Let’s Get Killed: David Holmes In Conversation

Let’s Get Killed: David Holmes In Conversation

Killing Eve, crate-digging, and more with the esteemed producer...

Killing Eve’s score has taken on a life of its own since the black-comedy series became a huge hit. Composer David Holmes reflects on the work of his band, Unloved, and how they ultimately - and quite unintentionally - came to shape the show’s sound.

When David Holmes was first approached to score a comedy drama series about a female British intelligence officer hunting down a psychopathic female assassin, he knew that he had to find a sound that sufficiently matched its premise.

As it turned out, through his work with fellow musicians Jade Vincent and Keefus Ciancia as alternative rock outfit Unloved, he had inadvertently spent the best part of half a decade crafting the sound that would become synonymous with a hit BBC series. The band just didn’t know it yet.

Having joined forces in the early 2010s, bound by a shared interest in music inspired by Italian film music, French pop music and a 60s girl-group sensibility, Unloved set about creating their own unique brand of contemporary, yet distinctly classic-sounding pop, building on their foundations as solo recording artists and composers.

2016 saw the release of their debut LP, 'Guilty Of Love', followed by 2019’s Heartbreak. The intervening years had seen their music quite unexpectedly ascend in popularity and awareness courtesy of Killing Eve. Though they hadn’t planned for it, their sound had become an integral part of the show’s DNA and the two were now inextricably linked.

Meanwhile, Holmes has continued to bolster his profile as a prolific electronic film and TV composer. Perhaps best known in film for his repeat collaborations with director Steven Soderbergh, scoring the likes of the Oceans trilogy and Logan Lucky, his early solo albums, 'Let’s Get Killed' and 'Bow Down To The Exit Sign' still stand as two of the late 90s and early 00s finest electronic offerings.

Unloved prepare to release the songs 'Strange Effect' and 'Why Not' as a limited 7” for Record Store Day this weekend. To prepare, Paul Weedon caught up with Holmes in the midst of the global lockdown last month to reflect on both the show and Unloved’s ongoing success.

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How are you finding lockdown?

I’m over it, like everybody. I mean, I dread to think what the sort of fallout’s gonna be. I’m not concerned for myself, you know? I’ll be okay. But I am concerned for humanity, considering who’s in charge… It’s fucking tragic, but what can we do? There’s absolutely fuck all that we can do.

It’s a weird time for musicians too. Some have joked that it isn’t all that different to the norm for them – working in isolation. Is that something you’ve found?

Yeah, I would agree with that on the one hand, but on the other hand… there’s a very common thread happening where people are finding it really difficult to focus. There’s kind of, obviously, a real underlying anxiety.

I self- isolate most of the year because I’m busy – I’m usually working on a film or working on Unloved or whatever, but what’s different about this is it’s kind of like, nothing’s really changed, but you know deep down that there’s something really fucking horribly rotten happening in society and I think that it’s really distracting.

How has it affected you in terms of work?

Because I work in film, all of my film work has been grounded because nothing’s being made. I’ve got two films and two television series that I’ve signed on to do and they’re all in a state of limbo. When it all started I was kind of like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll make a new album’ and I had a bunch of tracks that were works in progress, but I haven’t been near them… I love a deadline. And because I haven’t got a deadline at the moment, I keep finding myself saying, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll do something tomorrow’ and then tomorrow comes and I’ll think, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll just go and sit in the garden or go for a walk.’ So yeah, it’s weird…

We’re all going through something that we’ve never experienced before. It’s a very confusing time and I genuinely am frightened for humanity. I really am. And that’s where my fear lies - with other people. I consider myself really lucky, because I’d just come off the back of a few really big gigs, and they were all finished and I’d been paid, but what’s the point in doing it if there are so many other people suffering? It’s kinda like I want everyone to be stable and in a great position and you just look at who’s in charge and you just think… I dread to think what the fallout’s gonna be.

Let’s talk Killing Eve. How does Unloved’s work factor in to the process?

Because I’ve got all of the masters and all of the stems, I can cut our songs in to Killing Eve as score. So, in other words, they’re not just needle-drops. They’re actually really sculpted to the scene, so it makes it feel like it’s much more a part of the fabric of the series, rather than just doing a needle drop.

That’s the thing that’s really interesting about the show. A music supervisor can pick a song and they won’t alter it at all – needle-drops, like you say – but Unloved is your band and you’re able to re-purpose your own work in to a completely different way.

Yeah, I mean we made that record around 2010/2011 and we made about thirty tracks. I’ve worked on a lot of films and stuff, but every now and again you find yourself in this sort of situation where the stars align and you’ve no idea why they align, but they do. The imagery, the story, the style of the film, or in this case the TV series, fits a bunch of pre-existing music like a glove. And that’s what happened with Unloved.

When I was approached to do Killing Eve, I read the script and I said that this music had to be very female-driven, because it’s a very female-driven show. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer – it’s their show, so the music should be very female-driven and each episode is in a different country, so I wanted to kind of dip in to my own archives.

We were in France, so we were playing Françoise Hardy and Anna Karina and we were in Spain, so we had some Spanish music, but it was all female driven songs – Italian, French, English. And they just said, ‘That’s great’. They really liked the sound of that. And I suggested just sending them a bundle of stuff to listen to.

I’ve read that you made an initial playlist.

I put in Unloved and I got the first episode back and there were three Unloved songs that the editor had put in it and I was going, ‘Oh my God, this fits like a glove. This is weird.’ And then I just started auditioning more Unloved music and I would just audition it against a sequence. And it was like, ‘Holy fuck’. And it wasn’t about me crowbarring an opportunity for us in to the show… This was like winning the fucking musical lottery.

And then, suddenly from there, because the show was so successful and so huge, that became the launch pad for Unloved and we went from having fifty-thousand streams on Spotify to getting 16-17 million. It’s pretty crazy how it’s really elevated our band. If we were in the mid-nineties, we’d probably be multi-platinum by now…

You don’t get big advances in this day and age for a band like Unloved and that money goes in to the pot. And normally, licensing money that we get from licensing tracks, we’re putting that in to our next album and so it’s swings and roundabouts and it’s enabled us to just make more music. We’ve always got one eye on Killing Eve when we’re writing new material.

I was going to ask if that factored in to it at all.

Jade is such an amazing songwriter in the sense that her lyrics are really ambiguous. So even though she had written all of those songs even or eight years previous, they were able to fit in to the landscape Killing Eve and work, not just lyrically, stylistically, but emotionally… I still scratch my head and go, ‘How did that happen?’ You would think that all of that music was tailor-made. None of it is.

The only Unloved track that we made with Killing Eve in mind was the cover of The Kinks’ 'Strange Effect', which is in episode three. And that also kicked off – people just going mental, there’s TikToks of it and stuff. It just sort of blew up overnight. It’s got hundreds and thousands of plays now on Spotify. It’s just crazy that having the right kind of placement on the right TV show or film can just generate so much love for your music.

How does the scoring process work for you from episode to episode?

I usually get an episode and I run wild. The director will have some ideas in the edit. If I feel I can do it better, I will and if I think they’ve placed a song that works brilliantly, I’ll just leave it. There’s no ego. To me, my main objective is how can I make this episode the best it can possibly be with music? So Keefus and I will make all of the score and the Unloved tracks and I’ll have a folder of loads of other thing where I’ll go back and go, ‘That could be good in Killing Eve’ and then that folder builds up and then I just sit with an episode and start auditioning pieces of music and there’s a lot of feeling rather than thinking…

The number one rule in working in film with music is that we are storytellers… What’s so good about having the stems is we can create sections that change emotionally and tonally because we’ve got access to be able to mute certain instruments and then add other things if we need to polish up a certain aspect of that scene. So if it starts off in one place and ends up in another, but the other doesn’t exist within the track, we can build that section to make it work so there’s a real shift in tone or we need it to end in a certain way. That’s really handy.

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How has the process changed from season to season, if at all?

It gets easier, for sure. Because every season that goes past, you’ve got this bigger folder of ideas and I’m constantly adding to those ideas, because I’m listening to a lot of music. Let’s just say I’m working on two or three different projects and they all have a different kind of mentality, or a different tonality or vibe, or a different world – in the back of my mind those cogs are sort of turning and you’ll hear something – the lyrics or something – and you go, ‘That could be great for Killing Eve’…

Music acts like a trigger to activate that thought process of whatever project you’re working on… If I’m working with someone like Steven Soderbergh, I will send him as many ideas as I can because he’s already told me what the vibe is.

How does working with Steven compare to working on Killing Eve?

Working with Steven’s very different to working on Killing Eve. Steven is very involved in the music. He loves music. He gives me the most incredible two- line emails, or even one sentence and he manages to say everything in that sentence that other people would maybe write you a fucking thesis on, you know? He’s very, very smart.

And we have a shorthand now because we’ve been working together for over twenty years, so I just create folders and just send him ideas based on the direction that he’s given me and out of those folders he will choose what fucking tickles his ivories.

And is that always material that you’ve done, or is it material from other artists too?

It depends. I mean, I’ve been working on a movie called Kill Switch and it’s set in Detroit in the mid-50s. So it’s got a lot of real instrumental rhythm and blues and a lot of guitar-based kind of jams from that era. I sent him hundreds of things because we all have so much music at our disposal right now and I just start going through and making playlists…

But I have one rule and that rule is that I just send him music that I really love. I would never send him something that I didn’t like. Because then, whatever he chooses, it’s kind of a win-win for me because ultimately he’s the director… And Steven obviously responds well to my taste, so it’s really just a rule that… it shouldn’t even be a rule. That should just be the way it is.

Do you keep a lot of the playlists that you compile for directors?

Some of them. It depends what kind of state my computer’s in. I’ve had a couple of bad crashes over the years where I’ve lost shitloads of stuff, but yeah, generally. Plus, you know, it’s always in the back of your head somewhere…

Like, when I did Logan Lucky, I sent him 350 tracks and he ended up pretty much scoring the whole movie with the source music I gave him and I had to do like four pieces of score, but ultimately it’s kind of like, you know what? It just fucking works. What he did was awesome. The movie is bigger than all of us and that’s the way I look at it. It’s not like I want it my way. You just hope that you’re working with people who have really good taste and will actually respond to your ideas.

With Steven, even if I present him lots of ideas, he’s the one who cherry picks what he likes. It’s a total collaboration. Whereas with Killing Eve you’re kind of left to your own devices in many ways, because there’s so much trust there… We don’t deliver an episode unless we’re really happy with it. You just have to trust that they’re going to have the same reaction.

When you came to work on 'Out Of Sight', am I right in thinking that Danny DeVito requested you personally for it?

[Laughs] Ah, no, no. There are stories. What happened basically was Anita Camarata, who now manages The Sex Pistols, was the music supervisor at Jersey Films. Jersey Films doesn’t exist anymore by the way, but a partner in Jersey Films was Danny DeVito and they were very, very supportive. And what happened was, they suggested me to Steven.

That was off the back of the album, right?

Off the back of 'Let’s Get Killed', yeah.

And then, you know, the Danny DeVito story is basically that they flew me out to LA, put me up in this huge suite at the top of the Universal Hilton. It was like every single kind of Hollywood cliché…. picked me up in a stretch limo, took me to a private airport, I got on the plane and Danny DeVito is sitting there with Rhea Perlman watching South Park and drinking whisky. And then I flew to Santa Cruz with them and we had a laugh and then I watched the movie and met Steven Soderbergh the next day. And I told them what I felt about the movie and told them my ideas and he said to me, ‘Well, give it a go.’

So yeah, he let me sort of have a go and responded well to my thoughts and it went really well. One night I came home and I was staying with a friend in London and I came home after a night out and I sat down on the sofa and I picked up the newspaper and there was a little clip that just said “Steven Soderbergh to direct remake of Ocean’s Eleven”, and then I called him. [Laughs]. And I hadn’t spoken to him since.

I mean, Steven and my relationship is very… I love the man dearly, but the reason why we probably still work together over the years, apart from giving him the music that he wants, is the fact that we don’t hang out and go and party and stuff. We work on films together and we have a brilliant relationship through that film, but when it’s over, he’s a busy man, you know? It’s a kind of, ‘Give me a shout again when you need me’ type of thing. But it’s a very professional kind of working relationship, which is probably why he hasn’t gotten to see the real me… [impersonating Soderbergh] ‘I’LL NEVER WORK WITH THAT FUCKING GUY AGAIN’.

Well, the moment you start mixing business and pleasure…

Exactly. I kind of learned that by accident, really. My instinct told me, you know, just leave him to do his thing. Because, again, working with Steven is kind of like winning the musical lottery, really. He gives you so much freedom to be creative, but knows exactly what he wants as well. And what he wants is within a ballpark. He doesn’t lead you by the hand through it. He says, ‘This is the vibe, now go and create.’ And then he’s very open to what else you bring to it, but it doesn’t become a pastiche of songs that he’s responded really well to. It becomes a thing, but it’s very much a thing that’s steeped in that world of his direction.

I was going to ask you actually, particularly back in the early days, '69 Police' was originally on 'Bow Down to the Exit Sign' before it made it in to Oceans’ Eleven. 'Gritty Shaker’s on there too.

That was all Soderbergh who put that in… Yeah. [Laughs] That was nothing to do with me. I was very, very happy that he did it.

I wondered how much of it might have been like the Killing Eve days now – ‘I’ve got this tune…’

No, no. Not at all. That was all him. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to push my own music in to his films at that stage. I was just like, ‘Okay… is this staying?’ It worked really well. So that’s been, in many ways, the story of my job. It’s like, every record that I’ve put out has done fuck all. It hasn’t sold many. I think 'Let’s Get Killed' was my first… but that was in the 90s and people were still buying records, you know? But it’s always led to other opportunities in film. Even 'The Holy Pictures', the lead song on that - 'I Heard Wonders' - it’s a song that I’m really proud of. I’d never sung before and I sung on it. It’s a very personal song. The next minute Danny Boyle has put it right in the middle of the Olympics ceremony and I think it entered the charts the next week. And that was years after it had come out. A lot of my albums and stuff have kind of lay dormant. They’ve come and gone , but then they’ve gotten in to the hands of a director and that’s led to an opportunity to work on a film and the tracks get licensed and I’m very, very lucky. But I think because my music had always been very influenced by cinema and it comes from a very visual kind of world, it’s sort of attracted the attention of filmmakers just as much as music lovers. Nothing was planned. It just sort of happened like that... When I first started releasing music in the early 90s, it was journalists who said it was very cinematic. And I was going, ‘Is it?’ It was a very natural thing. It just kind of evolved really and before I knew it was like, ‘Oh, I’m pretty good at this.’ And suddenly you become really busy and you’re like, ‘Wow. How the fuck did that happen?’

I was listening to 'Let’s Get Killed' again recently and it still sounds so contemporary. It’s a timeless record.

I really appreciate that. Thank you. That was just one of those things. A lot of the influences on that album were from tracks that I was listening to back when I was a young Mod when I was fifteen. Like, 'My Mate Paul' is a cut up, a sample of this group called the Googie Rene Combo and this track called 'Smokey Jo’s La La'. I used to play that as a DJ when I was fifteen and then suddenly… [Laughs] It had become this big fucking track in the club scene and it was like, ‘How the fuck did that happen?’

Mr Andrew Weatherall - the late Andrew Weatherall - he taught me very early on that you should try to be you. Don’t become the derivative of the derivative. Everybody’s looking back, but don’t be stealing from your contemporaries. Try to forge you own path. I mean, let’s be honest, originality is overrated, but you can be original depending on how you work with different influences and how you put them together.

You end up creating a different sound altogether by merging several different ideas that have been nicked from here, there and everywhere… I listen to a lot of contemporary music, but I think I do try to make our records sound like no one else.

What can we expect from a third Unloved album?

It’s going to be a different record again… A lot of the tracks are quite varied, but I think it’s going to be more orchestral and there’s definitely a Scott Walker kind of influence, it’s still got a touch of the girl group kind of thing… I think we’re going to do a duet sometime with Jarvis, maybe.

Keefus and I remixed 'Must I Evolve?', so it was part of my, ‘We’d love to do it, but would Jarvis come and sing on an Unloved track?’. I knew he really liked the band because he came to the gigs in London and he’d played us on his radio show, so he was already a fan. It was definitely something that he wanted to do, so hopefully we can make that happen. But yeah, I mean it’s shaping up nicely.

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A special 7 inch of 'Why Note'/'Strange Effect' will be released as part of Online Record Store Day (#LoveRecordStores) on June 20th. The original soundtracks to Killing Eve seasons one and two are available now via Heavenly Recordings. New tracks from Unloved appear throughout season three, and a new Unloved album is currently in the works. 

Words: Paul Weedon
Photo Credit: Delphine Ghosarossian

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