Sean from Artmagic has been composing incidental music for the current series of Dark Shadows audio plays from Big Finish Productions, and next month’s play, “The Flip Side”, features a brand new song, “The Better Side”, composed and performed by Sean especially for this release!
A short interview with Sean will be appearing in BFP’s Vortex magazine in September, but here’s the full-length original chat with Dark Shadows co-producer David Darlington…
Sean: introduce yourself! How might people have come across you elsewhere or in the
It’s entirely possible they’ve come across me without ever realising! I sing, write songs, produce, program (i.e. fiddle with noises) and mix. So, along the way I’ve mixed #1 singles for Britney Spears, programmed for Imogen Heap and Robyn, had my songs used on US TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Keeping Up With The Kardashians”, sung backing vocals for Alanis Morissette and Alison Moyet and produced albums for Temposhark and Andrew Montgomery. Most recently, I made an album with Suede guitarist Richard Oakes as Artmagic, which you can hear at www.artmagicmusic.com
It’s your first involvement with Big Finish. How aware were you of what the company
is and what it produces?
I could play it cool here but I’ll be honest - I was there right at the start, buying some of the first Bernice Summerfield plays. I came late to Doctor Who, after it came off the air - it was the New Adventures books turned me into a fan. I stuck with the range right to the end, and then followed Benny to Big Finish. And once BF started doing Doctor Who, I was right in there with “The Sirens Of Time”! Dark Shadows was a mystery to me, though; I’d never even heard of the original show a year ago. But I’ve really enjoyed the plays I’ve heard since.
I was surprised at the alacrity with which you agreed to my request for a song - I
know how busy you often are! What appealed to you about the notion of writing a song
to order for a specific purpose?
I love a brief and I love a deadline. There’s plenty of fun to be when you follow your muse where it takes you, but I actually work best under pressure, so I enjoy the challenge of people asking me to do things that surprise me, or push me out of my comfort zone. And especially if they give me a nice tight deadline and, therefore, not much time to brood. I do a lot of pop writing sessions where you have to show up and get something happening really quickly, and I love doing that much more than being a garret artist, waiting for inspiration to strike and generally agonising. So, when you asked me to write a song for a supernatural tale of possession, I was intrigued. When you said it had to be a pretend 1970s radio hit, I was amused. When you sent me the script and asked for it to be done nice and quick, I said yes!
I’m deeply suspicious of nostalgia, so I’ve never deliberately tried to write a period piece before - you fear that if you try it, you’ll wake up as Beady Eye and you’ll get stuck that way. But I’d been listening to an awful lot of Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell thought it would be a laugh to pretend to be a lady of the canyon for a little while. So the resulting song, “The Better Side”, stands apart from a lot of my work, because I went for the full 1972 approach but I’m actually really fond of it - it does just what it needs to do, and hopefully fits in with Cody’s script.
You were also surprisingly not just amenable but keen on the idea of composing
themes for the incidental music - always in the knowledge that you’d be handing them
over to a charlatan like me to play around with and introduce all sorts of random
imperfections! Is this a challenge you’ve long fancied? Does it bear any resemblance
to any working process you’ve had before - in your varied but essentially ‘pop’
If I’ve learned anything in my career, it’s that everything I’ve resisted through inexperience eventually turned out to be a fun challenge when I got started, and often turned out rather well. Once you asked, I thought, “this’ll be fun”. And it was. It’s not much like anything I’ve done before, either. I took a simple approach - I sat at the piano, and I thought about each theme and tried to get ideas that had strong enough melodies that they could easily be deconstructed, but which also felt strong enough in their own right that they could be introduced with no additional orchestration. I spent two days on about 10 themes, so I did it quickly, but that approach works for me - it’s not so much knocking them out, it’s more about leaving little margin for error. It’s that pressure again.
And far from worrying about your take on the themes, it was actually brilliant, because I knew you could rework whatever I did into exactly the right style for the plays. Coming to Dark Shadows “cold”, I’m not sure I could have provided a full score that would have fitted the atmosphere, so knowing you were a “safe pair of hands” made it all much easier for me - a good collaboration. And it’s been great to listen to each play and hear how you’ve approached the raw material - I’m always surprised, in a good way. Nothing else I’ve done has really worked that way. There’s often collaborations which take place “after the fact” - mixes, remixes, that sort of thing. But there have also been a couple of occasions where I’ve had to hand things over to people who then proceeded to miss the point and did horrible things to them and you feel like singing Melanie’s “What Have They Done To My Song, Ma” from the rooftops. This wasn’t like that at all.
I’m aware you’re also working away on some incidentals and soundscapes for a
documentary piece TBA; is that a massively different process given that there you
have control of the entire process from conception to mix, and that you’re working
‘to picture’ to some extent rather than providing dramatic underscore?
The documentary score is an Artmagic project, so Richard Oakes and I are doing it together. Our division of labour is that I produce and mix, but we write and perform everything as a duo. So rather than fit into the aesthetic of something that’s already going, we’ve been hired to be ourselves, effectively, so to a certain extent we get to dictate the sound of the piece. Having said that, the element of control disappears after a certain point because you have to make several other people happy, so I’m sure there’ll be much more back-and-forth to get something everyone’s happy with. With Dark Shadows, it was more, “here it is, away you go!”
And now that you’ve got your hands dirty, would you have another bash as it
In a spooky, supernatural heartbeat.