The Cinematic Orchestra — Gilles Peterson chats to the British jazz group
True to their name, the Cinematic Orchestra’s music is in high-demand for film and TV. One Tree Hill, Grey’s Anatomy, Suits, The Big C, This is Us, Orange is the New Black and The Theory of Everything have all used their stirring tracks, often for season finales and montage moments.
Formed in 1999, the band has released three studio albums. To mark the release of their fourth, To believe, Jason and long-time collaborator Dominic Smith sat down with Gilles Peterson in London to discuss doubt, slowing down and why they don’t care if shorter songs are popular now.
On how it all began
Jason: I was interning at Ninja, and Dom was in and out. It was like a music beacon at the time in the South Bank at London Bridge. I'd leave the Ninja office around 7pm and then work on demos through the night. I was so dedicated, because it was an inspiring environment. I was taking that excitement and engaging in creating music. Dom was very influential at the beginning with critique and commentary, and helped to sequence and solidify the first release.
It was never contrived, it was never designed. It was just a passionate endeavor to be engaged in music.
Dominic: It was really just the two of us bonding over the sort of music people weren't into at Ninja, like house. It was like you've gotta be listening to hip-hop, or breaks, and that's cool, but house ain't cool, jungle ain't cool. But me and Jay were a bit more open-minded than other people there, and that was the beginning of a bond, which meant we had a shorthand to discuss music, and that lent itself to natural collaboration.
On playing the Royal Albert Hall
Jason: Since then, a lot of people have played fringe music there. But I feel like, at the time when we did it, there was definitely some freshness in the idea. The combination of that venue, and its history, and its beauty, and the feeling you get the minute you walk in the door. The show's already started, because you're looking at that room, and you're surrounded.
My anxiety level before the first show was through the roof. I felt that performing in the round would make us too exposed. There's such a different energy.
But it's actually easier to perform in the round than it is on your regular rectangular box, where the audience are just viewing you like a cinema screen. It’s more intimate.
On moving to LA
Jason: Sometimes the metropolises like London, New York, Tokyo can start to define you. Everyone's rushing around, and you get dragged into that. LA allows you the space to contemplate, the space to think and actually take your time. There's no rush. I wonder if I’m getting as much done, but it's actually much more considered.
On the huge demand from film and TV
Dominic: It's inevitable that some things will get through the net and be used without us knowing. But we try to be as vigilant as possible about only working with people who we can hand-on-heart endorse.
We are priveliged that in the last year, The Cinematic Orchestra has been synced in some of the most significant modern TV moments. It's always the season finale, the montage. Whether it's Orange Is the New Black, or This Is Us, they’re really, really big moments, where the whole country's watching.
Jason: We're extremely passionate, as you are, about listening to as much music as possible. When selecting vocalists, it's about cross-pollination, cross-propagation. It's pulling someone out of a folk background, for example. Why are these different genres not usually talking? Why is music constantly being suppressed into small pockets, which then dictate how to interpret it?
To pull a vocalist from UK hip-hop with a Jamaican twist into cinematic jazz is a very natural thing.
It's not predesigned, or conceptualized. It's just a very organic and honest way to approach music. So every vocalist that we've encountered on the way, it’s been about their voice and what they're saying.
On creative doubt and following your instincts
Jason: Every record you make, you have growing pains. You have to rediscover, you have to rebuild, you have to take it apart. We want to keep bringing something fresh to keep pushing, keep pushing. And it can get exhausting, it really can.
You're floating around, and you kind of lose your identity. But I think we have to reflect and contemplate and try to hold onto those identities.
Dominic: I think it's been great for us, having such a long relationship, to be able to revisit moments in our own career. When we delivered Ma Fleur, there were a lot of people saying "What the fuck is To Build A Home?" They were scared of it, I think. They couldn’t hear our DNA in it.
But those same people, a year later, were asking for more of that. So you know that you have to take the lead. You don't want to be asking everyone what to do. It's your job to suffer a bit. It's your job to dig, and find those answers, and be lonely, and be stressed.
On what they believe
Dominic: There's definitely people who say, "Maybe write some short tracks this time? Streaming's really popular these days." But that's not what we do. It would be wrong to try and fucking shoehorn a long form track – which is supposed to be long and have have highs and lows and quiet moments and loud moments – into a short track. It felt very purposeful to say no, we're gonna continue doing what we're doing.
It's funny that so many people seem to just look at the robot and ask it what it wants. Music is such a human expression, and we understand it, we feel it.
“We have to constantly question ourselves, and to push forward with a strong voice of what we believe in.”
Jason: We definitely have to be in control of it. The music climate of the last decade has accelerated on so many levels, and has been influenced by so many aspects of culture and society and technology.
We just have to hold onto what we believe in, and how we critique music, how we engage in music, how we share music. Live music is really important for The Cinematic Orchestra.
It's not about streaming, and it's not about trying to truncate down a very integral part of Cinematic Orchestra's aesthetic and concept. We need to hold onto integrity. We have to constantly question ourselves, and to push forward with a strong voice of what we believe in.