Chris Haigh is a composer from Barnsley, who’s music has been used for motion pictures, T.V and video games trailers and ad campaigns for Wolverine, Pacific Rim, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Host, Taken 2, Unknown, Arrow, Sparticus, American Horror Story, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Top Gear, WWE Smackdown, AND SO MANY MORE.
I met up with Chris to find out about how he went from Barnsley College student to a composer whose music is in demand by nearly every major studio in the world.
Tell me about your experience of music lessons at school.
Well I went to Kirk Balk and the arts in general was quite good. However, my during early secondary school days I had no interest in playing music and my lessons consisted of playing songs of xylophones and keyboards. I couldn’t play music back then and wasn’t really interested in it. I was a massive sports fan and chose to study are for GCSE.
So what was the turning point? When did you get into music?
My brother David (Imoko Set’s drummer) brought home a VHS of The Doors. It was amazing. It all changed from that point. I wanted to be Jim Morrison. I started reading and writing poetry. Of course, I realised later that I couldn’t sing at all, so I decided to become a drummer. In fact, me and David started to drum around the same time.
By that point it was too late to start a music GCSE as I’d already chosen art as my option, but I applied to do it a college when I’d left school. And despite not being able to read music or having any real experience, I managed to blag my way in. Following that I did my music degree at Barnsley College.
Did you play in any bands?
My first one was a band with Ryan (Lewis Ryan of The Rolling Down Hills) and Chris Birchall. We only played together a few times and we weren’t that good. They were into more harder rock and grunge and it wasn’t my thing. I played in a band when I was at college called Intermission. That was me on drums, Jill Makinson on vocals, Simon Smith on guitar, and Sean McKenning on bass. Emma Johnstone later joined on vocals and Adam Slater on Hammond organ. We played with Sunlounger, Skinboat and played one of the gigs that Ming Mong Magazine put on in their early days. I also played in the very early days of Hotel Brown with Rory, Leon and Emma.
What saw the shift from playing drums in a band to composing?
I went to the cinema to see Gladiator. Hans Zimmer’s score just blew me away. That was a defining moment for me. Suddenly it just dawned on me that I wanted to compose film scores. But what would I do? I was in Barnsley – not LA.
Well, Steve Roberts was a tutor at college and he encouraged me to persue a Masters in film and TV composing over in Surrey. The fees would have cost a few grand and it would have meant me saving up to fund it.
I decided that I was going to get the worst job ever, partly to help me save up but also because doing a mundane job would really spur me on. I got an interview are Morrisons. They said that I’d be more suitable to train for a managerial position because of my degress but I said I wasn’t interested that as I still wanted to peruse music and that I’d happy just shelf stacking. They were really adamant but eventually they gave me a job on the Audio Bar. I was still living with my parents so it meant that over time I was able to save up money. In the end I actually ended just ended up chipped away at my savings and bought myself lots of new gear and software to enable me to start composing for films at home.
What you do now is compose music for trailers, TV spots and ad campaigns. How does that differ from what you were doing back then and how did the change come about?
To most people, the different between film and TV scores and music for trailers is minute, but they are two entirely different industries. The composition and structure of the music is totally different. At that point though, this is around 2002, I was specifically wanting to score films. It was the early days of social media and myspace and I was composing in my spare time and scoring student films. I knew my work wasn’t good enough though – nowhere near industry standard, so I created a website from a free template and put some of my best demos on there.
It turns out a guy from New York contacts me off of the back of that. He worked for MTV and Nickelodeon and was wanting to create a 30 minute Sci-Fi film. He got me on board right from the beginning, while the film was still in pre-production stage. That project last about eight months and was great experience. I came out of with a bigger portfolio and bigger confidence, but then it was suddenly ‘what do I do now?’ I wasn’t sure how to progress from that point.
How did you take the step from film scores to composing trailer music?
People kept telling me that I was really good at big, epic and emotional music and that it would work in trailer music. I started researching it and really got into it. I naively sent some demos to a company called Immediate Music – they are a pioneer in the trailer music industry. They kindly wrote back to me, albeit to tell me I wasn’t good enough. However, they gave me adivse and it spurred me on. I put my head down and worked at it.
Another trailer company recommended me to put some live elements into my music – so I tried some live guitar and even vocals, often using Emma Johnstone (Grande Casino, Hotel Brown, Imoko Set, Garforth and Myers).
It was around this time I befriended Dan Graham. He contacted me via myspace. He was starting up a company called Gothic Storm. He got me on board and I started writing music for them. The first couple of albums they produced were electronic, drone, percussion based and were cheaper to produce but as soon as we were able, we used live strings. Dan was already an established musician and composer and he put his money into getting musician’s compositions recorded by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
Dan has total integrity and my working relationship with him is great – always offering advice and healthy criticism.
When did composing become a full time career for you?
I got to a point when I asked my manager in the job I was doing, if I could go down to 18 hours and I fianlly made the jump became self-employed. I gradually broke away bit by bit until I was on my own. It was easier for me then, as I was living in Barnsley with my then girl-friend. If I’d have had kids of if I lived in London – like many people kept saying I should do to make it – it would have taken much longer to be able to make that jump.
If you asked that question to someone else, you’d get a different question every time. Each situation is different.
I don’t do anything now other than writing music. I was always told I would never be able to do that and that I would have to gig and engineer to pay the bills while I did my hobby in my spare time. But because I do just that I need to be very aware of the industry and keep my finger in all pies, so even though I work for Gothic Storm, I still do some work independently as well.
You mentioned the early days of myspace; how has social media worked for you?
Gothic Storm work with marketing and PR companies, just like many other record companies and artists do. It’s a very solitary job though and I do everything at home, so sometimes I get restless. I don’t like to be idle and I like to have as much control as possible, so I have my Chris Haigh Music facebook page and Souncloud page and I am always promoting my music as well, just in the same as a band would. I use the same tools.
I got the Rise of the Planet of the Apes and In Time jobs through self promotion. I think that’s partly why Dan made me Creative Director of Gothic Storm recently.
A lot of people consider being from a small town like Barnsley a barrier to achieving success or fame. Often bands deny the fact they are from Barnsley, and pretend they are from Sheffield, as though it will help them on their path? How about you?
Twenty years ago it would have been a massive barrier; specifically because LA is the centre of the soundtrack and movie industry. You have London and Bristol over here but at some point, you have to reach over the LA. Now I can take a Skype call and send music to a conference room on the other side of the world in seconds.
If there is a barrier… if Barnsley is a barrier, I have never seen it. If I go to a meeting in London and meet with studio executives, they ask where I’m from, I’m saying I’m from Barnsley and often they say they’ve been there or passed through. Never any obvious pre-conceived notion of what Barnsley is.
I just recommend people, whether they want to be a composer or make it in a band, be very business minded and savvy.
I’ve seen many people along the way give up on a music career but you’ve just got to stick at it. You never know what is around the corner. In fact many of the people I have met since who are working in the industry have come from similar backgrounds to me.
You mentioned Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Gladiator as an influential one. Any others?
Thomas Newman’s soundtrack for Meet Joe Black. It’s an amazing soundtrack but the film with Brad Pitt got absolutely panned.
I don’t listen to many soundtracks now; I spend so much time working on composing. What I do tend to do though, is I listen out for changing trends.
Do you keep in touch with the Barnsley music scene? Any favourites?
Imoko Set obviously, as my brother is the drummer. Black Vines, Black Lamps. I saw a fantastic band recently with a female singer, she played guitar.
Yes, them. They were great. I don’t get to see local bands as much as I’d like to. I do go to all of the local festivals though. Oh, and whatever Lee Storrer is doing as well – ever since the early Sunlounger days.
Yes, you played on the Servers debut album (Lee Storrer’s new band). How did that come about?
Lee approached me nearly a year ago with some tracks he’d been working on. One was Universes & Supernovas. The track was already really big and so I held back, but he kept asking for bigger and more. There are two versions out, one is a single edit. The other is quite long and really atmospheric.
He then sent me another track and he wanted the big heavy treatment again, but I kept saying to him, no, it needs more restrain, trust me. And eventually he did and so I added some subdued strings and it sounded great. I’d have loved to have worked on more tracks but didn’t have the time.
In fact, I’d like to work with Lee one day on a Gothic Storm album with him on live guitar but it’s getting the funds and the time.
What’s one of the stranger experiences you had while composing?
I was actually approached by the studio behind Human Centipede 2 to produce the soundtrack. They wanted to meet up with me in London. I asked about the available budget and they said £800. I couldn’t believe it. The first film made hundreds of thousands on a limited cinema release and then millions on DVD, all from a tiny budget. They must have had a much bigger budget for the sequel but it just felt like they were wanting to get an unknown composer because it was cheaper. I think that happens often.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be going to the NAB Music Conference in Las Vegas next year, a trade conference for broadcasters, studios and the film industry. I’ve been doing composing for years now but next year will be the first time I go over to LA for work and I’ll probably be going once a year now. I’m looking forward to it.