Andy McDonnell Interview: From gigging with Charli XcX to music-directing ballet in Kyoto

Andy McDonnell Interview: From gigging with Charli XcX to music-directing ballet in Kyoto

Andy McDonnell is a musical polymath. He’s performed with Mount Kimbie and Charli XcX; produced Delphic and The Crystal Fighters; scored movies; produced countless TV soundtracks – and played stages ranging from Ronnie Scotts to Glastonbury. He’s also designed a rig for The Royal Opera House and performed at the Royal Festival Hall. We caught up with him to find out more about his musical background and the technology behind his creative output...

[MPS]
You have an extraordinarily varied musical career, what are you working on at the moment?

[AMc]
I’m just finishing up the score for an animated short film for the BFI which I’m very excited about, it is with an amazing director/animator called Theo Scott. I’m also about halfway through my own record which was started during lockdown last year. I hadn’t planned on writing a record but as I got through a few tracks they were all fitting together and felt good so I’m carrying on with that. I’m currently preparing all the music to be recorded with the strings soon.

[MPS]
Your work could (roughly) be divided into stage and studio work; do you get more satisfaction out of live performance or composing?

[AMc]
I guess it has changed over the years; I used to love performing and did not want to spend too much time in the studio, but it has now flipped. I still look forward to performing but I think it will be when I’m happier with the music which I’m playing out. Also, following being locked down I’m excited to get out there and I feel a lot of musicians will have a new thirst for performing, as will audience members.

[MPS]
Corona Virus has clearly limited ways musicians can earn a living, how have you survived lockdown?

[AMc]
One (possible) benefit of composing is we are often isolated at the best of times. That doesn’t really affect the way we make a living as the work needs to be out there, but it has meant I’ve still been able to work. Working a lot in soundtracks I still had a number of projects going on during lockdown but things were often delayed and or/cancelled. I spent a part of the end of last year writing a module for a university which has kept me fairly busy and I hope it will be a yearly project.

[MPS]
You have played some iconic places (Ronnie Scotts, The Royal Festival Hall, Glastonbury, the London O2 Arena) - what kind of venue do you feel most at home playing? 

[AMc]
That’s a tricky one. I think it really comes down to what type of music and the venue which you can get the most exciting performance and best sound out of.  I used to love playing in small clubs where you would get the instant response and feeling from the audience, but one of my favorite places to play in the last couple of years was The Barbican. I think it’s because there such a mix of amazing performers and styles there and when you are onstage it can so quiet and dark if you want it to be. Playing the 02 was utterly terrifying but a great experience (and my mum came along).

[MPS]
The list of artists you’ve performed with is also pretty impressive, does any single act, or gig even, stand out for you?

[AMc]
I learnt so much from everyone I’ve been lucky to have worked with but (although we weren’t technically on stage together), working with Scott Walker has got to be one of the most stand out experiences I’ve had. Scott asked me to work on a ballet which he was scoring at the Royal Opera House and we created two pieces of music based on, and derived from a sample of a phone ring. I learnt more working with him over a couple of weeks than I had in a long time, and to then see it performed in a setting such as the Opera House was inspiring.

[MPS]
As well as being an instrumentalist and producer, you’ve designed live looping rigs for some interesting applications; can you tell us a little about how this came about?

[AMc]
When I first started making music and remixes I was involved with Gabriel Prokofiev and his label Nonclassical records where I remixed a number of the classical/contemporary classical records which he was putting out. Through that I met a composer called Orlando Gough who was writing an opera for one singer at The Royal Opera House but all of the music and accompaniment would come from the singer herself. I built the whole system in Ableton Live and used some max patches. It took months of rehearsals and an incredible singer called Melanie Pappenheim (who was singing to clicks of changing tempos and time signatures and couldn’t drop a 16th or 32nd at some places) but the idea was that it would be seamless and the audience wouldn’t really have to see or be aware of the tech apart from the musical result.

[MPS]
You have an impressive list of brand commissions in your resume, how do you find working with high profile brands?

[AMc]
I enjoy it. I think the interesting thing when it comes to composing for brands, whether it be fashion films or commercials, is seeing music/sound and its effect in different ways to possibly the way you would as a record or track. Also, the way you have to condense a certain energy or sound into a very short period of time. I also find I’m inspired a lot by visual work and working with directors and photographers, so this is a great way to pursue that.

[MPS]
Who do you count among your musical influences?

[AMc]
It’s pretty varied I would say. I started off as a jazz player so I definitely still have a place for amazing modal players like McCoy Tyner, and Coltrane was the one for me. But generally, I love anything which is cinematic or textural and combines acoustic and electronic elements; from Eno’s ambient music to composers like Johan Johannsen, Mic Levi and Trent Reznor. I find when I want to just listen to something I’m often drawn to composers like Nils Frahm, Max Richter and Trent Reznor’s film scores.

[MPS]
If you could go back to any musical era what would it be?

[AMc]
Oof that’s hard. I think I would be stuck for choice sitting in the Delorean. Probably the 70s purely because it really was a golden time for studio experimentation and the tech side of music was starting to appear, but still with live elements and warm sounds. Portable synths and 24 track tape!

But to be honest, I’m quite keen to use your time machine to go forward and see what everyone is making in 100 years.

[MPS]
What was the first instrument you picked up?

[AMc]
Piano a bit. I remember just trying to write things from a very young age. I definitely had lessons at some point, but I always found I was more interested in patterns and shapes on the piano. At the same time, I remember experimenting with this old guitar my mum had and finding the similarities across the two instruments.

[MPS]
Tell us about your NightSky, what made you chose it?

[AMc]
I saw an online demo with the NightSky and I realized that it (in a much better way) was producing effects which I had been creating in the box with freezing type effects combined with reverbs and Eventide type sounds. As I’ve been adding more synths and live elements to my writing and recording, I really like the tactile aspect of working with effects units and also the permanent nature of re-amping something through it, or doing a take directly through the pedal. I started off having the NightSky as an effects loop while playing on piano through two close mics and seeing how it would fare on live takes. This was great for getting ideas down and I then found that re-amping takes on various instruments (in stereo) back through the Nightsky made from great atmospheres and sonic worlds which I could then tweak on the fly as I went.

[MPS]
What else do you have in your studio?

[AMc]
Quite a number of pedals (see picture below). A fairly contained modular with a Moog Dfam and Pitsburgh Sv1, a number of synths – Juno 106, MS10, DX7, a Rhodes, a piano, and an ESQ-1. Then a lot of different soft synths and granular type sounds in the box. I love my old Evans Super Echo which has a great spring reverb in addition to the tape delay. On top of that (from my playing background) I have a few guitars, a saxophone and a flute which I play badly occasionally with a lot of reverb. Also, a Tascam four track which is quite fun to run sounds and tracks through.

[MPS]
Is there anything you have parted with that you really miss?

[AMc]
I am the worst hoarder of gear so it’s not often I have parted with anything. My Super Echo was broken for about 4 years and I missed it a lot and tried to get close to that sound via software - with varied success. Recently I found an amazing repair place in East London who brought it back to life and it’s a brilliant piece of gear again.

[MPS]
Can you think of anything that really changed things for you?

[AMc]
There are a few but if I had to choose I think it would be my Juno-106 or MS10. I had worked with synths in the box or for shows but using either of those synths in the studio I really started to understand the way synthesis works and the type of sounds and effects you can get from these instruments. With the 106 I’ll put it away for a year and think I’ve found everything I can in it, and then ill switch it on for a project and find a whole new way of working with it. I think any synth on which you can follow your nose a bit and not be completely sure what you are going to get, is an exciting one.

[MPS]
Is there any advice you can offer to people starting out on their musical journeys?

[AMc]
If you are happy with what you are working on then put it out, don’t think about it too much. There is too much pressure for everything to be perfect and (from personal experience) nothing is ever finished. Close the book and release the music and move on to the next thing.

Also, try working with people who aren’t musicians; some of my best learning experiences have been with photographers, directors, designers, artists and dancers.

 

Find out more about Andy's up to

[Main photo credit: Lowe Seger]

 

 

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