Tom Howe is an Emmy-nominated composer who has worked on films such as A Shaun the Sheep – Farmageddon, Early Man and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. He has also worked on TV shows including Four in a Bed, Taskmaster and Whiskey Cavalier.
We met to discuss his work on Ted Lasso; including his collaboration with Marcus Mumford, scoring comedy beats, what instrument Roy Kent sounds like and the differences between scoring for film and TV.
How did you get involved with the show and why did you want to be involved?
I had worked with the production company before, so Bill Lawrence, Kip Kroeger and all the editors and sound people on Whiskey Cavalier, an ABC show, a very different (to Ted Lasso) kind of comedy drama. Then this came along and they asked me if I would be involved and I said that I’d love to be. Jason Sudeikis had wanted Marcus Mumford, his friend, to be involved as well, so Bill Lawrence said “why don’t they get together and have a chat?” So we met for breakfast and we got on, he said; “come to my studio and let’s try and play some things and see what happens.” I went over and spent ten days there, we just jammed around, we ended up writing the song for the titles. But that was how my involvement came about really, it was those prior relationships with the producers and the editors. That means there’s a sort of familiarity, when we first started on the first season, it wasn’t a spotting session where you were coming on and introducing yourself to everybody and working out who you had to impress the most. I already knew everybody who was on the spotting sessions and Marcus knew Jason very well. So it was a really good dynamic and it worked well.
With the second season, it uses some of the music from the first season and then I’ve gone on to develop some thematic things. Marcus has been across it and involved, we’ve been chatting all along the way. He has a very good rapport with Jason, which is incredibly helpful when you’re trying to figure out an answer to something. In the first season, we established the sound and that came from those ten days, it was more like making a record together. I went up when we had no picture and I’m used to waiting until we have picture, not necessarily a finished cut, but at least some rushes that I can watch and work out; “does it look dark in tone or how fast is it cut or what do the characters look like?” But in this case, when I went over there, Marcus had been on set and chatted to Jason, so he knew more about it than I did and I’d spoken to Bill and Kip and got an understanding of what it might be. Marcus came up with the idea of doing a British-American transatlantic thing, very much with real band instruments, nothing faked in the box. We just literally spent ten days as if we were making a record, he’d play something, I’d play something and we’d just layer up parts and pulled some music together. So by the time we got the first picture, we already had a lot of material that obviously didn’t fit necessarily, but very quickly when we threw it up against the picture, we could say “that works, that doesn’t” so we had a palette of ideas that we could then take forward.
How do you balance the tones, musically, in a show like this where you’ve got comedy, drama, romance and obviously football matches to contend with as well?
It’s tricky actually, the challenge in comedy is to not over score it. The sporting stuff is less of a problem, I think it’s hard to do sport well actually, but you know it’s going to need energy and something to drive it forward and same with an emotional moment. You know that if it needs music, you know vaguely what it’s going to be, once you’ve worked out the palette. But I think the comedic moments are the hardest because you don’t want to step on a joke, but sometimes you may need the music to help move it along, if it’s a long scene. It needs to stop in the right place, start back up in the right place and you need to find the path through that. I’d say I spend most of my time on each episode doing that, the comedy cues, even though when you watch the show, it seems like those are the ones that took five minutes, they’re actually the ones that take the longest. As you say, there’s a lot of different things going on, a lot of different storylines and strands for characters but I think having an established palette of instruments and thematic material for the characters is massively helpful.
So do you have particular sounds in mind for particular characters? For example, in Season 2, you’ve got a new character, Sharon the psychologist. Did she suggest anything musically or is it not specifically character-based?
Each character has their own theme or sound, depending on how much they’re featured. So, Danny Rojas in Episode 1 (of Season 2) obviously has his moment and there’s a percussion sound which features when he’s there. It didn’t require him to have a long-form melody in terms of moving forward with the season, maybe it will in Season 3, I don’t know. But Roy, Jamie, Sam, Rebecca – they all need thematic content. There are certain sounds – like Roy is usually on piano, not always, but it’s a good go-to instrument for him, but it’s more the themes that I lean on rather than the instrumentations dictated by the scene and whether it’s comedy or emotion.
Are you aware of the other music that’s going to be in an episode, so pop songs that might be used eg. the Christmas episode used Fairytale of New York? Are you conscious of making your music work with the rest of the soundtrack, or just doing your own separate thing?
I’m very aware of that. A lot of the time, cues may back up against a source track and maybe even lead in or out of them, so I need to know what key the source track is going to be in so I don’t come out playing in a key that’s completely unfriendly and makes a jarring sound. Occasionally I do have to play something across the source music, so I’m always very aware of that. When we spot, Tony the music supervisor is obviously there as well and there’s conversations going on about what’s going to be licensed, what they’re hoping to license, something may not be approved, so I’ll probably know what the back-up options are. Occasionally there might be a track, I think there’s one in that Christmas episode, they were trying to clear something but couldn’t and I was involved in the conversation of whether it would be score or if it would be source. Jason is very knowledgeable about music, he knows what he wants and Tony is very capable at going out and getting it, which I massively admire because it’s very very difficult.
You’ve worked on both film and TV – I thought it was very interesting that you worked on both Professor Marston & the Wonder Women and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman – was that purely coincidental? What differences and similarities are there between scoring for film and TV, do you have any preferences?
The Wonder Woman answer – the year that all of those were being made was an anniversary (75th?) of Wonder Woman. Professor Marston, suddenly he was being written about in media and the film was being made, and I was asked to do the score for that. I worked with Angela, the director, who was fantastic and then my friend Rupert, who was scoring Wonder Woman called me up and asked if I was free to help him write some music on that so I found it was the year of Wonder Woman. I was sent posters of each which were in my kitchen, and a Wonder Woman clock and various things like that.
In terms of TV and film – with film, you’ve obviously only got those 90 minutes, 2 hours, whatever it may be to establish all your sounds and tie the whole thing together, which is easier to do than if you’ve got three half-hours or something of TV. Even though it’s the same amount of time, you don’t have people’s attention for long enough or to establish the theme. But once you get TV that’s successful and goes for multi-seasons. you get more time to play with your tunes. In the Christmas episode, there’s a score cue when Ted and Rebecca are walking back to her car and the tune is in there, the Ted tune but arranged in a very different way and you probably can’t get away with that in the first season, because no one would recognise the tune. But now it’s fairly well established, you can bend it and manipulate it and try different things. That for me, in both film and TV, I think that’s the most exciting part actually, having a theme and then bending it in as many different ways as you can, to get the right emotion for the scene – more up tempo or more sad and thinking “how can I make this work?”
Season 2 of Ted Lasso is currently on Thursdays on Apple TV+