From Casio keyboards to the return of Danger Mouse: Sanj Sen on his life as a composer.
A clip from Moshi Monsters: The Movie, scored by Sanj Sen.
His pitch for Danger Mouse made one producer feel so excited in a ‘slightly undignified way’. Over a year on, and as I see a freeze-frame with ‘Danger Mouse Episode 41′ on his rather large monitor positioned above his keyboard (there are 11 episodes to go), Sanj reveals how he works and where it all began.
Sanj, when did you start composing… and why pick this career?
On a visit to Hong Kong, age 11, I walked into an electronics store and started playing on a Casio micro-keyboard. I convinced my Auntie that I couldn’t live without it, and from that point I was hooked.
My interest in music grew from there quite organically, and with encouragement from my mother and schoolteachers, it became a bit of an obsession. I then became involved with school bands, pub bands, dance music, producing singers, anything to broaden my experience of music. I moved to Brighton in the mid-90’s, and whilst engineering British Hip hop, signed to Skint records. This naturally led into producing, and I was eventually drawn into advertising, TV and film.
As to the why, it’s something I’ve never really questioned. My career so far has had a life of its own, with me having little idea where it will take me from year to the next. However, I have always pushed myself forward, self-educating, always wanting to learn new things, whether they be musical or technical, so that I’m ready for new challenges/opportunities as they come.
Who are your biggest influences?
Always a difficult question for me to answer…. I’ve had a very broad experience of music and as a composer you’re always listening, internalising. It maybe whole genres, whole albums, or just one aspect of a piece of music that can influence you.
For me, this can come from anywhere, so it’s almost impossible to narrow this down to a few names without misrepresenting myself, but if you twisted my arm….. In terms of film music composers: Bernard Hermann, Lalo Schifrin, John Barry and TV theme tune composers from my childhood such as Barry Gray.
As I child of the ’80s I can’t deny the influence John Williams had on me. The opening fanfare from Star Wars never fails to bring out the goose-bumps. In terms of non-film music, I’ve had phases of listening to early electronica, classic rock & pop, funk and rare groove, jazz, hip-hop, 90’s dance music, dub & ska, 80’s synth pop, and that doesn’t really scratch the surface.
Having a diverse experience in music has kept me in good stead, as a TV composer you never know what’s going to get thrown at you, and it’s important to understand the details of the idiom you’re being asked to work in.
How did you get such a good reputation in the biz?
Ha! I didn’t realise I had one… I’ve been fortunate that the majority of my work has come from personal recommendation. In my experience it’s not so much a case of “who you know” but “how you know”.
When working with producers/directors/editors on lengthy projects you have to, of course, consistently produce quality music. But if you’re easy to work with, professional, reliable, non-confrontational, and provide a solution rather than a problem, they won’t hesitate to recommend you.
If you made their life a living hell for 6 months, they most likely won’t. These qualities matter on projects as much as the quality of the music, and when everyone’s up against a deadline, keeping a cool head and exceeding their expectations of what can be achieved with the time and resources available will gain you a good reputation.
What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?
My move to Brighton aged 19 played a big part. Being surrounded by so much creativity and music from all walks of life was hugely inspiring. In 2006 I started work as an in-house composer for London-based music company Delicious Digital. This is where I cut my teeth in terms of TV and advertising, delivering music day in, day out to brief and deadline. I worked and learned with some great people, and this experience certainly shaped my career into what it is today.
Where do you usually start with with a commission?
It’s usually specific to what I’m writing. If I have a clear idea of what I want to compose, I’ll start with the aspect of the track that is most important and that will inform the rest of the music, i.e. if it’s groove based, I’ll most likely start with the rhythm section, if it’s more melodic I’ll spend some time in front of the piano developing harmony and melody ideas so that when I start producing I’ve got a strong sense of where the track is going.
If I’m working to picture, I’ll have a look through the scene and get a sense of the tempo, emotional arc and any hit points, then plan back from there to avoid writing myself into a corner.
I think it’s important to take time to as a composer to sit down and just explore music without an agenda or deadline, so I try and steal a moment every day, even if it’s only 5 minutes to go off on a musical excursion. Ideas will often pop into my head that aren’t related to what I’m working on, So I’ll stop what I’m doing and get a sketch down to develop later.
What are currently your main compositional challenges?
Time management! I’ve been working on Danger Mouse for over a year. On a big project like this you not only have the endurance aspect to deal with, but also the weekly sprint to finish the episode. I try and balance my time so that I have some space to explore new ideas and themes, whilst keeping an eye on the ever-ticking deadline clock. Fortunately, the writing and animation on the show never fails to inspire me, and they’ve given me plenty of creative freedom, which always help to keep it fresh.
If you were an instrument, what would you be?
I’d be a Hammond organ…. A poor emulation of another instrument that eventually won people over by not being used as intended.
Finally, any recommendations of recent TV shows/ films that you’ve really enjoyed?
I’ve loving HBO’s Vinyl, it makes me wish I was born 20 years earlier! I also finally got round to watching Interstellar; I was glued to the screen for the entire duration, and having a daughter the film really resonated with me. I thought Hans Zimmer’s score was great, emotive without ever distracting. He also managed to make the pipe organ sound cool.
Danger Mouse is currently airing on the CBBC Channel and internationally.