Alex Moreland talks to Kurt Farquhar about Black Lightning, the evolving sound of an ongoing series, and more…
How did you first get involved with Black Lightning?
Well Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil are producers that I’ve worked with over a number of years. Mara and I worked on Girlfriends and The Game and Being Mary Jane and all those are really, really great shows, but most of them leaned very comedic. That was their understanding of me up until this point, and so actually I thought it was a very bold stretch on their part – when they said they were doing a big action oriented, super dark superhero show – that they would pick me. I think we’ve been at our best to do them proud ever since.
Were you aware of that perception, that they associated you more with the comedic genre?
Well, I’ve done a huge amount of TV shows over the last 30 years and I would say about 80% of them were comedies – so for people to not think of me as more of a comedic guy, that would be the shock. But over the last 10 years, I’ve actually been trying to do more dramas and action-oriented projects like for instance Being Mary Jane, which is more of a drama, which was very exciting and do. About four years back, I started doing a show called Stitchers on Freeform and it was my first step into doing something a little bit more sci-fi. It was a story about a government programme where they were able to stitch into the minds of the recently dead. So, all bets were off with what you could do with that! It was really a great deal of fun. But I think, after seeing me do that, a lot of people started thinking, “Kurt Farquhar? Sci-fi, action, okay.”
When you’re scoring an episode of television, do you tend to start with big motifs and build outwards, or do you approach it more chronologically?
Well, it depends on the particular project that I’m doing. In the case of Black Lightning, there were several things that were important to the producers and important to me. It’s a network show featuring an African American cast, about a superhero with a family of superheroes, the two daughters as well as Black Lightning. So, we definitely wanted to show you the superhero that people are used to, but at the same time we wanted you to know that this was happening to these particular people. How could you do that in an interesting way? I’ve tried to do it in ways that aren’t so obvious. Like, I don’t really feel a necessity to toss a hip hop beat on there, just cause there’s black faces on the screen.
I did some things that are a little bit more subversive. I’ve taken hip hop beats and broken them up between the string section, with the basses being the kick drum and the violins being the high hats and the dealers to snare. You know what I mean? It has an interesting feeling to you, but melodically it’s still classical bass. At the same time the rhythm is more hip hop based, just with classical instruments, so that was an interesting way of giving a sense of who this was happening to, as opposed to just “okay here we just got to do a hardcore beat and be done with it”.
They licenced a lot of songs from the latest artists and that’s really, really exciting too. One of the things I have to take into account is that there’s so many songs in there – how do we interact with them? It’s not just like “here’s your song, now a little bit of score, here’s a song, I’m tossing over the score”. I want it to feel organic, like it bubbled up out of something else, or that sometimes you can’t tell where it goes, where the score ended and the song began. We try to make it meld into each other, so it’ll be something organic and interesting.
How do you try to evolve the sound of an ongoing series each year?
Well, this year has been a big challenge. There’s certain things that you have to continue – there’s a Black Lightning theme, his hero theme, and there’s the Jefferson theme, and there’s Anissa’s theme but then there’s a Thunder theme, and then we’re having the same thing with Jennifer and her Lightning theme, which is becoming more, more noticeable this season. One of the sound mixers, Jeff Parvis, said to me the other day, “boy, the score is really dark.” I said, “well, you know, I’m sorry, they brought Khalil back from the dead and then sent him over to choke his own mother out!” I didn’t do it! I just went with what was on the screen. That was a little dark.
We’ve had to change and alter things to be a little bit darker, a little bit edgier. There’s a lot of solo violin and cello, string quartets and things like that, mixed with some urban ethnic sounds and a lot of interesting samples. We’re just making up some shit, we’ll see! But it’s been pretty exciting. It’s a very interesting season, trying to figure out where they’re going. I personally have not been watching ahead – I watch an episode when I get it, when it’s ready for me, that’s when I look at it. I don’t look at any of it earlier, because I just want to be discovering this like the fans are, I want to be so close to my emotions so that the only difference between me and the fans is that I get to emotionally erupt onto the musical palette, you know? Like “oh my God, that was so cool!” [laughs]
So, I understand that since the early 90s or thereabouts, you’ve never had fewer than five shows in production at once.
Pretty much. It was in 1991 the last time I did.
How do you maintain that rate of productivity? And of creativity?
Well, creatively it’s really not that complicated. I get asked so many times if I ever get writer’s block, and I say, well, no, not really. It doesn’t work that way. Nobody would ever go up to Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime and said, ‘Hey, Arnold, does all that weight make you weaker?” This is just a muscle, and I’m Schwarzenegger. [laughs] I get to do it faster, stronger, more intensely. I’m a little bit more challenged when I’m not working! If I’m only doing two things at a time, my mind is so geared to operate at that high output that it’s weirder to be the other way. It’s like a family whose first kids were triplets! That happened to a friend of mine, and I said, “wow, that must be crazy. What? What is that like?” He says, “well, I don’t know anything else. I don’t know anything different than what we got. So that’s what we deal with. It seems natural to that.” I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it feels natural to me.
What’s so exciting about doing so many shows is that one morning I’m working on The Neighbourhood on CBS, and later that afternoon I’m working on Black Lightning. Then the next morning I’m working on American Soul with the story of Soul Train. Then I’m on Ambitions with Will Packer, then I’m on to Games People Play, and each show has its own voice. I define and make rules as to what the sound of each show would be so that they don’t sound anything like each other. When I go to the next show, it’s almost like a respite that I’m doing something totally different. It’s just like I’m going on vacation, and that’s beautiful. I’m all reenergized every time I get to move onto the next thing. But I’m not the only who does it. I mean look at Blake Neely, he’s got a gazillion shows all the time. [laughs]
Are there any pieces of music that have stuck with you over the years, since you first heard them?
Of someone else’s?
Yeah – something that’s inspired or influenced you, or just something you found particularly memorable for whatever reason.
I’ve been a fan of Keith Jarrett’s for years. I think he’s one of the most brilliant composers, as well as a brilliant player, and there’s so much of his music that I just love, it would to be hard to pick out one piece. I’m also obsessed with Claude Debussy and Charles Ives – Charles Ives is just a big inspiration for me, if anybody can listen to Putnam’s Camp and not be artistically devastated by hearing that, you’ve got some going on that I don’t know. [laughs] Oddly enough, I think something that not many people know about me, my actual favourite music to listen to is country western, a lot of the older stuff.
I get influenced by all of it though. That’s why I do so many different things – just because I like hip hop doesn’t mean that I can’t like country. Because I love jazz doesn’t mean that I can’t get into classical. They’re all just forms of communication, and it depends on what I need to say that day, as to which I’ll go with.
Musically, what have you been enjoying lately?
I’m bouncing around in my car listening to Billie Eilish! I love not only the songs, but the production, I love her character.
But I’ve also been listening to various new young composers. So many composers will send you stuff, wanting you to critique it or see what you think. I’ve listened to a number of composers and – I was just saying to my team the other day – I think I’m going to go online and, every month, say “here’s a composer that you should hire instead of me”.
That’s pretty cool!
Don’t you think that will be fun? I think that every major composer should do it. But I want to pick out some of these young composers, amazing, amazing writers just waiting for that time, that moment to happen. And it’s not just to suggest that you listen to them, it’s to suggest that you hire them instead of me sometime.
Is there anyone you’d like to shout out here?
I’m gonna hold onto that, because I really want to think about it. But yeah, that’s something I’m going to start rolling out. I want to set up a scenario online to be able to discuss and play some music of somebody that folks should know and ask “why aren’t you hiring this person instead of me?”
I want to challenge my other major composers, other guys that have been doing all kinds of series and films and TV shows and video games, and say, “who have you seen that you think should get the job instead of you?”
What’s the most important thing you’d like someone to take away from listening to your work?
Heart. Heart and soul. I write from the heart and soul of the characters, and you should feel imbued in and wrapped up in their moment. These writers and these actors go to such lengths to flesh out amazing characters, and if I can be some part of it that makes you believe, just for a moment, then I’ve done what I need to do.
Kurt Farquhar, thank you very much!
Black Lightning season 3 is airing now.