Following a new album release, scoring for a second feature film and releasing various sound libraries, Liam O’Mullane discusses striking the right balance between work and freedom of artistic expression with this seasoned sound-designer.
Since his first release in 1995, Simon Begg has worked as a producer, remixer and DJ, putting out albums, EPs and singles under the names Bigfoot, Buckfunk 3000, Culture Cruncher, Cabbage Boy and S.I. Futures. His style has always been driven by electronic music, but since his earlier days of producing techno, he’s been hard to define as anything more certain than an expressive artist who goes where he pleases.
From 2000 through to the present, Si has managed to strike a working balance between sound-design and scoring that gives him the freedom to keep his ‘artist’ releases as an open doorway through which to stream his musical consciousness. He explains how this music-making needs to work for him: “People have tended to complain in the past as my work varies so much from one release to the next. They may buy other work after liking one piece and find my next work completely different. My new album, Permission To Explode, is what I hope paints a clear picture of where I’m currently at with my music-making.
It seems that people think I change so much on purpose, but that’s really not the case. I just can’t approach music-making and work to one style. Maybe it’s due to my musical background as I seem to take influence from the artists I used to listen to. Their albums would include all sorts of tempos, musical skits and so on, not stay at one BPM and style throughout.”
Like many people of Si’s generation, he began using technology for music-making in the 80s out of sheer frustration at the lack of like-minded people around him. Largely self-taught in drumming, guitar and a little piano, he shared his love of prog rock and heavy metal playing in bands with his friends, though he also fell in love with acts such as Kraftwerk and the newer wave of synth-based artists of the time.
He tells us about his initial days working alone, when he could control all aspects of his music: “I’d realised that I could write all of the music myself, which worked for going in the musical direction I wanted. After loaning a multitrack tape machine from school, other electronic gear after this was the same, really: a means to an end for me to be able to put music together on my own. I came across Cabaret Voltaire and other experimental artists like Negativland who created lo-fi multitrack-based material which I got into with a rudimentary studio setup in my parent’s cellar.
It wasn’t too soon after this, in the later 80s, that I heard early acid house music on John Peel. I just thought it was cool stuff, like Tangerine Dream with a good beat to it. I didn’t realise it was the start of a phenomenon.”
This was the moment that Si saw his first career opportunity in the wave of British dance music and he began to DJ around his home town of Leamington Spa, heavily influenced by mix tapes from the famous Eclipse club in Coventry, which was also home to D&B veteran Doc Scott. He recalls: “It was a really exciting time, with a merge of all sorts of styles. I started making demos and made some headway by moving to London and getting involved with squat parties by the mid 90s. My first release was as Bigfoot on Eukatech, which I recorded onto a C90 cassette. I then asked a friend to record that to DAT so it looked more professional when I submitted it for release.”
Moving into Design
It was around the year 2000 that Simon started to get work creating audio for his friends in the motion-graphics industry, creating idents for companies such as MTV. He recalls the motivation he had to truly focus on this area of the industry more: “I was expecting my first child at the time and it felt like the music industry was on wobbly ground. The ident work paid quite well so I focused on doing more of that.
It also seemed like a step in the right direction for the dream of scoring films. Publishing advances for new music releases were beginning to dwindle a bit, so as the sole earner in the house at the time I decided to find agencies for adverts, radio jingles and library music and threw myself straight into it. I’d also gone through the process of making some quite experimental electronic library music for Mute Song Publishing and quite enjoyed it. This is when I managed to strike that balance of bread-and-butter work to pay the bills and other, more artistically satisfying, projects.
“The bill-paying work liberated my artistic output, so I could do whatever I wanted without any pressure to try to make successful songs or hits. But the danger of such artistic freedom is that you can never get around to finishing and releasing work, which is a large reason why my new album took so long to complete. The line between both types of work blurs sometimes, as the song Let It Roll began as the music for a Foot Locker advert I did. There are a few short pieces I’ve written this way that I’ve then extended into a full track.”
We ask Si how his years of sound-design experience have altered his approach to music-writing as an artist. He takes a moment before saying, “Quite a lot, really. A big difference is that my other work has generated a huge library of sounds that I can dip in to – my own archive of sounds to use. Since using these in part to produce the various libraries I’ve released, I’ve been forced to be more methodical about how they’re stored as well, which helps a lot. I think it also pushed me out of my comfort zone on many occasions, forcing me to up my game or try things I’ve never done before.”
Si recently put his second feature-film score to bed for the movie Hackney’s Finest, which is now released. His first score was for the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie UFO (titled Alien Uprising in the US). He tells us about the stark contrast between his work for both: “For UFO, the director had put music he liked into a rough edit over the movie.
It mostly consisted of epic, Oscar-winning Hollywood scores – which was no mean feat as reference material – but it did give me a clear understanding of what he wanted it to do in relation to each scene. For Hackney’s Finest there was no music in place, so I went from a minimal starting, though there were some songs in place that were licensed for use. This meant I was there to create the more narrative, directional music. It took a while to get the right tone for what he wanted, with a good bit of back-and-forth of ideas.
We talked a lot about instrumentation and where it needed to sit stylistically. It’s a very urban film, so going with a standard orchestral tone wouldn’t have worked. But it also didn’t want to go down a standard grime, dubstep or hip hop route as we didn’t want it to be beat-driven, either. So I used urban/electronic music as my sonic palette but approached using the sounds like a musician would when performing, and also performed a lot of pieces live as I watched the movie. So it wasn’t about groove, loops and so on, it was about underscoring the narrative and hitting the emotional points to support not overwhelm the visuals. This was quite different from UFO, where the director wanted me to heighten the scenes through music.
The difference in direction pushed me into being subtle and working between the dialogue. I think I generally go overboard if given half a chance so we constantly pulled things back to the bare minimum, which made the scenes more powerful.”
Creating for Another Mind
When someone has continued to carve a career for themselves like Si has while the industry changes around him, it would be a missed opportunity to not get some pointers on how it’s done. First we ask for advice on pitching for work. He happily tells us: “Have a very thick skin and get used to people who don’t actually know anything about music telling you what you should be doing.
This also has to be responded to with a smile on your face, as well. To be fair, though, I normally work through an agency, so there’s a middle buffer for the process, which helps. Also remember it’s a job, so don’t get too precious about the work you do and how it needs to be changed to satisfy the client. It’s about what they would like and not what you would like! On a rare occasion when they’re not sure about ideas they might let you create fresh ones, but the biggest challenge is usually to find out what it is they really want and trying to get them to be as clear as possible.
For instance, I’m often used because of my reputation in electronic music and they may ask for something that’s really out-there, but when you hash things out with them a bit, they actually want something fairly tame, like the Chemical Brothers rather than Aphex Twin. So always try to discuss specific musical reference points and also go deeper to find out what it is in each reference track they like. Otherwise you might go and make similar drums when it was actually the lead synth they really wanted you to work from”
I use MetaSynth (above) a lot as there’s nothing else that can make sounds of the same nature. For sequencing and audio I’m a total Logic-head and always have been since dropping Cubase a long time ago, though I do have Pro Tools for working with files for film as it’s Avid-compatible
Si also has advice on the process of getting the right ideas to move forward with: “Starting a project can be quite hard. I try to think that I’m just playing around with ideas at the start that don’t necessarily need to be the ideas I’ll use – just playing around and seeing what happens. This avoids the feeling of pressure when starting and thinking, ‘right this is it; this needs to work’. And don’t be precious about something that doesn’t work; don’t be afraid to noodle around for new ideas. Half the time when you’re working on something that’s not that good, you’ll know in the back of your mind, so on the other side of things, don’t get into the habit of banging your head against a wall about it; just scrap it.
“Another approach I sometimes use is to take one of those ideas and pretend it’s just been given to me by someone else who wants a remix. Then I’ll take a fresh approach on it, spin it on its head and get something else out of it.”
You can check out Si’s approach to preset design on his latest Massive library, Dirty Sequences, released through Samplephonics. He describes these as “tempo-sync’ed patches using Massive’s LFOs and Performer sequencer. I’ve tried to take them to extremes and go beyond the usual Massive presets. It’s a powerful synth and can do a lot more than the EDM bass and lead noises you hear everywhere.”