Durham Creatives: Interviewing Nico Wood-Olivan

13th March 2019

In this instalment of Durham Creatives, we interview the musician and composer Nico Wood-Olivan. Currently a second-year Music student from Van Mildert, Nico chats about composing for the new play 'Death to the Afterlife'.

Alex Rigotti: Hi Nico! How are you doing?

Nico Wood-Olivan: Good thanks, yeah, and you?

AR: I’m good – really excited for this upcoming play, can you tell us what it’s about?

NWO: It’s about this girl named Kaia who lost her mother when she as very young so she has to take an experimental pill that will take her to the afterlife so she can see her mother one last time. She meets a few people along the way and learns about herself.

AR: Ah right, did you come up with this with your friend?

NWO: He wrote the screenplay, the script and everything, and we were speaking so I thought it would be good to jump on the music.

AR: And who were your inspirations - who did you look towards to template your music?

NWO: I listened to a lot of video game and film music, instrumental stuff - Ryuichi Sakamoto, who did The Revenant which I loved, it has really good soundscapes. Garry Schyman as well, who did the soundtrack for BioShock. I think all this music is sort of eerie and creepy, that’s the kind of vibe I wanted to get for the play.

AR: So I’m definitely getting creepy…

NWO: (laughs) Yeah, this creepy sort of… dark atmospheric ambient environment.

AR: Were there any other emotional undertones that you wanted to portray?

NWO: Well, it depends on the scene. For each scene I had a different song – one scene has a woman who is slightly maniacal, so it is more comedic and all over the place to show what her mind is like. The final scene, it’s more upbeat and uplifting so it wasn’t as dark as depressing - a lot more colour in the music, more synths and effects.

AR: And what instruments are you featuring other than the synths?

NWO: It’s just synths - I also have a lot of long drones and piano chords, but yeah, no real instruments. I mean, I’ve got a guitar every now and again, but it's kinda sparse.

AR: Is it just factory settings on the synths that you’re playing? How did you modify them?

NWO: What I’d do is I get a synth and I just take it as far down as I can, and I’ll play a chord that has a pulsating dark rhythm to it. I’ll lay that underneath and add reverb, guitar notes, like a siren almost, just to kind of get that wasteland feel. I also used a lot of oscillators – how frequently the pulsator would happen, so I’d get a lot more tense and pulsating rhythms just because it makes it more intense for a sombre scene, almost like a heartbeat.

AR: So then did you use a particular type of synth?

NWO: I went through hundreds of different synths, just to see what would fit... some synths were too clubby -

AR: - like a square lead, you wouldn’t use that…

NWO: (laughs) No, yeah… I wanted to have something that I could transform each synth enough so that I’d play one chord and have to add a ton of reverb and add EQ, so it’s weird to find that one sound that will make it different.

AR: What was the creative process like?

NWO: So I read through the script three, four times – and I took notes because I didn’t want to start straightaway with music but actually the vibe. This isn’t the same as creating a fully structured piece; just a thirty-second idea that repeats and that you speak over, so the mood and vibe was the most important thing. I’d see where I’d wanna go with the music, and I’d feel like if this scene was particularly ambient, I’ll add a wind effect or static so you’d have that nice layer of sound – I think it was just kind of getting a concept of the scene and building on it.

AR: That reminds me of Brian Eno.

NWO: Yeah! I literally love Brian Eno, the way he makes forty-five minutes of music feel like one seamless song is beautiful – I love it.

AR: So coming back to the play, harmony must come into a lot of your compositions: what route did you take? Was it functional, non-functional, atonal…

NWO: Pretty atonal. For example, I'd have a G minor chord or something – and on top of that to create a clashing sound, I might have a higher F sharp major, basically to make it weird ... Anything that would be mismatched that would make you feel uneasy or uncomfortable. I didn’t want anything that would be too easy-going. It was finding a difficult balance between making it noticeable but not overbearing, because if it’s too much then you can’t focus on the scene, but if it’s too little then it’s not adding anything, so I aimed for a fusion of both.

AR: And in mediating this change, was this a trial-and-error process?

NWO: Yeah, so I knew one of the most important things was to have no discernible beat, because people would focus on the tempo, so I wanted a wall of sound. There'd be times where Tristan (the director) would come over and I’d show him the music, and he’d put the music in the background and speak over it. If we could have a full conversation over the music without it being too distracting, then it would work.

AR: Was there an element of improvisation in your music, then?

NWO: It was a really cool process – Tristan had a base script, and as he got the producers to come in and actors, he transformed it – so it was a creative process from everyone. Actors would write some scenes and I'd write the music, and then we'd bounce back ideas and stuff. So it wasn’t improvisation necessarily, but it was almost improvised during the creative process. It's gonna happen with every production but it was so much more prevalent with this production, which I really enjoyed.

AR: Were there any other specific notes that Tristan gave you, or did you go off on your own?

NWO: It started off being on my own, I was writing a sample of songs, and I was asking ‘is this in the right direction’? Then closer to the premiere, he'd come round more often, saying ‘I think this specific moment would be better for this or that, take out this synth, make this quieter’, just small things like that.

AR: And did Tristan already have an understanding of music beforehand?

NWO: He doesn’t have the technical understanding, but he does have a wonderful range of musical taste – he made me this playlist of ambient, spacey songs which I put on repeat. Even if some of them weren’t directly influencing on me, it was more getting the vibe - he literally called it ‘Death to the Afterlife moods’ (laughs). I'd sit with a glass of whiskey and listen to the music and then make a song – but that would really help me.

AR: We’ve talked about film and video game music; what other artists influenced you, then?

NWO: There's one really good song called ‘Positivland’ by Âme... I got really into that one because it had a groove to it, but it wasn't too overbearing. Obviously Pink Floyd as well, slightly earlier Pink Floyd. Echoes was a big one – it’s this 20-minute long, massive piece of going in and out of different moods, which is pretty much what I wanted to go for - jumping in and out of different moods.

AR: Now, Pink Floyd is obviously psychedelic... were there other musical genres that you pulled from?

NWO: Psychedelia was definitely one - I'm a huge fan, so is Tristan. The play is trippy, you know: she takes a drug, goes to the afterlife, meets weird, strange people. It’s more difficult because psychedelia is quite colourful, it has a higher timbre, so I had to incorporate it in a lower register... except for the last scene, where I get to go crazy with all the synths and the higher EQ. It's so high, which I love doing that. Yeah, I think psychedelia is one of the biggest ones... I think there's one scene with a slight element of jazz, the maniacal scene. Jazz, it's all over the place -

AR: - Like acid jazz, it's ridiculous!

NWO: It’s crazy! it's all over the place, but yeah, it played a very small part, it was mostly ambient and psychedelia.

AR: How did you avoid having a drone throughout the entire play?

NWO: That was really tough, because I started to realise that I was making the same song over and over again. It was getting a bit repetitive, so I tried mixing it up a bit. I had the same intro and then I’d build the song up, and then I'd take things away and see what started best e.g. synth, or maybe a sound sample was better. it’s mixing up priorities and seeing what started the best.

AR: That sounds like quite a minimalist philosophy, kind of like what Rick Rubin did with Kanye’s Yeezus.

NWO: Yeah, exactly - because also towards the end of the composition period I was listening to a lot of Olivier Messiaen and Charles Ives, just so cool putting that in my chords. I mean, I listen to it in class and I wanted everything atonal, frantic at times… I wanted dull franticness in the music. Really all the songs have two or three instruments max, but it’s all about how they interweave.

“Nowadays, you have bedroom producers that record it separately – but back in the day, they depended on each other. That’s what I wanted to do, make everything sound natural, because one thing affects the other”

AR: So there’s not only emphasis on harmony, but also the relationships between the instruments.

NWO: Well yeah, that’s one thing that people... like nowadays, you have bedroom producers that record it separately – but back in the day, they depended on each other. That’s what I wanted to do, make everything sound natural, because one thing affects the other. I love doing this thing – especially with these compositions – because one instrument would come in because another would have done something else. It’s not a planned four-bar entrance, it's more like, it could be four-and-a-half bars of music, or twenty seconds, and once the synth has built up then it's the perfect time to introduce another instrument. It was all about making it sound natural, really.

AR: You have the synths, you have the guitar… what was the third instrument?

NWO: I did use double bass at one point – the upright one – for the jazzy section... and then a piano of course. And I used electric bass because I like that dull sound, basically I can just play it out... obviously not a slap bass, but I’d EQ that to make it nice and low, almost like a vibration effect.

AR: And how do you work with the different timbres such as acoustic vs synths? How did you fuse the two sounds together? They can sound pretty separated.

NWO: That's one thing I've always noticed when I make music… like, way back in the day when Fleet Foxes released ‘Crack-Up’ – and I watched the review by theneedledrop (Anthony Fantano) – and the one thing he said was great about the album was that they made all the electronic instruments sound like acoustic. I took that to heart because you can’t discern what's manufactured or real, so when it came to creating my own music... it's simple things like reverb and delay, but I wanted it to sound like they played together, like someone is in the room playing with you.

AR: Dynamics must also come into this a lot…

NWO: Yeah; velocity, volume, pitch bending as well... with the synths, I’d play around with the pitch bend so it’s just other things to make it sound natural. Not all the notes need to be in tune because real instruments will never be tuned perfectly 

AR: Apart from that, were there any other challenges, like with this aspect of people coming in? 

NWO: Yeah, of course… I mean, when I make my own music, I don’t like to show people until it's the final product, so it was interesting having to seriously take people’s opinions or, just asking them ‘tell me how you feel about this, is this too loud?’ It’s interesting to realise that you had to rely on someone else for your project, like, you have to rely on their enjoyment, because I'm not writing for myself. 

AR: Oh my god, that would be kind of hard…

NWO: Yeah, you have to like, please people! 

AR: I wouldn’t like to live under that kind of criticism, I’m not going to lie.

NWO: It's a little bit stressful at times, but it's all worth it.

AR: Right, well that's about everything I wanted to ask, thanks for coming in Nico!

NWO: no worries! 


‘Death to the Afterlife’ premieres at Fabio’s on 14th March, and will be performed at Birley Room, Hatfield College on the 16th-17th March. Get tickets here: http://durhamstudenttheatre.savoysystems.co.uk/DurhamStudentTheatre.dll/TSelectItems.waSelectItemsPrompt.TcsWebMenuItem_0.TcsWebTab_0.TcsProgramme_586710

Find Nico’s other music at November Criminal on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/2hrTJWPfB1Xm1BkDaQgIT2?si=wRTPJadQRMifi7jj8sRVnw

Find Nico's inspirations on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/user/alexrigotti/playlist/7aOzmVegofICcSl9d2d6bv?si=qnOa6xnmSpaValIy1RsRIA

Photography credits go to Mateusz Jaworski – find his other work here: https://www.facebook.com/durhamphotographer/


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