David Arnold: a maverick composer of Hollywood scores

He has scored five James Bond films and worked with Massive Attack, Pulp and Björk, but it all started for Arnold in a Dublin cinema

Dublin, late 1960s. A mother and father and their young boy are walking along O'Connell Street. As they pass a cinema that is showing the musical Oliver!, the boy says he wants to see it. Tickets are purchased, and in the stalls the boy sits between his mother and father, excitedly waiting for the movie to start. Within two months, seven-year-old David Arnold pesters his parents to bring him to two other films that take his fancy: the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, and Disney's classic animated feature The Jungle Book. All three films, recalls a 52-year-old Arnold – a droll, amusing talker – were extraordinarily visual experiences for a boy of his age. "And the songs in them are terrific."

At the age of seven, Arnold knew what he wanted to do with his life: to become, as he explains, a part of what he loved in his experience of going to the cinema. “I wanted to be a part of the thing that made those noises, the things that connected me with stuff that touched me emotionally, the thing that moves you in a way that you couldn’t really define when you’re a younger person. And, perhaps naively, thinking that I’d come to understand the world a little bit better by doing so.”

It would take some time before he achieved this. After college in Luton, Bedfordshire (although Arnold has strong Irish family connections, including singer-songwriter Damien Rice, who is a cousin), and well into his 20s, he says he struggled in the usual manner.

“It wasn’t a bedsit life, because I had parents that let me stay at home, but I worked at over 20 different kinds of jobs while I was making my way to being exactly what I wanted to be. I never earned a penny from music until I was in my early 30s – seriously. There were bits and pieces, of course, but nothing I could sustain myself with, or claim to be professional. But I always felt I was a musician or composer, even if I wasn’t doing that particular job all of the time.”


Unlikely CV for success

Arnold’s pre-success CV is not, it has to be said, impressive. “Oh, God, where do I start? A ping-pong ball factory, oven-building factory, baker’s assistant, loading vegetables on to lorries at four in the morning, fetching trollies in supermarkets, loading and unloading carpets in B&Q . . .

“I’d do these jobs for about three weeks, get paid, and then I’d leave them and work on music for a few weeks. I knew from my early 20s that unless I actually did the writing, then I’d have to forget about it; there’s only so much talking you could do, and at some point you had to take the plunge full-time. What I didn’t want to happen was to get to the age of 30 and then regret not doing certain things. I didn’t want to let myself down, let alone anyone else.”

Enter his college friend Danny Cannon, who at that time, in the early 1990s, was carving out a career as a film-maker. Teaming up with Cannon on his 1993 directorial debut The Young Americans, Arnold scored the music as well as co-writing the song Play Dead, which was sung by Björk. And then came 1994's adventure sci-fi yarn Stargate. Directed by Roland Emmerich for a budget of €46.7m, it went on to make almost €170m at the box office.

Five James Bond movies

The subsequent years have been just as fully charged: Arnold went on to score the movies Independence Day and Godzilla (each directed by Emmerich), and then hitched a lift on the James Bond wagon for five outings (Tomorrow Never Dies; The World Is Not Enough; Die Another Day; Casino Royale; and Quantum of Solace).

So far, so Hollywood establishment, but, unusually for someone so commercially successful, Arnold has something of a maverick streak, having previously worked with the likes of Massive Attack, Pulp, Garbage and the aforementioned Björk. His latest works have included composing for the BBC series Sherlock and writing music for the successful West End musical Made in Dagenham.

“If you look at the film and television things I’ve done,” observes Arnold, “then you wouldn’t say I’m a maverick because they’ve all been mainstream, but the odd thing about being a film composer is that you can only work on what you’re offered. You can’t say you’re going to do a Paul Thomas Anderson film because he himself decides who he wants to compose the music for his films.”

And yet there remains the biggest surprise of all in Arnold’s creative arsenal: the quality of his original songs. While his forthcoming concert at Dublin’s NCH, he says, is primarily about his work in film (“and part of it is me talking about the music, hopefully bringing the audience into the world of what it’s like to do this sort of job, if you can call it a job”), he will also be playing a few of his song compositions, which he debuted at Dingle’s Other Voices just over a year ago.

Album of original songs

Not to take away from his prowess as a film composer, but there’s a sense that his song-based material strikes a firmer chord within him, perhaps referencing what he said earlier about his coming to understand the world a little bit better through them. Arnold feels that gathering an album of original songs is the next big step.

“It’s an odd thing to say considering the success I’ve had in other areas, but doing the Other Voices gig made me feel like it was what I’m most comfortable doing. It might not be as good as what I’m better known for, and people might not like it as much – they might not even be that interested – but from a personal perspective, I feel more at home doing that than anything else. Whether anything comes from it, who knows?”

So it’s best to be pragmatic about such a venture, then? “Oh yes, small venues to be booked, I think.”


“Film music is a team sport. I don’t do it by myself: I have to have musicians, engineers, orchestrators and so on. When it’s just you and your songs, you can reclaim that moment for yourself. With the team sport, the music somehow escapes you because it enters into a world of other opinions, as well as the filter of producers, directors and studio executives. And then it has to fight for space alongside sound and atmosphere, dialogue and all of that. So you kind of wave goodbye to it; from the joy of conception, the point where you say, ‘I’ve thought of something’, that moment of purity, you then watch it sail away on its own. When it’s just you, the song, the audience and the music, it’s a bit like a homecoming; you’re getting to that first moment you thought of the song, and that’s why I like doing it.”