they're a little bit reluctant. They think we've established something that's a brand and they don't want to do that. but every season I come up with a new theme and say 'Come on! Let's try this one!' I wrote two for season five - they liked it but they said no." His enthusiasm for this idea hasn't been entirely extinguished. "Maybe for season six! We'll see!"

   Whilst not successful (so far) with his regular new theme suggestion, Pleasance notes that his relationship with Wentworth's executives is a positive and creative one - "On the whole they're very, very trusting and let me go for it" - but admits they do have to rein back his ideas at points. "I did try to push them a bit and I tried to introduce more razor sounding guitar parts but they sort of pulled me back on that. I'll play it for the producer - we'll have an approval session - he'll say 'I really like that' but I don't think they're going to go for it. They might say 'watch how often you use that sound Richard, please' because its pushing buttons."

   Having established himself as a versatile score writer, composing for the likes of Kenny and City Homicide , I'm intrigued to know how the musician compares his current life, confined to a studio for long hours, to his previous career of extensive live performances,

   "It's almost," Pleasance admits, "like the musician's not at home when you're score writing - its almost like you're a mad sculptor." Recently, however, he produced a project with his wife called Cherry Flambe which has seen him performing in front of audiences once more.

   "When you're on a stage it reconnects you with why you got into it in the first place. its nice to having both going on at the same time. You make mistakes when you're playing live and you have to work them into what you're doing - you have to think on your feet a bit more, improvising." Our interview is on the cusp of concluding when the musician offers up a concise comparison to his composition work. "But," he says, "when you're score writing its almost like dentistry."

Thank you

A huge thank you to Richard Pleasance for volunteering his time for this interview.

You can find out more about his work as a producer and composer at his website here:

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