For our parents, the TV and film Western was frequently an uncomplicated affair: chisel-jawed, straightforward hero figures – say John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott – rode purposefully into ramshackle frontier towns, tastefully dispatched any resident black-shirted baddies, scooped Maureen O’Hara into their arms, and rode wistfully back into the sunset.
For us children of the 1970s however, life became – inevitably – more complex. The “revisionist Western” films of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, shown as late-night illicit TV treats throughout the decade, brought bloody reality and a slew of morally ambiguous lead characters to the genre. Later films, notably Clint Eastwood’s existential brace of High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, even introduced tantalising glimpses of the supernatural.
These latter developments have undoubtedly influenced Rupert Lally’s atmospheric new album, The Prospect, available now from Spun Out Of Control. A soundtrack to his own short story, it uses ambient synths and subtle, analogue instrumentation to depict the surreal aftermath of a bungled stagecoach robbery in the snowy, 19th century Canadian Rockies. Gang leader Jack Delaney, seriously wounded, finds himself in the remote mining town of Prospect, where a grieving widow mistakenly greets him as her miraculously returned husband… before her fellow villagers are revealed, rather alarmingly, to be no strangers to the practice of blood sacrifice.
There is, of course, a twist…
I asked Rupert about the influences behind both the story and music, and about his background as a musician. Here’s how the conversation went…
Bob: Tell us a little bit about the genesis of The Prospect. Had you written the story first, and decided it lent itself to a soundtrack, or did the story and music always go hand-in-hand?
Rupert: It was a story first. I’d had the basic story for a while… I’m a great hoarder of story ideas and quite often I’ll keep coming back to the good ones, trying to find a way of using them. The most extreme example of this is the novel I’m writing at the moment, based on an idea I came up with as a twelve or thirteen-year-old. Of course, over time, the story evolves. You forget some of the details of the original idea and add new ones. The story I’m telling in the novel has the basic idea and structure that I came up with all those years ago, but the details and the characters aren’t the sort of thing that the twelve-year-old me would have created.
The Prospect is a little bit like that. I came up with the first part, the robbery going wrong in a town on the edge of nowhere, as a teenager. But that was it. Later on, perhaps inspired by The Return Of Martin Guerre, I came up with the idea of Jack Delaney being mistaken for the dead man, and then – when I was thinking about the album – I decided to add the more disturbing elements of cannibalism and sacrifice. Up until then it had still essentially been a Western.
Knowing that Gavin from Spun Out Of Control was aiming for a December release, I thought pushing it in a slightly more gothic direction would be good. I wrote a first draft, which I then ended up altering slightly as the music progressed. The ending in particular got changed a couple of times… there was one version where Jack becomes a Wendingo-like creature and returns to destroy the town, though it was left ambiguous as to whether that was real, or simply in Jack’s head. Another version had the marshals arriving in Prospect looking for signs of Jack and spotting some of his belongings, only to be surrounded by the murderous townsfolk. In the end, I settled on the ending I used, because it seemed to make the most sense from both a narrative and scoring perspective.
Does that period of history, and the whole idea of frontier prospecting, hold a fascination for you?
It does. It’s one of those time periods that captivate me personally, in much the same way as the Bronze Age, or the Victorian London of Sherlock Homes and Jack The Ripper. Of course, I‘m fully aware that my image of life back then is a complete romantic fantasy that probably bears no relation to how hard and harsh the reality was.
More generally speaking, the vastness of North America is something that has fascinated me ever since I was a child, and one can only imagine how endless the land must have seemed to those travelling across it in those days, looking for a new life. It clearly appeals to certain isolationist tendencies in me, even though I know I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes back then. I’m far too much of a soft city boy…
Did you do any research into the history of Canadian prospecting and mining towns?
Not really. In fact, I’m deliberately vague about the story’s setting for good reason… because I didn’t want to have to do too much research! I did double check the banks and money transfers that are mentioned in the story, though, as I didn’t want to write anything that was completely wrong for the period.
Were there any particular films or books that you had in mind when you were making the album?
Movies were definitely an inspiration. The opening line, “The Canadian Rockies, Winter, 1882” is a direct homage to the opening title card from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Which was clearly an influence on the music, too.
In terms of Westerns, I‘d recently re-watched both Dead Man and McCabe and Mrs Miller for my film blog so they certainly had an influence, particularly the snowy atmosphere at the end of McCabe. Other influences were the Clint Eastwood films, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, the latter having a very cold and snowy setting. Another film which I haven’t seen in years, but which definitely had an influence on both the story and the music, was Antonia Bird’s frontier cannibal horror, Ravenous.
You live in Switzerland these days… did the country’s mountainous landscape have any influence on the genesis of The Prospect?
Funnily enough, yes. About fifteen years ago, when I first thought about incorporating the idea of Jack being mistaken for someone else. My wife and I were the Best Man and Maid of Honour at a friend’s wedding, in a little village quite high up in the hills. There was just the church and a few houses, surrounded by a rocky valley and a river. That was probably the initial template for the town of Prospect, though obviously it’s changed a little in the story. More generally, it’s just that sense of being incredibly small in relation to nature… that idea of being dwarfed in terms of scale. It’s something that stays with you. Also we have fairly regular snowfalls out here, so I certainly have a bit of personal experience of trudging through thick snow. And what real cold feels like…
And how did you try to use the music to reflect and encapsulate the story’s location and events? How did you go about that… were any particular sounds that particularly lent themselves to telling the story of Jack Delaney?
Well, it was clear from the beginning, as this was something deliberately created for Spun Out Of Control, that it would have a lot of electronic elements. I pitched it to Gavin as the imaginary score to a film that’s a cross between High Plains Drifter and The Wicker Man, as if scored by John Carpenter and The Haxan Cloak. I’d recently heard the score that Bobby Krlic – aka The Haxan Cloak – did for Midsommar, and thought that blend of electronics and weird acoustic sources might be right for this.
Equally, I thought combining that with the more overt electronics and insistent rhythms that Carpenter is famous for would be interesting. I started creating sounds that felt cold, or haunting to me. There’s one Boards Of Canada-style synth sound that’s prominent throughout the whole album. It features on the first track, Edge Of The Union, which was one of the first sounds I created for this, with my Roland ProMars plug-in. It’s got delay and an LFO modulating the pitch, so it’s constantly going slightly out-of-tune, as if it’s being carried on the wind, or the cold is affecting it.
I created a lot of sounds using Straylight, a granular synthesis plugin from Native Instruments, as well. Building patches built out of wind noises or voices… things that suggested cold or wind to me, yet could still be played like a musical instrument. There are also violins playing harmonics, or at the very top of their range, which has a very brittle, cold sound to my ears. Finally there’s that bass thump sound, pure Carpenter, which came from my Roland D-50. To me that was the sound of Jack… that thing inside him pushing him onwards, keeping him “on edge”.
Where did the character of Jack come from? Go on… who would play him in a film?
Perhaps it’s a failing of mine as a writer, but I never think of characters first. It’s always the story that comes first and then the characters are there to populate it. I’m constantly worried, when I write, that they might simply come cross as plot devices. But in my head, Jack looks a bit like Charlie Hunnam, or perhaps a young Robert Redford. Blond hair, scraggy beard. Like those soldiers you see in photos from the Civil War: boys who have had to become men before their time, but with the charisma that some people have that naturally makes them a leader.
Of course, the brothers are named Jack and Bobby after the Kennedys… but it was equally a case of wanting names that sounded right for the period. In the first draft, I had names and backstories for each of the Delaney gang, but I jettisoned them when I realized that it wasn’t necessary for the reader to know them – they’re dead and gone before the story really starts. Unsurprisingly, as the robbery is the oldest part of the story, that’s the part that’s the most clear to me, visually. I could almost storyboard it, frame by frame.
You know what? That book was one of several I started as a teenager but never finished, and that I’ve recently made an effort to re-read and complete. The Lynch film I have great affection for. For the digital release of Dune, I wrote some sleevenotes, mentioning that my first encounter with the film was the toy figures of Paul Atreides and Feyd Rautha. Even now, when I read the book, I see the faces of those actors as the characters and – despite how much it’s hated by some fans of novel – the film is really quite faithful to most of the book.
You’ve made a lot of music with a literary inspiration, including albums inspired by John Wyndham, William Golding and JG Ballard. I’m guessing these are all favourites of yours?
Yes, definitely! They’re all authors that have meant a lot to me at one time or another. Ballard was a huge influence on me as a writer too, when I wrote my own sci-fi novella in 2018 – Solid State Memories – and created a soundtrack for it. Ballard and Philip K. Dick are clear influences on the story and its “twenty minutes into the future” setting. There are also characters named Ballard, Herbert, Matheson and Burgess.
William Golding too was hugely influential to me. Along with Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess, he was one of those gateway authors that transitioned me from reading genre fiction and movie novelisations to more “literary” work. Also, Greene and Golding both had those wonderful pen and watercolour drawings by Paul Hogarth on their covers in the 1980s. I’m consciously paying homage to those in the cover art for all the soundtracks to books on my Bandcamp page.
So when you read books, do you actually start imagining soundtracks to them?
Not unless I’m planning to score them. But I’m someone who imagines the entire visual world when I read a book; I could tell you what the characters look like, what they’re wearing, and the colour of the wallpaper. So for me, when I score a book, it’s like scoring a film or a TV programme in my head. The images make me think of the music that would work alongside them. Perhaps because of my background as a composer and sound designer for theatre and TV, I find it much easier to create music around a concept or a story. There’s no question of what the music needs to do next, or where it needs to go emotionally… the story tells you all that. As a composer you just need to respond to it.
Can you tell us a bit more about your background as a musician, and your theatre and TV work?
I started playing in bands as a teenager. I was – and still am – a pretty good drummer… and a so-so guitarist, turned half-decent bass player. I also got interested in sound engineering around the same time, and I worked a little in a few studios. Bizarrely, it took me until my last year at University, doing a technical theatre module as part of my degree, to see that there was a way of combining that music and sound engineering with my interest in theatre and film. I did a Masters Degree at the Central School of Speech and Drama and began a career as a composer and sound designer. I worked on numerous theatre shows in London, as well as the theme music for shows like ITV At the Movies. More recently, my music‘s been used in the film The Great White Silence, and in the iOS game Rebuild 3.
What made you decide to start composing and releasing your music as a solo artist?
My first release back in 2004, The Noisy Image, was to promote a production company that I’d started with my wife and a friend, and my first proper solo release under my own name was because I wanted an outlet for the more experimental stuff that I was interested in doing, stuff that had no place in my commercial work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much call for me to sound like Squarepusher or Four Tet with the clients I was working for.
What started as an extracurricular outlet eventually became my main focus, especially once my kids were born. Sometimes having my own project was what kept me going, creatively.
The Prospect also has one of my favourite album covers of 2019! Can you describe your feelings when you first saw it?
I loved it! I adore Eric Adrian Lee’s work and I won’t lie – his beautiful work was one of the reasons why I wanted to release stuff on Spun Out Of Control. The visual side of music is incredibly important to me. I do all the design for my Bandcamp releases, and I’ve done all the illustrations on my Bibliotapes releases. It’s the thing that links all the labels that I love, from ECM and Rune Grammofon, to Warp and Ghost Box, or Clay Pipe, Polytechnic Youth and Spun Out Of Control. They all have a really strong visual style. I was really curious to see what Eric would come up with for the story, because it’s a little different from the 1980s horror or Giallo vibe that some of their releases have had. But he’s such a genius that he came through in spades, and I think it gets across the vibe of the story perfectly.
Thanks to Rupert for his time, and The Prospect – including a limited-edition cassette run – is available here. And you can read the full storyline, too…