Sunday 25 February 2018

The second soundtrack of Ray's life

After years as a rock guitarist, Ray Harman's reinvention as a film and TV composer has been remarkable

Ray Harman, composer and musician with Something Happens. Photo: Tony Gavin
Ray Harman, composer and musician with Something Happens. Photo: Tony Gavin

Hilary A White

In a soundproofed back-garden shed, Ray Harman holds a North-African instrument known as a "gombri". He slides a violin bow across its strings, producing a creaky, discordant sound.

"I think they use it for rituals," he grins over the din. It's a very different tone to the one Harman greeted me with at his home as he made coffee and shared sunny observations about the red kites he sees on his daily run. But such eerie noises are bricks and mortar to the 52-year-old who, after a career in pop music with 1990s contenders Something Happens, is now one of Ireland's most renowned film and TV composers.

Love/Hate, The Young Offenders and Inspector George Gently are just some of the productions he has sculpted music for from this cosy studio outside Wicklow town. His work also adorns the new horror saga A Dark Song.

Directed by Liam Gavin, it portrays a vengeful woman employing an occultist to help her summon spiritual weaponry. Harman's primal, nerve-shredding atmospherics are responsible for a hefty portion of its chill factor.

He sits with his back to a desk of computer screens, keyboards, mixers, sequencers and interfaces. Around the walls hang guitars, exotic percussion instruments and musical contraptions that defy description. He was always fascinated by the role of music in cinema but it was not on his radar when music took hold of him as a young lad growing up in Kilnamanagh, Co Dublin. Back then, it was more Abba than Ennio Morricone. He was 10 when he saw a guitar in his mother's wardrobe. The instrument belonged to an uncle who had died in a motorbike accident at the age of 21. He picked it up and didn't put it down.

At 18, while working in Golden Discs, he answered a "guitarist wanted" ad posted by bassist Alan Byrne and drummer Eamonn Ryan. They clicked, and soon brought in Tom Dunne on vocals. Jump forward a few years, and Something Happens are signed to Virgin, with No.1 albums, sold-out shows, US tours and top-10 singles to their name.

Despite the modest advance the band received upon signing, Harman's working-class family were happy as long as he was getting a regular wage. More importantly, it meant they could quit the day jobs and go full-time. Curiously, the guitarist was immortalised in their first-ever EP, I Know Ray Harman.

"We were never awash with money but it was great craic. We were always thinking, 'we are so f**king lucky to be here'. Even when you're living with the same bunch of guys on a bus, in hotels, for months on end, it was always funny. That's the bit I remember most - the laughing."

As is the natural life cycle of bands, Something Happens parted ways with Virgin and reduced their activity. They still play a handful of shows each year and their friendship remains intact because they didn't cross destructive rock 'n' roll lines. "We were always a day late for the drugs," Harman jokes. "There was always some big LA band in town the night before who had everything! No, we always behaved ourselves in the sense that things didn't get out of hand. There's usually a lot of tension in bands, and they fall out. We're all still mates and we're proud of that."

He recalls a "weird" period when they had to take on jobs again to keep afloat. He got work with a furniture company where he met his wife Sinead. Their first-born, Bobby (now 21), arrived, and while Harman was willing to do any job, music was calling him.

It was only then, after years as a touring rock musician, that Harman eyed-up music as a viable career. Sinead pushed him to explore film and TV work. He started sending out demos. Then his first big break came - updating the Late Late Show theme tune for Pat Kenny's tenure.

Since then, Harman has won awards for his work, and in 2013 was inducted into the IMRO Academy alongside Paul Brady and Phil Coulter. He will soon feature in hotly- tipped documentary The Farthest, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival later this month. Harman is relishing his second act in an industry that tends not to do second acts.

Working from home also means more time with his three children, Bobby, Sophie and Matt. "It's a huge advantage not having to commute," he nods. "I've always been around when they're here. They wander in and out of the studio. They're all musical in their own way."

Obviously they think their rock-guitarist dad is pretty cool, right? A hysterical, eye-watering giggle bursts out. "You must be joking!"

'A Dark Song' is in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

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