Two-time Grammy Award-winning composer Sam Slater is the man behind the pulsating, deeply emotional score of The Railway Men. Slater’s Grammys have come in for his work in Joker and the TV series Chernobyl (built around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor leak). The Railway Men, streaming on Netflix, focuses on certain events in the Bhopal gas tragedy. t2 chatted with Slater over a video call on the sound of The Railway Men and more.
What’s been the predominant reaction so far to your music in
The Railway Men?
The fact that there has been any reaction is also a surprise (laughs). When you are composing for a TV series, very often people don’t notice. Your job isn’t to be the main character or to steal the show. I hope I have done a good job of supporting the thing on screen.
The response has been really lovely. I have had lots of messages from people who have seen the series and others who have been directly affected by the events that are depicted. And generally, people are just saying that they really love the music and the series... just really lovely, personal, positive responses. A lot of people have mentioned that they felt that the sound world itself was really gripping. There has also been a general response to the fact that the music has character and that it did its job well.
What was your reaction when you were approached for your first Indian project and that too a web series? Were you aware of the details of the Bhopal gas tragedy?
I knew about the history of that event. But within the script, there were bits of information and I said: ‘Wow, this is much, much more intense than I had learned.’ The scale of the tragedy is not something that I was aware of and as I kept reading, I only became more shocked.
It is truly a historical tragedy and something that should not be allowed to ever happen again. I couldn’t really believe the scale of it. I have worked on a television show about Chernobyl, but in Chernobyl, there are very different numbers in terms of the death count. Like Bhopal, you can never say something like 15,000 people died in an evening in Chernobyl. That just didn’t happen.
In a series with such high-stakes drama, how does one ensure that the music reinforces the emotion and heightens the drama, but doesn’t overpower what is playing out on screen?
I have had the great luck to work with some really amazing composers over the last 10 years or so and that’s their main skill. That’s really your job, what you are learning to do is to make the most interesting and effective music you can, that at no point becomes more of a character than the character on the screen. Your job is to add depth to a scene or a story or a character without making people look away from the screen as such.
I would say it’s practice and a lot of good dialogue with the director. Shiv’s (Rawail) a really good director. We basically spoke non-stop for six months and now I regard Shiv as a good friend of mine, even though we have never met in person.
This score came about with lots of practice and lots of trial and error. I always try to push for the music to be as unusual as possible and to try and do things in a slightly different way. Often the director tries to pull things back towards the story and you end up doing push-pull over the space of the project and then finding where the balance is, where the music is exciting and unusual without being a distraction.
I always kept in mind that these events (shown in the series) really happened and the characters should be taken seriously and not be exaggerated. The place where you can go wrong is by exaggerating. By exaggerating someone’s pain, you trivialise it. You make it less real by trying to make it too big. That’s been the challenge.
You just mentioned how you veer towards unusual music. Did the fact that the series is in Hindi and the cultural milieu is so different from anything that you have worked in before lend itself naturally to the music being of an unusual tone and texture?
Yes, this is unusual for me because I had never done an Indian production before. I don’t speak the language and I wasn’t raised with the aesthetic and cultural ideas that Shiv was.
So, I already knew I was going to be working outside of my comfort zone. However, there’s nothing stopping you as a composer from just being like: ‘Oh, okay, I am going to do this. I am just going to write some big emotional string music and put some large cinematic drums over the top.’ And then you could make a very familiar score, even though the story itself is very unusual and the context is unusual.
However, I try and make sure that the sound worlds that I am working on are very bespoke. Every sound in The Railway Men is handmade. It’s not a library and it’s not just someone else’s sound work that I have imported in and then arranged. Every sound is handmade by me and my small team. We were trying to create a bespoke sound world for a story that hasn’t been told before. And by definition, that becomes unusual.
What posed a challenge?
The challenge is that the runtime is four hours, it’s about 50 minutes of music per episode. That’s sort of like making five films... it’s a lot of music. So the challenge was often to do with pacing, about making sure that the music was interesting enough, but that it wasn’t so dense that you overwhelmed people in the first episode and then you couldn’t sustain it for the next three.
And then there were the usual things about being sensitive to a story and working with a team of people in another country. The best thing that came out of this experience was that I learned to play the viola. Even in the theme of the series, there are a few sounds in there of my bad viola playing! (Laughs)
Did you take inspiration from certain pieces of Indian music?
Yes. Shiv shared with me the music of R.D. Burman in the film Arjun. I am not aware of your film music history, so this could be a very obvious choice. Nonetheless, this guy (Burman) is cool!
He made music that was much ahead of its time....
I listened to it and I was like: ‘Damn, dude! This guy is very cool.’ His music is so simple and yet so wild and confident. And I really like that. There was another piece by Shailendra Singh, again from Arjun, that we referenced a lot. There’s humour in it, it’s not trying too hard and yet it’s kind of punk.
Has this experience propelled you to explore more Indian music, which necessarily doesn’t have to be Hindi film music?
Oh, yes. I spent seven months of my life in India. I love India! I have worked with musicians in Rajasthan before. When I actually spent time in India, I was blown away by, for example, the Ravanahatha players in Rajasthan whose beautiful folk music has so much virtuosity in it, and yet it’s so intense and simple and so beautiful. I tried to learn the Ravanahatha for a while. It’s just such an incredible instrument and it reminds me a lot of some similar instruments that are now played in Ireland and Sweden as well.
I am a drummer, and I have, of course, tried to learn the tabla at various points, but I am very bad at it. The Indian classical music tradition is incredibly virtuosic and so beautiful. I also like how music is passed down through generations in India. Also, just that feeling of being in the street and having several different kinds of music being blasted at you from a loudspeaker had an impression on me. This is one of the reasons why The Railway Men score is quite shouty and harsh in places.
For those of you who make music, do you hear music in every sound that meets the ear?
There are only two basic building blocks of sound, which are noise and tone. And you can make music from any noise or any tone. You just need a microphone and a bit of time. The sound that your mouth makes, you could record that and make so much music. I don’t hear music in everything, but I do recognise that there is the potential to make music with anything.
My favourite soundtrack in a web series is... Tell firstname.lastname@example.org