A Journey into Sound

Stood on the edge of an ice sheet, dangling hydrophones into the water, fishing for the sound of creaking ice and currents below. That’s just the sort of thing field recordist Chris Watson does. But he isn’t just a listener – he’s a compelling storyteller who’s made his childhood fascination with sound into a career. He’s played gigs with Joy Division, travelled the world with David Attenborough and recently recorded at a Lithuanian nuclear power plant for the Emmy-nominated soundtrack to the TV show Chernobyl. So if you’ve ever wondered whether it’s worth pursuing those niche fascinations of yours, here’s Chris breaking down a few amazing places that his have taken him…

By: Dave Waller,   8 minutes

1. Music.

“In my late teens we formed a band, Cabaret Voltaire. We signed to Rough Trade and then Factory Records in Manchester, and we played with Joy Division quite a few times, as well as Buzzcocks, Suicide and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. I was lucky to be growing up in Sheffield at a fantastic time, with a really interesting group of like-minded people, my age, who were all interested in doing stuff together.

We were all interested in electronic music and Andy Warhol’s experiments. But before that I remember hearing a musical piece called ‘Etude aux Chemins du Fer’. It was created by French composer Pierre Schaeffer out of sounds he’d recorded in a Paris railway station. That was the first time I’d heard musique concrète  – music created using found sounds. It just blew me away that grown ups were doing this, and it really set me off on a journey: I could use my tape recorder creatively as a musical instrument.”

2. Factual TV

“I grew up on the edge of Sheffield, not far from Derbyshire. And as the antidote to being in the studio all week, I’d take walks in the country with my wife and record much of the wildlife. I gradually became more interested in what I was hearing outside than what the band was creating in the studio. I just found it endlessly fascinating. I still do.

Then all the stuff happened with (Joy Division front man) Ian Curtis. At that age you don’t expect your friends to die. There were two or three who did, and that started to make me think.

Natural history was my way out. I thought the soundtracks to nature films were atrocious, and that maybe I could start to work with the creative side of film sound. I wrote to a bunch of companies and started working at Tyne Tees Television in Newcastle, in the sound department.”

"I gradually became more interested in what I was hearing outside than what the band was creating in the studio. I just found it endlessly fascinating. I still do."

“It was a fascinating time to be there. I learned so much, working in post-production. But I also went out with news crews covering the miners’ strikes. I was in between the police and the pickets, seeing all that violence first-hand. Then two weeks later the head of sound department was saying: ‘All right Chris, you’re off to Jamaica with Jools Holland, to film the Sun Splash festival for The Tube, and you’ll be meeting (reggae artists) King Tubby, Rita Marley and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.’

We found Scratch Perry on this massive power trip – he was always carrying batteries in his pockets because he thought he could absorb their power. Perry was sent to Nassau to finish his album, and on Love Beach he found these huge rocks that were baking hot during the day, and wanted to put them in the recording studio at night so he could absorb their power. So he’d pick them up and take them back to the artists’ flats. And when he realised they’d all started to cool down, he put them in the electric oven, whacked it up to 700 degrees, and left them there for three days. We were there when these rocks blew up and this massive explosion took out his kitchen. That was a real trip.”

3. Life of Attenborough

“I like putting microphones where you wouldn’t normally put your ears, because it gives you a different perspective on the world. And it’s so completely unpredictable: you might sit there till the tide comes in and not hear anything. Or you might hear something amazing. I like that nature doesn’t read the script.

In the mid 1980s I worked at the RSPB, in their film unit. It was a good way to train. A lot of young freelancers would come through there and end up at the BBC Natural History Unit.

In the mid-90s I was invited to work on sound for a big series called The Life of Birds, presented by David Attenborough. We made a few trips for that programme, and we just got on. That episode won a BAFTA for best factual sound, so I was invited back to work with him again. We’ve continued to this day. One thing with David, he wants to know what books you’ve been reading, what films you’ve seen. And he’ll ask your opinion on a whole range of subjects. So you need to come armed with an informed opinion on everything. He’s great to work with, and a really wonderful person to hang out with. Of course he is, he’s David Attenborough.

The most powerful moment from those programmes was when we went to the North Pole to film Frozen Planet. We got dropped off by an ex-military Russian helicopter, the most dangerous thing I’ve ever flown in. It was like a second-hand washing machine with a rotor blade. The idea for the scene was you’d see David standing in isolation at the North Pole, on the surface of a frozen ocean. I had to hide behind this piece of ice while I was recording the sound.

While we were waiting, I looked over to the west and thought about all the friends I had in California. And then I turned and looked to Newcastle, where my wife and family were. And then I turned and looked down to Asia and Australia, and imagined all the people I knew there living their lives. It suddenly struck me that they were all in different time zones, and that every time zone on the planet was converging where I was standing. There’s only one sunrise and one sunset a year at the North Pole. So, I thought, what time is it here, now?

We were there in late April. The sun had risen near the middle of the month and it would just go round in circles at different heights in the sky until it set in September. And then it’d be dark till next April. So there’s one day a year there. That’s the place I’ll never forget. This intangible place. Such a strange, beautiful, hostile environment. That’s the stuff that affects you.”

"I like putting microphones where you wouldn't normally put your ears, because it gives you a different perspective on the world."

4. Mexican railway LPs

“I like working with film crews – I like the discipline, and making a contribution to a team. But I also like to do my own thing that I’m responsible for. I can bring all the techniques I’ve learned from all the different media into that. Years ago I worked on a documentary series called Great Railway Journeys, where I went across Mexico with Rick Stein, from Los Mochis on the Pacific coast to Vera Cruz in the Atlantic. We spent five weeks living and sleeping in these presidential railway carriages from the 1950s. We had our own bedrooms, dining car and bar, and we’d attach ourselves to different trains crossing the country, sitting on the train’s veranda with our tequilas and cold beers, barrelling through the Copper Canyon. It was astonishing – an amazing, unique opportunity to hear things I’d never normally get the chance to hear.

I recorded all the sound for the programme. Sound tapes usually end up in a skip somewhere once they’ve been used for a film, so I did a deal with the director for the right to use my recordings once they were done. I sat with those recordings for 12 years and then made an album, called El Tren Fantasma, the Ghost Train – the sound of this journey across Mexico.

And now it’s had all these incarnations: I did some live versions of it and a radio programme all about it as well. That’s a really good example of my work, of making one thing from something else. I really enjoy that process.”

5. TV drama

“I worked on the Chernobyl drama series (Sky Atlantic). The composer,  Hildur Guðnadóttir, is a friend of mine, and when she got the gig for the soundtrack we went to Ignalina, a partially decommissioned nuclear plant in Lithuania. It was an exact replica of Reactor No. 4, the one that exploded at Chernobyl. There’s still quite a lot of radioactive stuff in there, so we had to get suited up, and we spent two days recording all over this power plant. Hildur then took that sound and used it in a composition for the series.

The programme makers used the Ignalina plant to shoot most of the series. In episode one there’s a corridor that Hildur and I recorded in. It’s a kilometre long, straight. Because it’s Soviet design, there’s zero element of aesthetic woven into it: it’s just a kilometre-long corridor with all these rooms coming off it. The plant stopped producing electricity in 1992, but they told us it’ll be another 50 years before the decommissioning process is finished. So people’s whole working lives still revolve around taking this thing apart. You go into one of these tiny rooms and there’s someone in there in a dust coat measuring something. Two hundred metres down there’ll be someone doing something else. It’s chilling.

The Chernobyl soundtrack has been nominated for an Emmy. It’s been a real success. And we’re going to do a live performance of it in October, at a festival in Poland called Unsound. I love working with composers. That’s where new things, new works, come out.”

6. Performing and talking

“Telly is great. You get paid to go all over the place, and a show like Blue Planet 2 goes out to all these millions of people. But it just goes out off up there somewhere. To me, standing in front of 60 or 100 people, playing my work and talking about it, is even better.

A few weeks ago I did one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done: a talk at my five-year-old grandson’s nursery, in front of 20 four-to-five-year-olds. Another time I did something with 60 primary school kids. I’d set this speaker system up, and the head told them how I’d been all over the place, and that I was going to play some animal sounds from all over the world.

I came out. ‘Thank you, my name’s Chris.’

And this little girl right at the front put her hand up.

‘Yes?’ I said. ‘What is it?’

‘Are you going to shut up so we can play some animal sounds?’

To which I said: ‘Yeah, OK.’

At the end someone asked if I’d ever recorded a dinosaur.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I have. And I can play you some.’

I got that same girl to stand up and scream as loudly as she could into the microphone. She let loose this blood-curdling, ear-piercing scream and I recorded it. Then I pitched it down five times and played it back. She sounded like a T-Rex. They just couldn’t believe it.”


Images courtesy of Joe Thurston, David Waller, Kate Humble and Jo Stevens.

Find out more about Chris at

We first interviewed Chris Watson for the Port Eliot Festival in 2012, then again this year as part of a feature for Watergate Bay Hotel‘s new Watergate Bay magazine – out in January 2020.

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