Composer Rob Kolar has established himself as a promising talent in the world of television and film scoring with his bold original songs and daring compositions. His most recent acclaim stems from composing TBS’s top new cable comedy of 2016 “The Detour,” starring Jason Jones and Samantha Bee. Rob Kolar’s eclectic score sets the perfect tone for every outrageous adventure that befalls this family of four on a roadtrip from New York to Florida. Prior to TBS’s “The Detour,” Rob Kolar captivated audiences with his unmatched music and original songs for films including Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, starring Jane Fonda and Diane Hudson, and Evelyn,” starring Pierce Brosnan.
In addition, to composing music for film and television, Rob still performs live with his folk rock band. He is a founding member and songwriter of He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister with his wife Lauren Brown, the band’s tap dancing drummer. Their song, “Same Old Ground” won the John Lennon Songwriting Award Grand Prize for best rock song. Rob Kolar’s unique original songs have been featured in many hit series such as Homeland, American Crime, Community, New Girl, and The Big Bang Theory.
Kolar is also the grandson of iconic British actor Robert Shaw, known for pivotal roles such as Captain Quint in the classic thriller, Jaws. Enjoy our time with Rob.
GoSeeTalk: Rob, thanks for spending some time with us. Let’s talk globally about writing music. What is your approach: do you read scripts or not? Also, Brian Tyler told me that when taking a job it can be very early in the process – you have to go with your gut rather than being able to see how things have come together. What’s been your experience?
Rob Kolar: I love reading the scripts. I’m an aspiring writer as well so it’s a great way to learn the form and get a feel for the vision of the show. Jason Jones and Samantha Bee are very clever writers and I really enjoyed reading the pages. Especially the Dr. Rob episodes where the family stay at this B&B in the south. I was laughing out loud reading those ones in particular.
The Detour production team and Jason were incredible with the liberty they gave me to create the music for show. I wanted to try something fairly unique by scoring most of the show before the first cuts ever got to me. I read the scripts and created a huge bank of music which the talented editors then Frankenstein-ed together with the initial cuts. It was a slightly risky move because it could mean a massive work load for me if Jason or creative didn’t dig the music.
As a composer and song writer for The Detour, you seem to have complete auditory ownership of the show. Talk to us about how you juggle your personal tastes vs. writing what’s good for the project. Further, do you push ideas, or just interpret what the director wants?
There were moments where Jason or the director wanted something specific but most often they let me have free reign sonically. It was always important for me to understand what Jason was after and then challenge myself to surpass his expectations. The Detour is unique as there are several original songs in the show. Jason threw lyrics at me and said go to town. We ended up with some real gems. A politically incorrect music theater number, a Jesus lovers rock anthem, a Lilith fair angsty female grunge rocker, and a Euro trash Russian pop song about Putin annexing countries. All can be heard on the new Detour: Season 1 album which just came out.
What’s it been like scoring for TV? Do you feel you like the pace, the challenges, etc., or is this a step towards film or something else entirely?
Great question. There were a couple hairy moments where they needed songs while filming on set and the turnaround was only a couple days! I spent two days straight in the studio and quickly posted on Facebook about singers. I had to audition vocalists as I was creating the track which is always tricky because of vocal range and singer’s comfortable key. It made for an exciting experience. I liked the challenge of pulling it off. Especially because Jason and the team were always so vocal about their excitement and appreciation for the songs. It must have been fun for Jason to jot down some lyrics and send em over to my little factory which then churned out the record.
I am hoping this show is a step towards my dream of creating my own musical series (which my wife and I have written the pilot for) and future musicals on and off the screen.
Talk to us about the approval process. Brian DePalma recently said that in the world of TV, “series are run by producers and writers, the directors come secondary“. Who call the shots on TV? Who says yes to what you’re doing?
It’s really Jason’s vision and it works really well in this case. You’d think being the lead actor and producer and writer could make you lose clarity but Jason really knows what he’s after yet also allows others around him to be free and creative in their roles. I think Samantha has a lot of influence as well and she is so smart and “with it”. It’s great to be working with people you admire and can build off of, creatively.
I think DePalma has a point about the director not being as much in control in TV as in film. It’s more the exec producer who calls the final shots. Fortunately in the case of The Detour, those people, J and Sam, are creative minds with smart writing chops and a desire to take risks with their art.
The Detour is a very mixed bag. How do you even start to find an identity to graft on an oddball show like that? Will you share some stories on how things progressed from your sketches to the point when you’re in the mixing booth?
It is a mixed bag. I think the score reflects that. I used a lot of tap dancing (by Lauren Brown) in the score along with castanets, roto toms, shakers and other odd percussion. This creates a playful, energized and slightly zany sound which tends to match the tone of the story and characters quite well. We started the music process by using instrumental tracks of my band He’s My Brother She’s My Sister. We would chop them up and occasionally I’d add elements.
As I read the scripts I experimented more in the studio until I found a sound that linked with the mood. It traverses western, surf, gypsy, jazz, circus, folk, rock, pop, classical and even Latin music. I remember a week where it really hit its stride and cue after cue was pouring out of me. I often hit record and just play whatever comes in the moment. It makes for a very spontaneous and infectious sound.
What about your palette or creative freedom for The Detour got you the most excited while working on the show?
It was wonderful to incorporate Lauren Brown’s tap dancing. She plays drums and taps in our band KOLARS and she is the drummer for He’s My Brother She’s My Sister. She has this incredibly unique form of drumming where she simultaneously tap dances and drums on a custom kit. As far as I know she is the only one in the world doing this. I was really hoping her rhythms would work for The Detour. I didn’t want to force it but it so happened that her playing helped give the score a hypnotic identity.
The sound has, at times, this great hybrid of Rockabilly and Robert Rodriguez-lite. As you work towards what’s right for the show, do you keep any eye out for anything sounds dated or trendy so to avoid it? Although, TV offers a lot of narrative paths so is anything wrong for a comedy that is so dynamic?
I try not to think about it too much or be concerned with it as long as it feels instinctively on point. My music has always been a blend of various genres and eras so I don’t think it exists completely in one time period. I do hear scores that feel a bit dated or not “timeless” and I think that often comes from curating and overthinking the music or being afraid to take risks. All the artists I love took risks and sometimes fail but sometimes succeed brilliantly. In many ways it is a reflection of the lives we live. I want the music I create to embody that spontaneity and uncertainty which is a universal experience we all share.
If there is such a thing, what is the current mindset in TV?
I think it varies but I will say that right now could arguably be the golden age of television. With so many great stories and shows, TV has emerged from the lackluster era of reality fodder into an amazing and colorful world of original series. This extended form also allows incredible character development and exploration. As a composer it is exciting because I can propel this journey with the music. I watch shows like Fargo, Mr. Robot, Enlightened and People Vs OJ, Master of None and I’m blown away with what the composers and music sups are doing. It’s on the same level as cinema. That line that used to exist has really faded and now to be honest I would rather be involved in a series because it allows the journey to evolve and change unlike a film.
Getting back to a more global way of looking at the process, what’s your opinion on musical repetition? In a show like House, M.D. it tended to be as formulaic as the plot. Still love the show to death, but it is a procedural after all.
I think finding a theme or hook is crucial and I approach my score similarly to a pop song. I adore Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh and I believe a huge part of their success comes from embracing these wonderful melodic hooks. John Williams also does this. I think many composers feel they are ‘above’ this mindset and stray from making their scores too hummable. I am the opposite. I would like the score to stay with you. Live in your bones for a little while, stir emotions and elevate your experience without distracting from it.
Describe your studio (set up, instruments/equipment, etc) before and during your work on The Detour. What’s changed? As far as your ideas, what did you think would work but didn’t, and what worked that you want to do more of?
To be honest I do it all at home in a small studio I have created. It’s very minimal but the energy is good and I have many windows with a view of trees and the Echo Park hills. It makes for an inspiring and relaxing environment to create. Sometimes birds and dog barks make cameos in the background but I like to think of it as part of the charm.
I’d love to do more fantasy and whimsical music. Futuristic too. Use synths and tap into a sort of futuristic whimsical new romantic sound. I loved the music in Ex Machina and the music choices in Drive. I also love Trent Reznor‘s work. Would love to delve into a darker world akin to those styles.
What are your thoughts on synth scores – either electronic sounds, or a fake symphony/instruments? And as far as trying to do more with less, much of TV work is based on budget, so how do you stretch the dollars you’re given?
As long as it sounds authentic and the choices are made in a tasteful way, I am open to any instrumentation or sounds. I do think strings sound best when they are as real as possible. This can be difficult. Sometimes I use high quality samples and record a friend top lining the part on cello or violin. This gives it more of a human quality and makes a noticeable difference. Often, other instruments can evoke the emotion of a string section but honestly there is nothing that compares with real brass section and a real string section. It can make your hair stand on end.
After opening at the top of cable comedy charts, The Detour has been renewed for a second season which Rob Kolar has been slated to score in 2016. The hit show airs Mondays at 9/8c, or you can watch past episodes here on TBS.com.
The Detour is a what-in-the-living-hell-is-wrong-with-this-family comedy created by comic super-couple Jason Jones & Samantha Bee and inspired by their own experiences with family trips. Jones stars as unfiltered dad Nate, who hits the road with wife Robin (Natalie Zea) and kids Delilah (Ashley Gerasimovich) and Jared (Liam Carroll). Every leg of their trip is fraught with disaster as they encounter one hellish turn after another. If there’s trouble on the road, this family will find it and plow into it.