British composer Tom Howe has an extensive career in film and television and has been nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music for his work on Apple TV’s Ted Lasso. With over 100 credits to his name, Howe is a veteran musical composer whose work has appeared in plenty of notable films and TV shows: to give just a few examples, The Great British Bake Off, The Great Pottery Throw-Down, Taskmaster, Professor Marston and The Wonder Women, and most recently, the documentary Living Wine.
Howe sat down with Screen Speck to talk Ted Lasso‘s musical motifs and the much darker tone of its sophomore season. Howe also discussed how he landed the project and the “family” that’s been nurtured on the show.
This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Screen Speck: You’ve worked with Bill Lawrence before on Whiskey Cavalier and now Ted Lasso, so I guess I first wanted to ask you how you got involved with Ted Lasso and what was the idea behind composing for this particular series?
TH: Yeah, as you say, I’d worked with Bill [Lawrence] before on Whiskey Cavalier for ABC. He told me about Ted Lasso at the time. Then we met up for breakfast and he sort of told me about the story and said that he’d like me to do it. Jason [Sudeikis] would or had, obviously, was writing scripts, producing, and starring in it. He had ideas about music as well and he wanted his friend Marcus [Mumford] to do it. He mentioned this to Bill and Bill said, “Well, why don’t Tom and Marcus do it together, because Tom’s got experience in film and, obviously, Marcus has a huge experience in songwriting and, you know, could be an interesting kind of collaboration.” So we met Marcus and we got put together in LA for breakfast and we got on really well. Then [Marcus] invited me over to his house in England. I went there for about 10 days to sort of hang out and write together.
At that point, we didn’t actually have any footage of Ted Lasso at all. We just had some scripts, and Marcus had spoken to Jason at length. So it was more like making a record than working on a TV show. We just literally met up each morning, and we did the kind of day’s work in the studio, kind of putting down ideas. For the first time, certainly, in my career, I suddenly started with the main title theme, which normally I leave till the end because I wait to kind of get my semantic content, but we went straight out the gate with a song. And that went down really well. That was the kind of start for us, really. So that’s how it kind of came together.
SS: Oh, that’s interesting that you guys started with the theme song. What were some of the thematic motifs behind the song? I know that it had a lot of guitars? Did you guys focus it on Ted the character’s background? Or was there anything else you guys focused on?
TH: Yeah, well, Ted is from Kansas, and Jason is too. And the show is set in the UK. We decided it was gonna have a Transatlantic sound. So we listened to sort of things like the Beatles, and kind of Creedence Clearwater [Revival], a lot of bands from both sides of the pond really, and kind of honed the sound from there. So as you say, it’s very much sort of a band rhythm, guitars, drums, bass, keys, and then we’ve got some sort of symphony organ in places and stuff like that. But it was the aim to kind of have a very Transatlantic feel.
SS: How closely do you and Marcus work together with the people that are in charge of choosing more soundtrack songs, like ‘Yesterday’s Paper’ by the Rolling Stones or Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’?
TH: Well, we don’t suggest songs in that way. But one of the things that makes Ted Lasso so different is that – and I think this is really because of COVID – is that we normally would go and spot in a room with the producers, the director and there would be a certain number of people, but on Ted Lasso, because of COVID when we were first doing it, we had everybody on Zoom together. So rather than there being like three or four people, there were like 16. So we were spotting with the new supervisors and the sound department and lots of different people. And all those people have remained the same and, we’ve sort of become close with each other. We all kind of weigh in on each other’s choices and kind of, you know, try and help out. So it wouldn’t be unusual for the music supervisor to kind of give me a comment about the score, and I might get a comment about, you know, a needle drop as well.
At times it may be – you know how it is on TV – you may have a certain budget for an episode, and maybe they really want a track with the Rolling Stones, but then that means the budget’s over somewhere else, so we might even have a discussion where one of the songs becomes score or the other way around. It’s a very fluid process, but very kind of team fields, the whole thing.
SS: Is it a little bit different doing this kind of more collaborative team process than anything else you’ve ever done before?
TH: Yeah. Normally working on a film, at least, often the sound is not remotely…nearly finished. And, I don’t have the songs that are being swapped in and changed all the time. I have no concept of what that’s going to be. Which has a number of problems because if you’re trying to write, something [that]’s very sort of song-heavy, even just on a practical level, you need to kind of work out musically what key they’re in. And if you’re coming out of the song, or going into one, you’ve got to be in something related for it to kind of not be a bit dissonant and clashing. You know, it’s helpful that everybody’s sort of pulling everything together at the same time. And there’s a kind of open dialogue. I mean, you know, Tony [Von Pervieux], who’s doing the music series, he’s absolutely fantastic. You always can get everything cleared away that everyone wants. He’s got millions of brilliant suggestions on his sleeve as well. Jason [Sudeikis] also has a huge knowledge of songs. And he brings a lot to that as well, knowing what would work and what he wants.
SS: Yeah, I think the show has a great balance of the score and soundtrack, which makes the whole series kind of well-balanced in terms of music. And speaking of the score – and how music can almost be like another character in the background – I’m thinking of some of the more emotional moments of this series, such as Season Two’s ‘No Weddings, and a Funeral.’ How do you approach those kinds of episodes, especially in your ‘1991’ track with the cutting between Ted and Rebecca’s characters? What went behind that particular track?
TH: Well that whole sequence is brilliantly edited and acted, obviously, and the script was fantastic. I mean, it’s interesting, because Jason, when we were working on Season One, would sometimes make a comment – like, for instance, there’s a scene in Season One, Episode Eight when they’re playing darts in the pub, and Ted gives a speech about his father. We did a piece of music there. And then whilst we were on the spot, Jason said, “This needs to be something we can come back to in Season Two because there’s going to be a moment where he has a breakdown about his father.”
[So] I always knew that it was going to kind of turn up again, which is incredibly unusual to have that kind of foresight. Because usually, when you’re working on a TV series or even a film, you make a season, and then, if it’s successful, they pick up another one, but nobody really knows. You’re then scrambling to kind of get the second one together, but [Sudeikis has] the whole thing mapped out in his head of knowing where the characters are going to go. And so that is hugely helpful because, in that sequence, you’re talking about, it does start off, obviously, in a very emotional space. And then as the score moves through that sequence, it actually echoes the music in the pub scene in Episode Eight of Season One. So the same track kind of comes back and it’s exactly related to both times him talking about his father, and Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) talking about hers.
SS: And when you score some of the scenes, specifically considering that the show is centered around Ted, do you keep one character in mind? Or do you only score according to the scene that you’re watching at that moment?
TH: Well, yeah, there’s individual sort of themes for the different characters, and depending on who is in the scene and also what it requires, generally we’ll sort of lean into that thematic material for that sequence. So occasionally on something like the kind-of-sports sequence, you might get lots of different characters into playing. Wnd without kind of Mickey Mousing it, so to speak – like an animation – we do sort of lean into those individual themes within those sporting sequences or the comedy or whatever. So the kind of mood of the scene obviously dictates the kind of style, but the themes of the characters play out depending on who’s in any given scene.
SS: I won’t bother asking you for any specifics on Season Three because I know they’re huge on not spoiling anything, I promise. I’m not asking that, but I guess, just generally: any musical motifs that you’ve used in Seasons One and Two do you see coming back in Season Three?
TH: [Laughs.] Yeah, I mean, all of them, is the truth. The characters who are in the first two seasons, they’re part of the arc of the show. So even if they’re going to feature in a very minor way, I’m going to still lean into that material when appropriate as I did in the first [season]. So obviously the main Ted tune / kind of team tune will feature heavily, but so lots of the other characters as well.
SS: That was a very diplomatic answer to not spoil anything. One question that has nothing to do with Ted Lasso, but more of the fact that out of sheer coincidence, before I knew I’d get to interview you, I started watching Taskmaster and I just wanted to ask you how you got involved with that particular show?
TH: Yeah, that was a really fun project. The director, who’s a guy called Andy Devonshire, he and I have worked together about six or seven times and we did a crazy show about twelve years ago called The Games That Time Forgot, which actually was a kind of 90-minutes feature documentary on sports that had no longer existed in the world. And when you watched it, there was a good reason why most of them didn’t. But this Alex Horn, who’s the guy who does Taskmaster, he was the kind of guy who went around to try all these sports. And when I was scoring that, he said to me, “Let’s do something really fun.” So I did a whole score with ukuleles and kazoos and whistling and things like that – this is back in 2008 or something.
The next thing after that we did was The Great British Bake Off; then we did Four Rooms together; and we did various other things along the way. Then [Devonshire] called me up and he said, “I’m doing this new show called Taskmaster and I’ve got Alex back doing the kind of narration and I just want some really crazy music. Whatever you feel like.” Some of it’s guitar-based, some of it sounds like dance music from Eastern Europe, and some of it sounds like Americana with banjos. It’s a sort of totally mad kind of palette of, basically, what are you feeling like today? And that just really appealed to me. And so that’s basically how I got involved.
So they actually invited me on the set of that they were filming in Burbank, doing an American version about a year or two after I’ve done it in the UK. And they invited me along to the set and they were at that point trying to do abseiling with jacket potatoes – something crazy whilst they were on fire. And [Devonshire] said, “What do you think [for] music?” And I thought, “I’ve got just the thing.” It was a lot of fun and very different sorts of the usual stuff that I get asked for. So we had a good time with it.
SS: Thank you so much for indulging me in that Taskmaster question. As I was doing research for this interview, I thought, “Oh my god, he does the theme and the music for the show!” So I had to ask.
TH: I’m glad you enjoy it. It’s a fun one to do.
SS: So basically my final question is do you have anything that you would like to share with me, overall, your experience in working with Ted Lasso as opposed to working scoring films?
TH: Yeah – I suppose the thing is, working on a TV show, particularly when it reoccurs, you kind of build relationships with people. Obviously, you hope when you do a film that you then work with the director again or that kind of thing. But you very rarely meet all the actors or you do in, say, a premiere or screening – or you did before COVID, and now you do, but kind of less so. When you work on a TV show, and it’s a lot of episodes and then it gets picked up again, there’s a kind of family quality that goes with that.
I’ve been on-set two or three times already, in Season Three, and I get to kind of go and hang out in the pub with the cast. That isn’t something I would do in a film, necessarily. It might be, but, in a film, I get hired very last minute. I don’t meet anybody at all, sort of thing. What makes Ted Lasso so special is that it’s the same people who are doing it before, the same people doing it in Season Three, and everybody feels like they can have an opinion on everybody else’s work in a positive, kind of helpful way. It’s quite a sort of a family / team feel about it. I think that’s what makes it special.
SS: It’s nice to know that what’s being preached on the series itself is kind of implemented on set and with the crew and with the cast and everyone involved.
TH: Yeah, they’re all wonderful.
SS: Well, Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today and I’m sorry for having you call back three or four times to make this interview happen. [Laughs.] I really appreciate it.
TH: [Laughs.] Thank you for being patient with me.