By Matt Jones
September 30, 2013
Earlier this year, the first season of Channel 4’s Utopia rocked our TV screens with it’s stylish brand of chilling drama. Revolving around the ever-escalating conspiracy arising from a graphic novel, the story is as much driven by Utopia’s distinctive score as the enigmatic panels in the graphic novel. A week ahead of the long-awaited release of the soundtrack on 7th October and the second series early next year, we talk to unconventional composer and musician Cristobal Tapia de Veer about rhino dung, human bones and Fight Club.
Why do you think the makers of Utopia approached you to make the soundtrack?
I had previously worked with one of the series’ directors, Mark Munden, on the BBC’s The Crimson Petal and the White – a period drama for which I produced a score which was somewhere in-between a classical score and something more modern. As a director, Mark wants scores that do something different and whilst The Crimson Petal is a million miles away from Utopia, he thought I had it in me to produce something similarly distinctive for this new series.
Utopia is a distinctively audiovisual experience, with composition and cinematography operating as one. How did you work with Utopia’s makers to achieve this?
I’ve always been attracted to the idea of creating soundtracks and scores, but at the time I was looking for something different than Hollywood, where there are lots of rules and a standard sound you have to abide by. That’s why I first went into TV – because it allowed me to be more exploratory at the start of my career. I was very fortunate to work on this project which allowed me the creative freedom I look for as a composer.
So I never really heard from the producers for months – I was just working with Mark. There was almost no feedback from the producers, but there’s something to be said for that because in the end they were very happy with what we produced. That’s the way Mark likes to work but of course, he has the luxury of doing that because he’s an award-winning director. For directors with less experience, it’s much harder to achieve such unity of score and story because the execs and writers don’t trust them as much.
So the producers more-or-less gave you the reel and left you to your thing?
I went to London pretty early in the production and got given a two-hour cut of the first episode. It needed editing and they were still trying to work out the tone of the thing – so composing a score was quite a random process at first. I experimented with lots of different styles – the early music was a lot more DJish, inspired by things such as The Dust Brothers’ Fight Club soundtrack. But that didn’t make it – they couldn’t find a way to edit that sort of music with such a multi-layered plot as Utopia’s. It took two months before we got something that we thought could be the actual sound of Utopia – the first rough cuts, if you will.
Those ‘rough cuts’ eventually developed into a score with some pretty unusual sounds, of course. I heard that you made your own instruments? Tell me more.
Oh yeah, I tried all kinds of stuff. When I first read the script, I had some ideas about using some human bones that I had lying around, because there was so much death and violence in the story. So I went to London I brought a couple of human bones to whistle and drum on, along with a rhino turd I had collected whilst on safari in Zimbabwe – which I also drummed on to generate some sounds. Actually I also have some giraffe turds – they’re much smaller than rhino turds but giraffes pump out a lot of them to compensate. I haven’t used them yet, but maybe I guess I could make some giraffe turd maracas or something!
Why did you have human bones lying around?
They’re from a desert in the north of Chile, my homeland. Collecting all these potential sounds – rhino turds, giraffe turds, human bones – it’s all just part of keeping my job interesting. When I’m working on a project, I don’t work the nine to five – it can be a 24 hour thing and you need to keep your mind active. So it’s not that I couldn’t necessarily make similar sounds with samples or by playing around with a keyboard; it’s more about the mental process of finding inspiration in the artefacts from your life.
As for the bones – I don’t have them anymore because when I was done with them, I had them buried in Brompton Cemetery, near where I was living in London.
What inspires you about Utopia as an artist?
The thing that inspires me the most about Utopia is its paradoxical tone. You’ll be watching a torture scene and find yourself laughing at stuff you think you really shouldn’t be laughing it. It’s a bit awkward, but very watchable. That is why execs at Channel 4 were afraid at times. The day before the third episode with the school shooting came out, they were expecting the worst from the press .They even asked me to be careful about the tone of my tweets, because it was a very serious issue – there was a shooting just a couple of months before. Complaints were minimal but still, lots of people don’t realise that these shows aren’t made the week before they go out. They’re not being disrespectful about events that happened after filming had finished.
What music do you listen to when you’re not working?
At the moment, I really like Flying Lotus’s latest album, Until The Quiet Comes, and Crystal Castles. I was in London during the Kraftwerk concerts – I wanted to go but it was sold out! I also like lots Ed Banger Records’ stuff like Mr. Oizo, a French electronic musician who also makes some cool experimental cinema. As for scores, one of my favourites is Fall On Your Sword’s stuff for Another Earth, an indie movie which won an award at Sundance 2011.
What is your next project?
I have a couple of things – a TV series that needs some eighties synthesiser music. The director is a fan of the scores of science fiction movies like John Carpenter’s and the early Terminators. I also might have a movie to do for this summer.
As for Utopia Series 2, I’m hoping to come back and the makers seem keen for me to do so too – but nothing official yet. I would love to spend more time on set next series – not just to spend more time with the producers, cinematographers etc, but also just to record them filming on my camera and see if I can use some of it in the score. For example, when I met Alex Garcia, the second director of the first series, we started going out with him partying around London and I was just filming everything. One night we were pretty drunk and he was singing some funny stuff – I later took the sound from that video clip and I put it into the end credits theme for Utopia. Again, it’s all about living the score.
And finally, where is Jessica Hyde?
She’s in Dublin.