Composer and producer John Lee started his musical wanderings as a Geelong teen, picking up a guitar in his bedroom when he was fifteen. But he soon got bored. 'After a while, I realised I was just playing the same things over and over again –– my fingers were doing the same shapes,' he told The Age.
So, in the mid 1990s, Lee started holing up in his bedroom, experimenting with second-hand keyboards and turntables and records. The sounds Lee started making would eventually come to find release under the Mountains in the Sky moniker, Lee's ever-evolving psychexotic-beatronica project.
A man of wildly eclectic musical tastes –– Lee cites both the early instrumental hiphop of DJ Krush and astral-jazz legend Sun Ra among his influences –– Lee's distinctive MITS soundscapes meld nimble live drums with old school synths and layers of warm fuzz, creating sequenced music that retains the warmth of flesh and blood.
In 2006, Lee's tight, epic 'Noah's Archestra' was featured in an ad for the 2006 NBA playoffs, bringing his music to a whole new audience.
MITS's 2008 lp, Electron Suite, released through Love and Mercy, garnered much critical acclaim for its deliciously warped, expansive mix of the danceable and the cerebral, confirming Lee as one of the country's most compelling electronic alchemists.
In 2010, Lee was called upon to compose the soundtrack to Channel Ten's popular TV series Offspring, which is now into its fourth season.
We talked with Lee a little while ago about composing the Offspring soundtrack, his hermetic writing process, and what else he's up to.
Gaga: What attracted you to the Offspring series?
John Lee: The opportunity to get inside the characters heads and immerse myself in the story. The challenge of assisting in the telling of the story. I enjoyed the playfulness of Offspring which meant that I was able to be playful with the music and therefore incorporate a broad pallet. The comedy aspect was a real challenge. That, with the drama, suspense and fantasy sequences really opened up the musical possibilities. Obviously, the great cast and production team made it a no-brainer.
Have you had much experience with composing for television? For film?
I've composed for TV commercials and an ABC documentary.
Are there any particularly inspiring/excellent television soundtracks that inspired you in creating the Offspring music, or that you particularly like?
I didn't think solely of TV soundtracks but I love all of Angelo Badalamenti's work with David Lynch including the TV series Twin Peaks. Strangely enough I did find myself thinking about his approach at times. John Brion was another influence. However, most inspiration was not from soundtracks. I wanted the score to fit in nicely with the third party music that is also a large part of the show. Melbourne's inner northern suburbs (the location of the show) and its musical history also inspired my direction.
Did the producers give you specific directives on the sound they were shooting for, or did they let you just have at it?
It was established quite early on that the producers and I were on the same page musically. Once this was established, I was largely left to my own devices. It was mostly based on an emotional understanding of the characters.
How did you enjoy the bounds of working within specific boundaries set by the tone and format of the show, as opposed to your normal process for writing for your solo albums?
I actually found the bounds were much broader than what I usually work within. For Offspring, I scored orchestral pieces, ambient, rock 'n' roll, fuzz pop, jazz, and more.
What was the recording process like?
I played all the instruments and recorded them as I went. I would watch a scene over and over, trying different things until I felt like I had the right tone and tempo. I had a week for each episode to write up to 20 pieces of music so I had to work fast. I found the best way to achieve this was to be instinctual and trust my intuition.
I tried to spend a maximum of 2 hours on each scene and then move on. In that 2 hours I might sketch 4 ideas or finish one. If I thought about it too much, I wouldn't get anything done. Often I would have 2 finished ideas for a scene. I find it faster to go for it and just play the instruments, than to spend time deciding which piece is going to work best.
I read in an interview you did with Cornel for Cyclic Defrost in which you talked about how much, after many years of working solo, you've enjoyed collaborating with others in making your music. Has creating the Offspring soundtrack been a collaborative process?
Not at all. I was very much locked away in my studio with the storyline. I would sometimes run the score by the directors and get feedback or talk to the producers if I had a question about a particular scene. I'd usually run my sketches by either Jess Moore (music supervisor) or my partner Emily Kane to get feedback and see how it felt with others hearing it (an invaluable tool for me always). But musically there was no collaborating.
In the same interview, you talked a couple of times about creating pop that isn't vapid, and said, 'A great deal of pop music just makes me want to vomit and doesn't allow me to think of anything except how much I hate it.' With a show that, for the most part, veers to the lighter, quirkier side of things, how did you approach making music that worked for the show, but also satisfied you?
Yikes! I must have seen Video Hits that weekend with a hangover. Popular music (ie. the stuff that sells the most records) NOT ALWAYS, but often disappoints, frustrates and sometimes angers me. I'm passionate about music. I love aspects of most all genres of music, (except black and white minstrel music). For me, writing music for a 'lighter, quirkier...' story doesn't suggest that the music need be insipid. Even when a vapid piece of music is required for a score, it's there for the purpose of supporting the narrative.
How has the response to the music been?
The response has been really great. There was one negative comment from an unbeknownst Mountains in the Sky fan about a deliberately vapid pop tune I wrote for a particular scene. I was quite happy about that.
Listen to some of Lee's Offspring work in the Soundcloud player above.