Interview: I Speak Machine – Tara Busch talks soundtracks

I Speak Machine are an electronic duo described as a ‘vocalist and synth nerd’ (Tara Busch, above) with filmmaker Maf Lewis. They are preoccupied with soundtracks, and specifically the working practices of Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone, who would write scores while the film itself was still under construction. The music of I Speak Machine, however, is centred on the golden age of analogue synths, and for new score Zombies 1985 they have restricted themselves only to instruments from that year, conceiving a zombie movie for them to soundtrack.

The apocalyptic music comes highly recommended, produced with fellow synth geek Benge but also receiving the enthusiastic advocacy of John Foxx and Black Swan / Moon composer Clint Mansell. Mansell’s blessing is perhaps an indication that on occasion Busch moves towards classical territory, a link Arcana wanted to explore in interview. With such a strong body of recommendation, as Tara talks generously we begin by asking her…

How did I Speak Machine begin?

Maf & I had been working together for several years before with our band Dynamo Dresden, and after that, collaborating on my solo work (my debut Pilfershire Lane on Tummy Touch). He did all the visuals; the videos, artwork, photography and creative direction for that album. We decided after that to pursue something that felt a bit ‘next level’ for us personally – we didnt want to repeat ourselves and do another album in the ‘traditional’ sense.

At that time I also wanted to explore the avenue of film scoring, but I wanted to do films that were more music driven and leftfield, and also keep the live component as a crucial part of what we would do as well. Meanwhile Maf had several film ideas in the works, that he was either writing or conceiving, and I began to write with these ideas in mind. So – it all meshed together pretty organically – we decided to pursue making our own films and screening them with me playing the score live. Then, in 2014, Lex Records stepped in and released our sountracks – the Silence and Zombies 1985.

How did you form the idea of composing a soundtrack for a Zombie movie set in 1985, and was it stimulating working within the restrictions that created?

Making it a period film actually happened by accident, really. We were looking for a place to film Zombies, and at that time we went to visit Benge in his new house in Cornwall. It was literally an 70s/80s time capsule, as he had just bought it – I dont think it had been touched in 30 years! We pretty much decided immediately to film it at Benge’s and shift it into a 1980s piece. We then invited Benge to collaborate on the score – he’s an absolute master of 1980s-style electronic music production as well. So again, it just fell into place.

I love working within a framework, or ‘limitations’. I am someone that can get lost in a sea of possibilities and have a hard time making final creative decisions if I have no sort of framework or focus; so having a protocol like this was fun and actually made me feel more creative, but never ‘comfortable’. I love it when you can find that sweet spot of feeling juicy and creative, but not safe or comfortable. Limitations help with that a lot, not to mention it saving me a lot of time and mental anguish, so to speak.

What did you take from working with Maf Lewis and Benge?

Well, part of I Speak Machine’s ‘manifesto’, so to speak, is that we work side by side on the music and the film – so that each component is given equal importance. So, to work with Maf is pretty intense as we’re very much entrenched in each other’s worlds to make sure we’re totally in sync with what the other is doing. There’s lots of encouragement from him, but also no bullshit – if something isn’t working for the other, we don’t use it. That’s not to say we micro-manage each other, but we like to have the film and music components to where they truly inform and feed off of each other. We have to know when the film needs to back off and give the music more of a voice and vice versa – a lot of this is due to the live element as well – it has to go down well as a live show. We’ve been working together for so long that I think we know what the other needs to push themselves and never compromise. I think he’s taught me to really be true to the work I’m doing, and try to do the best work we can, always. And he keeps me focused – I’m a bit like a child in kindergarten class that needs rules, schedules and guidelines at all times, or else it becomes the wild west. Sad but true!

I loved working with Benge, I always do. We met in 2011 when he & I were working on a track in his studio with John Foxx. Since then, we’ve done quite a few projects together. He’s a great producer and musician, and an amazing synthesist – he’s very capible of making quick decisions as he is very very knowledgeable, such as narrowing down which machines to use and not overthinking anything. He cuts right to the chase and I love that, as I can be quite the opposite – experimental to a fault if I lose focus. Its also refreshing to work with a guy that isnt patronizing and just treats you like an artist & an equal in the studio.…I certainly had enough of the opposite for one lifetime.

Are there any zombie movies and / or associated soundtracks that you particularly enjoy?

To be honest, I’m not massively into or knowledgeable about zombie films, though Dawn of the Dead & Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set (though actually not a film) are two that really are fantastic. I find I prefer ‘infected’ films; 28 Days Later or The Girl With All the Gifts. That said, making a zombie film was great fun – there’s always a huge metaphorical / social commentary element with those films, ours included, and it’s interesting & actually pretty disturbing to watch them amidst the current backdrop in the USA.

If we’re just talking horror / thriller / sci-fi soundtracks, there’s tons that I adore that are hugely influential…the biggest ones to me are probably Susperia, Andromeda Strain, Berberian Sound Studio, Rosemary’s Baby, Klute, Ex Machina, The Girl With All the Gifts, Halloween…all brilliant and mind bending.

Casting the net wider, what soundtrack scores would you say you respect – from the last few years and then from the period in which the movie is set?

Well, my taste is always a bit more on the darker side – I like scores that are brave and unique and have a strong ‘voice’ in the film. I always found just about everything Ennio Morricone does to be brave and moving to the point of tears. All of the ones mentioned in the last question mean the world to me as far as influence and ‘respect’, they’re all astonishing. Most recently the score to Good Time by Oneohtrix Point Never was very cool, and it was refreshing to see the music take such an upfront space in the film…I’ve been obsessed with Cristobal Tapia De Veer for the past few years, ever since seeing the TV series Utopia that he did – just incredible. Clint Mansell’s score to Black Mirror’s San Junipero also is beautiful and heartbreaking…great storytelling through music.

From the 1980s – John Carpenter’s Halloween is probably my favorite, but I also loved Halloween III – best opening titles ever. Again my taste isnt terribly obscure, but I loved: Bladerunner, The Thing, Alien, To Live & Die in LA, Cat People, The Dark Crystal, Terminator, The Last Unicorn (yep, seriously), Purple Rain, Tron, Manhunter, Thief & Videodrome… and Benge got me into Harold Faltermeyer, too. And Stu PhillipsKnight Rider theme is just as perfect now as when I watched the show as a kid (I know – not a film, but still deserves mention!)….I’m sure a bunch will come to me when I’m falling asleep tonight!

You’ve had a lot of love for this project from John Foxx and Clint Mansell among others – are they also artists that you mutually respect?

Absolutely. I learned a lot working with John – speaking of limitations, he is also one that knows how to employ a very efficient process in the studio while gving everyone space to express themselves & have fun. He is proper artist through & through, unpretentious and kind, yet totally confident..& I would die to be able to write lyrics like Just for a Moment or My Sex.

Clint is musically so unique, and in a league of his own (sorry for the cliche) – it was his score to Pi that first switched the bulb on in my head as to how powerful & important music can be when given proper space in a film. And Moon stands as one of those untouchable favorites – perfection, really. I think he has a gift of being able to convey huge amounts of emotion & storytelling without having to resort to wildly complex arrangements – that type of simplicity is incredibly difficult to pull off. His High Rise score was awesome too – surreal, bleak & bone chilling, reminded me a bit of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Do you ever cast your mind towards classical music when you are writing music for film?

Yes – I love to envision how my work would be if ‘translated’ by an orchestra, especially with vocal arrangements & strings in the style of Henry Mancini (one can dream!). But currently the music takes form using machines and vocals. I’d love to merge the two!

Has classical music played a part in your life, and if so what pieces are you particularly drawn to? (if this is the case, it would be great if you’re able to expand on it a bit!)

I did study classical music up until I graduated from high school (playing woodwinds and also in choir) but it has been many years since I have picked up a piece of sheet music! I was part of a competitive chamber choir in high school, and we did quite a few dark, dismal pieces that I loved. Sadly the only one I can remember was a suite called Prayers from the Arc, and I had a self-indulgent solo ( I was a cocky first soprano) that I loved to sing. I think classical music had a big impact on me growing up – once I realized that I could sing and had an aptitude for music, I loved to mimic opera singers… for a short time, I was able to pull off Queen of the Night, which must have been really annoying for my family…doubt I still have that high ‘E’ though.

Some of your music for synthesizer has the feeling that you are composing for an orchestra. Is that an important part of your writing for keyboards?

While writing, I’m not conciously composing for that purpose, but speaking just stylistically, what I write could easily be reimagned for an orchestra. I would also love to classically recreate the more stark, electronic pieces I’ve done just to hear the contrast…that said, I have written lots of vocal and string arrangements in recent years that I have either wound up recording on synth or mellotron, or pieces intended for strings that wind up becoming a ‘Tara choir’…

I remember reviewing – and really enjoying – your ‘Pilfershire Lane’ album, where I sensed Kate Bush and early Peter Gabriel might be two of your musical loves. Has that been the case?

Thanks for the kind words – that was a beast of an album! It was a difficult record to make as it was my first venture into learning to engineer and produce on my own, and bring in other people to play my parts, and learn about synthesis – I was a newbie with everything but I loved it. That is actually one that I wanted to use a large string section on, but it never came to pass.

I get the Kate Bush comparison all the time, especially on this album… and as much as I admire her work, she isn’t an influence on my own work & I’m not a massive fan – not sure why, but I never quite fell under her spell as I did with David Bowie, for example. I was obsessed with The Beach BoysPet Sounds, Smile, Friends & 20/20 and also Dark Side fo the Moon & Hunky Dory at the time… to me, those influences are pretty obvious, but I hear it from a very different perspective than the audience does.

Peter Gabriel! Interesting, but he wasn’t an influence either. I find it really interesting how other people interpret your influences.

What two soundtracks would you recommend for Arcana readers – one with beats and one without – and why?

It depends on my mood, of course! I have two classics, already mentioned them, but I’ve been revisiting them a lot lately:

The Andromeda Strain – it’s brave, totally bizarre and abstract, yet meaty enough for you to sink your teeth in & take you away. Gil Mellé also built all of the machines he used on that soundtrack! I listen to this alot when I want to incorperate more sound design aspects into my work, or to just get into a more surreal headspace for writing.

Then I would say Legend of Hell House by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. It’s beautiful, brave & gloriously bleak…the marriage of orchestration and electronics is totally unique, and has that wonderful 1960s BBC/ Radiophonic Workshop vibe to it. It’s all fog, screams & prowling black cats. Perfect.

I Speak Machine’s album Stories From Far Away is out now on Lex Records. For more information, head to the duo’s website