Talking With Kurt Farquhar: The Man Behind The Music Of The Hit, Black Lightning
by Gary Catig
Kurt Farquhar is a renowned television and film composer who has worked on shows like Sister, Sister, The King of Queens, and most recently, Black Lighting. He took some time out of his busy schedule to chat about working on the break out freshman series. He discussed many topics including the show’s social relevance, playing with the audience’s emotions through music, and some of his favorite scenes from the now finished first season.
Gary Catig: You’ve had quite an illustrious career composing music in entertainment. You have worked on a variety of projects including children’s shows, sitcoms and dramas. What do you enjoy most about it?
Kurt Farquhar: The joy I get to go to work every day and put music to pictures, that’s my passion. Doing music for pictures is everything to me. I was once asked, what would you prefer, to have a big hit record or the next big television show or movie? Oh, that’s easy, television show or movie. That’s what I’m about. I love the whole process. I love the collaborative nature of it and it’s just fun. When you find that thing that really totally connects for you and totally clicks and it’s a special thing I get to do it every day.
GC: Nice, that’s cool that you get to do something you love.
KF: Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
GC: Looking at your different projects, you have worked on many shows that focus heavily on African Americans. In this current climate, diversity and inclusion are very big. It’s one thing to have the actors and actresses be minorities because they are the ones who are usually front and center, but how important is it to have people of color behind the scenes on the creative side like yourself, and directors, and writers?
KF: Well, I think it’s significantly important because everyone brings their own experiences to whatever job it is they are doing. In music especially, my whole job is to tell people what to feel. A camera going down a dark hallway is not scary. It’s only scary when I tell you. <Humming suspense music>. Now you know, ok, Pookie is getting ready to get off, here. When you have me bringing my experiences to the telling of the emotional story that is there, that is something else.
In the case of Black Lightning, the premiere episode had a really, really tense scene where the police had pulled Jefferson over and he’s with his daughters in the car and his daughters were getting, “Hey, you can’t do that”, and they want to take pictures of it. He’s trying to calm everything down so nothing escalates and something really bad happens. It’s really, really tense and really tough. You probably don’t know what to do in that situation.
I mean, the difference between me and maybe another composer, is that I have been pulled over for absolutely no reason. I brought all of that nervousness and tension that I felt then and the sort of insight to the scenario to my work. I think that’s a good thing. Whenever you’re hearing different voices and hearing them in different ways. It’s not like because I’m African American I have to be on every African American TV show, although it seems like I am.
GC: No, I know. You’ve done King of Queens and stuff like that.
KF: Yeah, exactly. And mystically, the show did not go down. As a matter of fact, it is one of the top syndicated shows in the history of television. There’s a case to be made, that hey, hire Kurt Farquhar, you might have a great syndicated run. Get a brother in there. The basic thing is it’s good to have all these different voices. Women, minorities and everybody working things out together. It’s just one little thing. Some of the things I do that I do that are different are so small. It’s not a huge sea of changes. It’s just perspective sometimes. Just a subtle sense of rhythm sometimes. Just going left as opposed to going right and everybody has that something special that they have. Where they come from has something to do with this. So, who they are will most definitely has something to do with it and I think that’s a positive thing for everybody.
GC: That scene you spoke of, is the first scene of the show and it really set the tone for what’s to come throughout the season. Speaking of Black Lightning, what does it mean to you to be part of something that not only has a compelling storyline, but isn’t afraid to tackle the social issues that are relevant today?
KF: Yeah, that’s a big deal. When I first saw a picture of the pilot we were working on, I said, “Oh my goodness. We’re in for something really, really serious here. This is really, really powerful”. I remember going home to tell my wife, “If they are able to sustain this, this may be one of the best shows on television. If this gets off, this is really, really amazing here. They are working in a genre that everybody is familiar with and they are having a conversation that everybody is familiar with, but from a different perspective.” I think that is so compelling and I definitely wanted to be a part of this, and to see it being embraced in this way, is wow. It is extremely gratifying to be a part of something. They said they’re talking about more than fantasy. They’re using fantasy as a way of opening up a dialog on real things that are happening every day, and I think that is a really unique thing to do and special, and I’m glad to be a part of it.
GC: I’ve read some of your previous interviews, that when you got the chance to work on Black Lightning, you were excited to work on a superhero project for the first time. Music composition-wise, is there something that a project like this offers that you haven’t been able to do in any of your previous projects?
KF: The sheer scope of this was beyond what I have previously had gotten the chance to do. I believe the closest I had gotten to that was a show called Stitchers. You sit inside the minds of recently dead people. That’s kind of a big concept. That’s kind of out there. That allows me to stretch and do some other things. The attraction to this one was the bigness, the size and scope of a superhero-type story, but also as we just discussed, the sense of these reality-based stories that have been going on. The sense of we’re not just doing fantasy but doing something that is relatively important as well. The opportunity to put that together in that way? List to me all of the various opportunities to actually be a part of something like that. It’s either you’re doing an episode of The Wire or you’re doing a super hero themed one. They basically combined The Wire with a super hero story.
GC: I know, I was at WonderCon and the moderator brought up the comparison of Black Lightning and The Wire to an extent.
KF: Yeah, again the first time I ever saw it, that was the first thing that came out of my mouth. I was very excited to see that other people were getting that. One minute it’s a sweet little thing, then another minute it’s in super hero mode, and then next they take it to a dark real edge that you would equate with a show like The Wire or The Sopranos or whatever. I found that really fascinating. There aren’t a lot examples of that. Where you combine those two types of things, so I thought, wow, if I get a chance to do this. It’s not something that comes along every day and I was so excited to work again with Salim Akil. He’s just a brilliant, brilliant director and showrunner and writer. And he has the creative sense of what he wants to see and what he wants to hear. He’s such a huge part of what we do musically for myself and music supervisor Kier Lehman. There’s no ambiguity as to what he wants and it’s up to us how we go about doing it. He’s very clear on what he wants to hear and leaves it up to us how we go about it. It’s really a powerful thing to have somebody who is that really integrated and excited about the sound of a show as much as the look of it and the words in it.
GC: I guess I’d like to explore your process of scoring a little bit further. Music plays a vital role in TV and movies because it can establish or accentuate the tone and mood of a scene. I was curious what your approach was. Do you read the script? You had also mentioned how the director sometimes gives you suggestions of how he wants it to sound, or do you only see the finished product after the scene is filmed to get an overall feel that way?
KF: Well, I do read the scripts. I read all the scripts that I ever work on. I get it from my older brother Ralph Farquhar, who’s a writer, too. A television writer. He started out as a writer on Happy Days and Married With Children. I have a tendency to want to be on it. I want to be up to date to where they are. I want to go on the same journey as my showrunner, who previously was a writer, I want to go on the same journey he is on. I’m wanting to read the script to get that fantasy in my head for a second.
But after that, I’m not a big proponent of over-watching a show. I always give the example of when something occurs, something startling or whatever, happens to you. The first time it happens, “Oh my god!”, you just jumped out of your seat. The first time somebody came in and did something really crazy, it would really freak you out or your emotions would be right on edge. Well, if they came in and did the same thing, ten, twenty, thirty times? Each time, your senses would be a little more dull, a little more dull, a little more dull until you’re a great distance away from that initial reaction. Since my job is to tell you what to feel, I want to be as close to that initial reaction I possibly can be.
After I read the script, I want to see as little as possible and then when I’m writing, the only difference between me and the average person, is when I get that emotional reaction, those emotions are going to explode onto the page of music and I’m going to write in a much more energized way. A much more visceral way. My thing is I definitely want to be so connected to the emotions. Every emotion, big and small, in a piece.
GC: What’s being more commonplace for TV is that popular songs from the past to today’s hits are being incorporated in addition to the score. Do you find it difficult composing music that fits a particular scene, but also smoothly transitions and meshes with these added songs?
KF: I don’t find it difficult, but it is a challenge. It is something that I’m pretty naturally built for. In my case, I wrote my first symphony when I was twelve years old. I studied classical music in France. I was a jazz player and was on tour with Freddie Hubbard and I’m responsible for ushering in the whole hip hop/urban scoring style in television. The thing is, I feel natural within all of it. The thing of coming from this or coming from that and transitioning it and making it feel at home with our score is the thing I’m most natural at doing, and I think it’s a big deal.
You just laid out exactly what the issues are basically with Black Lightning in terms of there is a lot of vintage music, and there’s a lot of hip hop and current R & B. The trick is to be able to have that music, but not feel like you’re being jerked back and forth between that and the score, as if they have nothing to do with each other. The trick is, yes that music occurs, but at the same time, if I’m doing it right, you don’t know sometimes where their music ended and my music begins or vice versa. We do it so seamlessly.
Kier and I just a few weeks ago, listened to one scene and couldn’t remember which was me. I said, “Ok, we’re really doing it”. It should not feel like they’re disassociated. Even if it’s not the same music, it’s of the same mind and of the same intent. It has something that connects it. There’s some sort of connective tissue to it, so it doesn’t feel random and all over the place. It’s really tricky to be able to do music that is from all these different areas. There’s one thing to make a nice gumbo with all these different flavors in it, or it’s just a mess jerking you from here to there. One thing, gumbo? Good. Herky, jerky, yanking you from left to right? Not good.
GC: It’s kind of like being a good DJ, but instead of a club, you’re doing it through TV and movies.
KF: Yeah, that’s another wonderful example. It helps to have somebody, a partnership. Like with Kier, he’s just trying to achieve the same thing I’m trying to achieve, which is a good show. So, if it works best to let my thing take over, or if works best to let his things take over, we’re both get on board with it and do what’s right for the show and the scene. It’s a great partnership on how we work together with it and with, again, our great showrunner, Salim who is very astute when it comes to music.
GC: Now that the first season is over, how would you describe the overall style you created? Was there a specific scene or sequence that was your favorite to score?
KF: I did have a particularly favorite scene. In episode 12, there’s like an eight-minute sequence. You wonder why I love this one. An eight-minute scoring sequence on TV. Yes, let’s do that! The thing about it is that it shows all the elements of what I’m using in this score. There’s everything from dub step and EDM and trap music and hip hop and rock and sound design and orchestral and traditional scoring, all within the space of a single cue. Sometimes, multiple layers all at once, and you’re seeing all these various themes. A number of important themes of the show. From the Black Lightning theme, when he’s coming in.
An interesting example of all the different styles going on is Khalil. Painkiller comes to the school, and there’s this whole trap theme with some orchestral and sound design, and then he comes in. Here’s a fine example of one of the ways to give a sense that this is happening to a particular people, in this case African Americans, without having to beat them over the head with a beat. When he gets into the school and he jumps up on the second level, and is starting to attack all these kids, there’s a rhythmic, melodic string line aggressively going on there. <mimics guitar riff> That was all based on the style of a Miles Davis trumpet solo out of the late 70’s and 80’s when he was doing that whole funk rock thing he was doing at that point.
Oh my god, but I just did it with strings. You get that rhythmic thing. Hey! Whoa! What’s that coming from. The vibe of it. You know there’s something there and you don’t know why exactly it’s inside you, but it is. A couple of us started bobbing our heads. That’s another way of saying, ok, not only is this happening, but who it’s happening to–you. It’s a subtle way, without having to go the oh so obvious way. I could have just dropped a hip hop beat on it too, but that’s so obvious. It’s not that we don’t do that too, but we don’t feel a need to only do that. Take a second and find out another way. Something a little bit more interesting that would not be the first thought you had. Try the second or third thought and see what you come up with.
That was one way we dealt with that that was relatively interesting. This is a big, big moment in my mind because it was one of the first times we see Thunder actually in a serious superhero knockdown. One of the things that I’ve been dropping in little bits of pieces on the show for three or four episodes before that. I think it’s episode nine when you see Gambi give her the blueprints for this outfit he’s making for her. That’s one of the first times you start hearing the Thunder theme, but it’s being done with a piano and a little sound design and it’s very subtle. <mimics music> That was all done on the piano originally, and then it was done again with her mother with more of a keyboarding sound design type of vibe always knowing that I was going always build up to this one kick ass moment somewhere that would come up and we would be able to show her really battling.
The thing that was most important to about that thing, is that I didn’t want the girls apologizing for being powerful. I wanted them to just rock, just to kick butt. Seriously. Therefore, I leaned into making theirs a little more aggressive, a little more edgy than even the guys. I wanted to be no questions about that in this scene. We wanted to see them for real. I never did it seeing she would be fighting Syonide with just an extra gift. It’s easier to go even darker when this girl is on the street because her character is absolutely insane, so twisted and so violent. That was a big deal to me, and I think we really accomplished that. I think a lot of people remarked to me that, yeah, you didn’t pull back when the girls were fighting. We put the pedal to the metal at this point.
Then to build towards the fight with Tobias and Black Lightning, culminating with him essentially killing him, and his youngest daughter freaking out, and not really in control with her powers, brings him back. You’re having a collision of multiple things happening at the same time and just an emotional outburst from the daughter that brings him back and saves him. Those particular cues, the times I was working on this, I would go back and work those hours again in a minute just to get a chance to write something like that. It was a really special thing.
GC: Finally, I know Black Lightning isn’t the only show you’re currently working on. What other projects would you like to plug and make the audience aware of?
KF: There’s a really, really smart, well written, well-acted show on BET called In Contempt. I just think anybody who has not seen this show yet, you really have to see it. It’s a courtroom drama but it has a little twist. There’s something that is very different about the point of view and how they’re approaching this drama so please, please, if you get the chance take a look at that. I’m currently working on a new film for Lions Gate called #Twominutesoffame and it’s starring Jay Pharoah and he’s hilarious. It’s a moment of relief for me because I’ve been in an intense dark world for a while.
GC: You can finally work on something with a little more levity this time.
KF: I get to do a comedy for the summer. We’ll need it because if I don’t, I’ll be so dark by the time I start Black Lightning again. But yeah, that’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s absolutely hilarious and I’m working on that right now.
GC: I want to thank you again for taking the time out. It’s pretty enlightening to see other aspects of TV and movie making, like from the musical side. It’s interesting to hear your approach and your perspective on things.
KF: Thank you. Thank you for having me. It’s been fun to do. It’s fun to look back on it now. It’s interesting I did some interviews at the beginning of the season, and everybody was wondering “How’s it going to be” and “How different we are going to be”. Now, after you’ve been able to see it, it has its own voice, I will say that. I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel, but we definitely have our own voice with the show, and we’re very thankful to have the opportunity to continue on now that the show has been picked up again.