Interview: Elliot Wheeler – musician, songwriter and screen composer

A man with many strings to his bow, Elliot Wheeler is a genuinely impressive musical proposition. With an album on the way, as well as high profile film scores under his belt, we thought we’d ask him a few questions….
Elliott WheelerHi Elliot. Can you firstly introduce yourself to those that don’t know?
Hi, my name is Elliott Wheeler, I’m a screen composer/music producer from Sydney.
I hear you were involved in the music for The Great Gatsby movie, starring Leonardo Di Caprio and directed by Baz Lurhmann. How did this come about?  
I’d  I worked with Baz and his music supervisor, Anton Monsted, a number of years back on a project attached to the Australia film.  I happened to run into Anton at LA airport on the way to South X South West last year and got talking, and from there we sort of eased into the project, initially helping out with some transitions on edits, and eventually looking after a lot of the additional music production and writing additional score.

One of the fantastic aspects of the way Baz wanted the music to work in the film was to allow the audience of today the chance to feel like what it would have been to be alive during that era. So, say, what it would have been like to be at a party in the 20’s at the height of the Prohibition, with all of the excitement and excess that would have engendered.  So there’s a wonderful weave of styles between contemporary tracks and the music of the era, then back into more traditional score.  It was a dream musically – we got to do versions of so many of the tracks in so many different styles and then interpolate them with the originals, dipping in and out of eras and hearing that music through all those different lenses.  And Baz and Anton have such incredible musical knowledge and sensitivity, it was brilliant how those transitions could be made to serve what was happening in the story and draw you in as an audience whilst reminding you where you are.


You worked with some impressive artists during the film, who were some of your favourites?
It sounds glib, but there is so much incredible music in the film, it’s really difficult to choose.  The Florence + the Machine track, “Over the Love” is incredible.  We wrote and recorded the strings for that piece at my studio, working with New York producer, Emile Haynie, who’s produced material with Florence before.  His production is awesome, incredibly textured whilst seemingly simple, and Florence’s voice just grabs something under your ribs that stops you breathing.

Working on the Jay Z / Kanye material was awesome as well.  The sounds in those pieces are just so phenomenally produced, everything sits together so well and has such impact, that adding orchestral or 20’s brass elements was both challenging and easy in different regards – easy, in that it sort of just makes everything you do sound great, and tricky because the tracks are so brilliant and coherent as they are that you don’t want to mess it up.  And the new pieces that Jay wrote for the film and the artists he assembled just took everything to a different level.  It’s such a perfect fit – his influence on contemporary music and on the feel of NY today is so immense, it makes sense his hand is there in the curation of how we see NY of the 20’s.

I was lucky enough as well to come to London and work with Bryan Ferry and his Jazz Age Orchestra as well.  Bryan’s Orchestra released their album “the Jazz Age”, a few months before, doing 1920’s covers of some of Bryan’s best known tracks.  It’s a beautiful album, and the sound fits the Gatsby era perfectly, so Baz wanted Bryan to record versions of some of the songs in the sound track and some of Craig Armstrong’s orchestral themes in that particular style.  They were an incredible group of musicians and worked so organically and musically, all facing each other in the one room as they recorded and you can hear the intimacy and immediacy of their reactions to each other in the playing.  And Bryan’s taste as a producer was exquisite – a change from an Bb Clarinet to the hardly used C saxophone would be subtle, but entirely change the feel of the piece and bring out something so particular to the era, and those were the sort of decisions that were being made constantly.    Then you get that Ferry voice that’s both recognisable but fits so entirely in the genre as well, it’s beguiling – you know you know the voice but feel like it’s part of the past, exactly what Baz was trying to get the music to make us feel throughout the film, a sense of being present in an era. It was a very special process to be involved with, and I think a really unique group of pieces were created, and something that’s very fresh in terms of what’s been done before in soundtracks.

I could go on about so many other of the tracks – the Larna del Ray theme that re-occurs throughout the film I think is a beautiful piece and her voice captures something essential in the sentiment of the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy, a sensuality and  scale of emotion combined with a longing and essential fragility.  The Jack White “Love is Blindness” cover is just such a primal piece of performance, it gave me shivers each time we worked on it, and it works amazingly in the film.

And I’ll stop there, or I’ll end up going through every track….


Have you composed much for other films?  
Yes, I’ve been writing for the screen most of my adult life.  There’s something about the challenge of telling a visual story with music that I find utterly compelling.  I’ve recently been working on the music for the new Mad Max film Fury Road, and just finished the titles sequence to Rob Connolly’s feature The Turning, based on the Tim Winton novel.  The titles are another impossibly delicate sand animation by a dear friend, Marieka Walsh.  She literally draws every frame by hand in the sand, takes a photo, then starts again.  The patience is mind boggling.  On a good day she’ll get through 3 seconds of material for the film.  Incredible.  I was lucky enough to get Marieka to do the film clip for the Baker Man single off the album.  It’s not sand but has almost the same level of detail – everything is done by hand again.  It works like a whole other movement to the song.


You are set to release your album ‘The Long Time’ – can you give us some insight into the inspiration behind this?
For The Long Time I ended up choosing a number of my favourite scenes from some of my favourite films of the 60’s and 70’s and using something in those scenes as a starting point.   It could be a mood, a look, an action, and then I’d build on that and let the work take itself where it would.  So there’s a scene from Bonnie and Clyde where she looks at Clyde the second before they’re covered in a hail of bullets in the ambush.  It’s such a stunning look – it shows love, fondness, full realisation of what’s happening, tragedy, a lack of regret, the knowledge of annihilation, the knowledge there’s no time even to be able to get back and embrace.  It’s a point of stillness before the most incredible violence, and it all happens in about a second.  It’s such a poetic use of expression, it says so much so quickly.  And so I used that as a starting point for the piece that ended up being The Warning.
And there are similar points from other films for most of the songs.  A moment in The Sting where the Redford is alone at 2 in the morning in a town where he knows noone and just wants some company, scenes from Chinatown, 3 days of the Condor, Dog Day afternoon, The Conversation and others.


There is a lot going on in this record; how many instruments do you actually play?
My main instrument is piano, and I grew up playing trombone so can still murder that when I need to and I can’t get someone in.  A little guitar, a little drums, but I’ve spent so long writing for large ensembles and working with musicians that you learn how to write for most instruments.  It’s just something you need to have in your skill set as a composer and apart from formal training, the musicians I work with are very patient with me when I bug them about playing techniques, what works, what doesn’t, what could have been written differently, etc.  Most of the composers I really admire always do their own orchestrations rather than using arrangers.  The palette of sounds you combine, where those sounds sit on the instrument, where the phrasing occurs, these are all things that for me are a huge part of the actual writing of the music.  The melody and harmony are only really the first step.


Who are your main influences?
I love Sebestien Tellier, Jon Brion,  I’ve always been a Radiohead fan and particularly think Jonny Greenwood’s writing for strings are incredible.  Classical composer Arvo Part is another big influence, and Max Richter’s work I find stunning.  So many for different styles of music, but those are a few.
And finally, do you have any plans to tour this record?
I’d love to tour the album.  There are a couple of big projects coming up this year that might get in the way of a large tour, and I’ve still got to work out how to translate some of the larger scale ensemble pieces down to something manageable.  We were lucky enough to be able to sneak sessions for many of the tracks onto the back of large orchestral sessions we were doing for screen, so often it’s a whole orchestra playing on the recordings,  And orchestra’s don’t travel particularly nimbly.  But I’ll work something out, some of the tracks are great fun to do live.  So short answer, ‘yes’.


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