In the new Netflix original film, Burning Sands, the brutal mob mentality of fraternity hazing is exposed and explored, unfolding in vicious detail that grabs the viewer and doesn’t let go til the bitter end. The score for the film is similarly compelling thanks to Kevin Lax, an award-winning musician, and composer whose name you’re likely to be hearing more and more of in the cinematic world.
Lax’s tension-filled soundscapes for sands evoke the depths of despair and desperation inside the protagonist’s head during a horrific, ritual-filled “hell week” inside a fictional African-American college. His score transcends backdrop and becomes a story-telling device, manifesting the lead character’s tastes and influences, from hip-hop to African-American spirituals to synth-pop. It’s become Lax’s signature too: incorporating diverse genres, tempos, and textures to reflect varying narratives.
Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Lax studied film composition at USC and currently calls LA home. Commercials, videos, and documentaries have been his focus, but feature films seem a natural progression.
His most high profile score since the Netflix offering was Chris Brown’s reality TV-style doc, Welcome to My Life, which also came out this year. Attempting to convey the challenges and complexities behind the controversial pop star, the film got mixed reviews, but Lax’s work provided the perfect balance nonetheless, adding depth and framework to the music star’s story. As a performing musician himself, Lax obviously understands the creative process and how to highlight it.
“The most difficult thing about being a musician, and specifically, a film composer is juggling the many facets of the career in a balanced and fulfilling way,” he explains. “Often, as with a lot of creative people, you have this strong desire to write and create which is frequently undermined by the other requirements of the job, whether it’s some technical quagmire, keeping the higher-ups happy, or trying to secure a new gig.”
When it comes to film, there’s a delicate balance only the best composers know how to achieve—enhancing a story without overpowering it. Creating memorable music that complements the visual. To that end, Lax’s influences should come as no surprise. “James Horner and U2,” he says enthusiastically when asked about inspirations. “Certainly, others exist, but what pulled me into the world of film scoring was James Horner’s memorable, emotional, and well-crafted scores, while U2, with its charged lyrics and melodic material, actually pulled me into emotive and expressive music.”
“The thing that probably led me most to film scoring was a high school class I enrolled in called EMlab, where we worked with various DAWs and other music software to compose and produce music, as well as score films, which was unprecedented at the time,” he recalls of his first experiences programming to complement visuals and stories. “After college, I worked for a few composers, while also teaching piano before I ended up where I am today, which is a combination of composing/producing, performing piano, and arranging/orchestrating music. I got into composition because I think it’s unique in the creative and cerebral sensibilities needed, while also allowing for close collaboration with other creative individuals, such as directors, producers, etc. It’s fascinating and gratifying to play a role that is highly influential but often works subconsciously, all the while trying to leave the audience with a memorable tune to hum home.”
Catchy tunes aside, Lax’s writing approach is, for the most part, experimental is conception, but traditional in creation. “I’m pretty open to how people interpret music, so I don’t usually cast too much judgment,” he says. “With regards to harmony, melody, and lyrics, I’m slightly more of an old soul.”
Improvising and composing is highly intertwined in his writing process. “One can generate new compositional ideas of off improvising on an existing piece of music, or just freely improvise on a small kernel of an idea and see what comes of it,” he explains.“Furthermore, I think performance that involves improvisation is highly beneficial to compositional as again, it opens you up to new creative directions and helps prevent creative ruts.”
As the music business model evolves, Lax acknowledges his field’s popularity and the problems it can present. Music placement and scoring for TV and film are one of the few ways left to make money in the business, which has led to over-saturation. “I think there’s certainly a much larger draw to the music and film/TV/gaming fields as the current generation of young working adults try to merge their creative goals with viable jobs,” he says, acknowledging the competitive nature of his profession right now. “However, the desire for content has never been stronger, so it appears there’s a way for this trend to continue along this path. That means adaptability and versatility will now be more important than ever. We live in an unprecedented time where all music now exists to be interwoven and blended in new and unique ways, which is quite exciting.”