Interview with Rolfe Kent

Answers by Rolfe Kent / Questions by Troels Folmann. November 2011.


You might remember the main theme from Dexter or perhaps you have watched movies like “Sideways”, “About Schmidt”, “The Men Who Stares at Goats”, ‘Reign over Me”, “Mr. Poppers Penguins”, “Legally Blonde” etc. The odds are that you have come across Rolfe Kent’s highly memorable music in some capacity. We took some of Rolfe’s time and made an in-depth interview based on his career, which stretches from degrees in psychology to a profound insight into the process of creation and composition. Hope you enjoy!

Tell us a little bit about your musical background- and influences?

I was a kid who loved musical sounds but wouldn’t practise. At least not in any formal way. It was only after my piano teacher gave up trying to teach me that I started really enjoying playing piano, but it was never from music. It was jamming, experimenting, learning to just play around with chords. The school big band needed a piano player, and the charts had the chords, so I played like that, just grooving along as the saxes wailed. Guitar same deal- self-taught (until 3 weeks ago when I decided to get some lessons) and I’m really just a strummer. But I love to strum, so I played in bands, and got myself a bass guitar and got to really enjoy that. I was playing jazz on a fretless in bands in Leeds when I gave it up to concentrate on my love of film music. Ah film music- at 12 years old I knew that was what I wanted to do. I collected scores, read about composers, worked out the changes, sat in the cinema in bliss as John Barry’s luxurious Out of Africa swirled about me. I’d thought if I got into a successful band I could then move into film, but all my bands were terrible. So I started working on student films and industrial videos instead.

Your wiki profile states that you graduated in psychology. I can only imagine that must be beneficial living in the borderlands of insanity as a composer?

You might think so, but no, composer insanity was not covered in my degree. But I still find psychology fascinating.

I guess there are many similarities between psychology and music in terms of working with emotion. But what made your transition from psychology to composition?

Well really you could ask why did you move to psych when you wanted to be a film composer? And the reason was that I was interested in lots of things, and I had no serious expectation of being able to make a go of music, so why not get an interesting degree. I’m still interested in lots of things, and make a point of composing only some of the time.

What was your first project as a composer and how did you land it?
The first was a little detective mystery training video, teaching sales technique. My pal Pete from university had got the gig of writing it (he has since had 2 oscar nominations for writing movies) and he persuaded the producer to get me on to compose for it. I was still in Leeds in a band, but after the sheer pleasure of working on this I headed off to London to focus on film.

You were nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score on Sideways. Tell us a little bit about how you approached this project?

I was terrified because AP had been listening to lots of great jazz and then wanted me to somehow do something similar. So I started trying to do bad mockups using Jazzistic drum library and some band-in-a-box stuff, but it was not working. Then AP calmed me by saying he just wanted my melody writing in there, so that I was able to do. The demos still sounded rough and plastic. So I had an early session with some players to see how the real thing would sound. It was promising, but I then chose to go with jazz players instead of standard LA film session players, and then it really found its direction. All the music was written to picture, but when recording we turned off the click and let it breathe, even if it got off the frame by a few seconds. It was just better that way. It was recorded through a 1960′s desk with vintage ribbon mics to give it a classic jazz feel.
One of your many memorable signature scores is the main theme from Dexter. I think a lot of people would be curious to hear what the thought process was behind the main theme and the awesome instrumentation?

Well I wrote them 2 ideas- one was in common time, square and straight, and the other had a swing to it. They liked the swing, but liked the tune to the straight one, so it was one of those moments like when you are wondering how you’re gonna get all your crappy IKEA student furniture into one little car. I was wondering how I was going to twist that tune to fit a swung rhythm. Then, with a “pop” and the tinkle of broken glass it was done, and easier than I had thought.

You obviously have gift for scoring comedies, but always with an emotional depth. Tell is a little about your process and thought on scoring Legally Blonde?

Well first it is never about the music for me- it’s always about the story and figuring out how to contribute what is needed. On LB the first thing I noticed is it needed fizz, some sparking energy to keep momentum up and to match Reese’s energy. Otherwise it would just lag. So I decided to give it lots of top end energy, which is why the violins and flutes and percussion are always flitting about in the score, to keep champagne bubbles fizzing away.

Next it really needed a theme for Elle’s emotional and sympathetic self, so I found a scene and wrote that theme for her. It worked well, so it appears in a few other places to key the audience in to the gentler side of her.

How do you approach comic scores in general?

Same as anything else- I look for what is needed to tell the story, to connect us with what matters to make sense of the narrative. Basically if something is missing, some energy or emotion or even a close up, then you can look to the music to provide it. If it aint missing then there aint nutting’ to write.

You have also scored serious and darker movies like Reign over Me. Tell us a little about the process and how it differs from the more lighthearted scores?

Lighter scores are much much harder to write. ROM was interesting to me in that it used lots of textures, and I wrote a melody that was deliberately trying to be unmemorable. I loved the experience. It was relaxing, and very emotionally satisfying.

I am curious about your background in psychology again. All artists occasionally face “the wall”. What is your process of overcoming the wall and staying creative?

I read the book The War of Art. It says put in 4 solid hours a day. That’s the key- just put in the hours. I never face a wall, but I am often frustrated because I am not getting to the good stuff quickly enough. I always write crap for the first 2 or 3 days as that’s how long it takes to exhaust all the logical solutions to the problems (and music that is logical is always crap). Then when I run out of logic the random ideas start turning up, and that’s when it gets interesting. After a few more ideas come I begin to notice the elements worth keeping, and suddenly I have something good to work off.

How do you interpret the word: “talent”?

In a composer I see talent when there is something truly original that communicates naturally. It might be a distinctive voice in the score, or surprising arrangements, or a great juxtaposition.

I have a theory on composers I wanna run by you – hear me out… All artists wants to be acknowledged. But composers – unlike musicians – never get the spotlight because most of them do not perform. My theory is that composers build big egos cause they are not publicly acknowledged. We just sit in our dungeons and create majestic scores, but nobody applauds?

Actually I disagree- I don’t think we feel a need to be acknowledged by anyone other than the director. For me the kick comes simply in the writing experience- coming up with something that surprises me. That’s the moment I seek, that and contributing to the film. I’m not sure composers have particularly big egos. I think composers have vision, and want to see that through. All the directors I have worked with that have been really good have good strong egos- it’s how stuff gets done. I think that to be a successful composer you prolly need to have a strong sense of what it is you want to achieve in the music, and be fairly exacting. How else is excellence possible?

All your scores have a beautiful spacious sound. How do you handle the mastering process?

I don’t- I just let my engineer Greg Townley get to work- he has an amazing ear. I realized that filmscoring can use a lot more than simply recording the orchestra well- really good record-style production has so much to contribute. That’s when it gets atmospheric and rich. I listen to Thomas Newman’s scores and the attention to detail in the production is gorgeous and breathtaking. That’s what I look to Greg for- an imaginative way of mixing for cinema

What are your most used 8DIO instruments and why?

These days I have been using Liberis and the Dhols a lot, I like using the dhols quite subtly when there is little other percussion. They give some interesting juice, and don’t really need to stand out to bring an interesting energy. I also like the smaller droll hot-sticks kind of sounds instead of shakers or HH. I use the boro’ bells a lot- they can create a nice trancy quality to play with and over, and they sound good through delays too. Propanium is also a nice groove instrument, and I have used it perhaps the most of all of them. Just recently I began experimenting with the bowed pianos, and like using the short bowing for melody lines. It’s kind of grindy, but has lots of nice harmonics that make it eccentric and ear-catching. Today I have been using the various borocosilate bowls, running them through filters and a wide panning delay and creating a lovely rolling atmospheric background to some swing music. Terrific.

If there is any instrument(s) – you would like deep sampled … which one would it be … be careful what you answer … cause whatever you say will be done…

The tiplé.

So what is next for you?

Currently scoring a Colin Firth film, and working on music for the graphic novel/play Passion’s Requiem.

Any last words of wisdom you would like to share with upcoming composers- and musicians?

Sure- chances are you didn’t get into this to sound just like anyone or everyone else. Right now it seems there’s a really generic sound dominating, but always seek your own voice and instead of trying to make something that sounds professional, make something that feels visceral, immediate, personal! That will always be the way to stand out.

For more information please visit Rolfe Kent’s website by clicking here

Rolfe Kent uses the following 8Dio products:
Adagio Cellos Vol.1, Adagio Violins Vol.1, Alien Drum, Ambient Guitar, Basstard, Bazantar, Borosilicate Bells, Bulbul Tarang, Cajon and Bongo, Didgeridoo, Epic Dhol Ensemble, Epic Taiko Ensemble, FV Francesca, FV Terrie, Jaw Harp, Metal Bowls, Overtone Flute, Propanium, Sand Drum, Solo Frame Drum, Solo Taiko Drums, Studio Solo Violin