Neil Davidge

The legendary Massive Attack producer makes history with his ‘Halo 4’ soundtrack

Welcome to DMCWORLD towers young man, a privilege to have you on these pages after such an illustrious career, long may it continue.
“Many thanks Dan, it’s an honour!”
Your story began back in the late 80s as Acid House gripped the country, co-producing with Nick Batt and Nick Slateford aka DNA. Had you any idea back then just how this new form of music was going to one day take over the world?
“It actually began before that, as the frontman of the no hit wonder band ‘In Time’. That’s actually how I met Nick who was then our sound man, I had one of those old fashioned record deal things, I think they had designs on me being the next George Michael (!) or something…needless to say that didn’t happen but the deal afforded me some gear, which lead onto other opportunities. Yeah, Acid, house, hip hop, it certainly opened a whole new world of possibilities for me and a lot of other people. However it was not so much the music but the accessibility of the technology that really shaped things. Relatively cheap drum machines, keyboards, the first affordable samplers and of course, the Atari computer and Cubase…with a whopping 24 Midi tracks! Previously you’d have to have extremely wealthy parents to afford this stuff, which I didn’t being the son of a Bristol taxi driver.”
Tell us about your childhood. How important was music to you back then and who were the artists you were listening to growing up?
“I loved music from a very early age, apparently my mum always sang to me as a baby. She came from a musical family, three brothers and two sisters, they all sang and played with my grandfather who was a touring danceband musician in the 50’s. Two of my uncles became singers in bands, one of them went on to be one of the most successful British songwriters of the 60’s and 70’s, he wrote amongst other tunes, ‘something’s gotten hold of my heart’ for Gene Pitney, Uncle Rog, Roger Cook. We had many of his records around but my two fav albums were ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Sounds of Silence’. I guess I was around eight when I got those records, my aunt gave them to me.. or maybe I ‘borrowed’ them. I still sometimes recognise the influence those two albums had on me. The first time Dee (3D) from Massive and I met we talked about Abbey Road, he always wanted to do a cover of ‘she’s so heavy’… I think I have a copy of a rather strange version we eventually did somewhere. Later I got into all sorts, rock (Bowie, early Genesis with Mr Gabriel etc), Soul (Marvin and Stevie etc), Jazz (Mingus, Miles etc), Debussy (via an electronic album by Tomita) and then of course, Punk and New Wave, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Magazine, A Certain Ratio, Joy Division etc etc.”
You’re a Bristol boy, one of the most important musical cities the UK has ever produced. You met Massive Attack’s Mushroom at the start of the 90s, a time when the whole Trip Hop movement was exploding. What was it about this new style of music that you loved?
The fact that you didn’t have to be able to dance to make it…!  The whole Bristol music scene at that time was such a clash of different tastes, hip hop, house, rock, easy listening, reggae, punk, funk, jazz, ambient, soul, indie… Trip hop was a complete mash up of all those influences, with space between the beats enough to delve deeper into the head and heart. I could make emotional music, drawing from everything around me and within me, past and present. Bristol really was the only place ‘Trip Hop’ could come from, since the late 70’s the music of this city has ignored all barriers, it still does.”
Were you a big clubber back then?
“Ha, nope, never was, still not, never will be. We went to Cider pubs with bad cover bands, saw gigs at least once a week, hung out in bedrooms listening to music, rehearsing and Jamming 3 nights a week.”
You are creating headlines in the computer world at the moment thanks to your incredible soundtrack to ‘Halo 4’ – the game series that has so far sold over 43 million copies generating over $3 billion in revenue.
“Yeah, it’s quite humbling really… I tried not to think about that whilst I was writing.”
When were you approached by 7HZ/Microsoft/343 Industries about this dream come true project and what was your initial reaction – I understand your management had secret meetings behind your back?
“My management, James and Barry, bumped into an Xbox music supervisor in LA, Kyle Hopkins, that was in the spring of 2010. Kyle was a fan of the work I’d done with Massive and seemed interested that I’d branched out from albums to film score etc. Unknown to James and Barry, 343 had asked Kyle if he could suggest some composers for the Halo project. 343 already had a long list (apparently up to 50 composers) but weren’t convinced they had their man, they were looking for someone who could bring something unique and iconic to the game. Game score came of age when Halo – combat evolved, the first Halo was released. Marty O’Donnell, the composer had created a powerful, iconic, cinematic sound for the Sci Fi blockbuster game. So the bar had been set high, they knew all eyes would be on the new composer for Halo. Kyle had put my name forward and Sotaro Tojima (Tajeen), the audio director and the rest of 343 began discussions with James. At this point James asked me if I’d be interested in scoring a video game, I said maybe… and then forgot about it. It wasn’t until 343 requested we fly to Seattle to meet that I was told the game was Halo… No-one knew that I’d played every game, many times over. So, you could say I was a little excited when I found out!”
You had a love of painting as a child, so the whole visual medium of this project must have been perfect for you?
“…Dan you have done your research…what am I wearing? I’ve always been visually inspired, I studied to be a graphic designer, I ‘see’ music, ‘see’ feelings and emotions. Yeah, it really helped me compose this score, I’ve sat for hours staring at the incredible visuals the artists from 343 sent over whilst writing. For the most part that was the only way I could get inside the game and inside the heads of the people creating this huge and constantly evolving story and of course, inside the head of John 117, Masterchief.”
This is slightly different (!!) to tuning into the radio channels on ‘Grand Theft Audio’, had the music from the previous Halo games attracted you at all – games music is usually fast energy nonsense…
“Ha, I love all the talk radio stuff on GTA… Initially, before I knew it was Halo I had reservations about scoring a game for that reason. Marty’s scores were emotional, romantic and quite dark at times, from the first time I put a Halo disk in the Xbox and heard those monks droning away on the load up I was intrigued, I knew this wasn’t just any shoot ’em up. Since then, more and more, game manufacturers are looking to the music to connect with the player in ever more unique ways.”
This must have been an incredible project to work on; an orchestra, a choir, a big team around you, recording at the world famous Abbey Road Studios. Tell us about the team you have worked with on ‘Halo 4’…
“First off, there’s Andrew (Drew) Morgan, he’s been my right hand man from the beginning of this project and I couldn’t have done it without him. Andrew is classically trained yet has a love for all things electronic and fucked up (musically)! There are few people I’ve had the pleasure to work with that can authentically bridge the gap between Orchestral and electronic. He and I arranged, programmed, recorded, orchestrated and delivered over 4 hours of music for the game, working 7 days a week, minimum of 14 hours a day. Next up was Matt Dunkley. Matt has orchestrated and conducted for many films, I couldn’t possibly list them all here! Matt is the nicest and most patient man within 100 miles of London. He helped with the orchestrations and arrangements, putting the finishing touches to the orchestral score, helping translate my ideas to the players and getting the very best performances. As soon as I’d heard about the project I wanted Matt on board. On a couple of tracks I brought in Jeremy Holland Smith, an accomplished composer and arranger in his own right to help flesh out some of the pieces, Jeremy has great feel as a piano player and helped bring life to these pieces. For the orchestra we used the ‘Chamber Orchestra Of London’… Cool for short..! Amazing players, lovely people all. London has the best orchestral players in the world. Nuff said! For the choir, we initially used the talents of Miss Claire Tchaikowski. Claire Sang lead on a number of pieces whilst building up layers of voices behind to simulate a choir for the demos. The idea was to eventually replace her ‘choir’ impersonation but we actually kept a lot of what she did and instead layered ‘The London Bulgarian Choir’ for size along with ‘RSVP voices’ male voice choir behind her. The combination is quite haunting and otherworldly in places. I employed a number of engineers for the project: Marco Migliari (who’s worked for Peter Gabriel for many years) was on call night and day throughout, doing rough mixes, stems, organising files and tech support. Geoff Foster (awesome dude) was at the helm for all the orchestral and choir sessions, Geoff is the number one film score recording engineer in the UK bar none, nothing was ever a challenge, no matter what I threw at him! For mixing I brought in Andy Bradfield who I’d worked with many years before on Mezzanine (Massive Attack), Andy had a heck of a job pulling together the now enormous sessions (over 150 tracks of audio on average) we sent him yet he did it seemingly without breaking a sweat! In addition to Andy, Jeremy Wheatley mixed a number of pieces as did Niall John Acott.”
How challenging was it for you making the score when the game wasn’t even finished?
“I’ve since discovered it’s the norm for a composer to be working in the dark for much of the time when scoring a game. For the most part all I had to go on were the stills and a sometimes very brief description of the scene / mission / theme / character. Even the plot was in constant flux. We delivered over 4 hrs of music but composed / sketched closer to 7 hrs of material! I’ve scored a number of movies and I had it in my mind that the music should work very much in the same way the music in a film would work, yet, without the actual picture to guide us I had to resort to my own imagination for context, emotion, drama, texture, energy. The upside of this way of working is that I could deliver music to 343 who would then pass in on to the artists who would use the music to further inspire the build of the game. The more I let go of my preconceptions about scoring the easier it became. By the end of the project pretty much everything we delivered was accepted.”
Was there a lot of experimentation on your part with the music you provided 343 with – or were you kept on a tight leash?
“343 and especially Tajeen were very keen for us to experiment within reason. Most of the more ‘experimental’ works are to be found in game, weird processing, detuned orchestras, distorted electronic ambiences and percussion… for the OST however we wanted to lead with the more thematic melodic pieces, although there are moments…I can play around with sound till the cows come home, the possibilities are endless so it’s very useful to have deadlines!”
I went along to your interactive display exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum a couple of years ago – was the ‘Halo’ gig in any way comparable?
“Cool, I hope you enjoyed it?  There were several similarities, just simply the discipline of having to juggle what’s technically possible and musically engaging. Of course, for a game the energy and flow of a mission is very much dictated by the player, like the ‘Volume’ exhibition where we had people tracked by infrared cameras, programming the music to change and react to their movements. I enjoy having to think out of the box like that, problem solving is part of the fun, restrictions often lead to innovation. If I get asked back to do Halo 5 I’d like to get a better understanding of the technology 343 use and see if I can’t find new ways of matching the music to the player.”
You once worked with David Bowie – what project was most daunting / exciting, Bowie or Halo?
“I always wanted to work with Bowie, The albums ‘Heroes’ and ‘Low’ made a big impression on me as a teenager. Sadly we didn’t actually get to meet, he was in NYC and we were in Bristol, I did propose we fly over for the ‘Moulin Rouge’ track we did together but schedules as ever were tight.  I’m not sure who I’d be more star struck with though…MC or David Bowie..I guess Masterchief at 7′ would have the edge. Yep, I’d have to say Halo was the more daunting project overall, the sheer scope and amount of music needed just for starters.”
When I get writers block I usually head off into the woods with the dogs to clear my head, I get the impression that if the same happened to you, you’d switch on a computer game…?
“Yeah, in fact I just took a Halo break from this interview!  Whilst working on the Massive Attack album ‘100th window’, Alex Swift, assistant programmer and I whiled away the hours waiting for Dee and the guys to turn up to the studio…in fact, I love shooting those little aliens that bark and look like dogs on their hind legs…For my girlfriend, I also like to go walking and ‘regularly’ do so to unwind and exercise…!”
Well, what has got the dance music fraternity excited about your work once again is that on November 6th a release of a limited edition box set containing the original OST, a 14 track remix album, a 48 page book containing exclusive art and production notes plus  a one hour DVD on the making of Halo 4 music. Some of the biggest electronic producers in the world have delivered stunning reworks including Sander Van Doorn, Gui Boratto and Caspa. Tell us about this. Who’s idea was the remix package and who chose the artists?
“I’m very excited about the special edition box set, can’t wait to get hold of a copy myself.  The remix album idea was spawned very early on, in fact my manager James, Kyle (who’s also a DJ) and I spoke about it on our first visit to Seattle. Who came up with the idea first I’m not sure? I think it crossed all our minds simultaneously, a group epiphany. James, Kyle, 343 and myself all put forward ideas of who to approach for remixes, there were quite a few names on the list and I think we pretty much got everyone we approached. James did an incredible job pulling it all together.”

Caspa remix:
Bobby Tank remix: 

How did you feel about your epic and exhilarating originals being tampered with?!?!
“I love it! It’s a huge compliment to have someone remix your work and a privilege to be doing work that warrants having remixes. I’ve done many in the past myself, it’s great to see how far someone can deconstruct to reconstruct your work, making it their own. I’m looking forward to helping judge the remix contest too, see what fans of the game do with these tracks.”
There are some incredible pieces of work here for sure. Gui taking your dramatic opener ‘Awakening’ into lush deep house territory, DJ Skee and THX shaping ‘Revival’ into a masterful, left field bass sound collage. What reworks really stand out for you?
“I was especially keen on getting someone who wouldn’t normally remix have a go and suggested Apocalyptica, they didn’t let me down! In fact, I’d like to see if we could collaborate on something in the future with some of these artists, I’m not sure how that would work out contractually… hmmm, food for thought. The DJ Skee mix is great, I never would have thought of doing that… Koan’s ‘Green and Blue’ is sweet (my daughter’s favourite), the ‘Hundred Waters’ song based on ‘Haven’ is great too. There’s not a duff track on it.”
What are your thoughts on dance music today – or EDM as many people are calling it now, as America goes pop dance crazy and 15 year old boys in their bedrooms across Europe make No. 1 hits?
“I hate that term…EDM….sounds like a record company term. I’ve been outside of the whole ‘electronic dance music’ thing for a long time, not that I ever really felt I was in it to be honest. I love that even more people have the tools to make music, whether electronic, acoustic… whatever. I’ve never been interested in following trends, I hope that innovation will always shine through and people will find new ways to create music that connects emotionally as well as physically.”
Whenever there are polls in magazines, radio and TV shows concerning what is the best dance album of all time, Massive Attack’s ‘Blue Lines’ always comes out Number 1. Would you agree, if so why and if not, what is?
“That strikes me as rather ironic, I’ve not actually seen anyone dance to a track from Blue Lines, maybe I should get out more? Maybe someone should write a Ballet to it? As someone with two left feet I doubt I don’t think my vote would count for much so I’ll abstain.”
You co-produced, co-wrote and played instruments on  ‘Heligoland’ for the band, their fifth studio album and the third you worked on. There were rumours that the band are working on a new album with Damon Albarn perhaps involved. Are you working on this with the band too?
“Dee and Damon are good friends, it would make sense for them to see if they can further collaborate. I’ve a lot of respect for Damon, we got to know each other quite well during the 100th Window late night sessions at Olympic (RIP!) studios in London.  Right now I’m staying out of the way, Dee and I have spent the last 20 years making music together and I wouldn’t want to spoil that by getting stale. We stay in contact and there’s much love there. In the future when we’ve been around the world on our own a few times, I’m sure we’ll have some stories to tell each other.”
So you shut the studio door, grab a glass of wine and chill out for the evening, Whose albums would be playing in the background in 2012?
“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen! The last thing I do when I get home of an evening is listen to music. I listen mostly when driving to work, put the iPod on shuffle and see what mad clashes it can come up with. Let’s see what I have on here at the moment… The album Dalek and Faust did together, Cliff Martinez’s Solaris score, some russian choral music, Low Roar, Radiohead, Mark Hollis’s solo album, Elliot Smith, Bonnie Prince Billy. Someone just gave me a collection of all the early Smith and Mighty stuff… that takes me back… umm, some Yann Tiersen, some Arvo Part, a russian composer called Andrey Dergatchev, Can… oh, and some Halo 4 remixes!”
And finally, now be honest with us now Neil, who is the champion of the Davidge household when it comes to ‘Halo’ – you or your daughter?
“I knew you were gonna ask me that… she is. In my defence she slays all her boy mates on Xbox live too. I’ve created a monster…”

The Halo 4 soundtrack is out October 22nd and the remixes (including CASPA, Gui Boratto, Sander Van Doorn, KOAN Sound & Bobby Tank) are out November 6th as part of the box set. For more informaton visit: