John Altman is one of the most experienced, respected and versatile people working in the music business. A world class composer, conductor, orchestrator and arranger, he has worked with a stunning array of artists and filmmakers over a career spanning more than five decades. I talked with John about his early beginnings, his appraoch to performing and writing, and working with the likes of Amy Winehouse, Rod Stewart, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Eric Serra, Bernardo Bertolucci and others.
Where did you get your love of music from?
Where did you get your love of music from?
I was basically born into a showbiz family. My mother loved music, and her four brothers were all band leaders. One of her brothers was Sid Phillips, who wrote all the arrangements for The Ambrose Band and later became the top jazz clarinetist in England. Her younger brother was Woolf Phillips, who when I was born was the conductor at the London Palladium. He was also the musical director for Sinatra, Judy Garland, Danny Kaye, The Marx Brothers, Nat King Cole, Hoagy Carmichael, and you name it really.
Did your family encourage you to follow in their footsteps?
As young as I can remember, I was always musical. We had a gramophone full of 78s, and I don't remember my parents ever putting records on, but I found it and I was transfixed by it. There was Duke Ellington in the '30s, Count Basie, Jack Teagarden, Louis Armstrong. That was my listening from about the age of 3 upwards.
You were pretty sophisticated for someone so young!
When I was around 7, they asked us to bring in our favourite records to school. So kids brought Tubby the Tuba, 'I Never Felt Like Singing the Blues' and stuff like that, and I brought in Count Basie's 'Texas Shuffle'! You can imagine the look on the faces of a bunch of 1950s seven year olds when they heard that!
You were still at University when you did session work with the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Nico. How did that come about?
Did you ever get starstruck working with famous musicians?
Not particularly. It was great working with them. I am more starstruck now looking back on it, but at the time it was just what you did. It was part of the scene. The people I came up with were just part of the scene and what we were doing. There was no notion that Hendrix was going to be dead within three years. He was just the guy who was around that you bumped into and played with. When Peter Green and I started doing gigs together and recording together, I had no idea that it would only be a few months before he quit the business and packed it all in. Some say he went crazy but I don't really know. He seemed perfectly sane by any standards I know of, and I know of a lot more people who are a lot crazier than him! I guess I do get starstruck sometimes but you realise that you're there because they want you there and they want something from you.
The people I got starstruck with were the people I was starstruck with as a kid, people like my jazz heroes, or Sinatra or Nat King Cole. I do occasionally look back and I think 'Wow! It was incredible to play with or write for all these people, and get to hang out with them.' And you have to pinch yoursef when you're up there playing with someone like Prince. I look back at someone like Amy Winehouse and I think 'I spent so much time talking with her and playing with her.' She became this legendary and iconic figure within a couple of years and that's strange because we were never anything more than colleagues.
Have you ever suffered from nerves onstage?
I've never had stage fright. I have always been someone who can just walk on the stage and perform. I have always found it hard to figure out why certain artists I've played with were so nervous when they went onstage. I love that feeling of being onstage and communicating and creating in the moment as it were.
Do you think collaborating is something you excel at?
I've always had very open ears. I've never limited myself. It was a conscious thing, partly because I enjoy all different types of music. I like listening to folk singers or Dixieland jazz, or modern jazz or classical music. There are very few types of music I don't enjoy listening to. So when I got involved with writing and playing in various different styles, I always tried to remain authentic and true to that particular genre, and unless there was a way to do it that made musical sense, I have never tried to force any sensibilities onto what I was doing. If I was writing for a country singer I wouldn't change all the chords and start putting in jazz substitutions and things like that. I was lucky that my listening habits made me very eclectic so that when I worked with funk artists or soul singers or MOR ballad singers or 1940s retro singers, I was thoroughly versed in the authenticity of the styles. A lot of my contemporaries didn't do that. They'd say 'Well, I only like funk music, or I'm a jazz musician, or I'm a rock 'n roller', or stuff like that. You come across such people today. They've got such closed minds and closed ears, and usually they're very ignorant of the music they're putting down. They'll put it down without really knowing the nuts and bolts of how it works.
Would you describe yourself as restless in nature?
I enjoy the variety certainly. I wouldn't like to say 'Oh, I'll just specialise in this.' If I'm doing a lot of mainstream jazz gigs as a sax player, somewhere along the way I'll love to throw in a funk gig just to keep my brain sharp in different areas so that I'm not just standing there churning out recycled licks from 1940s bebop on everything. I do try deliberately to keep at it and keep going.
Do you love challenges?
I've always enjoyed working in different areas, right back from when I started doing commercials. I would never say 'No, I don't do that.' So I found myself doing things like brass band arrangements or country and western charts. Not particularly because I was an expert at it, just because I thought it would be interesting to do. You learn what are the right things to do. You learn all the language. You learn about repianos and cornets and baritone horns and things like that. And then when you listen back to what you've done you think 'I enjoyed doing that. And it's added to my knowledge bank.'
It's been said you were a mentor to figures like Amy Winehouse. Have you had any mentors in your career?
I've had quite a few of them. The obvious ones would be people like Don Black. From when I first met him when I was 23, he has always pushed me forward to do things. I don't know what he saw. He must have seen something in me. He'd call me up and say 'I've recommended you to Jule Styne or Elmer Bernstein.' I hadn't come through Berklee or The Royal Academy or anything like that. I played saxophone. I found out I could write arrangements but I didn't have lessons in orchestrating or anything like that. And here I am being put forward by someone whose career and reputation depends on not sending a complete wuss to Elmer Bernstein! I had to live up to it. If Don recommended me to Jule Styne, I had to make sure that after the first meeting Jule would throw his arms around me and say 'We're gonna get on really well. I'm gonna enjoy working with you.' Which is exactly what he did. So Don must have seen something in me that made that happen. Then I got lots of encouragement from Elmer and people like Cy Coleman. I had dinner with Cy when I was very young, and he gave me a lot of fantastic advice. It was like water off a duck's back to him and he didn't remember anything about it. I met him in later years and I told him 'Your advice to me really rang a bell and kicked me off', and also that I had won an Emmy and a BAFTA. He said 'Well maybe I should come to you for advice!'
I was very lucky along the way because all the people I got to work with in the early days advanced my knowledge somehow, either by letting me do what I do and liking it, or by them doing what they do and me observing it and finding it interesting. To get schooled by people like Elmer Bernstein and Ryuichi Sakamoto was marvellous for me when I started writing movie scores. I could see how they approached what they did from the inside, because I was helping them create what they were after.
I'm not sure about me being a mentor. It was just that I was that experienced in the business and had been around that long that she felt she could ask me certain things about technique and what she did. I guess it is a sort of mentoring, but in a very gentle way. I give advice but I tend not to just steam in and just tell people what to do.
Even after the decades you've been working in music do you still feel that you're learning from people?
Oh totally. I saw this group this morning called Lake Street Dive and they absoloutely knocked me out. I always want to hear new things. I know what I like to listen to but I am always willing to listen to anyone or anything that has a buzz about it. I wouldn't say they influence me necessarily bit they definitely open my ears. I'm still excited by music, and by the fact that it's ageless. I could meet a 17 or 18 year old who knocks me out with something they do, like Jacob Collier, who's all over the Internet now. That's what happened with Amy Winehouse.
You have worked closely with a lot of musicians over the years. Has working in such close proximity made you appreciate their particular talents more?
Oh, definitely. One thing that I have always done that is not talked about a lot by other arrangers and writers that I come across is that yes, you write the way you write, but you write for the particular artist and the particular song that they're performing. I wouldn't write the same arrangement for Rod Stewart that I would write for Bjork or Barry White or Diana Ross. I like to think there's a 'me' somewhere in it, but also that it's helping what they do. I hope it's not sounding like what everybody does for that person. I'm very aware that there are some arrangers who write themselves into everything that they do, so that what they write for X, is exactly what they'll write for Y. On one hand this is why they get hired because people want them to do for them what they did for that other person. But equally, it's a bit like riding roughshod over everybody else. It's like me going in with my horn and playing the exact same way with Prince that I would with a Dixieland band or a Country and Western artist. It would just be horrible and wouldn't fit at all.
When you get to write for someone like Diana Ross, you're very aware of who she is and what she sounds like. It doesn't mean that you're scared of writing or anything like that, it just means that you're taking into account the whole history that you know in your head. When I came on board to write 'Downtown Train' for Rod Stewart, his career was in a lull and he was doing quasi-disco material that didn't fit who he was. He wasn't singing well either as his voice was out of condition. The track was done with an eye to reinventing how people saw Rod. When I came in, I was of course aware of who he was and what he had done, but I was also aware that this had to sound different from anything that he had done before, and yet fit who he was and how he sang. Without a doubt, all of this was in my mind when I was writing.
|'Monty Python's Life of Brian' (1979).|
That's difficult to say. When I look back, I'm glad I did everything I did. 'Bright Side of Life' is incredible. Who could have known it would have the life it's had. Doing the tank chase in GOLDENEYE (1995), and the way it stood out and came about. When I was at the '50 Years of James Bond Music' event in Hollywood, they said we are going to introduce you from the audience and then show the clip from the movie. When I stood up, the whole place went crazy. I realised that the scene has become something iconic. To be involved with TITANIC (1997) was fantastic. I can't say, if I'm being honest, that there has been a bad experience amongst any of the records that I have done or the people I have played with. Obviously there are movies I worked on where I didn't gel with the director or the films ended up being forgettable, but I don't think there has ever been a case where I thought I did a bad job or that I didn't give it 100%. I'm just lucky that many of the things that I have done have gone into the public arena. I still get people every day talking about TITANIC or GOLDENEYE or LIFE OF BRIAN (1979). I'm delighted to have been a part of those projects.
You must constantly be hearing and seeing stuff you've done in the media.
Yes, and it always brings all the memories flooding back. If you live long enough, there is always some kind of anniversary happening! It's actually fifty years since I started gigging, and my diaries go back that far, so I can check a date and see where I was playing and with who. When I do sit down and write my blasted autobiography, I'll have all the details right in front of me.
I read that there was a line in LIFE OF BRIAN that you thought could be funnier, and the Pythons used your idea. What was the line?
It was Michael Palin's line ''Spare a coin for an ex-leper.'' Originally it went like ''Spare a coin for a leper'', and the reply was ''You're not a leper!'', to which Michael said ''Yeah, I've been cured.'' I was thinking of the ex-parrot in the Dead Parrot Sketch, and I said to them ''Well surely he's an ex-leper?'' They said ''That's very good! We'll use that!'' They did a 70mm print of the film and I sat with Michael at the premiere. At the end of it, he turned to me and said ''Our little film has held up well.'' I bumped into him the other day actually. We did the 70th birthday tribute to him, and I did a little double-act with Sanjeev Baskhar (and we did it for Terry Jones too). Michael said to me ''You should have been a comedian. You always make me laugh.'' I was very pleased that they thought I was a part of LIFE OF BRIAN.
Did you ever consider a career in comedy?
I always wanted to be in comedy, and it's always great to do a film that's comedy-based, like LIFE OF BRIAN or THE RUTLES (1978), where you can use your sense of humour. It's not always easy to score a comedy, like FUNNY BONES (1995) or HEAR MY SONG (1991), but it's always fun to be funny with music. FUNNY BONES was interesting because it was a dark comedy, so the score had to jump from being dark to being funny.
It was fantastic. And first of all, working with Ryuichi Sakamoto, was a joy, because he's a genius. To be honest, he could have done it all himself. When you come in and work as an orchestrator for another composer, you're often very prepared just to have someone whistling a melody or humming a tune, and you do the rest. He wrote everything precisely and he could score it out. He knew exactly what he wanted. I just felt more of like a musical secretary. I remember one session on THE SHELTERING SKY where we had the Royal Philharmonic, and we were on a twenty minute break. I was in the control room getting some tea and Bertolucci started chatting to me while he was writing something. He said ''I was just on the Jury at Cannes and they gave the Prize to WILD AT HEART (1990), the David Lynch movie. I didn't agree. I thought it was far too explicitly violent. I don't like films where there is so much overt violence.'' I said to him ''Yeah, I much prefer something like that moment in Fritz Lang's 'M' (1931) where Peter Lorre is looming over the child. It's far more scary than showing anything happen.'' And he lit up and replied ''And what about the scene in FURY (1936) where Spencer Tracy is hiding from the Mob?'' We got into this really deep film-buff conversation about Fritz Lang. At that moment his art director or publicity guy came in and said ''Bernardo, we need you to look at the artwork for the poster''. Bertolucci said ''Can't you see we're having a conversation? Don't bother me with stuff like that!'' I could see the orchestra sitting there, ready to start, and I couldn't get away. He was just getting so passionate talking about film. I finally had to say ''Bernardo, I really must go. I've got work to do.'' It was delightful working with Bertolucci. When Ryuichi worked on THE LAST EMPEROR (1987), there was a lot of strain, and THE SHELTERING SKY was a lot easier. It was like he was far more relaxed.
How was the experience of working on LEON (1994)?
Eric Serra was very similar to Ryuichi, although his working methods were very different. I would get synth sketches which I would then orchestrate for the full orchestra and conduct in the studio. I spent a lot of time with Eric and Luc Besson just geting the ambience right. Luc left Eric very much alone to do what he does. It's a great score and a great film. The only story I ever tell really is that I went to the premiere in Hollywood, but I had to fly in the same day. I met Luc at the Chateau Marmont and got my tickets. I went to the cinema, sat down, the opening titles started ... and I fell asleep. I woke up during the end credits. As you know, it's got to be the loudest film there's ever been! I slept through the whole thing and I was so embarassed. Luckily, both seats next to me were empty because I imagine I would have been snoring and lying on someone's shoulder. I sort of got away with it. I went to the after-party and regalvanised. I hung out with Natalie Portman and we had a laugh.
On GOLDENEYE you came in to rescore a scene that Serra had written. Was that very awkward?
Maybe it was a learning curve for the producers? SKYFALL (2012) was in some respects not a traditional score but they still had that Bondian moment when we see the Aston Martin.
Yes, they had to, I think. I believe the same problems arose with Thomas Newman. They are really most comfortable with the template that John Barry created. And why shouldn't they be? That, to everybody, is iconic. Monty Norman's theme, for example, is absolutely iconic. That sort of action music has now become very formulaic and identical. Using an orchestra for this kind of music makes such a huge difference, but Barry's kind of music has now become unacceptable for some reason. It's a symbol of the MTV generation as well. Allowing film music to breathe in a scene has become a thing of the past. Now it's just aural wallpaper to get you from one scene to the next. There's no notion of a proper score. I am really conscious of it when I'm doing something like judging BAFTAs. I sometimes find it hard to find four or five films that merit even being nominated.
Movies now have become too obsessed with selling soundtrack albums, and are full of songs instead of having a proper score. A lot of films are instantly dated by the choice of pop songs.
I worked on the remake of SHALL WE DANCE (2004) and they were worried that the use of 'Moon River' was going to date the film. Then of course they hired Ja Rule to do a scene in the film and to be honest, the only thing that dates that film is seeing Ja Rule doing a rap! It's ironic because 'Moon River' is timeless! It's that short term perception that the execs have.
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
I spoke to John by telephone on 30th June 2013, and by email during April 2015. I would like to thank him for his time.
Thanks to Ricky Barnett at IIWYK.