Behind the Music interview: Lean on Pete’s James Edward Barker

Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24 via EPK
Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24 via EPK /

We interview the composer for the upcoming A24 film, Lean on Pete, James Edward Barker.

Behind the Music is an ongoing series that seeks to interview and gain an introspective on both established and up-and-coming composers. These composers, who have worked for everything from television to film to commercials, share their experiences, work ethic, and more, here on Hidden Remote. For this edition, we spoke with James Edward Barker.

One of the strongest and most crucial relationships one can have in the film industry is the chemistry between a director and his/her composer. The effect a musical score can have on a film can either be a deal maker or deal breaker. Part of the reason that a film like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk works so well, despite its unusual, nonlinear structure, is the fast-paced, rhythmic score by Hans Zimmer, which helps heighten the state of tension and panic that follows the characters in the film. Same with Douglas Pipes, whose macabre, yet enchanting score for Krampus turns an already zany horror-comedy into something of a dark fairy tale, forging a magical atmosphere into the entire film. One of the more understated, but nonetheless consistent collaborations happening under our noses is the Andrew Haigh/James Edward Barker team, which is in full force for the upcoming A24 film, Lean on Pete.

James Edward Barker, a longtime collaborator of Andrew Haigh (who has also directed the 2015 classic, 45 Years), has managed to rack up some notable features in his career, including Lean on Pete, the Jeffrey Dean Morgan/Robert De Niro-led thriller, The Heist, and even the cult horror film, The Human Centipede II. His works are known for their versatility and ability to adapt to the appropriate atmosphere of their respective movies and Lean on Pete should be no different. All of this, along with a genuinely passionate attitude towards his work and film in general, is what makes the opportunity to have him answer questions for Hidden Remote all the more exciting, as he talks about his work on Lean on Pete, his humble beginnings, experience at the prestigious Venice Film Festival and more in the interview down below!

Hidden Remote: To start things off, we’ll delve a little into your humble beginnings, if you don’t mind. How did you first get involved in a career as a composer?

James Edward Barker: Since I was a little kid, I’ve always been obsessed with film and music scores. I recently found an old mix tape I made, recording my favorite soundtracks from various videos we had at home. I would sit there in front of the tv with a ghetto blaster and record the soundtracks… it’d be full of hiss, cracks and all muffled…and it was quite a laborious task for a kid to undertake if you think about it!

Lean on Pete
Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24 via EPK /

But if we are going back to the very beginning when I actually started fooling around with creating music itself, it would be me at the age of 9, messing around on my mum’s old guitar… or blowing up old 4-tracks with various forms of feedback in my early teens! I always thought you had to be middle-aged to be a film composer, so it wasn’t my first aim. I wanted to be in a band and I was in a couple for a while, giving that my best shot, but it just didn’t work out.  My first break came in my twenties on a comedy called The Best Man (Unhitched) by Director Stefan Schwartz (Shooting Fish). I’d met up a few years before that with an old school friend, Tim Despic, and we had started producing and composing a whole load of demos with the aim of breaking into composing for commercials as a duo. We must have sent out hundreds of demos with no breaks and a lot of near misses, and then one landed on the desk of a film Producer called Neil Peplow. So, out of the blue, he called us up saying he would like us to compose the music for his film. Ironically, I think every demo on that CD was fairly melancholic, so the fact we got the call up for a comedy was pretty funny in itself. We worked on the film for about 6 months before we were finally “officially attached” but, I’m very grateful to Neil for that first break and for championing us onto the film. From there, it then played in the market at Cannes and we attended the main screening, and afterwards these two German Producers were saying how good they thought the music was, so I turned around and introduced ourselves and that’s when we got our second film!

Hidden Remote: As you have gained experience in the field over the years, you must have developed a particular sound you enjoy. What do you consider to be your instrument of choice?

Barker: I love my guitar pedals. I’ve collected so many over the years and I love experimenting for experiments sake. I treat them as instruments themselves, not just as conduits or as effects… there’s such an art to using a lot of them. I’m in love with the grey areas between music and sound… and I don’t particularly like complying with traditional musical stereotypes or rules. It’s the break up and fragility of the sound of an instrument where I find the most emotional authenticity… and where it’s the most sonically interesting to me. I set myself goals to use or produce an instrument in ways that maybe haven’t yet been fully explored before.

Hidden Remote: How did you first involve yourself in composing the music for A24’s Lean on Pete?

Barker: I’ve known Andrew [Haigh] and Tristan [Goligher] both separately and together for many years now, and with Andrew specifically, I first met him on a film called Crack Willow, when he was concentrating on editing. After that, he asked me to score his short, Five Miles Out, and then I worked with Andrew on his first feature, Greek Pete, before Tristan and Andrew hired me to write the score for Weekend. It was going really well, but Andrew kept toying with the very bold decision of having no score at all. It was obvious at the time that it was a fairly frustrating predicament for him, because I know he loved what I had written, and he was very apologetic(!), but ultimately the use of no score was part of what made Weekend such an original film, and it just goes to show that Andrew is a risk-taker and someone who really knows what he wants and how to shape his craft to achieve that vision. After that, Andrew then made the incredible 45 Years, again a film with no score, and I have to be honest and say that at that time I was worried that the ship might have sailed re: my chances of working with Andrew again (at least in the short-term!), so I was flattered and extremely excited to get the call to come in and see some early cuts of Lean On Pete and discuss some ideas for the music.

Hidden Remote: In the case of Lean on Pete, a drama about a boy befriending a horse at his job, how did you go about in creating a score that would best suit this film?

Barker: It was a very organic process with Andrew. Jonathan [Alberts], the editor, and Andrew had used some previous music tracks of mine as a ‘temp’ score, but from there on in we kept going back and forth on ideas, both on the sort of direction we were taking, the instrumentation of those cues and where they were placed in the film. I think initially we started off with a more melodic approach to the score, but it soon became apparent that what was needed was something much more subtle, sparse and experimental… and that’s when we found the sweet spot…. Where it didn’t sound forced and sat much more naturally with the visual and emotional landscape.

Lean on Pete
Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24 via EPK /

What was interesting about the whole process was that the music was a forever evolving character in and amongst the use of sound and the film’s environment, so at every stage we were reviewing, or adding, subtracting and shaping the score so that it really felt like a painting of sounds and tones rather than a musical score. Albeit with the end cue of Charley on the bus feeling the most like a traditional piece of score and the coming together of everything we had hinted at before.

Andrew didn’t want any of the score to feel too comfortable, and I had had this idea from the very beginning about wanting to hear every movement of the horse’s hair of the bows from the string section, and in particular the trems… so I recorded these layers of such softly played strings, and in doing so, they produced these tiny feedbacks and washes of sounds. The result was almost a shimmering noise, mainly because Charlie [Andrew] (my engineer and co-Producer), had to turn them up so loud to get the smallest of signals (he’s not a big fan of compressors!). We did the same with the percussion – we bowed cymbals, singing bowls and the vibraphone in the same way, to create these authentic ‘cold’ ambiences, and I recorded a variety of sounds from my storm tube, dilruba and other leftfield instruments. For the warmer sounds, I recorded a pitch-shifted slide ebow on my acoustic steel string guitar, and then I used a high pitch filter and reverb. I added this to some chordal sounds from my old ‘70s Morley Pik-Percussion guitar pedal, and a small horn section. Finally, for the desert scenes, we had richer, warmer trems, slow plucked double basses (using a plectrum rather than fingered to give it a bit more of an attack) accompanying these raw and closely recorded cluster chords on the strings.

Hidden Remote: Do you consider the process of scoring the film to be more difficult than other projects, or something easier to adjust to?

Barker: I felt that this project was something I’d been waiting for my whole career and one I hadn’t had the opportunity to properly execute before, mainly because of the lack of films like this. So in that case, creatively, I was able to write very quickly.

Lean on Pete
Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24 via EPK /

The only frustration from my end was that usually on a film, you can show the Director a temp version of what you want via samples / midi, but there wasn’t anything I had or any samples of recordings of strings I could find anywhere that were replicants of what was in my head. However, I was very lucky in that Andrew trusted what I was describing to him, and that the only way to achieve a lot of the sounds was by workshopping with the players during the recordings. It took some time, but Charlie [Andrew] and the players were all on board and excited to try variations out; and I’m proud that we’ve created something quite different to many scores that I have heard before.

Hidden Remote: Do you consider your work for this film to be something easily accessible without the context of the film, or are the two aspects virtually inseparable?

Barker: That’s a good question. I think it would be hard to temp another film up with this score, because of the originality of the story and the characters it’s supporting. However, this is a question I have asked myself, and when I have had the chance to re-listen to some of the score isolated away from the movie, I like to think that it conjures up enough emotion and originality of sound to keep the interest of purely an audio audience.

Hidden Remote: The success of Lean on Pete on the festival circuit is quite notable, with the film having a large presence at last year’s Venice Film Festival (the same festival where Oscar frontrunner, The Shape of Water, also had a large presence.) How does it feel to have helped create the score for such an acclaimed movie like Lean on Pete?

Barker: The reception so far has been fantastic. From the reviews from both critics and audiences alike, to the festival circuit itself and the awards and nominations it has garnered – including my own award for Best Score at Les Arcs Film Festival (!) – but the best of all so far was the near 7-minute standing ovation at its world premiere in Venice… I think all of us were bawling our eyes out! The Lean On Pete family is a very special one and I feel very special to be a part of it and its journey.

Lean on Pete
Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24 via EPK /

Hidden Remote: Considering your extensive past with Andrew Haigh’s filmography, would you ever consider working with him again?

Barker: I don’t think I could ever consider not working with Andrew again. His work allows me to be a more mature composer and look at the way in which I approach music and picture differently from other Directors… and I am very grateful for that.

Hidden Remote: Moving on from Lean on Pete, let’s try and take a look at the future for a little bit. Do you have any projects coming down the pike anytime soon, whether they be for film or solo projects?

Barker: There’s a few things coming up for release soon that I’m very proud of. I have an epic score for an action film which I composed with Tim [Despic] called Final Score, which Scott Mann Directed. Tim and I composed Scott’s last film together as well and it’s a balance that works really well. I’m also really proud of the score I did for a supernatural horror movie called Mara, Produced by Steven Schneider (The Visit, Paranormal Activity, Insidious); it’s a relentless, scary and emotional score and I really enjoyed creating some truly horrifying and disturbing sounds for it! I’ve got a few projects I’m also being touted for right now, but it’s too early to talk about them and I’d kick myself for jinxing any of them!

Hidden Remote: In studying your work while prepping these questions, it occurred to me that your work expands a multitude of genres, from dramas to action to horror. Is there any one (or more than one) genre that you prefer to work in or are you a composer who must experiment with anything, given the opportunity?

Barker: I think I enjoy all the above, but I would certainly like to do more dramas. I’d like to find an original TV series to get my teeth into… and I’d love to have the opportunity to do both sci-fi and more fantasy based films. I think whatever the genre is, I know my strengths are composing to a story with a strong emotional backbone or character arc, and being able to create a score with a little more leftfield than mainstream when it comes to its sonic landscape.

Hidden Remote: Do you have a particular filmmaker or genre that you would love to collaborate with in the future? If so, now’s your chance to shoot your shot at the window of opportunity!

Barker: There are too many to mention and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between who you adore as filmmaker and who you actually want to work with… mainly because a lot of the time, a Director has a special relationship with a certain composer, so if you take that away or split that bond up, would you still love their movies as much?

What I can say though is that I’m very excited to find new Directors to work with …and with any luck, keep working alongside the ones I have worked and am currently working with.

Hidden Remote: I’ve already asked about your preferred instrument in composing, but now I have to ask: do you have any specific favorite scores from what you’ve created over the years?

Barker: I’ve been really lucky to have worked with some great people over the years, and there’s still some of my earlier scores that I’m very proud of, including the scores for The Crew, Psych: 9, and Weekender… and then more recently for Mara, London Heist and Heist… but I’m just so proud of what I was able to achieve in the score for Lean On Pete. Andrew and Tristan gave me the freedom to experiment and workshop material throughout the entire writing and recording process, and when you have that support it only spurs you on and drives you creatively to deliver the best score you can.

Lean on Pete
Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24 via EPK /

Hidden Remote: To close this out, I’ll just ask a couple of more questions. Firstly: Tell the readers why they should go out to see Lean on Pete when it releases on March 30, 2018. What will make the film worth experiencing?

Barker: At its core, it’s an incredible character driven and emotional drama. Charlie Plummer is just amazing in his grounded central role and he is backed by a fantastic supporting cast. Cinematically and sonically, it’s a beautiful film and from the filmmakers behind Weekend and 45 Years, you’ll be watching some the UK’s best talent delivering an unforgettable and inspiring work of art.

Next: Behind the Music: Knife Skills' Robert Miller

Hidden Remote: Lastly, do you have any advice or words of wisdom to any up-and-coming composers looking to break into the industry?

Barker: The film world is a team sport and it’s not just about the crucial relationships you may have with the Directors, but you’ll need the support of your editor friends,   writers, producers, sound designers and sound mixers to help you on your way, so do as many favors as you would hope from them.

Lean on Pete is in theaters March 30.