Critically acclaimed artificial-intelligence thriller Ex Machina, which opens in America on April 10th, marks the first feature film scored by the mood-making melancholists Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. The artificial-intelligence film — the directorial debut of Alex Garland, writer of cult zombie game-changer 28 Days Later — features a minimalist, highly tense mix of beauty and discomfort: dark synth work, manipulated brass samples, optical-disc keyboard, celeste and the PaulStretch software that helped propel the “800% Slower” Justin Bieber to ambient meme fame.
“It’s this sort of a mix of organic and electronic sounds, which is very appropriate in terms of the subject matter of the film,” Salisbury tells Rolling Stone. In the film, a programmer played by Domhnall Gleeson enters a complex relationship with a robot named Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. “We did realize that it would need organic instruments as well as electronic instruments to bring that sort of human element.”
“It wasn’t planned, but what we actually ended up doing was that we did the very organic, real sounds for Ava and the very mechanical, synthesized sound for the humans,” Barrow tells RS.
Though it’s their first score together, neither musician is exactly a stranger to the form. As the co-founder of Invada Records, Barrow has been on the forefront of contemporary soundtrack work, releasing vinyl versions of Cliff Martinez’s Drive and Craig Safan’s Warning Sign; and Salisbury is an Emmy-nominated composer behind projects like Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream. Barrow is even quick to note, “One of the very first Portishead demos sampled Escape From New York, so it’s always been there.”
Together Salisbury and Barrow began work on the soundtrack to the 2012 comic book flick Dredd, and while their music never appeared in the film, Invada did release the pulsing, John Carpenter-esque score as Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega-City One.
“Unusually, we were on [Ex Machina] for probably nine months, which is a long time. But was partly because me and Geoff had worked on Dredd with Alex and that didn’t come to fruition in the end for various reasons,” says Salisbury. “Alex definitely wanted to work with us on his next project, but he thought it was wise to get us in early on.”
“It’s a really stupid amount of time to work on a score,” says Barrow, “but for lots of different reasons, I think that he wanted to make sure that we were involved really early on so we could get ahold of the story properly.”
“We read the script before they’d even started shooting,” says Salisbury. “We saw it develop and we were right in there with the narrative journey that the film took, every change that was made editorially we were part of. A 10-month-long slog, but for me we had the most interesting long slog I’ve ever done, to be honest.”
“[It was] like a learning experience for me, because I don’t come come from a music and picture background,” says Barrow. “When I write music, I’ve usually got my eyes closed.”
The duo have upcoming plans for a third collaboration, a film score that Salisbury calls “really interesting and a very different direction for me and Geoff to go in.” Salisbury plans to do more with his cinematic, synth-heavy band Dolman and Barrow’s schedule may to be filling up quickly. His electroacoustic kraut-funk band Beak> is supporting Godspeed You! Black Emperor for a show in June, he’s planning another album from his rap project Quakers and, he says, “I am calibrating my brain to Portishead mode and got some ideas of what I want to do there — at long last.”
For now, the Ex Machina soundtrack is due on April 7th and you can hear it below.
“People could listen to Ex Machina and go, ‘Yeah that sounds like a standard electronic score.’ But, to us it doesn’t feel like that,’ says Barrow. “When people have a cup of tea, they might say, ‘Oh, it tastes like tea.’ But for us, I know we individually packed every little tea leaf into that bag.”