Paul Terry interview: The Act Of Letting Go by Cellarscape

A year in the life of Paul Terry might include work on a new Cellarscape album, a major publishing project and laying down temp tracks for a British blockbuster movie. Matt Chapman caught up with him for an exclusive chat, as he launches his latest album The Act Of Letting Go

Every now and then you meet someone with so many irons in the fire, you think they should probably stop fighting it and become a blacksmith. Paul Terry is one of those people. Despite a CV that includes indie film scores, soundscape work on a Bond movie and books on super-secret hit TV shows, he’s so charming it’s impossible to let the job envy get the better of you.

Cellarscape - Paul Terry


MyM: Please tell those MyM readers who don’t know you a little bit about yourself.

My name is Paul Terry and I’m a writer of music and books. On the music side I have a solo moniker project called Cellarscape, which is on its fifth record. I also write film music for independent films. My friend Tony Lewis is a music editor and if you name a major feature film, Tony has probably worked on it – in a Ron Burgundy sense, he’s kind of a big deal. He and James Bellamy and myself have a recording studio in King’s Cross called The Safe House and we all work there on different projects.

It’s a very nice feeling to be involved in a Bond film. Tony was music editor on Skyfall and he brought me in to be his assistant for the temp score, which is a process where you lay out a score before the composer comes in and creates the actual music for it. That was a crazy bunch of months digging out and trying to find cues and pieces of music that might fit the temp soundtrack for James Bond.

So Tony would phone me up or email me a brief and say, ‘I’ll describe the scene to you’, because oftentimes it would be done blind. That’s actually a better way of doing a temp score because you’re going on the emotion of it. So he’d say, for example, ‘I need something that doesn’t have a romantic feel to it, but there’s a couple and she’s shaving him’ – which is obviously the Bond scene, as it turned out. But I deliberately say to Tony, don’t tell me too much about the scene because I’ll try and vibe off what you’re telling me. So he says, ‘there’s not super-sexual tension, there’s caring but we need it to have some tension and allude to a troublesome aspect of his character’. So he’ll say a string of emotive sentences like that and then he might add, ‘we don’t want loads of sweeping, gushy strings, we want something with a little bit of tech’ – which is programming – ‘or perc’ – which is percussion. Or it might be an action bit and he’ll say, ‘there’s a vehicle smashing into a train, we don’t want to go Hans Zimmer, we want to go a little bit more kinetic – so maybe 50 per cent of an Inception vibe and 50 per cent something else’. And I go away and find those.

Being a nerd is very useful for this kind of role, because as Tony says in a Sherlock Holmes sense, can we abuse your mind palace? I don’t have a mind palace at all but I do have a strange ability to remember things in film. So I can remember scenes from films, like a Korean movie that had a really great action scene and I can remember what the cue was like. So I’ll say, ‘there was this Kim Jee-woon film that had a really nice sequence in it and that might have exactly what you want’. And he says, ‘OK, dig it out’, so I’ll go and find it. So a lot of it is memory, almost remembering what you felt when you watched a certain film. And then you consolidate all these options, a thousand options, down to 30, down to 15 – and then one of those might fit for the temporary score. It’s a very meticulous process. Tony is the genius of it and it was an honour to assist him.

You’ve just released the Cellarscape album The Act Of Letting Go, tell us about that…

This is the fifth record I’ve done and it was definitely the hardest. I only noticed it with finishing this one that there’s a pattern to the albums I’ve done where I only realise when I get into the guts of it and think, ‘Oh no, this is now the hardest thing I’ve ever done’ because it’s doing things you’ve never done before.

So on the last album, I wanted to do a very minimalist record that had very long songs. In my head, I thought that was going to be a very quick-and-easy stop-gap record. It ended up being a really difficult record to make and I respect minimalist artists a lot more because it’s very difficult to craft soundscapes that can tell a story that are very minimal and don’t have smashing drums and massive guitar riffs.

I feel like every record I’ve done is a reaction to the last one, so when it came to The Act Of Letting Go I wanted to go back to doing a longer record. The title means many things and I never tell people exactly what song titles or even the record titles mean – I think it’s important as a music fan when you listen to bands that you love that you bring your own emotional baggage to a song. You then own the song – you make a Radiohead song mean something to you.

But I will say that one reason it’s called The Act Of Letting Go is because it’s me letting go worrying about things like if I’ve done a track where I sample footsteps and make a load of homemade beats and then have a cello introduce the record and then a big drop-d riff comes, is that a problem? The answer should be, ‘you’re letting go of worrying about it so no, just do it’. So this record for me was very much about just doing it and following my gut.

I love doing homemade samples of organic sounds and Imogen Heap is a huge hero of mine and she’s always done that. And I wanted to learn more about that and embrace it a lot more. I started doing it on the previous album using footsteps on a track called ‘Snowglobe’. This record was about embracing homemade samples more and asking ‘what would a full-length record be like if I had loads more homemade beats, get hold of a quartet and did a lot more string orchestrations in it, and what would that combination be like if I brought some of the riffs back but almost did the extremes a bit more, having more intense moments when they need to be and more pop moments’ – with songs like Out Of My Hands, which is a great track. In a sense the summary of the record is about not worrying should you do this? Let’s just do it anyway if it feels right.


You recently scored the short film Care, which is just starting to be shown at festivals. It uses its sound to convey its mood and story and has almost no speech in it. Did you visit the eerie set to get a feel for it or score it after it had been shot?

Care came to me when the director Tristan MG Aitchison got in touch with me and he’d already shot the film and it was a very spontaneous guerrilla-style filmmaking process. If you go to his website at Tristan’s done a great piece about how the film was made and that’s a very interesting story and I won’t speak for him.

But when the film came to me I spoke to Tristan on the phone, as he lives up in Scotland, and he said, ‘this film doesn’t really have any dialogue, and it’s a 15-minute short.’ And he said all the kinds of things as a composer that get you simultaneously really excited and terrified, because you’re like, ‘wow, it’s a blank canvas of opportunities for doing cool sounds’ and then it’s terrifying because it functions like a silent movie and the music and the soundscape has to tell the story.

So he said, ‘I don’t want a typical horror Hollywood score with loads of smashing and scares, I want things that people feel that are tonal like drones.’ And he asked, ‘Do you like David Lynch?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna get on.’ He’s one of my heroes and when I was in college I did a dissertation on how David Lynch uses sound against image. So for me this project came out of the blue and was exciting because I essentially had to make a score that didn’t rely on musical tropes, it had to rely on atmospheres and tones and I’ve always been interested in that. So this film was a total dream project.

I saw an early scene with the stag, which when I saw it dry with no sound, it really affected me. Tristan has an amazing eye for composition, for the way he juxtaposes the tracking shots. I think he’s got a lot of Stanley Kubrick in him, especially The Shining, the way he uses close ups. It got to me so I wrote that cue first and sent it to me as a demo and he said, ‘You’ve made it really scary. Which is good but I didn’t in my head see it as being that frightening.’ But it’s a really frightening sequence and that got me signed on to the film.

Doing Care was amazing. The soundscape and the score are amorphous and they do constantly ebb and flow against each other. And I love the fact he trusted me completely and said ‘I think you get the film.’ I told him I like doing character cues a lot and it’s an old-fashioned term for film and music that means you are constantly writing a theme of music for the character. So I wanted the old lady to have a theme, the environment to have a theme, the care home to have a theme and whatever threat is in the house to have one too.

You’ve done soundtracks before that…

My first ever short film was at college and university with Paul Williams, who I’ve done made many films with since as Evil Hypnotist Productions. That first film was a thriller called Sold and Paul wanted to do a writer/director piece for his last project and asked, ‘Would you score it?’ I said, ‘Yes’ immediately and I’d never scored a film in my life! Friends who know me know that’s basically what I do – I say yes to things and then think, ‘How do you do that?’

That film was great because it was a dark comedy thriller and he needed a metal track for a sequence and I had to write this really heavy Korn-esque metal song, a jazz piece for a café sequence, a piano cue linking some things. It was very schizophrenic but the film itself was so it needed all these cues. Ordinarily, let’s say Sold was a feature film, you’d have a composer do the score aspects and then buy in a Korn track and a lounge lizard jazz track. So that was really a great challenge and really set me up for how the most important thing about film soundtracking is the fact that the music has to be written bespoke for the scenes.

Going through the past bunch of years we did a comedy called Mightier, which was a love story between a boy, a girl and a pen – the pen being mightier than the sword. Again, like Sold, very schizophrenic but a little more refined in terms of story and soundscape. We also did a full feature called The Wake, which was a comedy drama.

The Furred Man is probably our most successful one, which won a bunch of awards and we’re very grateful for. That’s more of a horror comedy but with a much more symphonic score and is more pared back in that sense. I’ve been lucky that the projects I’ve been involved with have been very, very different sonically. Care really was about crafting tones on things like brandy glasses filled with water and just making drones against a piano cue and then pitch-shifting tones in the computer. Going from doing an orchestral score for The Furred Man to Care, which was a nightmarish score, gave me completely different aspects to do, but was so much fun.

Care has the kind of sound horror videogames would use to set the tone…

I wanted to have that sort of uncomfortable sense of atmosphere, where there’s an uneasiness and you’re never sure what’s happening.

But doing Care was great because James Bellamy and I had just finished co-scoring Emily, which is a short film with Felicity Jones and Christopher Eccleston. We also did the sound design for that one. It’s a very quirky romantic drama, almost with the vibe of a French film. It needed a very minimal, almost piano-led score that progressed towards the finale of the film. So I was interested in us doing this really beautiful French-style drama and at the same time I was working on the score of Care and at the same time I was doing the Cellarscape record, which was a triptych of crazy different songs and tones going on. But I love having different things going on that clash, because it enhances each one.

You’ve also written books on Lost and Fringe, how did that come about?

I worked at Titan Magazines for five years full time and then left to go freelance to commit more time to the music. I was very lucky to be able to continue editing the official Lost magazine for another three years, until the end of the run of the show. So my first book came about because of Lost, as I was asked to write the Lost Encyclopaedia for DK.

Again, it was one of those great conversations that was both exciting and terrifying but was helped by the fact that in the chat on the phone DK said, ‘this is a massive project, because it’s the A to Z of one of the most complicated programmes ever made. We think it’s a two-author gig’. And I said, ‘It absolutely is a two-author gig.’ They asked if I knew anyone who might be able to do it and I said there was literally only one other person, because Tara Bennett was my lead writer on the magazine and had interviewed pretty much everybody on the show for all these years. She also had the trust of Bad Robot and ABC, which was crucial on a show like Lost. I gave them her number, hung up the phone, immediately dialled her and said, ‘You’re about to get a phone call, just say yes’. And that’s exactly what happened. We then spent a year writing the Lost Encyclopaedia together.

You then also did a similar project for Fringe

We’ve both been cursed slightly with doing encyclopaedic-type books since that first one. Almost in reverse, Tara had pitched a book about Fringe – not an encyclopaedia, just a book about the show – but it would be very detailed. And she brought me into the Fringe-verse, to write September’s Notebook. It’s still probably my favourite book project because it evolved amazingly from the inception of it and us coming up with the idea of it being from the point of view of the character of September, and being his notes for the entire show.

But the book was being made at the same time as the TV show, which didn’t yet know if it had a final season. So we were constantly trying to second guess things. And there’s no greater honour than when Joel Wyman knew the show had a final season and said, ‘I’m going to write the book into the show. So the book is going to be part of the Fringe mythos. So September will actually have this notebook and it’ll be seen on the show.’ When we heard about this we thought Joel’s awesome and he’s so kind but we won’t think about that. And then it did end up happening! In episode 10 of season five, I think, you see September bring out this tome, this notebook, and show it to Walter. That still remains a moment where you go, ‘How did it come to this point, from what was just an idea for a book?’ But I’m so proud of that and so glad Tara brought me into that project because that became like another insane year of my life.

You said Lost was secretive and needed the trust of the studio and production company, but Fringe must have been the same?

Absolutely. I’m guessing that was part of the reason they felt it was in safe hands. We’d proved that the book could come out and nothing gets spoiled, even though we had to know the ending of Lost before the show had finished because of the print deadlines. Fringe was another Bad Robot show, the lovely family that Tara and I had both worked with since Alias magazine – so over 10 years. We were very grateful Bad Robot has entrusted lots of secretive shows in our hands in magazines and books over the years.


The Act Of Letting Go by Cellarscape is out now. 

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