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Scoring ‘Devs’: An Interview with Ben Salisbury & Bob Locke

Alex Garland’s directorial work represents visually stunning, well-executed science-fiction and it seems to all coalesce around the idea that humanity’s hubris in science and technology far exceeds its understanding or grasp. 

Films Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018), along with recently released FX on Hulu limited-series Devs, all in their own way speak to our limitations to truly understand the natural order of things and the misguided efforts we take to try to address those limitations.

Complementing the stories of sentient robots, mysterious extraterrestrials, and monomaniacal Silicon Valley types are sonically rich, phantasmagorically melodic, and righteously experimental score cues provided by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. It’s tough to imagine a Garland film without their blend of organic and synthetic sounds. (For example, check out “The Alien” from Annihilation.) 

The score for Devs — which Lakeshore Records and Invada Records recently released — finds Bristol duo The Insects (Bob Locke and Tim Norfolk) joining Barrow and Salisbury to score a story centered on the murder of a programmer at peculiar tech company Amaya, which is secretly developing a massive and highly advanced quantum computer system. It’s so advanced actually that it can use its data processing power to extrapolate and visualize moments of the distant past and even the future. Like Oscar Isaac’s Nathan in Ex Machina, Nick Offerman’s Forest in Devs is a profoundly wealthy, deeply eccentric Silicon Valley tech-startup “genius” who hides a ruthless obsession beneath a somewhat personable veneer. In this case, a significant life event serves as a catalyst for Forest’s worst tendencies. The team of composers never waste a note serving up the rich tapestries that glue the story together. 

Of course, this is a Garland story, so the narrative goes deeper than that — the characters are emphatically more than one-note. Needless to say, this is not an upbeat tale, and the Barrow-Salisbury-The Insects team excel exponentially at interpreting this entire experience. They tap deeply and expertly into the sacred, the human, and the technological realms portrayed in the eight-part limited series. One standout cue, Salisbury’s “Plainsong,” serves largely as the theme for the show, laying the groundwork for ruminations love, identity, and determinism with 12 simple notes.

“We knew the music needed to have an element of austere beauty,” Emmy-nominated Salisbury told Vehlinggo in a recent Zoom interview. Locke, in the same interview, added: “Alex [Garland] always talked about this series being a thriller. And I think that piece of music really fulfills that as well.”

Smells and Bells 

There are pronounced religious overtones in Devs — you can almost smell the incense and you can definitely hear the bells. However, there’s something much more sinister at play that takes the story from the sacred to the profane.

Consider that Forest and his team at Amaya are essentially trying to recreate God (or, at minimum, become gods) with their quantum computing project. Even if the system lacks omnipotence, it guarantees omniscience, because it allows them to see anything that has happened, is happening, and even what will happen. The space housing the computer resonates with a cathedral quality. More obvious religious imagery is a scene in which the characters watch on-screen the computer’s fuzzy revelation of Jesus on the cross, crying out in Aramaic. 

Just from reading the script, it was clear to the composing team that they’d need to cultivate music to fit the religious, or perhaps, more appropriately, the cult-like vibe at the center of Amaya and the Devs project. 

“With everything Geoff and I have done with Alex in the past — we never exactly know how we’re going to do something, but it always hinges on a few key principles that get everything going,” Salisbury said from his home in Bristol.

A turning point came when the composers went to Manchester to visit the set for the gold-illuminated Devs quantum computer facility scenes. 

“It was an incredible day, actually,” the France-based Locke said. “In the hotel that evening… we were talking about it being almost like a temple.”

The visit softened the edges of their original score concepts. 

“It was the visit to the set that changed our tack a little bit,” Salisbury says. “We saw the perfection of that set — the beauty of it… the gold, and, as Bob says, the temple-like nature of it.”

“And we just all thought… let’s harness it. It might be a cliche, but let’s harness as much of those temple influences from whatever religion,” Salisbury says. 

This being a group of rather nontraditional score composers, viewers weren’t merely going to get some standard organs and bells — at least not without some noteworthy nuances. They gathered 15 different kinds of bells and some chimes and tongue drums, and saw to it to make them an integral but not always recognizable aspect of the cues. They ran them through processors and effects to get a desired impact, they said. On some tracks you get the obvious timbre, but on others you’d be forgiven for mistaking them for synths.

“Some of the bells we treated so much they didn’t even sound like bells anymore,” Locke said. “After treating them, we’d put them back into what we called ‘the bucket’ and then everybody would experiment with them. It was kind of ongoing. I thought that’s a really interesting way of the four of us working, actually.”

How They Did It 

As established, the personnel on the music side of this Garland project is different from his past films. Barrow and Salisbury are indeed back working to some extent as a cohesive unit — just as they’ve done on Garland’s Ex Machina or Annihilation, and just as they have on their groundbreaking score for Julius Onah’s Luce or for Black Mirror episode, “Men Against Fire.” However, Barrow was on tour with his band Beak> during some of the Devs creation process, so you’ll hear some Salisbury solo cues. Salisbury also wrote some cues with his assistant, Suvi-Eeva Äikäs.

Additionally, sometimes Salisbury joins The Insects. Often, The Insects work on their own. Each combination brings memorable cues to the fold. Whatever the division of labor, the music runs seamlessly. There are no jarring shifts between the cues to detract from Garland’s seamless visual and narrative style — other than what’s required of the story, of course. 

The score release has 37 tracks, which all demonstrate the scope of the job that Salisbury, Barrow, Locke, and Norfolk faced. As Salisbury tells it, Garland wasn’t merely about to request a handful of cues he could use and reuse throughout the series. Rather, each episode would require new music such that the eight episodes of Devs constituted what amounts to an eight-hour film with a body of unique cues covering all relevant scenes across the board. Working with Garland is rewarding, but it’s a huge lift, according to Salisbury.

“He likes you there from the beginning of post-production all the way to the end, and you do everything a hundred different times,” Salisbury says.

With a project of this scope, it was clear a new approach was in order.

“Geoff and I just breathed deeply and went, ‘There is no way we can do this on our own’,” Salisbury says.

Locke and Norfolk had worked previously with Barrow and Salisbury on the excellent score for David Farr’s Amazon series Hanna, and were a natural fit for a collaboration of sorts.

“We’ve known [Locke and Norfolk] for ages,” Salisbury said. “They’re incredibly experienced and great composers.” They asked Garland if they could bring The Insects on board, and after listening to their work he was sold.

Like Barrow and Salisbury, The Insects have been around the Bristol music scene for decades, their work often associated with what is popularly (but not so belovedly) known as “trip-hop.” Barrow is, of course, one-third of Portishead and The Insects have co-written a few songs for Tricky and Massive Attack, including the inimitable “Karmacoma” and “Euro Child.” (The Insects have also worked outside of Bristol on records by Goldfrapp and Alison Moyet.) Bristol is a tight-knit scene. Everyone’s known each other for years.

“There’s more of a community vibe,” Locke says, contrasting the city to London, where there’s more competition to be part of a corporate machine. (Though London has its pockets of community, he is quick to note.)

They all started off in Barrow’s studio in Bristol, coming together to experiment with musical ideas and work diligently to conceptualize the best possible way to construct the sonic palette needed for a story filled with devotional elements and aspects of a thriller.

At first they did everything together, but formally they saw the duties as a 50/50 split: Barrow and Salisbury as one unit and The Insects as another. Toward the end, things were more separate, but they didn’t think of their efforts as silos.

“It was literally just a case of, ‘Well, that might relate to that theme you did back there, so why don’t you take that?’” Salisbury says. “… It was brilliant because we were just able to use someone else’s theme if you needed or a snippet of this or that sound they created there.”

Locke nods, “You nailed it, mate. But I think working on both ideas and sounds at the beginning gave us a bedrock to then go back to our own studios and work — and then come back and work together.”

Cause and Effect

Despite the origins of the team, this is not an overtly “Bristol-esque” score. You’re not going to find 1990s retro cues on DEVS

There are the “devotional” songs previously touched on. Take tracks like Barrow’s and Salisbury’s “The Day Will Break,” which features the simple chants of a choir at a church service. Salisbury’s austere “Plainsong” is a 12-note, string number that ends up returning throughout the show.

“There were a few themes that recur throughout the series and ‘Plainsong’ is one of them,” Salisbury says. “[The cue] was attached to Lily [played by Sonoya Mizuno] — to the deterministic nature of her journey in a way. It was linked to Lily and Devs and her ending up in Devs, which is where she was always going to end up.”

Barrow’s and Salisbury’s “Entering Devs/The Machine” is also a sacred devotional, a string section is augmented by treated bells and manipulated choir samples that sound like they’re challenging the limits of the laws of physics. 

The Insects’ “Stranger Danger” offers a healthy dose of string-driven trepidation. Their “Were You Listening” is an achingly beautiful and overt expression, while their “Reporting a Crime” is a minimalist ambient expression that recalls shades of Angelo Badalamenti or, to some extent, Cliff Martinez. (Their “The Second Coming” is of similar ilk, albeit with a more upbeat overtone.)

Those looking for otherworldly Annihilation-style sounds will find solace in Barrow’s and Salisbury’s unsettling sonic experimentation on “Suffocation” and “Cause and Effect” — the former sucks the oxygen out of you and the latter feels like it rips away your place in space and time, atom by atom.

Overall, the work the music team has put into Devs equals the originality and creative audacity that Garland, his staff, and the actors put into cultivating an engaging experience. Furthermore, it is yet another release from the composers that will be heralded for years to come.

Devs (Original Series Soundtrack) is available via Lakeshore Records and Invada Records in download and streaming forms. A vinyl press from Invada is forthcoming.

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