In a wave of retro-horror scoring that’s sweeping film and television the world over, few composers are as diverse in channeling the golden synth age of Goblin, John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream with a stylistic voice far beyond them than France’s Rob (aka Robin Coudert). Starting off in his country’s alt. rock scene with such instrumental albums as “Don’t Kill” and “Satyred Love” while also playing in the band Phoenix, Rob made his scoring debut with the short “Pink Cowboy Boots,” directed by wife-to-be Maria Larrea. Rob’s striking synth voice truly made its bloody splash with director Franck Khalfoun’s slick POV reboot of the grindhouse slash film “Maniac” in 2012. But far from remaining an acolyte of sinisterly pulsing keyboards, Rob expanded into the realm of revenge caught between heaven and hell with the American-set “Horns,” dealt with the cold evil of Islamist terror with “Made in France,” and created the symphonically mesmerizing sound for Natalie Portman’s starstruck ghost talker in “Planetarium.”
Now in another, twisted move from France, Rob takes up residence in a house that’s internationally known as a place to get out of as Dimension’s long-delayed remodel of “The Amityville Horror” has finally, and officially landed on the net and dvd. Once again pairing Rob with Kahlfoun, this latest unwise residency finds Jennifer Jason Leigh’s single mom moving her comatose son to the Long Island neighborhood for medical care, where he awakens with a severe case of “Patrick” possession – mute, but communicating terrifying visions of flies, ghastly rashes, mayhem and ultimately murder as the house once again tries to convince a young man to kill.
Yet what’s unexpected is Coudert’s approach. Though again drawing on his love of old school 70’s and 80’s horror scoring for his score’s foundation, Rob conjures another haunting and vital score that doesn’t go for the musical scares you’d expect. Instead through the use of female voices, undulating rhythm and bizarre samples, Rob’s stay has the mesmerizing, melodically otherworld power of a waking nightmare one can’t break out of. It’s a hypnotic approach that shows the continued creativity emanating from Rob, whose own scoring back home continues to range from wacked-out drug smuggling suspense to an epic, symphonic apocalypse in a career that suffuses whatever genre it touches with the unexpected.
Tell me about your initial explorations into music, and what part film scores played in them?
I started to play the trumpet when i was 8, but I soon faced some lung issues that made me quit and move on to the keyboards. I had the chance to possess an AtariST with MIDI plugs, so when I was 10, I discovered the pleasure to observe the relationship between computers and musical instruments. I was tripping for hours by playing some Bach midi files with synths sounds, or to play them slower or reversed. My passion for music started with an electronic approach.
As a kid i also watched tons of cartoons and shows on TV. French networks were filled with Japanese programs during the 80’s, and the scores were beautifully made by a guy called Shuki Levy, mainly on synthesizers. “Les Cites d’or” and “Ulysse 31” are still a huge inspiration, Those scores were adventurous, cosmic and mystical, which was exactly the kind of music I loved. I should also mention the TV show “Chapi-Chapo,” a program for pre-school kids, scored by the great French composer Francois de Roubaix, who was an electric pioneer. I think this show traumatized everyone in my generation !
How did the name “Rob” come about?
It’s taken from my full name, which is Robin Benoit Cecil Norman Coudert.
You started out working on instrumental albums, and with the band Phoenix, before transitioning to film scoring. What gave you the impetus to move into that arena?
My music’s always been cinematic, I’ve always tried to create music that makes you experience a journey that brings pictures and strong feelings to your mind. I’m not really interested in composing for the dance floors, nor for the radios.I first wanted to be a painter, and i did some fine arts studies in Paris, which might have influenced my work as well. I married a director, and my first score was actually for her first movie “Pink Cowboy Boots.”. She was studying in a Parisian cinema school, where I also met Rebecca Zlotowski, Teddy Modeste etc… I’ve been quickly surrounded by directors, and they simply asked me for music, so my way towards cinema was very natural, and was probably meant to be.
Your international breakthrough was with 2012’s “Maniac” for director Franck Khalfoun. What inspired a retro horror synth approach to it?
Alex Aja had seen Zlotowski’s “Belle Epine” and he loved it. This movie takes place in the 80’s so the score was already kind of Tangerine Dream, or Suicide sounding. It’s the sound i dig anyway, but Alex had the intuition this would fit the aesthetic of “Maniac.” But more than this, what was important to me was to sound very emotional, in order to embrace the feelings of the murderer instead of the victims. And this is how i like the synths the most, when they get very sad, melodic and emotional. The fact that they sound 80’s brings a lot of nostalgia, that comes with the melancholy, that i was looking for – something related to childhood, and primal emotions. Giorgio Moroder is a great inspiration for this in the way he uses synths and melodies, especially in “The Neverending Story.”» They’re so sad and truly beautiful.
You’d soon be able to show an orchestral side to your work. How difficult was it for you to write for one?
Working for an orchestra has always been a fantasy. I’m a huge fan of French arrangers from the 70’s like JC Vannier (who did beautiful arrangements for Serge Gainsbourg and Melody Nelson), Michel Colombier and Georges Delerue.I started experimenting while working on my first album “Don’t Kill,” but working with modern computers has brought me to the next level.It is quite easy now to compose for a symphonic orchestra using some samplers and sequencers, and even though I’m self-taught in that matter, I start to understand how it works. I go to the classical concerts as soon as I see one interesting, and I also work with a great assistant/arranger, Moritz Reich, who helps me translate my demos into proper scores. I feel that my electronic and rock background is real plus, because it pushes me towards unexpected orchestral fields. My unexperienced naive vision forces me to sound original. And anyway, a 50- piece orchestra is an instrument among others, with a larger manual, But after a few sessions, step by step, you get to know it better. It’s like a ultra large new synth.
Your next genre release for “Horns” showed a very different side to your horror scoring with its mix of spiritual emotion and hellbent revenge. What was this opportunity like for you, as well as the chance to work with “Maniac” producer Alexandre Aja on an American horror movie?
I have a lot in common with Alex, and especially a romantic, almost naive and childish vison of human feelings. We like to cry at movies. So again, Alex wanted me to sound very emotional. Then the movie is also about faith, and the relationship between inner good and evil. So this was a great occasion to sound spiritual, almost religious and elegiac. I really loved the twisted mood in “Horns.” It reminded me of David Lynch’s features, where everything seems normal, but nothing is actually, with a dark humor omnipresent. This was also a great chalenge because this was my very first experience working for an American studio, with screenings etc…I learned a lot then because it is very different from the French way, where the director is the person who decides in the end. The industrial aspect of the cinema wasn’t that obvious to me before. I much admire Alex Aja to manage to keep his movies that much original and personal working with studios.
What are some of your favorite horror scores?
I think “Rosemary’s Baby” is one of my favorite movies ever, and Krzystof Komeda’s score for it is sublime. I think the contrast between the tenderness, the emotional melodies, and the satanic moods work amazingly. I love the use of the choirs and the vocals in general. The idea of having Mia Farrow singing the main title is pure genius and make me fall instantly for her.I am an enormous fan of Komeda and Polanski’s American career. “The Fearless Vampire Killers” remains my #1 movie AND score. I love the jazzy input mixed with harpsichord and satanic choirs, it is so cool! I love how evil is designed here to be hilarious and terrifying. DePalma’s “Carrie” is also one of my favorites. Once again, the balance of fear and tenderness, the psychotic and the sweetness, makes it really unique. And Pino Donaggio is a true master to me. « Carrie’s « score is a masterpiece, in every aspect.
Were you aware of the “Amityville Horror” legend, and films before you took on the remake? And did you believe in the actual haunting?
I don’t believe I’ve seen any of the Amityville movies, though i knew about it of course, as it is legendary, even in Europe! I think the concept of haunted places is part of the American culture, probably related to the history and birth of the nation, the “Poltergeist” case of the Indian cemetery, the voodoo vibes in New Orleans or Key West, or even the « Ghostbusters » scenarios. Ghosts are part of the American mystic. My family owns a house in the French countryside, in a swamp area. It was built in the 16th century. During the war between Catholics and Protestants, a pastor had to hide in the house and his kids got killed in the underground tunnel under the house that was meant to let them escape. He buried them in there. I have to say that knowing this story makes the sleeps there a bit agitated. But It’s always better to believe in instead of not believe, there’s a benefit for sure when you’re living in a world where there are ghosts, it makes it more thrilling.
Given the explosion of retro genre scoring in projects like “It Follows” and “Stranger Things” after “Maniac,” how much of a “throwback” score did you want to make “Amityville?”
I didn’t intentionally make a retro score for “Amityville.” It wouldn’t have made any sense! Plus, I worked on “Amityville” in 2015, so there’s no link at all with the retro thing in scoring it. But, the sounds of John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, Giorgio Moroder are really part of my DNA. It is pretty obvious for anyone visiting my studio in Paris that I’m into synthesizers, and i love to use them whenever I can. They’ve been very helpful on “The Amityville Horror.”
What’s the difficulty in playing evil that’s essentially inanimate – from a possessed structure to the comatose man it’s possessing?
In “Amityville,” evil is in almost every shot. Whenever you see the house, you should feel an evil presence. The house is the main character in a way, and it gives its tone to the movie. So I tried to design a general mood or tone that would bathe the whole movie. You want to feel the house breathing without even noticing it, to make it alive and powerful.
There’s an effective sound design quality to the “Amityville” score, with one sample even sounding like the Martian death ray from the original “War of the Worlds.” How did you want to create a flow between effects and melody?
The movie uses some traditional effects, like “jump scares” for instance. They’re very classical, yet effective, and i tried to emphasize their power as much as i could. I love when music jumps out of the picture, when it becomes almost too loud and annoying, and i felt this was great on Frank Kahlfoun’s pictures. Also, as I said, i’ve tried to create a sound that would be almost present during the whole movie, like a mud bathing the whole thing, in order to create a permanent, subtle discomfort. I believe it’s a great thing to approach the music with, keeping in mind it has a to be also a physical experience, and to work on the textures and melodies all along. That’s why it’s very important to me to produce the music myself, to be able to control precisely the sound and create my own original sounds.
Your main theme has an interesting, “chopped” effect in its rhythm. How did you accomplish that?
This is a typical producing trick i like. It’s a synth sound that goes through a noise gate, synchronized with the tempo of the song. It’s simple, but nicely violent. I’ve heard that the « chopped effect » has a very strong impact on the brain, that’s why it’s often used in the trailer As a sound design effect. I chose to use it on the theme.
Where more visceral scoring a la “The Conjuring” goes for outright fright, your approach to “Amityville” is more dream-like than dissonant. How did you arrive at this approach?
It’s a bit too easy to be dissonant to express fear or discomfort. I’ve tried to reach the same feeling with melancholy and sadness in the chords, to use what’s good in the characters and situations to contrast with the sordid out of it – to hear a beautiful and emotional melody while watching a disgusting or uncomfortable situation is very powerful to me. It really makes me feel bad, and I love that mind twisting effect. Also, this movie is much about brotherly love, and faith, so it had to be nice sometimes. There are a lot of dream hallucinations in the movie, and the feelings are always a bit mixed in a dream, with good and bad frontiers that are blurry. This is a very interesting thing to explore.
How important in a film like this is it to set up a creepily placid atmosphere before the real horror gets unleashed?
It’s all about creating the right state of mind to allow the audience to let their feelings go, to abandon themselves in a way, so that any emotion will be emphasized. It’s like musical hypnosis that puts the audience is in a trance state, and then slashes them up with a huge sound effect. That’s quite amusing, because it’s what you expect when you go to see a horror movie. It’s like a roller coaster, highly sensational.
Tell us about the use of female vocals in the score. Would you say they give the music a religious quality?
I didn’t mean it that way, but that’s interesting point of view. To me, using voices was more the reflection of the innocence, the inner voice of the main character and her purity. So considering this, the voices have something religious about them, because it’s good against evil, something like sort of an angel, maybe? But really, I just thought it was nice to hear some pure female vocals, where I could have otherwise used the flute.
With this “Amityville” being produced by many of the people behind the Blumhouse brand, do you think there’s a “formula” as it were in terms of genre filmmaking, and what they want their scores to accomplish?
I was hired by Frank Kahlfoun directly, as we did « Maniac » together. So he was my only contact during the whole process, We did it in a very short schedule, so I didn’t really had time to realize what I was doing. But retrospectively, I think there’s both good and bad things in every formula. Good is that you know what works, what’s efficient, and you go straight for this. You should always try to invent within the formula, to be original, to never repeat things. I had the feeling that Frank had to fight to save his genuine idea of the movie. And i’m glad he succeeded in keeping the score in its original form. But again, cinema is an industry.
When you do a film like this, is your goal to scare yourself?
My goal is to explore new directions, and to serve the purpose of the movie. So in that case, it had to be scary, but I wanted it to be moving, to make the scary parts even darker. But it’s true that it is very intense to work on a movie like this, especially when you have a tight schedule, because you literally live with it for a few weeks, and you reach some weird states of mind. It happened to me, to stay up late at night, alone in the studio. I experienced some really scary hours then. But I took that as a sign of good work!
Now having come out of two remakes of cult genre films with Franck, what do you think makes the re-imagining of these stories work, especially when it comes to their music?
I think it’s important not to consider the remake as a tribute, but more to consider the original as a mythology that you can interpret your own way. It’s not even trying to modernize it, but rather doing another reading of the story. To me mythology’s important because it contains the essence of our culture, and “Maniac” or “Amityville” could pretend to contain some roots thoughts about fears, neurosis and family. It’s nice to think this movies have a meaning, at least it helps me find inspiration. But for sure, I didn’t take Lalo Schifrin’s original as a source of inspiration for my music. I tried to create some real new vision of the story, along with Frank’s work.
It’s rare that horror films of this sort have an end song, especially one as cool as “True Love” with Chloe. Could you talk about writing it, and how you wanted it to match with the score that’d come before it?
I like the idea of placing this type of movie in the pop culture. And what’s better than a pop song to aim for it? I did work with Chloe Alper for the ending song in “Maniac” already, and I loved the effect of achieving this hard journey with a sour candy feeling, a pop song that’s sad and sweet. We worked on it in the very beginning of the process, so we knew from the start how it would end, and it sort of showed us the way. Chloe is amazing, i just need to send her the instrumental and a short brief about the mood of the movie and she does everything else by herself. She writes, sings and sends back the vocals, it’s as easy as this. To be able to compose songs for cinema is a great way for me to continue to express my love for pop music along with a great cinema tradition of an end title song. The two songs composed by Pino Donaggio for « Carrie » are classics to e, and that’s the kind of detail that I adore in a score.
You have an equally impressive talent for unusual, dramatic scores, some of which of are out on France’s Music Box label. A particularly stark soundtrack is for “Made in France,” which is about homegrown terrorism. Does it make it far more emotional to score a film like this having been in a city that’s been repeatedly attacked by Isis?
We worked on this movie before the wave of terrorism we just had in Paris. So it was rather a very scary prophetic thing. It’s been a big question to know if it was right or not to release this movie in theaters. The mood in France after the Charlie Hebdo attack was very tense and emotional, and though the movie is very clever and tries to ask the right questions, there was a real ethical question of releasing it in that context. We didn’t want to take any profit out of this nightmare.It was very interesting to find the right tone to score this story, and the idea of telling the story from those lost guys’ point of view was very challenging and made the film very strong. It allowed me to compose a genre score whose subject is very serious. The music makes these men even more pathetic.
Some of your most unusual and striking work is heard in “Planetarium,” which collects your work for director Rebecca Zlotowski, with a range that goes from “Maniac”-like retro grooves for “Belle Epine” to intimate ethnic music in “Grand Central” and then the symphonically lush and magical approach to a period film about cinema-obsessed mediums with Natalie Portman. Could you tell us about that collaboration and the creative avenues it’s given you?
Rebecca Zlotowski is the first director to have asked me to score a long feature. We started 10 years ago with “Belle Epine,” and we’ve been working together ever since then. It feels like our careers have grown up together. It is a very nice feeling to share that level of artistic intimacy with a director. It’s like we understand things along with someone who’s the same age. That’s a very precious collaboration to me. She is a very demanding person, and one of the most brillant I know. Her brain is very powerful machine, and I feel she needs my more intuitive way of working. Rebecca really uses my sensitive inspiration along with her rather intellectual approach, which is why we complement each other so well. We have tried to re-invent the nature of our work on every movie together, so these three sound very different, as you mentioned. I learned a lot working for her.
With “Seuls,” you’ve composed your first score for the “YA” sci-fi genre with an emotional, epic “fusion” score for orchestra and electronics. What was it like to approach the genre here given kids in a seemingly depopulated Paris?
This movie was very ambitious. I don’t think i’ve ever seen any French movie of this kind. The atmosphere is very unique because it is a genre movie, sort of a film noir, quite dark and pessimistic but for kids! Then it is quite violent, epic and wild. It had to be scored with these strange and specific directions so I decided to use a bigger orchestra and some synths all together that allowed the music to be huge, violent, experimental and modern. I’ve worked quite a lot on this one to make the score sound massive, which was a great challenge.
With your recent score for the drug smuggling comedy-thriller “Gangsterdam,” you have an obviously great time mashing together the sound of orchestral suspense, Tangerine Dream, club music and “The Third Man.” Do you look towards opportunities where you get to be musically all over the place like that?
My love and interest for music has no boundary. Any type of music can reveal its treasure, and I’m always in demand for new fields of expression.
It’s true that I had fun scoring « Gangsterdam, » even though comedy remains the hardest type to score. But the director really trusted me and let me go for it! So I mashed up different styles, thinking it would be fun to create such a colorful soundtrack. Plus it was a fantasy to do a “Trouble Man”-like score, with funky grooves, orchestras and mini Moog solos. That could all sound very random so the challenge here was to stay coherent and to bring a strong artistic direction to the movie. But it’s not an exercise that I especially look for, though i really like to explore new directions like « Gangsterdam » whenever I can.
Do you think scoring is now meant for artists who can stylistically move between the alt. music, rock and film worlds?
I think the cinema industry has always been looking for original profiles to work with, depending on the project. That is why Wendy Carlos, Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh or Francois de Roubaix appeared, from other circles, and opened up the width of cinema scores. Even if you think of Quincy Jones, who would be considered as kind of classical composer, he’s a jazzman, and produced songs for Michael Jackson, so… That is why i like scoring so much, because it’s all about music, any kind actually, as long as it serves its master, which is the movie itself.
What’s up ahead for you, especially when it comes to getting your name out their for American projects?
I just finished the third season of “The Bureau” that is out in the US too, and I just started another TV show for Netflix called “Troy,” which is about the Greek mythology. Next month also start my new collaboration with Alex Aja, it’s VR project called “The Campfire Creepers,” which is horrific obviously. And I’m on tour with my teenage friends Phoenix. We’ll be playing in New York and at the Hollywood Bowl. So it’s been pretty busy times for me !
At what point do you think you’d move out of a house like “The Amityville Horror’s?” Or would you stay for the musical inspiration?
I believe i would never have moved in, because me and my wife are very sensitive to the vibes that come out of a place, so we would have instantly felt bad. I remember, i puked once staying in an old French house that I found out later that was a Nazi headquarters during WW2. So just trust your instinct !
Watch “Amityville the Awakening” in the comfort of your home on Googleplay HERE, or on dvd HERE
Get Rob’s scores for “Maniac,” “Planetarium,” “Seuls” and “Made in France” from Music Box Records HERE
Get Rob’s score for “Horns” HERE
Visit Rob on Spotify HERE