The composer has worked with Massive Attack, Madonna and Texas, and produced a host of film soundtracks.
To mark the release of a collection of his soundtrack material, musicOMH caught up with Craig to discuss his varied career…
Talking to Craig Armstrong, who’s sounding relaxed on the other end of the phone in his Glasgow home, it soon becomes apparent the genial Scotsman is actually far more a jack of all trades than he lets on. Nowadays, people know him mostly for the lavish orchestrations of the Moulin Rouge and Romeo & Juliet scores, and if you were to invest in his current retrospective Film Works, you’d have a decent study of his career on the big screen to date.
And yet there’s more – a whole lot more. To start with, Armstrong studied at the Royal Academy of Music from 1977-1981, and the style of music uppermost in his mind at that time was jazz. “I’m very into jazz, and with the course being in London there was an immediate opportunity. I was interested in avant garde and free improvisation, and it was around then I started off my interest in electronic music and had my own studio. I remember thinking at one point that I was going to get into film. I was writing classical music as well, but the scene was very academic, with Boulez, (Karlheinz) Stockhausen and others.”
He goes on to describe elements of his compositional style. “Musically I’m very relaxed, and this is especially because of the stuff I’ve done with Massive Attack. My recent scores don’t have many electronics, though – after Massive Attack people wanted me for that, but then after Moulin Rouge people realised I could do orchestral. I’m moving away from electronics lately.”
- Craig Armstrong on the different challenges of his work.
Armstrong arranged and orchestrated several tracks on the Bristol outfit’s Protection album – Weather Storm, Heat Miser and the string-laden Sly. “That was a big period in my life”, he recalls. “I had a young son and needed to make money. I started to arrange Massive Attack, then Madonna, then U2. I became good friends with Massive Attack, the guys signed me to their Melankolic record label. That was a really nice time, to be there when they all first heard Karmacoma. I toured with them quite a bit and worked with them on the label. What they did, they signed a lot of great music but unfortunately it just didn’t sell and the label had to end.”
Even this wasn’t Craig’s first venture into pop music – he was a founder member of Texas into the bargain. Immediately my suspicions are aroused that he may be responsible for my favourite Texas moment – the intro to I Don’t Wanna Lover. “Yes, I wrote that”, he confirms. “I was a founder member of Texas, but then at 27 I thought I was a bit too old for it musically, and they always wanted to do stuff straightaway. They’ve hit a nerve now, good luck to them. A lot of it is pure graft. Mind you, to make a good film score is hard; to make a score that gets Golden Globes and Baftas is bloody hard!”
So far Armstrong has scored two Baz Luhrmann films. “Some directors let you get on with it, but with him it was very hands on. It can be quite stimulating, especially with Baz, he’s a bit of a genius. The nature of the work means travelling a lot though, over to Australia, America, so you’re never still. Baz wants me to do another film which is great. I really enjoyed the Moulin Rouge and Quiet American work.”
Presumably deadlines are tight with his film work? “They can be, but it’s not too bad because a lot is done for you in the making, you’re interpreting the film. Actually, adverts are a lot harder to do though!” On his new collection, he opines, “I think the film album works really well as an album, it definitely flows. It’s quite hard to sell and promote, though.”
- Armstrong on his old collaborator Madonna.
Armstrong retains what he calls “an interesting balance between films and commissions”. One of the commissions is classical. “I’m working on a piece for choir and strings for the new art gallery in Glasgow at the moment, and I’m about to work on a film with Guillaume Canet, who worked on The Beach, which doesn’t have a title at the moment. At the same time I’m trying to finish my violin concerto, which I’m writing for Diana Yukawa. I’m also trying to put out my first classical album soon!”
This doesn’t mean Armstrong is about to turn his back on any style of music, however – the door is still wide open; his latest venture including jazz once again. “There’s a great festival here in Glasgow in April, called Triptych, and three of us have formed this group called Dolls. I play piano, Antye Greie (aka AGF) sings and does laptop, while Vladislav Delay (aka Luomo) does laptop and drums. We’ll be doing stuff in Porto, then the Linz festival in Vienna.”
The implication here is that while Craig enjoys his film work, it can become rather insular. “It’s nice to be in a group, good to be a bit more sociable.” Many of the offers he receives for adverts and TV work are shunned, but for a good reason. “I’ve tried not to dilute my brand. I get offered a lot of TV but I don’t do that, you tend to be more known for doing film work. And adverts can be as time-consuming as doing a movie!”
He describes himself as “one of those artists people seem to know about, but I’m always sort of in the background”. One episode that elevated him to a higher level of recognition was working with Madonna, and it was his string arrangements that were the key to her 1998 comeback single Frozen. “That was interesting”, he muses with characteristic understatement. “I went to Los Angeles and met her there. She works incredibly hard. For what she maybe misses in the vocal department she more than makes up for elsewhere. I love the new stuff as well, she’s still got it!”
Armstrong sees that period as “one that helped me hone my craft and work with big orchestras”. With plenty of options remaining open to his craft, he has the enviable position among artists of being relatively free to plot his musical future, a finger in many pies as he does so.
Craig Armstrong – Film Works 1995-2005
Interview – Craig Armstrong