Brian McOmber on scoring Netflix’s ‘Fair Play’: “I describe it as a feel-bad romance film”

After working in a biology lab to being the long-term drummer for the Grammy-nominated indie rockers the Dirty Projectors, as well as drumming for Björk and St Vincent, Brian McOmber is now settled in his new life as a film composer. He speaks to Headliner about his work on the Phoebe Dynevor-starring Fair Play, which has been picked up for release by Netflix after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.

McOmber has something of a previous life as a rockstar, as a session drummer for Björk, David Byrne, Solange, The Roots and St. Vincent. Although his transition from full-time drummer to film composer is probably less strange than going from studying and working in evolutionary morphology to becoming a professional musician.

“I had a job at a university working as a lab technician in a biology lab,” McOmber says from home in Los Angeles, where he’s based his music career for several years, and is just getting over a bout of Covid. 

“I would do that to make money and then go on tour with the band (Dirty Projectors) to lose money, as most people do. But somewhere along the way, the band started to get some traction, I quit the job in the science lab and just started doing the band full time.”

It’s always a tough moment for any musician: weighing up whether to leave a day job for music, and picking the right moment to do so. But usually, that job would be something like a minimum wage bartending job; presumably leaving the science field was a tougher decision? Not necessarily.

it might have been more lucrative for me to be a bartender!

“I don’t know, it might have been more lucrative for me to be a bartender!” he laughs. “It was when I switched labs that I wanted to do more touring. I started working more with bacteria, which you pop in the freezer – you literally put your experiment on ice and come back to it four months later! So thankfully that meant I’d have a job to come back to before music became full-time.”

It was via the Dirty Projectors project that McOmber got to work with Icelandic music legend Björk when she collaborated with the band to co-release Mount Wittenberg Orca in 2010. “I got to write all my own drum parts,” he recalls. 

“One time, Björk came in by herself and was commenting on how I was preparing the drums. I'll never forget that because I usually play very loud and bombastic. But for her specific record, I went as soft, gentle and minimal as I could. That was such a trip, being in the studio with her.”

Collaborating with the triple Grammy-winning St Vincent is another drumming memory that sticks out most fondly for McOmber. “Anne (Clark, aka St Vincent) approached me about doing a series of covers for the 10th anniversary of Our Bands Could Be Your Life, which is a book by Michael Azerrad that chronicles the history of American hardcore.

“And that was a trip because I got to play drums in a group where you see Anne Clark finally come into herself. We were playing this song Kerosene by Big Black, and she's got her voice shifted down and she's screaming into the microphone. Up until that moment she was the quiet, timid Anne Clark backing up these cutesy indie rock bands like Sufjan Stevens, but we witnessed something click in her!”

I’m so bored of having my morality handed to me by all these films which feel so safe.

Going from drumming for Björk and witnessing St Vincent going through a primal transformation to becoming a film composer was never going to happen in some run-of-the-mill way. 

As it happens, while still The Dirty Projector’s touring drummer, McOmber got chatting with director Hannah Fidell on a flight, and being a fan of the band, she invited him to score 2013’s A Teacher, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

And as if this story doesn’t seem unlikely enough already, one of the Sundance jurors, Indian director Anurag Kashyap, saw the film and asked McOmber if he would come to India to score his next film, Ugly.

“I said yes, not really knowing how the hell I was going to do that,” he says. “But I hopped on a plane to Mumbai, locked myself in a hotel room with my laptop, and somehow cranked out a score in a month. The next thing I knew, I was at Cannes! It all happened really fast for me. 

"I realised how lucky I was to be in that situation, having talked to other people who spent most of their academic life trying to be a film composer. I didn't stop playing drums straight away, but I didn't make that my priority. Because being a professional touring drummer from band-to-band is tough work. I realised I was much happier creating film scores.”

the director asked me what the sound quality of feeling anxious was, or even of being slapped in the face.

And ever since those two 2013 film projects, it’s safe to say McOmber has mostly set his drumsticks down and fully embraced the film industry, doing it full-time ever since. And with it now being a decade since those debuts, the invitation to score Netflix’s Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich-starring Fair Play is richly deserved. Dynevor and Ehrenreich play a young couple in love, but whose relationship takes a sinister turn as a promotion opportunity arises at the cutthroat hedge fund where they work together.

“I like to describe it as a feel-bad romance film,” McOmber says with a laugh. “I’m so bored of having my morality handed to me by all these films which feel so safe. I knew from the start that Chloe (Domont, Fair Play’s director) was never going to make a safe film, but that it would have a lot of ambiguity and people would take different things away from it. It really is her vision, and I was just trying to help bring that vision to life with the music.”

So naturally, McOmber certainly did not create a ‘safe’ sounding musical score, quite the opposite. He learned early on that “Chloe had an aversion to me using melody in the film, which was fine by me! As soon as I strung three or four notes together, she’d say that it was too leading and too melodious. She asked me what the sound quality of feeling anxious was, or even of being slapped in the face. That’s what led to me using a lot of percussion in the film.

“And completely misusing a cello; I recorded cello playing it with drumsticks and mallets, and I’d put metal objects on the strings and strum it with a credit card. We did some recording with small groups of string players and then a lot of manipulation afterwards. Sometimes I’d take an intense attack on the cello, put it through a whole chain of effects, and then double it with a synth.”

I recorded cello playing it with drumsticks and mallets, and I’d strum it with a credit card.

Following its Sundance premiere, Netflix acquired Fair Play to the tune of 20 million dollars, so expect a big promo run for the film which will become increasingly anticipated as we edge closer to its release, as yet unannounced.

“There will be a theatrical run at cinemas,” McOmber says. “And they’ll be rolling out the red carpet for the film too, which is exciting. I don’t know if that has to do with the fact that Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi, Knives Out) is a producer of the film and has some sway at Netflix. 

"But it’s just great knowing that the film has the right people behind it to make sure that, firstly, the creators all get paid, and secondly that lots of people watch it. Because at times it plays like a horror movie, and the best way to experience horror films is to be in a theatre and share everyone’s reaction.”

McOmber wraps by speaking about the near future — and there’s lots more to look forward to from one of the more exciting film composers amongst a sea of copycats in the industry. 

“I’m scoring another film with Alden Ehrenreich,” he says. “He’s so great in Fair Play, and he’s in Cocaine Bear and Christopher Nolan’s next film, but he’s written and directed and is starring in his own film as well and I’m working on that, which is also kind of in the horror world. It’s being produced by Francis Ford Coppola.

“And then I'm working on a documentary with a longtime collaborator of mine about Immigration Customs Enforcement, aka ICE, which is a very, very dark film about some of the murders that this organisation has been a part of.”

Duly noted – in other words, McOmber is working on some of the best films scheduled for release. In the meantime, watch out for Fair Play being released in cinemas and on Netflix, and for its soundtrack album.