Daniel Pemberton coulda been a contender. Back in the 1990s he was a promising young journalist, writing about tech and clubs and “the internet before the internet really existed”. And he did that writing for The Face 1.0.
Then the Londoner massively dropped the ball and became a soundtrack composer for cutting-edge Brit sitcoms (Peep Show), action capers (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Oscar-bait biopics (Steve Jobs, Molly’s Game), blockbuster gender-switch reboots (Ocean’s 8), critically acclaimed animations (Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse), Beatles-studded romcoms (Yesterday) Netflix-and-chill catnip (Black Mirror, The Dark Crystal) and, coming in February, tasty-sounding superhero spectaculars (Birds of Prey, with Margot Robbie as badass Harley Quinn).
Next up, though, is his score for Motherless Brooklyn. Actor/writer/director Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel timewarps the contemporary New York setting to 1957, stars Bruce Willis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and also features musical contributions from Thom Yorke and Wynton Marsalis.
Ahead of a Q&A in a Soho jazz club with Yorke and Norton – at which the American director described the Englishman as the “Mozart of Bermondsey” – we met Pemberton in a posh London hotel. We wanted to talk through this Hollywood player’s key scores, discuss his favourite soundtracks by someone else (he mentioned Grease first, then Beverley Hills Cop), and to find out where it all went wrong.
(Side-note: we did offer Mr Pemberton another chance to review clubs for The Face, but he declined, muttering something about how “Margot Robbie needs me in LA”. His loss.)
PEEP SHOW, (2003)
Wonky music for a wonky show
“This was very early [in my career] – I still lived with my mum and dad. [Creators] Jesse Armstrong [Succession] and Sam Bain [Four Lions] had shot some stuff and I remember watching the first episode, thinking: ‘This is like nothing else I’ve ever seen.’ It felt real, and like it was capturing a Britain and characters I could relate to. Comedy till then felt full of quippy characters who didn’t feel real. So a lot of the sounds for Pip Pop Plop, the theme tune, were made down a well at a holiday cottage where I was staying in Majorca. It had the most amazing echo so that’s where I recorded me making all these pops and finger snaps and silly noises on a MiniDisc, then sampled them all up. My approach was: because the show feels very off and wonky, how can I make this tune quirkier?
“The first series didn’t rate so well, and a week before the second one broadcast, apparently [Channel 4’s then-Director of Television and Content] Kevin Lygo stormed into the edit and said: ‘This show needs to appeal to more women aged between 18 and 30 – and we need to change the title sequence.’ So they changed my theme to an indie-rock song. I was totally devastated. But that ‘pop-pop-snap’ noise is all the way through the series, and I every year I get a royalty cheque for about 30p.”
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) AND KING ARTHUR (2016)
Songs for Guy: scoring for Mr Ritchie, a director who likes fast edits and kinetic action
“Yeah, working with Guy Ritchie is a very unique experience. How can I put this in a very diplomatic phrase? The thing about working with Guy is, his movies lean so heavily into music. That’s super-exciting for a composer, but also quite daunting because you’re carrying quite a lot of the weight of the film… The one thing I think’s great about those movies is that Guy always wants the music to be different and not take the clichéd route. But then that’s also very testing because you can spend a long time trying to work out how to get there.
“King Arthur was a pretty brutal project to go through, for everyone. It’s one of those – the things that don’t kill you make you stronger. And on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. the big thing was flutes. I had this classical bass flute player who showed me all this amazing breathing. But I almost killed him; he said he thought he was going to have a heart attack in the studio. He refers to recording that score as ‘Death by Pemberton.’”
USS CALLISTER (2017)
The Black Mirror classic that boldly went where no ep had gone before
“I was a video games journalist when I was a really young kid and [Black Mirror creator] Charlie Brooker and I worked on the same video games magazines, PC Zone and Games Zone. I remember thinking: one day, I’ll work with Charlie again. And I did!
“With Callister, they’d already shot most of the episode, and I thought: ‘Great, I’m going to get to do some atonal electronics,’ which I’d been gagging to do for ages. Then I watched it and thought: ‘Shit, this is the most musically complicated episode of Black Mirror ever.’ You had two worlds: 1960s, Star Trek-type TV space show with full orchestral score, then the modern Black Mirror dystopian world – then merge them together. I figured it was going to be a total headfuck for whoever did it. But in the end that was me – I just had to take the job.”
SPIDERMAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018)
With great power comes great responsibility… to bring Shoreditch club culture to a superhero movie
“It was a very weird experience for me, that movie. We were really up against it at the end, and I kinda ended up living in the offices at Sony Picture Animation in LA, in this deserted office floor on my own. I just felt I was doing this thing no one cared about.
“But that score is influenced by me going out clubbing in east London in the Nineties: Stealth and Dusted at the Blue Note, Metalheadz, hip hop nights. I got really into record scratching, people like DJ Food, DJ Shadow and The Psychonauts. Seeing people using a turntable as an instrument really stuck with me, and I always wanted to use it one day in a film score. Then with …Spider-Verse, it felt like a natural fit. So you had the character of Miles, a 13-year-old kid from Brooklyn, steeped in hip-hop culture, being influenced by the 19-year-old me wearing bad skatewear in east London.”
Composing around the greatest set of songs ever written? No probs
“Danny Boyle asked me to come on for three weeks to help out the lead actor, Himesh Patel. A year-and-a-half later I was still on it. I wrote the score, worked with Himesh – who’d never really sung professionally before – so the Beatles songs would sound the best they could in the film, and co-wrote his character’s track Summer Song: ‘Can you write a song that’s really average?’ ‘Yes, I can!’
“I didn’t want to write a Beatles pastiche score, but my approach was: what would happen if the Beatles got to score a movie? So, use the equipment and instruments they’d use, but then approach it with the same fuckery they would in the studio. Also, I made this one little [musical] cue that was so dirty and fucked up and crazy, and I remember thinking: this is the last thing that will ever make it into a Richard Curtis romantic comedy. And it ended up in there in a key moment. Luckily Danny’s a complete punk and hates anything too polished.”
THE DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE (2019)
Resistance is futile
“I didn’t want to do it – making music for ten hours of television was going to be too much work to do properly. But Louis Leterrier, the director, really liked my King Arthur score, so he invited me onset. And he knew that as soon as I came onset, I’d be like: ‘Holy shit, this is like nothing I’ve ever seen.’ They had this very non-descript warehouse near Slough, which they’d transformed into all the sets and worlds. It was one of the most creative filmmaking environments I’ve ever been in.
“I wanted to make music that has the magic and wonder of the film. And because all the sets and puppets are real and very tactile, I wanted the music to feel organic and visceral, too. Every single department was so creative, it was a real joy to be part of. But you also felt like you couldn’t drop the ball.” (Yeah, that’d be the second time, mate.)
BIRDS OF PREY (2020)
The DC Universe takes wing. Finally (OK, not forgetting Joker)
“I’ve got one track to finish, and we finished mixing the rest at 2am yesterday in LA. To be honest, I don’t get super-excited by a lot of superhero movies. Like Scorsese recently said, you’re getting a product where you know what you’re going to get. And I always like things where you don’t know what you’re going to get. But Harley Quinn is such a great character because she has so many different personalities. So I figured I could have a lot of fun here. I’ve decided she embraces everything from opera to hard rock to acid house to disco to breakbeat to 1960s surf music. It’s quite an eclectic score, very unlike a lot of the DC scores. As riotous as the film looks from the trailer.”
MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (2019)
Jazz noir from the Mozart of Bermondsey. And him out of Radiohead
“Thom Yorke has written the main song, and I did a bit of back and forth with him, just trying to record some clarinets for it to make it work within a scene. I’m a massive Radiohead fan and I’ve been emailing a lot with him which is always quite a funny experience – Thom Yorke uses a lot of emojis! So you have Thom, Wynton Marsalis, his jazz band, and you’re trying to mould all those aesthetics together. As Edward Norton says, we’re trying to do Radiohead meets Miles Davis and Charles Mingus on this score. We’re taking the experimental, forward-pushing approach that Radiohead have, but also using the world of the film, which is steeped in jazz and 1950s noir. I’ve been working with a brilliant saxophonist in London called Thomas Challenger, building weird loops and mad noises out of just a sax.
“So it’s not a jazz pastiche – we’re creating new music that we can’t describe. That’s what I said to my American agent anyway.”
Motherless Brooklyn is released on 6th December. Daniel Pemberton’s next commission is the score for Enola Holmes, an in-production film about Sherlock’s little sister, who’s played by Millie Bobby Brown. Or, he’s reviewing G.A.Y. for The Face, whichever comes first