Even in the current golden age of innovative television, the popular British crime drama “Peaky Blinders” has set a daring standard for its use of music, with original songs by Nick Cave, Laura Marling, Johnny Cash, the White Stripes and many more. Composer, music director, producer and artist Antony Genn, whose sprawling career has included stints with Pulp, Joe Strummer, Elastica and his own group The Hours, is responsible for the show’s music since season four, and brings a refreshingly punk attitude to an often sedate musical form that adds even more grit to the already gritty Cillian Murphy-starring show.
Genn’s musical career began in his teens when schoolfriend Jarvis Cocker asked him, “Do you fancy playing bass in our band?” “I don’t know how to play bass,” Genn replied. “Don’t worry about that, none of us can really play.” As is shown by this hilariously unfiltered conversation Tuesday with Variety’s Jem Aswad at the Midem conference in France, that approach has informed and inspired his impressive work ever since. An edited transcript follows; watch the entire Q&A below.
How did you get involved with the show?
Cillian is an old friend and asked me and my [longtime musical] partner Martin Slattery if we were interested in overseeing the musical content — and I said no, but I would be interested in completely overdoing all the music and taking a fresh approach. I watched ‘Peaky Blinders’ and it just annoys me when there are clumsy ins and out from tracks — there’s an art form to editing tracks together. So I said if we could have a bit more free reign, and if people were up for pushing it further forward and getting artists involved, then I’d definitely be up for it. Somehow I managed to bullsh– my way into convincing them it was a good idea.”
And they went for it?
Yeah, they were totally up for it! You have to bulldoze your way through things — you have to tell them you’re going to do something, and then just do what you want and make them think it was their idea! That’s a good piece of life advice. But Cillian is a music junkie and from the beginning we were talking about what we wanted and a big watchword was “outlaw” — “[Murphy’s character] Tommy Shelby is an outlaw, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, PJ Harvey, Jack White are all outlaws,” and that was the kinda vibe. But outlaws don’t always make bang-crash-whallop music, which is why we also asked Laura Marling, who I consider to be an outlaw and a badass.
Did you work in the studio with Iggy?
We did it on [remote-recording program] Source-Connect. He was sat on a stool drinking tea and he’s looking into the camera and says [deadpan Iggy Pop imitation], “Who’s that?” “Hey Iggy, it’s Ant.” “Ant? Like the insect?” (laughter) He did a take and I said “Iggy could ya do it a bit more like this?” “Yeah, cool,” and then he just did what he wanted. You ask for Iggy Pop and you get Iggy Pop!
Are you classically trained?
[Scoffs] No, I’m not classically trained! No way, man.
So how do you work with an orchestra? Can you read music?
No, I can’t read music, although my partner can. But music exists inside your head, man! What matters is, does it sound good, does it feel good, has it got some f—in’ blood and guts, has it got some attitude? The most famous guitar riff in the world sounds like it was written by a five year old [sings riff from Rolling Stones “Satisfaction”]. The idea you have to go to school and learn all this stuff? You’re learning from the first time listen to music! I was learning from the first time I listened to [legendary James Bond film composer] John Barry, in fact I’ve got a tattoo of his music on my arm [shows tattoo of musical notation].
But you can’t read it!
Exactly, it could be Paul McCartney’s “Ebony and Ivory” for all I know! [Uproarious laughter.] But it isn’t, you’re about to hear the greatest Louis Armstrong impersonation you’re going to hear all day. [Does impressive impersonation of Armstrong’s song from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” “We Have All the Time in the World.”]
How did you go from being in a band to working in film and TV music?
The way I got into it, I was producing a record for James Lavelle’s project, UNKLE, with 3D from Massive Attack and Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age, and we had someone do some string arrangements and no one liked them. I’d already booked the orchestra for Friday morning, so I called my friend David Arnold, who is a big film composer, and he said “You know what you’re doing, man, just get some violin and cello sounds and write it yourself on the keyboard! Get someone to [transcribe] write the music. And that’s what I did. You learn to do things by diving in.
But I was really lucky to meet Martin — he can do things I can’t do, I can do things he can’t do. We’re like two halves of the same brain.
What else have you been working on recently?
Martin and I are doing an 83-minute ballet in Switzerland with a 60-piece orchestra, I produced an Irish band called Inhaler last week. I’m working with A$AP Rocky on a hip-hop project — I know him through my friend [producer] Danger Mouse, I just bumped into him in a hotel, “Hey! What you been doing?” “I’m doing this TV show, ‘Peaky Blinders.’” “I love that sh–! Tommy Shelby, he my man!” Funny enough, we’d just done this track “Shut Down” with [British rapper] Skepta, which was one my proudest moments, getting some London grime into the show. It’s the whitest show in the world because of the time it’s [set], and the music has largely been white guitar music.
We’re almost out of time — any more wisdom you’d like to impart?
Have no fear! Swim against the tide! That movie “Dead Poets Society” had a massive effect on me when I was a kid.