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EXCLUSIVE: 'Work hard. Be humble and polite' McMafia composers share their music-making secrets

Franz Kirmann and Tom Hodge are the musical minds behind the score for eight-part organised crime drama McMafia starring James Norton. As well as the BBC-AMC co-production, the duo have released three records as Piano Interrupted and have individually worked on hundreds of commercials and collaborated with critically-acclaimed electronica musician Max Cooper. Here, Franz and Tom talk to Mandy News about how they compose, what they use and what aspiring musicians can do to make it in the industry.

21st February 2018
/ By James Collins

McMafia musicians CLAIREBELHASSINE

Please introduce yourselves and tell us how you got into the industry
Franz: I’m Franz Kirmann, I used to work as a film editor. That’s how I met Tom who was scoring a project I was working on. I was already making electronic music on the side and putting records out. We thought we should have a go at mixing our styles of music and see where it would lead us. We then got a record deal and did three albums together, as well as touring Europe with a band we put together.

Tom: I’m Tom Hodge, born and bred in London. Way back when, I got myself a job making tea at a sound post production studio called Grand Central, specialising in commercials. Pretty soon I was helping out with small music jobs and that developed into a full-time composing career. I did a Masters in Composition for Screen a few years later and that helped me develop my sound and understanding further.

What kind of kit/programs do you use to compose music?
Franz: We use Logic X and Ableton to sequence and record the music and various sound libraries and VSTs, such as Native Instruments, Omnisphere and GRM Tools. On McMafia we did the demos using the Spitfire LCO library and then we ended up working directly with them which was fantastic.

Tom: I use Logic mainly (although I tend to record live orchestral sessions into Pro Tools). We had a team of four on McMafia and tried to unify systems as best as possible. The staples were Slate Digital and Soundtoys plugins, and various Spitfire libraries.  As Franz mentioned, I was very happy when LCO brought out a library of their own in the Spitfire range. I had worked with them on various jobs over a number of years and it helped practically and conceptually to be working with both their live recordings and their samples. My Strymon Big Sky pedal features a bit too.

On the acoustic side of things, I record myself playing piano and clarinet. I am currently using Sontronics mics – the Aria (you can hear this on Kim Sheehan’s vocals in the score)  and a pair of their ribbon mics too, Sigma.

How did you get involved with McMafia?
Franz: I knew Paul Ritchie (producer) as we have friends in common and he’s a fan of our music. He played it to Hossein Amini (writer) and James Watkins (director) who thought it would be a good match with the series and that’s how we got involved.  Apparently Hoss’s wife is also a fan now and does her Yoga while listening to our music.

Tom: Considering the wealth of experience in every other department of the production, I am very grateful indeed that the key trio of James, Hoss and Paul were so open-minded about trying something new.

What was the process of working on the music for the shows?  Did you work to picture from the start? What were the deadlines for each episode, etc....?
Franz: We read the script first and had a few chats with Hoss and James about what they were after. Then they all went to Croatia to finish shooting and left us with the editors to watch early assemblies. At first we didn’t write to picture and gave them lots of sketches and demos to get a more precise idea of how they were using the music and where they were placing it. 

Only then did we start working to picture. It was a real luxury to get involved so early because it gave us time to develop themes and concepts in quite a free way rather than write a functional score locked to picture. The deadlines were mad – they were mixing one episode a week from mid November. So we would deliver our final mixes on a Monday while trying to get final approvals and do corrections for the next episode at the same time.

Tom: Yes, I was actually quite intent on not looking at the pictures to start with! I felt we could really just focus on the general flavour and feeling of the series based on our reading of the script, rather than get caught up too soon in the functional side of scoring to picture. And this was possible because of our relatively early introduction to the key creative team, as Franz explained.

There are eight episodes, including about four hours of music – around 130 cues. Our music editor, Gerard McCann, remarked at one point that there was more music in episode five than in his last feature film! And of course we wrote a good bit more than the music that ended up in the series.

I am well acquainted with brutal deadlines having worked on around 300 commercials, but this was a sustained intensity like no other – working seven days a week, all day/night long from mid August to late January.

Tom, you were also Music Supervisor on Pimp. Could you tell us a little bit about the role of MS, and perhaps a little bit about the relationship between the Music Supervisor and Composer on a production?
Pimp was quite an indie production and I found myself helping out in other aspects than just writing the music! I was helping find source music as well as writing the score. I don’t know a whole lot about the traditional role of course as this was very much a one-off, but the general role of the music supervisor can vary from project to project. Sometimes it is about finding a great set of existing tracks to put in a show or film, and in other cases it can be entirely about helping the relationship between director and composer run as smoothly and efficiently as possible, and of course all the iterations in between those two points!

Do you have any composers whom you really admire or found inspirational whilst becoming composers?
Franz: Jonny Greenwood is someone we both like. I grew up buying soundtracks, the Blade Runner one was one of my favourites. I also like Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Ryuichi Sakamoto, the John Carpenter synth soundtracks from the 80s. A lot of my inspiration also comes from indie producers such as Fennesz, Four Tet, Boards Of Canada, artists from labels such as Touch or Warp.

Tom: I am a big fan of Thomas Newman. I was obsessed with the Six Feet Under theme for a while. I am enjoying the way things are moving with all the more ‘artist-driven’ scores – Greenwood, as Franz mentions, but also Max Richter, Mica Levi, Jed Kurzel and the very recently and shockingly departed Johann Johannson of course.

More generally, I always find the work of Reich, Adams, Golijov, Stravinsky, Bartok inspiring to name just a handful that jump into my head.. And with an opera singer for a wife, I listen to (and accompany) my fair share of core repertoire too!

What is next for you?
Franz: A holiday! Well I wish… We are finishing the score for a documentary called The Man Behind The Microphone. We had to take a break from it to do McMafia. Then I have a few things in the air but it’s too early to talk about them as nothing is set.

Tom: I have a record coming very soon with a fabulous Czech producer called Floex. I have also been writing arrangements for a wonderful young cellist called Sheku. And now that McMafia is out the door, I will pick up the writing again of an LP I have been working on with another of my regular collaborators, techno producer Max Cooper. As I started answering I was thinking  it was going to be a bit quieter, but it seems there is plenty in the works…

What advice do you have for people wanting to become a composer or part of the music department as a whole?
Franz: Make a lot of music. At the end of the day that’s what your employer will be the most interested in, what is your sound, your unique musical personality. And meet people, get involved with filmmakers, editors, score things, collaborate with other artists and build a network and a portfolio like that.

Tom: Work hard. Be humble and polite. The first six months of my ‘career’ were making tea, running tapes around Soho, standing for 10 hours a day with no lunch break. Only then did I go home and write music. I forget the exact cliché someone said to me once - "1% inspiration, 99% perspiration" I think. Cliché maybe, but probably pretty accurate.

Franz: Yes I couldn’t agree with Tom more, humble and polite is very important!


Find this interview helpful?

Check out our interviews with other TV composers, including with Orange is the New Black's Sean Doherty and The Girlfriend Experience's Mondo Boys.