BEn RINGHAM Interview

Interview by Justin Small

BEN RINGHAM, HALF OF THE WEST END’S AWARD WINNING SOUND DESIGN DUO BEN AND MAX RINGHAM, CHATS ABOUT HOW HE GOT INTO MUSIC, HIS LOVE OF PRINCE AND WHAT THE FUTURE OF THEATRE MAY HOLD.

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Justin: How did you get into music?

Ben: From a really young age I was completely obsessed with music. I was really lucky because my father had a grand piano in our front room, which was amazing, and I used to play it all time. And when I was five, my parents got me recorder lessons. I hated practising, but what I really loved doing was writing, so I would write little melodies with the recorder. I was a really polite kid, as I am now still, and I used to try and take the things I’d written on my recorder to the music teacher, and she kept on saying ‘No, you can’t do this, you’ve got to practice. Don’t write stuff, you’re not supposed to write stuff.’ And at that age, she was the only teacher that I hated, and I turned around to my parents and said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ and they told me, wrongly, (to try to incentivise me), that I couldn’t learn another instrument for two years if I stopped with the recorder. So I taught myself to play piano instead of having recorder lessons. When I eventually started having lessons again, when I was seven, I never looked at the notes. I would only ever look at the teacher’s hands, so I would play by ear as opposed to playing by sight reading, and that kind of set me up for my entire life with music and listening.

I can read music, as I know what the dots all are and do, but fundamentally, that’s a language that was lost on me at a young age.

Justin: It was lost on you because you were somewhat punished for writing at five?

Ben: Yes. I pushed against it and that’s been the way I’ve been about most things in my life - as soon as something’s been denied to me, I’ve just gone, ‘Fuck you, I’m walking away from that, you can fucking have it; I’m doing something else.’ Which isn’t good.

Justin: So by seven years old you had taught yourself to play the piano and you were creating your own music in secret?

Ben: Yes, I was just kind of doing my own thing in parallel with my school lessons. At the same time, my brother Max had suddenly become completely obsessed with synthesisers and he started amassing a whole bunch of them. So we had

a Moog Rogue, which is a very very rare synthesiser. It’s just an amazing, gritty, dark synth. We also had a Korg MS20 and loads of other little synthesisers. I started having piano lessons and then, when I was 12 or 13, Max bought a Korg M1, and that’s significant because a Korg M1 was the first workstation. and what that means is that it had sample sounds inside it and synthesised sounds. It was all digital, but it also had a sequencer on the board and this allowed you to make songs like those you would make using Garageband today. So you could write and layer eight sounds on top of each other, and create an entire song.

Justin: So it basically had memory?

Ben: Yes, and it was the first of its kind; it was absolutely revolutionary. Between about 1988 and 1994, every single song that you’d listen to in the top 40 had an M1 on it because it was just seismic. At that point, me and Max decided to create our own home studio, and we would take it in turns in it and spend hours just writing music. We built it up and got a six- track tape recorder with a little mixing desk on it and it was just amazing. And all my friends used to take the piss out of me when we’d go out in the evening when I was about 14 or 15, because I would get bored and just want to go home and work in the studio. At the same time, I was failing really badly at school, and because I was so polite, I didn’t get any help from any of the teachers.

Justin: And why were you failing at school?

Ben: I’m dyslexic. I can read and write, but I have certain particular ways of learning. If I sit down and get a book in front of me, and try reading instructions, it doesn’t go in. I can’t do it at all. Everything to me is visual. In any school now, if you had dyslexia, it would be immediately caught, but then not so much. Most of the teachers just thought I was lazy; I think they thought I was just a little bit below average and that I wasn’t trying hard enough. So I think I just fell into that bracket, which essentially created a situation whereby I was suddenly 16, with one GCSE and no prospects of doing anything.

Justin: You never thought of music as a career?

Ben: Yes absolutely. There was nothing else I wanted to do. I think I just wanted to be creating. If I could draw, I would probably be drawing for a living.

Justin: So were your parents worried at this point?

Ben: I’m sure they were a little worried, but my dad left school at 15 and always wanted us to do well. I got an A in music, and everything else was D’s, E’s and F’s. And so the Head of Music said I should be doing A Level music, and the Headmaster, who was a real asshole and a friend of my father, said, ‘No he shouldn’t; he hasn’t got enough GCSEs and shouldn’t be doing it.’ But in the end, I got to do A Level music.

Justin: So what was A evel music like?

Ben: At the time I did A Level music, it was incredibly standard and basically entirely classically-based. So we had no discussion about anything; everything was basically - ‘Why did someone do this? They did it because it makes mathematical sense.’

It seemed to me to be a completely mathematical way of looking at music, with no emotion or feeling. So every time we had these lessons, which was once a week, I would always be sitting there going, ‘Do you not think it’s because he just liked it? He might have just heard it and decided that he liked it?’ And the teacher would always tell me, ‘No Ben, that’s not what we’re studying. What we’re studying is why it makes mathematical sense and which rules he is following whilst he is writing it.’ At that age, I just thought it was all bullshit, and when we had to take in our own pieces to study, everyone

would always bring in Brahms or Beethoven, and I would always bring in Prince. It became kind of a running joke.

I JUST THOUGHT IT WAS ALL BULLSHIT, AND WHEN WE HAD TO TAKE IN OUR OWN PIECES TO STUDY, EVERYONE WOULD ALWAYS BRING IN BRAHMS OR BEETHOVEN, AND I WOULD ALWAYS BRING IN PRINCE. IT BECAME KIND OF A RUNNING JOKE.

Justin: So you would analyse Prince’s music using the same methods as you would analyse Brahms?

Ben: No, but I would always use it as an opportunity to say - ‘He did this because it was wicked!’ I once took in a tune called ‘If I was your Girlfriend’ by Prince, specifically because I felt so outside the experience everyone else was getting from that song. The song is quite interesting because at that time, in 1987, Prince had been around for about eight or nine years and had constantly played this role of ‘Is he gay or straight? Is he a man or a woman?’. When he brought this song out, a lot of ignorant people thought this was him saying ‘I am gay’. And you only had to listen to the lyrics to understand that wasn’t what he was saying. What was interesting about it was that it was an incredibly sparse tune, a chord progression and bass that was just playing octaves that were really simple, and then a melody line on an accordion. It’s just brilliant. My teacher couldn’t handle it; he found it really annoying and told me it was stupid. He said he’d mark me down to a D. I then played him the music I was writing and he said actually he’d grade me up to a B, but he thought my theory was awful.

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Justin: Was that because you were not interested in the theory or was that because the theory was academic learning?

Ben: My theory in music was not very good, but it was laziness, not dyslexia. It is something that I do try to do now, but I’m just not interested in it. I find theory of music quite dull. I’ve always liked listening to what I’m writing and there are loads of things I have investigated since, (for example the circle of fifths), but I get really bored of it. All I want to do is sit behind a piano,close my eyes, listen to it and work it out..

Justin: So what were your choices after your A Levels?

Ben: I could either pursue my music or start packing shelves at Tescos. And it really was as stark as that. I remember some of my friends turning round and saying ‘God, I really respect you for pursuing your dreams; I am not sure I could do that.” And I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m not pursuing this because I want to - I literally have no other choice.’ At that point, it felt like a burden, because if it didn’t happen, I would be packing shelves. That’s how I saw it at the time. So I started doing part- time jobs in pubs et cetera. I was 21, I hadn’t made any money from my music, and I spent most of my time playing games and in various bands across London. Then a friend of mine, Miguel - who had done a couple of Game of Thrones episodes - called me up and asked if I wanted to do the music for a Greenpeace advert for £2000. After I did it, I realised that I didn’t just want to just be signed to a record label. I wanted to do a whole heap of things in music. Almost immediately, I started doing adverts, and earning a lot of money doing so. After Greenpeace, I did a Shreddies advert, which was hilarious, then a Mattessons advert, and then a Bacardi advert, all in the space of a couple months.

Justin: Did that open your eyes to how you could make money from your music?

Ben: Exactly. Max came back from uni, and we started talking to other TV companies, moved to a bigger studio in Old Street and out of our parent’s house. But after about 6 months, the adverts dried up. And at one point, we were sitting in our studio in Hoxton Square, having just eaten the one tin of baked beans between the two of us that we could afford, thinking, we had to sort our shit out. So we got signed to a label called React, and released some drum and bass and garage with them. From releasing those tunes, we were able to go to places like Sony, DMG - which no longer exist - and we began doing production music (which is a nice way of saying library music.) These are inoffensive, generic pieces of music,

used on TV mostly. We would get people asking us to create an indie album, then we’d sit down and create one, which really allowed us to learn our trade, because we had to break down genres and create our own across all types of music.

Justin: So library music allowed you to settle financially and get into other things that may not have immediately rewarded you but pushed towards the future?

Ben: Yes, we did that for 10 years until I was 27. Then we did this thing called ‘Shunt’. We thought that Shunt was this kind of vacuum of time which would never make us any money and was a massive hellhole.

Justin: Shunt the theatre company?

Ben: Shunt was an immersive theatre experience before the phrase ‘immersive’ really existed. The difference with Shunt was that it was a new generation of theatre and there was nothing like it in London at the time. And from it, came Punch Drunk, Secret Cinema and the like - companies which have evolved from Shunt. When we were doing it, it was quite hard to see how it would become what it did.

Justin: Why? Was it chaotic?

Ben: I just didn’t understand it at the time. Max understood it from the get go but for myself, it took more time. I was so focused on the music, I couldn’t see how theatre was going to be anything for us. I saw it as a real side note - which is massively ironic obviously, as my career is now almost entirely in theatre.

Justin: But Shunt became your big thing over the next 10 years?

Ben: Yeah, the big change for us was at 28, when we did a show called Dance Bear Dance, which was the big breakthrough piece with Shunt. Before that, we’d get crowds down, but it would be very niche. After Dance Bear Dance, it all changed. The National Theatre had just got a new artistic director called Nicholas Hytner, who runs Bridge Theatre now.He was brought down by another director and he loved it and said he wanted to support us with our next show. So we moved to London Bridge and made a show called Tropicana. At this point, I didn’t really know what the National Theatre was. I had a vague idea, but didn’t really give a shit.

Justin: Even though your dad spent his life in theatre? Had it never interested you?

Ben: Not really. I understood theatre because it had been a part of my life. But it wasn’t something I thought I would get into. At the press night for Tropicana, which was the big show that the National Theatre supported, Nicholas Hytner came over to me and Max and said it was amazing. Max asked him for a job, and then two weeks later he offered us both a job on two big shows in the Olivier, the biggest space in the National Theatre. People spend their whole careers trying to do a show at the Olivier, and it was our first gig. It was quite a weird trajectory. And the weirdest thing about it was that it all came from going up to someone and asking for a job. I think that’s the best thing, in terms of my life, that we’ve ever done.

Justin: If you don’t ask you don’t get?

Ben: Absolutely. It was such a lesson. At the same time, we had just released our album for Superthriller. When we did Dance Bear Dance, we set up in a little studio next to a swimming pool in our friend Andrew’s house and recorded it all outside - vocals, no headphones. The rule was, everything had to be played with one finger, so you couldn’t have any kind of musical phrasing. It was really lo-fi, really grotty. We recorded for three or four days in the summer of 2003 and recorded five or six songs. We put out one song, ‘I just wanna dance’ on a seven-inch, and we followed it up with a single. Then we released an album at the beginning of 2004, and nothing happened. It was really depressing, and we were like ‘Shit, we’ve done this album and it’s out there and no one is listening to it.’ Then Beck found the album somehow, and asked us to go on tour.

Justin: Wow. That must have been brilliant.

Ben: Yeah. We had this amazing time in 2004/5 where we were doing this massive show in the Olivier and touring with Beck around the UK. It was really wild - our first gig as a band was in the Carling Academy in Glasgow in front of 2000 burly Scots, then the Apollo in Hammersmith. It was great, really really great and a fun time. It was the first kind of experience of being in a band and touring and then we continued to do it over the next couple of years. But at the same time we were doing all this theatre work, and that took over. We made a couple more albums, but we all went off and did our things, and Max and I really concentrated on our career in theatre, and it is what we are still doing today.

Justin: So from that amazing time to now - you’ve worked on a ton of theatre productions and won loads of awards - do you feel you have got to where you wanted to? Are you where you wanted to be when you were seven years old?

Ben: I’m loving where we are right now, but I want to look forward to the next big thing really. Things like Wiretapper, which we are doing a new version of very soon, and innovative theatre productions like the one we are doing at The National, are what I am really excited about.

Justin: What do you think the future of theatre is - taking into account new emerging tech, such as augmented and virtual reality, for example?

Ben: For me, my biggest problem with theatre is that it’s incredibly hierarchical, and I’d like that to change. Like in any industry, it’s easy for people to say ‘This is what we do and this is how we do it.’ And what I think is interesting, is being able to sit in a room and go ‘What could VR do?’ and be open to playing with it. Using tech to tell stories, not just to sell tickets, is what I am interested in. So the new show we’re doing at the National is this project using binaural sound. The concept is that using the headphones you’re listening in, you experience the entire show from one of the characters. So you only experience their experience.

Justin: Is augmented reality in theatre interesting to you?

Ben: Yes. In two ways I guess - how it can amplify the theatre experience to people who can’t make it to the theatre physically - and using VR we can get a worldwide ‘live’ audience, which is really interesting. And secondly, how we could use AR to create completely new ways of experiencing live theatre. That’s really exciting. But for me, it is all about the storytelling, not the tech. As long as we concentrate on that, we won’t get lost in doing stuff just because we can. Theatre is a visceral live experience, and this is for me what differentiates it from film. Whatever we choose to do with technology, needs to keep that at the core. It is happening in front of you, and the humanness of theatre is in the possibility of something unknown happening. It is in the moment, and it is authentic and real. We must make sure it stays true to that.

Justin: What are working on right now?

Ben: We just finished doing the Frida Kahlo show at the V&A, and King Lear at the Duke of York. We are currently working on The Wolves at Stratford East and Pinter at The Pinter.

To do this, we’ll need to develop a common language between the cultures within the organisation, give people the tools and processes to be able to come together to explore opportunities and execute new propositions. We want to create capabilities within our teams that enable an ‘innovation as usual’ approach to work. We’re introducing value-driven ways of working -- informed by the mindsets and practices of a customer- and product-focused, agile / lean development approach.