Interviews

alt-J and Madness composer Will Gardner on his album about dementia

Will Gardner initially saw the project as an ‘aural imagining’ of Parkinson’s dementia, written about his father’s experiences of the disease

Coming from a background in classical music (first as a chorister at Ely Cathedral, then studying classical music), Will Gardner has an eclectic list of credits to say the very least. He first worked as a composer on Matthew Barney’s avantgarde operatic film River of Fundament, then wrote for the likes of alt-J and Låpsley. He is also behind the scores for film and television programmes like Ocean’s Eight and the BAFTA nominated Blue Jean.

So, in some ways it’s hardly surprising that the Turnpike Lane-based artist’s first solo project is experimental. Remains is a musical response to his father’s Parkinson’s dementia, which he suffered from until he passed away in 2015. “The idea behind the project initially was to try to do an aural imagining of dementia, which is sort of a ludicrous thing to try and do, I think – that’s what it feels like now,” says Will. “One way in which to try to do that was to break things up and damage them and disfigure them through digital processing.”

Before he died, Will would read his father’s diaries out loud to him to try to help trigger memories – and that became a crucial thread of the musical project yet to come. “At one point, he was like, ‘oh who wrote that?’” Will recalls. “It felt quite interesting to think about that – the idea that someone can write down their own memories, then hear them back and not remember them.

“For maybe three or four years after that, I just felt like I wanted to do something about it, about the experience that I’d had.”

Taking the diaries as his foundation, Will began a process of attempting to translate them into music, hoping to
capture some of what his dad had experienced with the disease. “I didn’t want to have just the text there,” Will explains. “It felt too explicit, and like oversharing. So that led me to mess around in my studio, just picking out phrases that I was drawn to, but being quite loose about it […] as if I was just writing a song, and those were the lyrics.”

Those phrases then left the rhythms and melodies which would become the framework for the final tracks on the
album. Drawing on his background in piano and vocals, sounds recorded into Will’s laptop would become digitally morphed or fused to create “weird hybrid sounds”. “I don’t really necessarily think of it as electronics,” he says. “Because I’m trained as a pianist and as a singer, I guess [on] the record is a lot that has just been disfigured. It’s those sorts of sounds, which are quite acoustic sounds, but they’ve been disfigured through the electronics. I found that quite a useful way to just deal with the subject.

“Things grew out of other things,” Will continues. “The structures of the tracks themselves feel like sort of a weird blur. […] You don’t quite know where you are in the cycle of the narrative, because everything’s got a bit mangled and jumbled up.”

The final product resists genre categorisation – while Will’s background in classical and experimental music is evident. “I quite like the ambiguity in terms of the genre,” he says. “Ambient music is just a weird term that covers so many different things and I think it does fit into ambient music, ambient experimental.

“I do feel that in terms of the process there is something classical that sort of underpins it, in terms of the way that I wrote some of the melodies, taking a text and setting that text, and then putting that through the electronic processes.”

The musician feels ready to embark on further solo projects – and Remains has laid down the foundation. “I feel
like this was quite an authentic thing for me in terms of the way that I like to make things,” Will says. “My sort of classical, electronic hybrid thing will just be part of what I do, I think. I like the idea of being quite guided by something more intuitive than a really strong theme or concept.”

Despite his initial clear aims, looking back, he says, the album had a very different message to the one he set out with. “It was quite difficult to find the right way to do it,” Will says, “and to feel that I was doing it in a way that felt true to me and my experience and also to my dad’s experience, and I think that sort of became part of the album in a way, that kind of weird opposition: I couldn’t experience what he was experiencing. That was kind of what the album was about in the end, but I didn’t really realise at the time. I devoted a lot of this energy to trying to create this aural tapestry of dementia, trying to imagine what he might have experienced through sonics, but I realised as I was doing it that some of the sounds coming out were a bit softer. I thought it was wrong at first, but looking back I sort of figured that that was my voice coming into the picture.”