13 Jun 2020

The Service: Anthonie Tonnon on making spy music

From RNZ Music, 2:25 pm on 13 June 2020

We talk to local musician Anthonie Tonnon about creating the music for RNZ's new spy podcast The Service.

Anthony Tonnon waiting for the train on his Rail Lands tour

Anthonie Tonnon waiting for the train on his Rail Land tour in 2018. Photo: Ana Tovey

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RNZ's new podcast series The Service is co-hosted by author and presenter John Daniell - whose mother was a spy, and RNZ journalist Guyon Espiner. The pair delve into SIS secrets during the Cold War.

John and Anthonie are old friends. They'd spent an evening together "ranting on and on about podcasts", discussing ones they liked and things they thought could be done better.

A year later, Anthonie got a call from John asking him to contribute music for his new podcast series about SIS secrets during the Cold War.

The music had to sound like spies and intrigue, childhood and family, and with the sound of the 1980s woven through it.

It was a specific brief, but "weirdly, and uncannily" Anthonie was working on an album that contained many of those themes and sounds.

"Particularly one song which is called 'Peacetime Orders', that song is where the theme music for The Service comes from. It's a weird song that has this really minor key grungy synthesiser end."

So he had the theme song, next was to figure out how to score the rest of the hour-long episodes.

Anthonie got out his Deluge - a portable synthesizer, sampler and sequencer - and started playing along to each episode.

For the series' second episode, Anthonie used a piece of music he'd recorded for a different song featuring a string arrangement by Matthew Bodman, performed by a string quartet led by violinist Charmian Keay.

Everything else is Anthonie playing a drum machine, a low bass synthesizer and a high synth sound.

Anthonie Tonnon

Anthonie Tonnon Photo: Supplied

He'd listened to a lot of podcasts ahead of creating the score for The Service and noticed they mostly used music as texture - often beautiful, but disjointed, with nothing linking the different pieces of music together.

"As a songwriter I'm all about the idea that each piece of music needs to relate to the next, or a new piece of music needs to somehow link back to something you've heard before. That's how you make things song-like and coherent.

"Because The Service has such a strong story to it and it's very personal and human, I thought it needed a song-like treatment.

"So most of the podcast is at the same tempo, it's in the same key and the musical motifs return or they come back flipped over, played in reverse. So at its best, that does give it a song-like quality to help lift that underlying story."

Anthonie is working on arranging a huge tour of at least 20 shows in late October and November. He's looking forward to seeing his other musician friends putting on shows, and was pleased Nadia Reid went ahead with a show last week.