Michael Price: ‘It became like being a passenger on a very fast-moving train’

“A Yorkshire origins story feels like an actual cliche, but I was just 17 when I went to university and I hadn’t really been out of Batley at all,” says composer Michael Price, smiling as he remembers his introduction to southern ways back in the 1980s as a student at the University of Surrey.

Composer Michael Price. Picture: Paul Heartfield

“Very happy but quite insular”, he rolled into lectures at Guildford with a “massive” hangover, having ignored his older brother’s advice not to get “too hammered” on his first night in new digs. “I was surrounded by people that I couldn’t understand and they couldn’t understand me at all,” he chuckles. “I had quite a strong Batley accent, and it really was the sense that the South is another country if you’re Yorkshire born and bred.”

That Batley accent is still audible today as we talk via Zoom, but it hasn’t stopped Price going on to forge a successful career in music, scoring more than 30 films and working on such blockbusters as The Lords of the Rings trilogy and X-Men. He also won an Emmy and Royal Television Award with his friend David Arnold for their collaborative soundtrack for the TV series Sherlock.

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Alongside screen work, in recent years he has released a series of albums and EPs, the latest of which, The Hope of Better Weather, is out this week. An eight-track collection, it features what were originally solo piano pieces reworked by the likes of former Coral guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones, French composer Yann Tiersen, cellist Peter Gregson and electronic artists Eluvium and Malibu.

“Sometimes I feel you need to look back and reflect to try and make sure that when you turn round and you’re going forwards again, you’re going in the right direction,” he explains. “It’s like checking back in with yourself, in this case nearly ten years ago.”

He found his career had developed three strands – the first of which is playing the piano, “which has been a very personal thing – I used to play piano for dance classes in various places including Leeds, Sheffield and Rotherham, and it was always the smallest, most personal kind of music I could make”; the second was “in my mid-20s I started working in film and telly, getting involved in these big scores which were the absolute opposite of this very personal music”; then the third was “classical orchestral stuff that I do away from film and telly”.

The issue was the strands had become “a bit detached, for good reasons”, he says. “Because the telly had gone really well and the films, that generates a certain momentum all of its own. There’s something in the nature of writing music for film and TV which I love but to do it well I guess it’s like an actor playing a role, you have to inhabit the show so you get taken along a journey depending on how a project goes. It just happens that a couple of things I’ve done on telly in the last decade turned into long-running series but there’s many more on the cutting room floor that didn’t.”

“Going back ten years to listen to myself playing, it’s so incredibly personal,” he continues. “It’s not (like) listening to someone else play your music or looking at a score that you might have written; you’re with yourself. It’s your fingers on the keys, it’s you breathing. It’s a little time machine and I found myself being empathetic with myself. The ten-years-ago-me and the today-me would put an arm round each other, going, ‘Shall we have a sit down and a pint because this is a very strange world we’re in right now’.”

Price noted a fixation with Northern weather in the original recordings; something that he felt he had become “disconnected” from over time. “Ten years ago I didn’t have children, now we’ve got two under five, and we’ve just moved out of London, to Hertfordshire, to be more connected with the seasons. I think you become disconnected gradually, but in order to reconnect you need a shock of some kind, a sudden move or perhaps an external event. I recently lost my father and that’s one of those cathartic events that is big enough to stop you just doing your habits and make you consider how you’re connecting.

“I think for me connection with nature and the seasons and the weather is almost like a diagnostic tool for how things are going.”

Handing over such personal recordings to other people was surprisingly easy. “These reworkings are such a beautiful opportunity, particularly within the new classical/electronic community, because there’s permission granted on both sides to be free,” Price says. “I share some connections with Yann...but for him and all the other artists there’s a freedom to do something that isn’t necessarily constrained by whatever their direction is at the time, they can do something new and fun. I’ve found, having done some reworks of other people’s material myself, it’s a way for artists to collaborate and produce something that probably neither of them would have done themselves from a single starting point. I got incredibly lucky, there’s some fantastic reworks on this. Yann’s is a work of genius.”

He sees the EP as a “stepping stone” to another project, called Whitsun, which he recorded last year during lockdown. “It’s incredibly personal, I sing briefly on it myself, I play the trumpet which was my first instrument as a child – I played for the Yorkshire Evening Post Brass Band – and made everything myself here in the studio,” he says.

“It goes back to my Yorkshire heritage, particularly my grandad and grandma from Bingley who worked in the textile industry. You go back to a very different way of living that sort of seems remote but actually is within living memory, it’s only one or two generations ago.

“I’m still tinkering after my father’s passing and it’s taken on a new layer of poignancy in that a lot of the things that I’d loved as a child (are in there). My parents were both Methodists, although I haven’t got a specific faith myself, the music of the brass world and the Methodist church, the hymns we used to sing, the music I practised as a kid – bits of Beethoven and Mozart that I would learn at the piano. For me, it’s almost like a scrapbook, when you take it down you find these fragments, then it’s trying to find a way in what’s broadly a piano album to have a sense of deep time. It feels like our sense of time has got smaller and smaller, our attention is being manipulated to be incredibly short (to suit) other people’s interests these days.

“It’s the start of an exploration that I’m going on for the next few years about deep time and for myself explore what it means to live with a slightly longer sense of time, whether that’s in your family, your heritage or wether it is in the geological sense of deep time. If you can get your head around the fact that the Earth is four-point-something billion years old, if you can even grasp a hundredth of the implications of that, then it does change the way that you experience life at the moment, from one step to another, whether that’s ecologically, socially or culturally. I think it’s the one thing that music does as an art and a craft, it manipulates time like no other form and I’ve always found that fascinating. You know when you listen to something that’s just heartbreakingly beautiful and your own personal sense of time is suspended for the duration of that song or that piece of music, and it only exists in time as well, you can only experience it from beginning through to end, you can’t turn it back round and see it all in one go. I’m fascinated by the idea of trying to find musical ways to share those out-of-time experiences with an audience so that they can have their own deep time experience, even if it’s only for three minutes. Whether it’s Joni Mitchell or Hildegard von Bingen, all of these have this deep time quality.”

It was Price’s embrace of music technology that first landed him a job working as assistant to the American film composer Michael Kamen. “In a way it became like being a passenger on a very fast-moving train,” he says. “I remember getting a call from his office in London saying he needed an assistant. He lived half of the time in London and half in LA, and I was asked to go to a big fancy house in Notting Hill on a Monday morning. First of all, I turned up on Monday, he turned up on Thursday, he was four days late, but with the big Hollywood films there was a sense of spectacle in the process as much as the music. Everything needed to be bigger. I had this personality of being quiet and not easily fazed and somehow that seemed to work.

“On that Thursday when Michael came in he’d just bought a theatre and wanted to put an orchestra in it that afternoon and it was like, ‘A series of phone calls will be made and we’ll see if we can do that’.

“There was no masterplan. I worked with Michael for five years and he did the most incredible work which I was lucky enough to help him with. After we’d done Band of Brothers, the terrific TV series which led the way for a lot of the high-end TV productions that we’re very used to now, I’d left to try to get back to composing my own music, but because of this combination of a certain amount of technical fluency and calm under pressure, I got a call from Abbey Road who were putting together a group of freelancers to work on the first Lord of the Rings film. I knew everybody at the studios anyway because I’d recorded there a lot.

“In that way that you don’t know how things are going to go, the first Lord of the Rings film was in terrible trouble, the majority of the time it was really late, it was so close to the deadline, and Peter Jackson, who’s obviously a stone-cold genius, was pushing all the limits of every piece of technology, the process was very stressful, so we all thought it was just going to be six weeks of editing Howard Shore’s lovely music and of course it turned into three years because the film was a huge success, then they did extended DVD director’s cuts of the films as well which from a music editing point of view were hilariously complex because if you take an already three-hour film and add 45 minutes of material to it, there were about 100 insertions, everything from a tiny bit to a completely new scene.

“So I ended up going to New York to work for Howard Shore to try to train up some new crew for him, etcetera. Then I just accidentally started music editing these huge films. It was well known in London that Lord of the Rings was incredibly challenging so if you’d survived that you’ll probably be all right on something else. So I got another call to ask if I’d do Love Actually, which couldn’t have been more different, working with the songs and working directly with Richard Curtis for six months, which I enjoyed terrifically.”

Price has worked with David Arnold a number of times – most famously on the long-running TV series Sherlock, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. As a “massive TV fan”, he enjoyed being part of event-television. “I think telly at its best is almost like scaffolding that holds together cultures,” the composer says. “A show that a lot of people watch and a lot of people get behind gives a shared experience which I think is incredibly humbling to be a part of. With Sherlock again you just didn’t know, but David and I had worked together several times before that in lots of contexts, and I think that there was a cultural shift around the time that Sherlock started to find its feet in the second season, it was one of the first shows that got really big in the social media age and there was a way that there hadn’t been before for people who’d really taken the show to their hearts to communicate and join around something.

“It wasn’t even country specific, it was genuinely global, which sounds megalomaniac but the British Council, who do something amazing work, asked me to go an talk to some composers in some far-flung places, so I went to Vietnam and Ukraine and Moscow and in each of these places I’d walk into a room and people would whistle the tune. They did it in Ho Chi Minh City, who technically shouldn’t have been able to watch Sherlock first time round but it was all bootlegged.

“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of something, in the way that folk music or shared cultural experiences is utterly bigger than any one single person who created it. David and I found ourselves at a Sherlock conference once and we were open-mouthed at the number of people for whom the show genuinely meant something. The show was at a time perhaps when they were teenagers when they maybe wanted to have themselves reflected back in a positive way, the whole thing about it was it’s cool to be smart, it was OK to be clever, and for a lot of kids who were trying to find their place at school, maybe they weren’t cool or sporty. It was and still is incredibly moving. Every time I get sent a video of someone playing one of the tunes, just picking it out on a keyboard, I find it really moving, it’s beautiful.”

The Hope of Better Weather is out on Friday October 8. www.michaelpricemusic.com