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The ‘Nerve’ of Rob Simonsen: The Lauded Composer Goes Synth and Triumphs Massively

The recently released sci-fi/techno-thriller Nerve has gotten notice for its plot centered on a sinister online game of dares-for-money that escalates darkly and quickly. What’s most noteworthy for me, though, is the film’s killer 80s-tinged, synthesizer-heavy score.

You might have heard composer Rob Simonsen’s mostly acousto-orchestral fare in films like Foxcatcher, Girl Most Likely, or The Age of Adaline. But on Nerve — directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman —Simonsen goes mostly electronic with some truly great results.

nerve_2400-smallerOn Nerve Simonsen has continued to carve out a singular, oft-recognizable style, developed while composing compelling scores for high-profile projects.

It’s just that this time he’s also paying homage to the big-timers who’ve used synthesizers in the past to so deftly convey a film’s intentions. Nerve recalls the best of synth-based film composers John Carpenter, Jan Hammer and Giorgio Moroder, mixed with elements of Massive Attack circa late 90s.

“I love all those artists and have really appreciated and enjoyed their work,” LA-based Simonsen told Vehlinggo in a recent email exchange from Paris, noting that “Massive Attack’s Mezzanine was huge for me in high school.”

‘Nerve’ Cues

Simonsen’s score features cues with intricately wove arrangements, often buoyed by a driving, danceable backbeat. Sometimes the colors he paints are shiny, pink, and bright, like Hammer’s oceanside fare. There are often cascading synth arpeggios that hurriedly crawl up and down, sometimes in the dark style of Carpenter. Under them are often walking basslines held together by pronounced disco beats, doing Moroder proud. But it doesn’t stop there, because amid all of this Simonsen overlays some pretty damn catchy themes.

A high point of the score is “Verrazano.” It has sunny Com Truise synths, arps and drums that pulsate like Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock,” and elaborate synth leads that open up to reveal a big, cinematic voice that achieves an electric-organic fusion reminiscent of Michael Cretu’s Enigma project.

Another cut that stands out is “A Way Out,” which pours a dark, thriller of synths that would make Carpenter proud over a slow-burn rhythm section that taps into a Bristolian creative spirit.

The bouncy “Night Drive” single-handedly changes the dialogue surrounding songs with that title, replacing dark nights of the soul with some carefree joyriding. This major-chord affair is a lot of fun, and gets even more fun as Simonsen gets more experimental. There’s a standout children’s choir sample that sounds awesome next to the mix of dreamy soundscapes and Human League melodies.

Synth Scores Use a Different Muscle

Rob Simonsen. Photo from IMDB.
Rob Simonsen. Photo from IMDB.

Although there are composers who move seamlessly between acoustic and synth cues, it’s not as easy as it seems. They are in some respects fundamentally different ways of writing music, according to Simonsen.

“I think what’s different about this score [compared to] others that are more acoustic is that I spent a ton of time working on the sounds,” he says.

“See, if I write something for the orchestra, the notes themselves are the important thing,” he continued. “I do spend a bit of time programming orchestral mockups, but I know the final sound will be beautiful in the hands of beautiful players in a great room — with a great engineer and mix…”

But with purely electronic film scores, “the sound is the thing. The sound has to be interesting in and of itself. This was newer for me, as I’m so used to writing fast and recording performances,” he said.

For Nerve and the recent Viral — another Joost and Schulman picture — “spending a few days just finding the right synth patch was different, but really fun. I’ve always loved synthesizer music and had some great synths around, but it wasn’t until Nerve and Viral that I really got the chance to go deep with them for a film.”

In addition to the distinct needs when writing electronic or acoustic compositions, there are different musical requirements for a given film.

I think every film is different and requires a different language, and thus they each have their own unique keys to making [them] work,” Simonsen said. “Universally, I’d say that adding some sort of substance, some magical quality and feeling to a score, is always the aim — to move people without distracting them [and] to add depth to a story.”

It Begins with a Piano

Missouri-born Simonsen’s road to composing music for film and television begins in his childhood home, surrounded by people who loved and celebrated music.

“I grew up with a piano in the house,” he said, adding that his parents both sang in choirs through college and his grandmother was a voice teacher.

In a realm like that, a piano was never far away from Simonsen — and at 13 he started branching out.

“I picked out a lot of things on the piano by ear — mostly movie music — and got into jazz, electronic music, and further into soundtracks as a teenager,” Simonsen said.

When it came time to go to college, he studied music and piano in a few different schools in Oregon — amid all of that making films with friends. He was racking up some serious experience points on the music front, but it wasn’t until 2003 that things really caught fire.

Going to Hollywood

'Life of Pi' promo poster. Photo taken from IMDB.
‘Life of Pi’ promo poster. Photo taken from IMDB.

In 2003, Simonsen met composer Mychael Danna. At the time, Danna had about 15 years worth of credits to his name, including Girl, Interrupted, 8MM, and (with his brother, Jeff) The Boondock Saints, all in 1999; 2001’s Monsoon Wedding; and 2003’s Shattered Glass.

They hit it off and in 2004 Danna moved to LA, with Simonsen following suit and becoming Danna’s sort-of protégée.

“He was very gracious and let me work up the ranks underneath him,” Simonsen says.

Danna would go on to score several notable films to which Simonsen would add music, co-compose, or otherwise assist in some way. Most noteworthy is the Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning score for 2012’s Life of Pi, but also in there is 2009’s (500) Days of Summer and 2011’s Moneyball.

Simonsen began making a name for himself as he worked with Danna.

In 2010, Simonsen on his own scored All Good Things, the film inspired by the life of wealthy, accused murderer Robert Durst, starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst.  

In 2012, he scored the Steve Carell and Keira Knightley apocalypse comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and Kristen Wiig-starring Girl Most Likely that same year. Other standouts are Zach Braff’s partially-Kickstarter-funded Wish I Was Here and the much-lauded Foxcatcher. Also in there is Bradley Cooper’s chef turn, Burnt.

A few years ago, around the time he was working on some of those films, Simonsen also scored the global advertising launch for Apple’s iPhone 5 and provided the iconic piano music for the company’s “Everyday” campaign.

Working with Jost and Schulman on ‘Nerve’

Recently Simonsen has worked with directing team Joost and Schulman on two films, Nerve, now in theatres, and Viral, also released this year.

For Nerve, the directors hired on Simonsen before they started shooting.

Simonsen early on wrote themes and sketches that his good friends Joost and Schulman used to temp the film — that is, they used those sketches as temporary scores.

“They would react to certain things, but by and large we had a bit of a mind-meld when it came to what we all felt would be appropriate for the film,” he said. “A lot of my earliest sketches became final cues.”

‘We Got Together on a Sunday…’

Simonsen collaborated with Morgan Kibby (AKA White Sea). Photo Credit: Samantha West
For one song on ‘Nerve,’ Simonsen collaborated with Morgan Kibby (AKA White Sea). Photo Credit: Samantha West

Although there are 19 instrumental cuts that make up the Nerve score, there’s also “Let’s Play,” a killer synthpop collaboration with White Sea (AKA Morgan Kibby, a former M83 member who co-wrote the classic “Midnight City”).

“Let’s Play” is a little dark, a little sunny, and a helluva lotta fun. I enjoy this song immensely. The up-tempo music adheres to the contempo-retro bouillabaisse present throughout Simonsen’s score — and M83’s later work for that matter. I should also point out that the chorus is tailor-made for Kibby, whose vox are, as always, transcendent. (For another example, check out “Future Husbands Past Lives” and melt a little.)

The collaboration came about the good ol’ fashioned way: Through mutual friends. Simonsen, a fan of Kibby’s work, sent her the Nerve cues. She liked the music and eventually Simonsen ended up sending her a score cut over which she wrote the lyrics and vocal melody, he said. That song became “Let’s Play.”

It was so fantastic, exciting, and exactly the vibe I had wanted,” Simonsen said. “We got together on a Sunday and worked out the rest of the song. It happened pretty quick, but I couldn’t be happier.”

“It was a great experience… I look forward to making more music with her,” he continued. (Full Disclosure: So do I.)

The Future

Going forward, we’re going to hear Simonsen’s scores a bunch.

He recently finished the score for the forthcoming Marc Webb film Gifted, starring Jenny Slate and Chris Evans, due in April. He also completed music for a forthcoming Braff film called Going in Style, starring Morgan Freeman and Ann-Margaret. Then there’s Lawrence Sher’s Bastards, starring J.K. Simmons, Katie Aselton, and Owen Wilson, which is coming out early next year.

Click to expand. You'll be able to read all the details about The Echo Society's Aug. 31 show in LA.
Click to expand. You’ll be able to read all the details about The Echo Society’s Aug. 31 show in LA.

Those are just the films in the can that we will see in upcoming months. He’s also at work scoring a French film right now in Paris.

Then there’s the cool stuff The Echo Society is doing. That’s a composer/artist collective he’s a member of, which has a show coming up at the end of August at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in LA. Simonsen’s pretty pumped for that.  

Others in the collective include Daft Punk and M83 collaborator Joseph Trapanese, composer Deru, and Faux Fix’s Nathan Johnson, among other talented folks.

I will be premiering a new work alongside 10 other composers,” he said. “After that, I hope to have some time to return to work on an album that I’ve been slowly working on in between films for years.”

Overall, the kid with the piano and the Mezzanine CD has made for himself a pretty great career.

It’s an honor to be hired to write music for projects that are seen by lots of people,” Simonsen said. “I’m very grateful for the opportunities that come my way.”

Amid all of that opportunity is the chance to tackle the challenging task of making just the right kind of music for the films of which he’s been a part.

“Any time I think a job will be easy… I am reminded that each project is a whole new set of sometimes new and unique musical or political problems,” he said. “I must go through the sometimes grueling process of figuring/working it out, but that’s also what I love about it.”

Several of Simonsen’s scores are currently on Spotify, including Viral, which he says is a “purely electronic score, which gets pretty experimental at times.” You can find the exquisite Nerve score, released by Lakeshore Records, in the Apple realm and other digital stores, with a CD release forthcoming. Find out how to see Nerve.

You can also experience his beautiful art on his Instagram.

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