Lorne Balfe is an unbelievably creative spirit with a rich history of glowing accomplishments. Grammy Award recipient for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media. Multiple time EMMY and BAFTA nominee. Collaborator of Hans Zimmer for over 15 years. Hailing from Scotland, Lorne spent his formative years writing jingles. Today, he is responsible for the musical magic of The Lego Batman Movie, Churchill, The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, National Geographic's Genius, and many more. We had a smashing good time catching up with Lorne about his forthcoming collaboration with Rupert Gregson-Williams on Netflix's The Crown, what's next for Marcella, and the importance of work ethic and people skills.
What is your earliest memory of playing music?
Playing it? Well, ‘Playing’ is a loose term, but my earliest memory is probably just watching a show in Britain called Top of the Pops. It used to be the chart show of the Top 40 singles, and we had a grand piano in a sitting room and I was just banging it, punching the keys viciously! And the great thing about it was that I was never told by my parents to be quiet.
When did you consciously decide to pursue being a composer as a career path?
That's a difficult one. I don't think I ever thought I wanted to be a composer. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by music. And now as a father, I see these things a bit more clearly, because if you want to get into the arts and you have a parent with a background that doesn't understand it, it's very hard to receive encouragement. My father had a residential recording studio. And he was a songwriter, so I was always around it. I just knew I would get into a music career. At the time, a career advisor said to me, "Well you can't. There are no jobs in music… Either you join an orchestra or you become a teacher." I didn't think I could do either of those, but I always had a clear plan with what I was doing. At 15, I was working during the holidays in studios, and then I was writing commercials at 16 and 17. There was an evolution to it, doing lots of jingles and such.
Back then, what was your main instrument of choice?
Well, it was really the piano, but I also played percussion. I used to love drumming and was better at that, so that skill allowed me to sneak into music college because I wasn't a good enough pianist. Playing percussion didn't last very long, but that's how I got in. When playing with orchestras, everything was pattern based, so I found it easier because of my dyslexia.
Can you speak on what music you listen to for pleasure and tell us about any major musical influences in your life?
Weirdly enough, I don't listen to film scores. Looking at my iPhone now, it has basically everything. I go through, buy, and listen to everything nominated for the Grammys, as well as a lot of classical music. I absolutely adore Wagner.
As for the influences, I think I was very privileged to have worked for Hans Zimmer for about 15 years. There's also a marvelous producer and mixer, Steve Lipson. He was the one to mix this score and I learned so much. His ability to blend the orchestra with the band was just amazing. You're always learning!
Speaking of Hans Zimmer, congratulations on your Emmy nomination for your collaboration on Genius. You recently served as score producer for Dunkirk, which Hans scored. What can you share about your experience?
Dunkirk is an amazing film. It's the first time I feel like I've been able to imagine what war truly was. It's not over-glorifying it in a Hollywood way. It's very real. I also think it's one of Hans' best scores. The way that Richard King's sound design works with the film is part of the storytelling. It doesn't take you out of the experience.
I worked on the film and helped with a few of the cues. I was also on the dub stage for a couple of months. I had a writing rig there and I provided another set of ears.
Earlier today, I was listening to a review somebody had sent to me and they really did not like the music at all. The problem with film music is that people keep trying to isolate it from the film and that's not what the point is. The score is an accompaniment to the film. When you start kind of dissecting it and isolating it from the visuals, saying, "Well, there's no theme. There's no big dramatical structure." It's like what's that got to do with it? It's about the overall experience of watching the film.
In the process of composing music, do you typically begin on piano, or on your DAW?
Sequencer is my world. I'm not classically trained. I'm dyslexic. Pen and paper never worked for me, and I failed every theory exam when doing it on paper, writing wrong notes. Cubase is my best friend. It's my weapon. I live off that. I look at that grid and I see everything in shapes, so I write that way. My piano playing skills are pretty bad. I wish I could be the person that sat at the piano and wrote the theme and then wrote it on the paper, but it's simply not going to happen.
Luckily, nowadays it's not a necessity to be able to do that.
You know, sometimes I've found myself kind of going to the piano because I think if you can distance yourself from your environment when writing, you get a fresh approach. A lot of this was written in Sydney, Australia. I moved there, and I recorded there also. So again, just changing your work environment gives you a different point of view, and it's like your studio. I've been in my studio now here in L.A. for 10 years, and I think differently than when I write in London.
You are currently working on the music for the second season of British crime noir detective series, Marcella. How is the writing process going and how does your approach differ from your other projects?
I'm literally staring at a blank page trying to come up with a theme. So, maybe once I've achieved it, I'll be able to tell you.
I don't look at it as any different. You have the same objective. You hope to create a piece of music that can represent those characters and that's the hardest job. Especially with Marcella, Anna Friel's character is very complex and has so much depth.
It's also difficult to write something that's emotional without making it weak. The thing I especially like about Marcella is that we didn't make it feel overtly feminine just because it features a female lead. Right now, we're learning more about her backstory, so writing about that will be my challenge this weekend.
Let's take it back to The Lego Batman Movie. What was the most challenging piece to compose for the project?
The opening track called “Black” was one of the hardest cues. I scored that, I don't know maybe five, six times, totally different each time.
Wow! The time signature changes quite a few times in the piece. What was the reasoning behind that?
The reason probably why there are different time divisions, is because picture cuts occur. It would've been much easier just to stay in the same time signature. I think that after that kind of dark beginning, it kind of goes into the fast chase music. I think originally, it still continued as a dark 5/4 pattern or 6/4 pattern.
We also had the luxury of having Chad Smith drumming on it.
Oh! The Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer! He's a beast. It is powerful yet deeply funky.
Yes! On “Chaos in Gotham”, those fills are unbelievable. The whole concept of the Joker's theme came from the director, Chris McKay saying he wanted the Joker to have his own band because if you're a super villain, you obviously have enough money to have a band. It is the same as King Henry VIII having the court lute player behind him, accompanying him. So, we had talked about the whole progressive rock world and that's obviously the world of the Joker. Chad’s sound really brought what was that band really, on top of sitars and harpsichords and everything else. When you look at the evolution of progressive rock, there wasn't an instrument that they didn't dare to try to make it sound serious. And even a slide whistler appears sometimes.
Like John McLaughlin, that kind of vibe? Dare I say, Gentle Giant (virtuoso Prog rock band 1970-1980)?
Oh yes, you may! I was more in the Jethro Tull world there.
The Lego Batman Movie score sounds like a hybrid of sequenced parts, live drums, live guitar, and orchestral work. How was it crafted? Did you map it, record it in Cubase, record the orchestra separately and then combined?
Essentially, there was no one plan. Some of the time I'd be writing, then I'd record live musicians, put that into Cubase, so presenting it sounded really good. And sometimes you need it. For example, with my Joker's theme, I've got this kind of vocal wail sound on it. That's just two notes. So, I had to record real instruments to accurately demonstrate it. It's a real blend.
In the Phantom Zone, you quoted Bach, specifically Toccata in D Minor? Can you tell us more about that decision?
Obviously. What music would villains have?! Originally, I wrote a Phantom Zone theme, but then the scenes changed and were shortened. After that, the themes weren't working because it was just too much information. I started thinking about when you're going to see Dracula, or you see Frankenstein, all of these ultimate villains in one place, they would all be fighting over what their theme tune is. I thought Bach was the neutral thread. I imagine that when they're sitting around that round table debating their Friday problems, the one thing they would all agree on is Bach.
How do feel about collaborating with other musicians and composers?
I love it. I think even on the best of days, it's a very lonely world. You sit in your room by yourself, just twiddling your thumbs. The more collaboration you have, the more it makes you feel alive. It also has to do with being a human being. If you don't have contact with other people, it makes life very boring. I think it's amazing to have all these wonderful musicians, directors, and editors around because everybody involved in the process makes that score happen. You can be the best composer in the world, but if you have zero people skills, you ain’t gonna get a job.
Speaking of collaborations, you are currently working with Rupert Gregson-Williams on season two of Netflix's The Crown. How is that progressing? Are there musical themes from the first season that will be reprised?
I personally think Rupert is one of the best composers out there. I'm so glad his voice is really being heard on films like Wonder Woman. A long time ago, I actually used to assist him. It's always lovely to work with somebody that you admire.
We have studios right opposite each other in Los Angeles. It's literally six steps and I can knock on his door. If you get stuck with an idea, it's always great to be able to share it with somebody and see what they think of it. Normally, we, composers, lock ourselves in these small rooms and it becomes hard to be objective. So, if you're able to be working with somebody, it's fantastic.
As for The Crown, we will bring back old themes and introduce new themes along with the new characters. As the story progresses, the characters move on and they age, but the past is still relevant in their lives.
Do you have any pets, Lorne?
No. You know what? I had a beautiful Labrador called Lucia. She died about 23 years ago and I've never been able to get another pet since. I think it's the thought of the loss happening again. They bring you so much happiness, but for a small window of time. I nearly got a British bulldog a couple of years ago, but then thankfully my wife then got pregnant.
In the limited time that you're not working, what do you do relax?
That doesn't exist! Quite honestly, I started thinking about what my hobbies were, and my sole hobby is probably buying sound libraries. I used to have hobbies, but they've slowly gone. I love writing and I also used to love fishing. Things change. I've been very blessed to have a beautiful child and that's changed my priorities because now, my focus is family.
On the subject of sound libraries, can you share some of your top recommendations?
I find that the danger of using libraries is that you've always got to remember that everybody else is using them too. When you sit there and go, "God, that's a cool sound… Dong!" There are another 10 guys in their bedrooms like, "Dong!". With my templates, interesting orchestral effects or string effects, I know that if I dare use that sound, somebody else has got it. If I do use it, it's only there as a guide and I will replace it.
It's the same with synths. For example, you get an interesting patch loaded on. Nexus is my toy of the moment. I know that if I don't tweak it, it's not a unique sound. It comes from the days when I was working and apprenticing in the studios, where session musicians used to play the synths. The best guys were the ones that would tweak them or start from scratch. I also really enjoy a lot of the new vintage replica virtual synths.
Absolutely. Love that. In an ideal world, I would have Moogs coming out of my ears and a couple of Fairlight series threes and a two. I just don't have the space. It's a shame because I would love to be at it, but the virtual synth world has opened up a new window that's never been there. On every single project, I try, when I have spare time, to buy whatever is out there, then make a list. Maybe I'll never go near that synth ever again, but I love synths like Diva and Zebra.
Yes! That's a Hans kind-of-a-one, right? Is it U-he?
It's incredible. Anything by U-he is amazing. It fills the speakers, which is fantastic.
Lastly, you split your time between London, Sydney, and Los Angeles. What are your favorite places to eat in each of those cities?
Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer are nominated for "Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music" at the 2017 EMMY Awards.
Tune into CBS on Sunday, September 17th to cheer them on!