T2 Trainspotting composer Rick Smith discusses how he both built on and subverted the classic soundtrack for the film’s sequel
The opening seconds of Trainspotting – with Ewan McGregor bolting down an Edinburgh high street to the puckish rhythm of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” – go a good way to capturing the energy of mid-90s British youth culture. Though the film was set in the 1980s, it was released in 1996, a year before a general election that saw New Labour win a landslide victory. The Conservative government that had been in power for nearly 18 years was on its way out, and for a generation who’d come of age under Thatcher, the future seemed theirs to take. Two decades on, the failures of the New Labour project have become laughably clear, leading to a crisis in the political establishment that’s manifested itself most visibly in Brexit. It’s maybe no surprise, then, that Trainspotting’s sequel doesn’t have a “Lust For Life” moment: its four main characters are middle-aged, their lives have all taken wildly different paths, and deep down they know that no matter how hard they try to recapture their youth, their best days are behind them. The future never really came.
Part of Trainspotting’s enduring success came from its iconic soundtrack, a mix of Britpop, early rave, and proto-punk. T2 Trainspotting doesn’t exactly try to do the same thing twice, instead subverting the original soundtrack to explore themes of aging, nostalgia, and loss. When McGregor’s Mark Renton revisits his childhood bedroom, unchanged since the day he left, he dusts off his old vinyl copy of Lust For Life and puts the needle to the grooves – yet, as the opening bars kick in, he immediately turns it off, knowing that it’s impossible to ever really go back. Whenever Underworld’s “Born Slippy”, one of the first film’s most recognisable tracks, is played, it’s slowed down, edited, and inverted to the point where it’s barely recognisable.
For the film’s composer Rick Smith, it was important to evoke the past without simply retreading it. As a founding member of Underworld, Smith has frequently worked with Trainspotting director Danny Boyle over the past two decades, providing music for everything from The Beach to A Life Less Ordinary to the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. As he explains over the phone, his role in T2 was to both compose original pieces for its soundtrack (the first Trainspotting was made up exclusively of other artist’s songs) as well as help curate new tracks for the new film. “Trainspotting was Danny’s taste,” Smith says. “Twenty years on, our tastes and experiences have changed, but the fundamentally important thing was that his taste is still very important. I did everything I could to present him with things.”
To keep one foot in the present, Smith and Boyle brought a handful of new artists into the Trainspotting world, from London rockers Wolf Alice to Edinburgh’s own Young Fathers. In Boyle’s words, it’s the latter who are particularly important to the sequel’s energy. “You’re always looking for the heartbeat of a film,” the director said recently. “For Trainspotting it was Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’. For T2 it’s Young Fathers. Their songs are my heartbeat for the film.”
We spoke to Smith about the film, working with Boyle, and what it’s like to come back to the world of Trainspotting after 20 years.
How did you get involved in T2?
Rick Smith: It always feels like a surprise when Danny asks me to help with something. It’s always quite exciting. We met for a coffee and talked about it – he asked me to get involved and sent me the script. John Hodges’ script was absolutely fantastic. I was knocked out. I was very moved by it, and somehow connected to the first film even more than I’d done before, so it was really a no-brainer.
Were you nervous getting involved, considering the cult legacy of the first film?
Rick Smith: Sequels are difficult anyway – people (have) expectations with what they’ve experienced (before). I felt in my heart that I could really help him with something that actually, on the surface of it, is incredibly difficult. I thought there were some simple things that I felt could make a difference.
“I wasn’t looking for a definitive, succinct direction from Danny. Don’t get me wrong, he can be incredibly specific, but the journey was everything for me – this element of chance” – Rick Smith
Do you remember your early discussions about the music?
Rick Smith: He talked about the characters, and how they’d evolved. I can’t recall a lot of detail – I write bits and pieces down from Danny in a fairly random fashion. He talked about a sense of memory, and fragments of specific things, simple things, playful things, rhythms – that kind of thing. I had a note on the front of my notebook, a quote from a wonderful woman, Daphne Oram, a pioneer (of electronic music). The quote was: ‘How much shall we control and how much shall we leave to chance?’ And for me, it was the journey that was important. I wasn’t looking for a definitive, succinct direction from Danny. Don’t get me wrong, he can be incredibly specific, but the journey was everything for me – this element of chance, thinking, ‘I really love this and I haven’t thought about whether it’s appropriate for the film, but here it is anyway because music’s powerful, magical stuff.’ And there was a lot of experimenting. Obviously the first film was entirely made up of ‘needle drop’ music, so just by my mere existence of being a composer/musician in the film there was the potential for change.
Unlike the first film, T2 features original music that you composed for the film. How does your score work alongside the other artists on the soundtrack?
Rick Smith: It was a (constant) conversation. I moved into the edit suite – and I’ve never done this before with Danny – I took some equipment into the edit suite and basically commuted and worked there five days a week. I wanted to be able to respond quickly – I figured ten seconds, a minute of conversation a day would allow me to get on with it and present things to Danny and Jon Harris, the editor. I also felt it was important for them to be able to ask me to experiment. I think colour and tone is fundamental to storytelling – there’s a point where talking about music doesn’t work, you just need to feel it.
You also helped choose some of the songs that appear on the new soundtrack…
Rick Smith: I didn’t have a shopping bag to collect them, but once we were working on it, it was always on my mind. If I heard something (I liked) I’d say, ‘Okay, I’ll share that with Danny.’ But as I said, it wasn’t always focused on sharing stuff, like, ‘I think this would be great in the film.’ On my part, it was broader than that.
“The most obvious way to trigger (memories of the first film) is to lift a piece of the original music and plonk it on. That never seemed like a good idea” – Rick Smith
T2 has a lot of callbacks to the first film. How did you get the music to fit in with that?
Rick Smith: That was a big part of the experiment – how those echoes hark back in time, and what they trigger in you. The most obvious way to trigger something is to lift a piece of the original music and plonk it on. That never seemed like a good idea. So a lot of experimenting with the nature of the echoes – what, where, and how – went on until we arrived at this balance with the way it would fit into the story. And, for sure, Danny – not myself – knew exactly how that would manifest itself early on.
Given how inseparable ‘Born Slippy’ is to Trainspotting, what was it like revisiting it for ‘Slow Slippy’ with T2?
Rick Smith: It was a piece of cake! When Danny chose it in the first place and put it where he did (in the film), it was such a strong trigger. I never really questioned the idea of (revisiting) it. It was a little trickier to find the right tone and strength. In film, strength comes not just from the music, but from the way it’s mixed and moved and what happens where in the edit – all those things are in flux.
Not just in terms of how it works with the film though – the track was also hugely important in your own music career and your life. How did it feel revisiting it, given the way the movie approaches themes of nostalgia?
Rick Smith: There was definitely a melancholy – 20 years have gone by. That was inherently there when working on the music. But it’s not a melancholy born of a deep depression or bitterness. It’s just that thing that happens as you get older and look back. And it often feels incredibly positive; it brings a warm smile to your face. I didn’t struggle at all. As Underworld, we’ve been playing ‘Born Slippy’ live for 20 years, and the reaction from the audience is so strong it’s almost overwhelming. It’s never got tiring to perform or play. It’s what it triggers in people.
Danny’s talked a lot about discovering Young Fathers for the film – he talked about it in the same was as Underworld being the ‘heartbeat’ of the first film. How do they embody the film to you?
Rick Smith: Well when he talks about the ‘heartbeat’, he doesn’t mean ‘Born Slippy’, he means the whole Dubnobasswithmyheadman album. He never intended to have every track by Underworld (in there), but it was a useful tool for him. There was so much about Young Fathers that was right – their geographical location, their boldness, their prolificness, the intensity of their lyrics. They’re experimental, they’re provocative. I could go on and on, you know? They were really a fantastic group for us to find. As Danny said, he felt a bit like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe we stumbled across this.’ I go back to Daphne Oram – how much do we control, and how much do we leave to chance? Thank goodness for chance, thank goodness for serendipity. Danny was cheeky enough to ask them to write a new tune – that’s a hell of a thing to ask a band, and it’s just fantastic, the piece that they wrote.
“As Underworld, we’ve been playing ‘Born Slippy’ live for 20 years, and the reaction from the audience is so strong it’s almost overwhelming. It’s never got tiring to perform” – Rick Smith
Whose idea was it to use ‘Radio Ga Ga’ in the club scene?
Rick Smith: I think that was in Danny’s head quite early on. Who knows why? There’ll be all sorts of reasons that we don’t necessarily talk about.
The soundtrack of the first film defined 90s cool. How does the new one relate to the 2010s?
Rick Smith: My understanding of the first film was that Danny picked the music. There were no music supervisors, and A&R would’ve been at a distance and secondary to his taste in the first place. That was a particular point in Danny’s life. The strength of the first soundtrack was that alliance of people at the zeitgeist of the time. I think that Trainspotting was an amazing piece of literature by Irvine (Welsh), followed through with amazing screenwriting, following by an incredibly bold interpretation with strong taste and style by Danny. You ended up with a great film as people threw their hearts into it. It was all I could do with this film. It was important to be honest with where we’re at now – to not look back, and not think about it as a sequel in the same way. Even looking at how we did those echoes (to the first film), there wasn’t a lot of intellectualising over it. We just thought, ‘Let’s try this and see how it works.’