Mel Wesson: Music is Noise


Mel Wesson
Photo © Pete 'Oso' Snell

Mel was born and raised in London, despite numerous efforts to persuade him to follow a more conventional musical path he gravitated towards the synthesiser as his instrument of choice.

After leaving art college the formative stages of Mel's career saw him touring and recording with a number of new wave bands. Mel also began working out of Hans Zimmers' Lillie Yard Studio where he began to explore the studio and experiment with sound and picture as well working with such artists as the punk icons Siouxsie and The Banshees, Brit Pop producer Mike Hedges and techno guru Youth. He received a multi platinum award for his contributions to The Verve's 'Urban Hymns' album and the anthemic single 'Bitter Sweet Symphony'. It was this album Hans Zimmer was listening to in the New Year of 2000 when he spotted Mel's credit and invited him to work on the score for Mission Impossible 2.

Since that time Mel has created his own niche within the movie score genre as 'Ambient Music Designer' . This area of atmospheric sound has weaved its way through many of Hans' scores including  Ridley Scott's 'Hannibal' and 'Black Hawk Down'. Christopher Nolan's 'Batman Begins' , 'The Dark Knight' and most recently 'Inception'. Sometimes ambient, sometimes disturbing, often unclassifiable, Mel's music is always created with a passion and an artistic commitment.

Outside of his feature film work Mel continues to write prolifically, he composes for commercial, television and video games and his production music can be heard throughout the world on various BBC, ITV, Discovery and MTV productions, CNN News broadcasts, Sky Comedy, Crime, Drama, Family, News, Sports and beyond.

Dark Knight Interview

Mel Wesson

What does an ambient music designer normally do and how was that work unique to "The Dark Knight"?

Well I can tell you it's not all about soundscapes and relaxation tapes!  On BB ("Batman Begins") and "TDK" I spent the initial months creating sounds and grouping them in moods and characters, things like 'Oxides', 'Rage', 'Chaos', 'S-Laughter'. I've always found it easier to collate sounds in terms of food groups rather than just "Pulses", 'Percussion", "Underscores", etc. and anyway, that would've been a little unimaginative! An amount of this material first saw daylight in The Prologue. That was invaluable in terms of recognizing at an early stage how far this movie differed tonally from BB. As the team came together over at Remote Control I joined them and began putting ideas together through the reels; these went either directly to the mix or via Hans and James to brighten their days! In reality, every project is unique; Batman sounds only relate to the Batman characters and locations that's all, it's not like they're interchangeable.

Did your work in "Batman Begins" carry over to the sequel?

Absolutely. You need those familiar markers for continuity. Some sounds are more subliminal, you log them in your subconscious, others are more thematic. As an example, something like the Batflaps are highly visible - that's the sound that kicks off both movies, as soon as you hear that you know you're back in that world, then the Joker arrives and kicks the crap out of us all.

Given the job title, ambient music designer, do you think about or approach music differently than other composers?

I hope so, otherwise I'm out of a job! I'm not sure I know what goes through other composers' minds but I've always been more interested in making the sound do the work as opposed to the notes. What the title gives me is the freedom to experiment without the restrictions of say, a more orchestral approach, but then my contribution has to complement and extend that world. It's very satisfying when the two come together.

Mel Wesson

What are your thoughts on the boundaries between music and sound design, if any?

wouldn't differentiate between them sonically, but I'd say there's a dividing line in whether you're being figurative or abstract in the way you use sound. The priority for my work is with the score, what I do has to have some musical sensibility, whether it's playing a supportive, colorist role or driving the structure from which a cue is built up. I always work with the sound design team in mind though, you have to be aware of what those guys are up to, and it doesn't help if there's half a dozen things all doing the same job at the dub, you need clarity, and everything has to be focused.

Christoper Nolan has said that TDK's main theme is escalation. Was there an emphasis on the score to emote that, too?

Hmmm.... I've not heard that phrase before, but you can't avoid the way TDK racks up the intensity and the score is a vital part of the engine of that escalation, although the movie builds in an unconventional way. It was never going to be a question of car chase follows train wreck - the Joker monologues build as much tension as the action scenes; he really holds the audience by the throat, as does Hans' one note Joker theme. It does nothing but escalate! I was very jealous when I first heard that one, I love the purity of the idea - it's pure menace.

Where does your work end? Since there's potential for sounds you create to be altered, edited, or even omitted during the final dub, is the first time you see a film in the theater a surprise?

I'm not sure it ever ends, in fact only a few weeks ago I  was working on a remix for TDK and that's  six months after the release! The only meaningful date is the print master, that's the only time you physically can't screw with things anymore! As you say, the final dub is open season for sound, but aside from fixes or specific requests my role morphs into more of a 'doctor on call' situation. It's often the first time everything comes together as a whole, so yes.... there's usually a few surprises! I don't get too protective about my work though; if something doesn't make it to the cut it's for a reason and I'd sooner hear one sound cut through and have an effect on an audience than have a wall of mush that does nothing. It's the end result that counts,  but I still get a little apprehensive the first time I watch a movie through in the theatre....

What was your first gig like?

My first 'Ambient' gig was "Hannibal." I'd played a more conventional role on "MI2," and afterward Hans asked if I'd fancy being the audio "presence of Hannibal Lector." It doesn't take too much to convince me to come over to the dark side! There was a lot of experimentation, no rules, no road-map, nothing, although there came a point when a number of people started to feel very uncomfortable about the sounds coming out of my studio... which was exactly what we were looking for! Working with Ridley Scott was a great experience, too. He was very receptive to the whole idea, very concise, very constructive, in fact I'd love to cook up some kind of 'baptism by fire' tale of adversity but in reality, "Hannibal" was just a great project. In the closing week or so Hans and I came up with the 'ambient music design' label; it's come in pretty handy over the years...

With thanks to
... and for the record my favourite colour is still British Racing Green.