(The composer talks about Death Waltz’s new release of his Synchronicity soundtrack, why electronic scores always ‘sound like Vangelis,’ and what it’s like to take a leap into a new craft, among other things.)
The thing about using all electronic instruments to score a film is you have to realize that, no matter what you do, someone will hear Vangelis. The comparison comes out especially strong when you use a late-70s-era Yamaha CS-80 for a few bars. That analog synth has a certain kind of bending, brassy sound that makes people instantly think of Vangelis’ classic Blade Runner score.
Ben Lovett knows this well. His score for the recent sci-fi film, Synchronicity, which Death Waltz will release on June 1 on vinyl, has its Vangelis moments. Or, rather, it has its moments when we hear the use of an instrument first burned into our brains when the Greco-British synth god tickled the keys in his scores for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire.
“The sound of those old synths is so ubiquitous in the canon of classic science fiction that people generally associate them with the artists who first popularized them, which makes sense,” Lovett said.
Lovett’s score is one of the most compelling and nuanced I’ve heard in a long time; and it’s worthy of many repeat listens. It takes a particular type of talent to combine the best of Nicolas Winding Refn collaborator and film-score legend Cliff Martinez, Vangelis, John Carpenter, and Darren Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell – even if the inspiration was more functional than something like overt melodies or style.
“… There are the obvious reference points you mentioned from the era — Vangelis, [Carpenter], Jean-Michel Jarre, Wendy & Lisa — but the score was really as inspired by the instruments those guys used, as anything they did with them compositionally,” he said. “Or in other words, it was how they used those instruments, more so than what they wrote with them, that really translates into this score.”
(The Synchronicity score was originally released on Lakeshore Records, which has released Drive on digital formats, among many other soundtracks.)
Synchronicity, released early this year, is about a physicist who invents a time machine and encounters some unintended consequences. When the machine folds space-time, a rare dahlia appears from the future. To prove his machine works, he sets out to find the flower’s identical match. Along the way, he finds the dahlia in possession of a mysterious femme fatale, whom he’s convinced is trying to steal his invention. He embarks on a bid to stop her, but along the way finds out that his experiment was more successful – and complicated – than he ever imagined.
Among the film’s stars is Michael Ironside, the powerhouse antagonist in Turbo Kid and a stalwart of 1980s classics such as Total Recall and Scanners.
The film – directed, edited, and written by Lovett’s longtime friend Jacob Gentry – is the perfect medium through which Lovett could exercise his inner-most electronic muscles. He did this in full force on his latest of several collaborations with Gentry, whom he first met in college at the University of Georgia in Athens.
“The biggest difference with Synchronicity was that I had never before made a film score exclusively with electronic instruments,” Lovett said. “Previously, the work was always sort of a hybrid of acoustic and electronic elements, using whatever seemed right for each project.
“Since the look and tone of Synchronicity recalls classic science-fiction films of the late 70s and early 80s, we thought it would be a fun exercise for the scoring process to time travel a bit as well, and use nothing but old analog synthesizers,” Lovett said. “It felt like a natural path to take in order to reinforce the aesthetic goals of the film.”
With that in mind, he started making a set of “score suites” that were stylistically reminiscent of that era – free-form pieces built around recurring themes that weren’t at that point specific to any particular film.
“The first one I did actually turned out to be a major thematic component of the film, involving the mystery surrounding the appearance of the dahlia,” Lovett said. “Those initial score suites gave [Gentry] elements to experiment with in the edit and from there we just let the movie tell us what it needed.”
(The Synchronicity trailer was more popular than the Star Wars trailer for about 24 hours on the Apple site last year. “That was fun — our movie, then Star Wars, then X-Men… the 13-year-old me would have never believed it,” Lovett says.)
Lovett grew up in rural Georgia in the 80s and early 90s. It was the kind of childhood in which he was certainly exposed to music, but didn’t know too many people who created it themselves.
“The musical history of my family pretty much consists of my Dad air drumming to Beatles songs on the steering wheel when I was a kid – often using the rearview mirror as the crash cymbal for effect,” Lovett said. Additionally, his grandparents went to a small church every Sunday where they sang hymns for most of the service.
Somewhere in there, a musical seed was probably planted, he said, although it wasn’t until he discovered punk rock as a teen that the idea of creating music seemed like a viable thing to try to do. Lovett was 17 years old before ever knowing anyone who played an instrument.
“One day it just sort of occurred to me that the only thing preventing me from knowing how to play an instrument was learning how to, and the only way to do that was to pick one up and start messing around with it,” Lovett said. “Which is more or less all I’ve continued to do since.”
Not very long after that, Lovett attended school at the University of Georgia in Athens, where he met Gentry – who’d eventually become known for his directorial contribution to the 2007 psychological horror anthology film, The Signal, a film Lovett scored.
At Athens, Gentry and some ambitious students from the art and theatre departments were plotting to make a film.They procured their camera equipment with tuition money. They stole lights and costumes from the theatre department and snuck into the journalism building for clandestine all-nighters with the editing machines.
“Someone introduced me to them and suggested I should do their music, because I had a ‘studio’ in my apartment,” Lovett said. “I insisted this was a terrible idea, because I didn’t know the first thing about making music for a movie.”
There was also the matter of the “studio,” which was really Lovett’s bedroom with a gear list consisting of the following: a cheap acoustic guitar, a 4-track cassette recorder, and a tiny Casio keyboard. It didn’t matter, though, Gentry told him.
“Who cares?” Gentry said at the time. “We don’t know anything about making a movie.” Lovett couldn’t argue with that logic, so he jumped on board.
“It was the mid-90s – the cameras were S-VHS or BETA, the editing machines were linear tape, and we were a bunch of kids with wild ideas looking for a good excuse to skip class,” Lovett said. “We’ve been doing it ever since.”
Since then, Lovett and Gentry have developed the kind of symbiotic partnership you see with David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti or, as of late, Refn and Martinez – even if the number of collaborations isn’t a 1:1 comparison to those pairings.
Although he has scored films for other directors, such as Katie Aselton (Black Rock), Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine), and Jeffrey Goldman (The Last Lullaby), Lovett has topped off his CV with several Gentry collaborations. He did the music for Gentry’s My Super Psycho Sweet 16 trilogy, in addition to The Signal, Synchronicity, and in-progress project Night Sky. With each project with Lovett, the result appears to maximize both men’s strengths.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from interviewing composers, it’s that there’s no one way to write a score. There’s certainly no one surefire way to do it well. Lovett affirms this.
“The process always changes,” he said. “Every film feels like I’m starting from the beginning all over again.”
His first step? Panic.
“[I] wonder how in the hell I ever managed to coax the rabbit out of the hat so many times before. But I always do, somehow,” he said. “If I knew what it takes to nail one, believe me I’d spend my time just doing that.”
The bullseye is never in the same place, which keeps it interesting for Lovett.
“If there’s a key, it’s simply to remain in service of the story – which is not about you – and remember you’re there to work in concert with all the other elements already trying to tell that story,” Lovett said. “The score is an important cog in the wheel, but so are all the rest. You have to work with what’s onscreen, for better or worse, and try to help elevate what’s there.”
Lovett’s nuanced score for Synchronicity demonstrates a way to manipulate electronic instruments that showcases an organic quality that can be tough to tease out of a synthetic modality. As a Martinez fan, I’ve noticed this trait in his work, too. I thought perhaps Lovett had also been minding the Martinez oeuvre.
“The scores for Traffic, and particularly Solaris, had a big impact on me when those came out — it gave me confidence in what I was doing at the time, which was similar in terms of style and approach,” Lovett said. “I was still experimenting, and he had mastered it already. So it was that effect of hearing someone doing what you’re doing, but doing it way better, which was very encouraging and instructional.”
Mansell had a similar effect, Lovett said.
“… Those guys both just seemed to be coming at it from a similar perspective that resonated with me,” he said.
Death Waltz Recording Company is known for its brilliant vinyl releases with unique and memorable artwork. Among their current soundtrack offerings are the Back to the Future trilogy, Army of Darkness, and Rosso Sangue. They also released Le Matos’ recent LP, Chronicles of the Wasteland. Lovett’s Synchronicity score is joining the roster.
Lovett says he was thrilled when he heard about Death Waltz’s plans.
“Death Waltz has great taste and we’re honored to be on the roster there,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they do and how. They really care about presentation, and make releases for people who love music – and that’s me.”
The Death Waltz release features new, custom artwork that’s not available anywhere else, along with Gentry’s notes about the score. Given the marriage of an awesome record label with an excellent soundtrack, I’d say this package will be worth buying.
Lovett is working on the score for a new Gentry film called Night Sky, that’s coming out in the future. Then he’ll start on scores for separate features with Dan Bush and David Bruckner, the other two directors from The Signal anthology. He also has two scores in the can for a forthcoming comedy series called RePlay and a film called Isolation, which is coming out this summer.
Before the future comes, though, Lovett is hoping a new generation of film fans will enjoy his score and us it as a time machine into the past – going down the rabbit hole of electronic film scores that inspired him.
“… There’s an entire generation of younger viewers that have never seen those old movies [such as Blade Runner or classic Carpenter films], any more than I had experienced the classic black-and-white Hollywood films as a kid that had inspired the filmmakers I grew up watching, and the directors they grew up watching,” Lovett said. “So hopefully fans of this score are inspired to explore where it came from, because that’s ultimately what keeps the wheel turning.”
(Feature Photo: Cover art for Death Waltz’s vinyl edition. Credit: Jay Shaw.)