Meet Spamalot composer John Du Prez in: The interview that goes like this…
He studied Chinese at Oxford, was an associate of the Royal College of Music, appeared on Top of the Pops and wrote music scores for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. But John Du Prez is best known and loved for composing the silly songs that make Spamalot, the musical comedy based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a global mega hit. Jude Riley talked to John about working with the Pythons, poking fun at Andrew Lloyd Webber and what a spamahorn actually is…
You changed your given name from Trevor Jones because there was already a composer of that name. How did you decide on John Du Prez?
Many artists choose to change their names because it gives a sense of freedom. I come from a classical music background and one of my favourite composers was a 16th century Frenchman called Josquin Des Prez. And I thought, well that name would make a nice screen credit; it’s nicely visual. Round about the same time I started playing with Modern Romance and they called me John. So I thought ‘Yep, this is John Du Prez’. However, we relocated with the family to the US for a year and there they said that those two names were associated with people who hold up banks and steal cars. But even the kids decided they wanted to change their name, so we all did. I think it’s a nice name.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was about eight or nine I started out thinking I wanted to be a vet. But I soon discovered that you needed chemistry to be a vet and as far as the chemistry master was concerned, it was hate at first sight. But amazingly, because this was a state school and you wouldn’t find this now, the school had a full symphony orchestra. They asked me what I wanted to play and I said a bugle. They said, ‘we don’t have a bugle but here’s something in a bag. Take it home and see what you think.’ So I took it home and it was a French horn – in pieces. My dad put it together and I learnt to play it. Then I learnt the trumpet so I could play jazz.
If you could have a word with your 16 year old self now, what would you say to him?
Don’t do a scholarship to Oxford. Go straight into music. I did Chinese, a degree in Oriental Studies but I spent 48 hours a week rehearsing with orchestras and chamber groups and became first horn with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. At university I read classic texts in the original and I think, later on, the Pythons only took me seriously because I had an Oxbridge degree.
Apart from composing music, you are a fine trumpet and horn player. Do you still play regularly?
I use a lot of computers now. I did play everything on Monty Python’s Life of Brian and these days I play in my own studio at home but I never play in public.
What is a Spamahorn?
Ahh, well, this is played in the opening of Spamalot. I built it as a joke out of a piece of copper piping with an animal horn stuck on the end. I was always interested in mediaeval music and the spamahorn has a wild sound for going in to battle. But the sound was too weird – even for Terry Gilliam…!
Back in the early ‘80s you were a member of the multi hit, salsa band Modern Romance and toured the world. Any thoughts of getting back together for a reunion gig?
None whatsoever but I have absolutely no regrets. For me, it was a bit of fun. I’m still good friends with David James (one of the founder members who has also written music for films including Shrek).
Who are your professional heroes-heroines?
1: The Beatles, 2: John Williams (composer of film scores including Star Wars, Superman, Harry Potter) 3: Elton Dean (jazz musician). I’d had a good classical training and I also played with jazz, blues and soul bands but The Beatles showed me how you could use classical music on tracks such as Eleanor Rigby and Yesterday.
You and Eric Idle have been friends for many years. How did you start working together and what was your initial reaction to the idea for Spamalot?
My first thought was that it was a great title. We originally started collaborating when he invited me along to see him playing Ko-Ko in The Mikado. Every night, he would rewrite the lyrics to the ‘Little List’ number to make it topical and he thought that if he was doing all that for someone else, we might as well have a go at doing something similar for ourselves. At the time I was writing things that would never get produced for no money so we came up with the idea of performing the Monty Python music. No-one had ever done it before. We rounded up all the big hits and put on a performance at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It worked so well we took the show on a 30 city tour of America playing all this Python music. The audiences absolutely loved it! With Spamalot, we wrote it in three weeks, recorded it in three weeks and then it took three years to get it into production. So we did another 30 city tour in the meantime. When it finally got off the ground, the lottery people, Camelot, said ‘You can’t call it Spamalot!’ Huh!
Is there a scene in Spamalot that still makes you laugh every time you see it?
There are two. ‘The Song That Goes Like This’ is a send-up of all those huge Broadway musical numbers, in particular the big love song in Phantom of the Opera when a chandelier crashes down at the end of it. In Spamalot the chandelier explodes at the climax of the song and I find it funny every time. My favourite scene is when Arthur sings I’m All Alone’ with Patsy right next to him throughout and the Lady of the Lake finally comes on and says he’s not alone, she’s been with him all the time.
At the mention of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name in Spamalot, the cast cover their ears and scream in pain, have you met Lord Webber? Do you and he get on and does he appreciate the joke?
I’ve never met the great man so I don’t know how he feels about it but, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…
Do ideas for music come to you easily or do you have to force yourself to sit down and write?
All writers have to have discipline so I go into the studio, close the door and go into the zone. I like to get stuff out of the way but I find that the best ideas often happen at really odd moments. They often come to me on trains. Or I’ll go to sleep and when I wake up there it is.
Looking back over your long and distinguished career, what is the work you’re most proud of?
Well, there are three or four. Spamalot, of course and I’m very fond of A Fish Called Wanda. I’ve remixed the score of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1 which I’m bringing out on vinyl and I loved writing the music for the second series of the BBC children’s show, Clangers, which Michael Palin voiced. Michael and I have both been doing that for our grandchildren.
What is there still left that you would like to do?
Keep on going. I feel very fresh now and I’ve got lots of ideas. I’m back living in my home city of Bath and I’ve built a studio there. I’ve never been so busy. There’s lots of exciting stuff happening – but I can’t talk about it… yet!