Reel world will have to wait, Roger’s on the road

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Film composer Roger Mason… “I’ve always been interested in a great variety of music since I was a kid and I own 100 or so instruments.”

WHEN muso Roger Mason comes to the Royal Hotel in Queanbeyan soon with Steve Kilbey’s band, The Winged Heels, he’ll be lugging around his guitar, a mandolin, a cello and his trusty keyboard.

“There are not too many people who are stupid enough to haul all that gear with them,” he tells me. 

“But I’ve always been interested in a great variety of music since I was a kid and I own 100 or so instruments.”

But touring with a band can be tedious, and it isn’t his main thing – he’s one of Australia’s best-known film composers.

“When Steve Kilbey approached me, I hadn’t really played with a band for around 30 years I walked away in 1992,” Mason says. 

“I once did a theatre show and I nearly died of boredom – I can’t believe how a friend of mine played in ‘CATS’ for years and years.”

Like Kilbey, Mason is loquacious, telling me: “The whole band are talkers, you can hardly shut any of us up.”

A child musical prodigy, he began playing piano at the age of four and went on as an adult to play and record with Gary Numan, the Models, the Divinyls, Icehouse, Jenny Morris and Diesel, with songwriting credits that include Wendy Matthews’ “Token Angels”.

But after being awarded a scholarship to Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute for Film Studies in the early ’90s, Mason’s interest in orchestration, orchestral composition and arranging led to his first film score for the Japanese war-bride film “Aya”, directed by the late Solrun Hoaas, a well-known former Canberran.

There followed a long career in film, a swag of awards and nominations in the AACTAs, AFIs and APRA awards. 

His latest big score has been for the television series “Reckoning”, which premiered on the Seven Network in April after releases in the US and UK.

He says the series was shot over 18 months on Sydney’s North Shore, made up to look like North California, but with special attention to details such as having people drive on the right-hand side of the road.

“Reckoning” centres on a serial killer and a cat-and-mouse game where you know who the perpetrator is from the first frame – he’s the sports teacher at the very school where the detective’s son and daughter are pupils, an intricate character play, says Mason. 

“It could be done cheaper here,” he says, and from that point of view it made for a very challenging musical score.

“It’s kind of interesting trying to get into the mind of a serial killer using a combination of sounds on synthesisers and a variety of acoustic instruments like the dulcimer, the balalaika or the hurdy-gurdy, but blended to sound like something else.”

Mason abhors musical cliches, but he needs a fair bit of scary music as in scenes where the killer is striking his victims right in front of the viewer. 

“That’s where you have to pull all the stops out and create all manners of tension,” he says, adding that it’s still important to avoid predictability, so no, he didn’t replicate the shower scene from “Psycho”.

He enjoys a love-hate relationship with Eurovision, which he used to like for its “national folk sensibility”.

Not anymore. Nowadays, he says: “I enjoy a healthy dose of schadenfreude… what is interesting is the homogenisation of music… one act from Latvia sounded very much like Beyoncé – I found that a bit sad.”

That’s exactly the sort of thing Mason tries to avoid as he cuts and mixes his authentic acoustic material to make his own work.

Thirty years in film work, much of it in Hollywood, was turned upside down by covid.

“I reconnected with Steve [Kilbey] and worked on some tracks with him, then he said we should take the album, ‘Hall of Counterfeits’, to the road,” he says. 

“I was never a comfortable live player, I was too shy, but I’m enjoying it more and more.

“When I got into the band, I felt like I’ve never walked away. It felt like the ’80s, it was really disconcerting.”

Steve Kilbey and The Winged Heels, Royal Hotel, Queanbeyan, Friday, June 18. Book here

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Helen Musa
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