When Giles Martin, head of sound experience at Sonos Inc. and son of late legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin, first expressed interest in a music career, his father tried to dissuade him, worried about the comparisons that would inevitably ensue. “My dad talked to me about it when I was 14, so I had already made the decision to defy him quite early on,” Giles tells Yahoo Entertainment. “He did discourage me!” But when the elder Martin, a man who’d based his entire career on his “golden ears,” started going deaf after years of long recording sessions, he turned to his teenage son for help in the studio.
“And so,” Giles recalls, “I became ‘his ears’ when I was quite young.”
Says Giles, “He needed to hide it from people, because he realized people wouldn’t want to work with him if he was deaf.” Giles remembers a moment when his father was producing British new wave band Ultravox’s landmark 1982 album Quartet, back when George’s hearing loss was still largely an industry secret. “He came out of his studio, and I asked him, ‘How is it going in there?’ He held up a plate and answered, ‘Two boiled eggs.’ He thought I’d said, ‘What did you have for lunch?’ If you lose your hearing, it is very tough.”
Once the two Martins began recording together, they formed a symbiotic studio relationship that Giles, who’d grown up mostly unaware of the Beatles’ legacy, describes as “hard to know where it begins and where it ends. He would say, ‘Are the violins in tune? Are those cymbals too loud?’ High-end stuff. Gradually, I learned you really have to focus on what the other person is trying to hear. … That’s probably why I can hear in frequencies now, why I can tell what 10 kilohertz is or 400 hertz is, because I was very aware of that. We would sit at the piano, and he would tell me what he couldn’t hear. I had to listen to what he couldn’t hear. That’s how I got into it.
“He was an amazing person to learn off. It was basically through his loss that I gained, in a terrible way, but he gained as well — because it meant he could carry on working.”
George, who passed away in 2016 at age 90, first noticed his inability to hear certain high-frequency sounds in the mid-’70s, and he was almost entirely deaf by the time he retired in 1998. But his son says that George never lost his sense of humor. “One time, I went to pick him up in his apartment. He used to have breakfast in bed. We were recording an orchestra. I said, ‘Dad, we are recording in 45 minutes.’ He was lying in bed, and he went, ‘You know, sometimes, Giles, you get to my age, and you say to yourself, f*** ’em!’” Giles laughs. “So I went on my way to the studio to set up the line, and I went to the studios and I recorded them. The trust grew [between us], if that makes sense.”
Giles went on to keep his father and the Fab Four’s legacy going strong, working on Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles-themed Las Vegas show Love, Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary Living in the Material World, Ron Howard’s Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, the Beatles’ Rock Band video game, Paul McCartney’s New album, and last year’s 50th anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“That was quite emotional,” Giles says of that latter epic project, “because I started doing that and I remember [my father] died. I went back into the studio, started looking at Sgt. Pepper [archives], and his was the first voice I heard. That was kind of strange.” (Regarding plans for similar deluxe reissues of two other Beatles LPs about to celebrate 50th birthdays, The White Album and Abbey Road, Giles says, “I can’t really comment on any of those two things. But I’m certainly keeping me in work.”)Giles has also recently worked with George Ezra, with James Bay, and on the British action franchise Kingsman and the upcoming Elton John biopic Rocketman. But his job at the speaker company Sonos, which went public this week, recently offered him a most unusual opportunity: creating an official new opening and closing bell for the Nasdaq stock exchange, a first in the bell’s 18-year history.
Teaming with Oscar-winning film sound engineer Chris Jenkins (who recently joined Sonos’s industry panel and worked on Eight Days a Week), Giles says he “thought it would be fun to make a bell sound by not using any bells. … It’s quite a good laugh, doing it.” Inspired partly by his father’s studio creativity (“My dad used to tell me that he’d worked on making a sort of a gong sound just by using a grand piano”), Giles says they “used about a hundred developments in the recording,” experimenting with Tibetan bowls and mallets, screwdrivers, coins, “glass sounds,” and even banging Giles’s house keys against a metal angle-posed lamp. “We wandered around our homes looking at things that we could hit that would make the sound of a bell,” Giles says, chuckling. “You go mad, looking at objects you can hit.”
But in the end, he and his Sonos team came up with “a Nasdaq bell sound that wasn’t going to be a gimmick, that they would use and like. … I never thought Nasdaq would be open to new ideas, but they went for it.”
Despite all this, and his background of being the surrogate ears of one of the greatest producers of all time, Giles remains humble, shrugging, “I just feel lucky to get the work, really quite honestly. I never take it for granted.” He confesses that he’s not very proud of some his earlier production work (“I wrote with a fantastic band when I was about 23 called Monorail, who you would never have heard of, and I think I did a really bad job on that record; I was too inexperienced and weak with them, and they deserved better, in all honesty”) and that he’s been “really privileged.”“I’ve never felt, and I still don’t feel, that I can justify my position,” Giles says. “Whatever the cynicism that one may have about being the son of someone famous — if you have drive, that’s what keeps you going — my own criticism of myself would be stronger than that.”
But Giles, who says, “My dad’s always with me,” recalls that George was never cynical about his son’s career path, once they finally started working together. And George was apparently just as humble as his son. Giles remembers one special conversation they had toward the end of his father’s life. “He was very sick. I said to him, ‘Dad, do you ever think, God, I can’t do this?’ He goes, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, some of the artists around think I’m not good enough.’ He goes, ‘That’s ridiculous. I think you’re better than I was. I didn’t even know I was brilliant!’ And I said, ‘God, you are so lucky to think that.’”