David Arnold on the 2012 Olympics

M caught up with David Arnold, renowned songwriter, film composer and producer, to find out more about his role as music director for the 2012 Olympic Games closing ceremony and hear about what's in store for the big event next summer.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 15 Dec 2011
  • min read
M caught up with David Arnold, renowned songwriter, film composer and producer, to find out more about his role as music director for the 2012 Olympic Games closing ceremony and learn what's in store for the big event next summer.

The Grammy and BAFTA award-winning composer has scored numerous blockbusters such as Godzilla and Stargate, replaced the legendary John Barry on  the James Bond films, has co-written with Bjork and produced the likes of Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde, George Michael and Shirley Bassey.

How did you get involved in the project? Were you approached, or did you put your name forward?
I was looking at doing a very big arena type of concert about two years ago. I talked to Kim Gavin, who at that point was the director of the Take That Circus tour. He’s done dozens of arena shows. We got on really well, talking about ideas for a completely unrelated show. He got offered a gig directing the closing ceremony and he called me and asked me if I would like to get involved. I think that helped, and the combination of Martin Green, who was partly responsible for procuring the talent for it, he’d come to a Shirley Bassey gig we did at the Roundhouse. There was quite a lot of activity in 2009. They just called me in with a bunch of other people and we did a tour of the stadium. They offered me it about two or three months later.

It was nice because the core creative team that’s assembling the show is really small. They’re all brilliantly talented and it’s very exciting. Kim Gavin is directing choreography. Es Devlin is set designing and designing the show. Patrick Woodward is lighting it, and there are numerous other people, but all amazing talents. I’ve known them for a while, but this is the first time we are getting messy with each other.

So how does it compare to other huge projects you’ve worked on?
The most exciting part is that there are three or four creative people in a room pretty much hacking the show out of something. Kim has a concept for the show, or for a sequence and we will sit around and talk about how it can be realised.

The possibilities and thinking, ‘What if that happened, what if that piece of music led us there, what if some guy appeared up here?’ Anything you’ve ever dreamt of doing you can conceive of for this type of event. You can think, ‘Oh that might work,’ because they have the resources to do a lot of it, and we have an incredible arena to do it in.

The stadium is exceptionally well designed. And there’s just something about the spirit of it which everybody shares. There’s an intimacy and inclusiveness in this which I’m hoping will warm up the entire thing. Even with protocol, there are some things that we can’t avoid doing – we have to have certain things have to happen at certain times. So another challenge is how we do protocol without it feeling woolly and a little bit stiff. How can we make it part of what this whole Games is about, which is inclusiveness.

Normally when you work on a project there will be a very definite audience in mind, whether its film-goers or music fans. But for this, the audience is vast. How will the ceremony reach out to everyone?
I think it would be very foolish to somehow think you can please everyone, because that’s a billion people watching it live, and god knows how many others recording it or watching it online. Even in a stadium of 80,000 people, not everyone is coming to see the one artist or the one thing. They are there for an experience which, for me, says what this country is all about at the moment.

I think what we’re trying to do – without putting words into anyone’s mouths – is not be afraid of what we’re good at and celebrate the successes that we’ve had. And to be proud as a nation of what we have achieved, especially in the arts. It is a creative celebration of a sporting achievement. Our ceremony isn’t about our industry or military or economy, or politics; it’s about what has made this country great creatively. That’s where the value is in this for me. We’ve got such an incredible resource creatively – the musicians, the designers, the choreographers, the writers, the actors, the singers, the instrument makers, the people who run studios, the people who polish the floor at the dance studio – everyone is to do with putting these things on the stage. I think culturally, music is the one great export that we’ve got. It continues to be a great export and it’s in our history. Our excellence in music is unrivalled in the world, and when you start thinking about the catalogue of British songs since the 50s in the realms of popular music, I do think its unmatched by anyone and I do think it’s the place to be musically-speaking. We have the best and most creative people, and the most daring.

So you see this as a chance to shine a spotlight on these people?
It’s going to be a very big light and a huge amount of people. The problem is, to a certain extent, that it can’t be self indulgent. I feel that these shows need to reach out to everyone, it shouldn’t be any effort for people to watch what we are presenting. They shouldn’t say, ‘I don’t get it.’ Or, ‘What’s all that about?’ It needs to be a very open-armed welcoming ceremony. It is a celebration for the world, but it so happens that it’s happening in London. I keep talking about inclusiveness, but I think our Olympics is an arms-wide-open Olympics. It’s not a stand back and be impressed Olympics. We’re not going to say, ‘Stand over there while we blow your mind.’

Guy Garvey at Glastonbury walked on-stage with a pint of beer and said ‘Cheers’. That’s kind of what it is. All of a sudden Glastonbury stopped being 150,000 people and you were in a room with Guy having a beer with him. I think there will be moments when we do that, and there will be moments when you are stunned and you’ll be taken aback by the beauty of it. But you’ll be excited and you’ll laugh. So: trying to make a show that pleases everyone without really pleasing anyone at all.

It’s a constantly moving feast, but when we start talking it through and realise how fabulous it’s going to be, it’s endlessly thrilling.

Are you reaching out to lots of people in the industry?
I think the British music industry will be well represented, hopefully across every strand of it.

Where is the project at now?
There is still a way to go, in terms of finalising actual appearances and designing certain things around certain moments. I think it’s in good shape. I think its going to be a very moving, beautiful and exhilarating show, and I’m sure it will be followed by endless discussions about, ‘Why didn’t they put that in?!’

But that’s the British way though…
But I feel the same. I always think, ‘Why did they do that, and not that?’ If we put in everything that should be in that show it will be three weeks long!

How important is the Olympics for British music in its wider sense?
Without being reductive about it, when you platform British music in this fashion for the world to look at, you realise quite what a gem it is. You realise what a resource it is, and I think that talent is extraordinary. And I think the archive, everything we’ve ever had in the past up until this point, is extraordinary. And it still is extraordinary. We still have world class artists, whether it’s in jazz, classical, pop, folk or soul. There is so much talent. And it appears to come from something deep within the British spirit.

It’s almost as though we need to be heard in a different way, in a way that defies people’s expectations. That sense of communication, and the fact that you can be so effortlessly understood if you do it right with music, is hugely attractive for a lot of people. Music is becoming such an enormous part of everyone’s life, it’s on your phones, computers, everything you do has music. It might not translate to sales, but there is an enormous demand for it and I can’t think of any other country in the world that could compete with us on that level. America would probably give you a go.

David Arnold was interviewed for the Going for Gold Olympics feature in the latest issue of M magazine, which will be posted online next week.