SADDLE SONGS: Concrete Cowboy composer Kevin Matley talks the Idris Elba-starring Western

Photo credit: Jeff Marsh

By Jedd Jong

Photo credit: Jeff Marsh

When one thinks of Westerns, open, dusty plains and the late 19th Century American frontier usually come to mind. Concrete Cowboy is a Western of a different stripe: as its title suggests, its setting is a contemporary urban environment.

Idris Elba stars as Harp, a cowboy who is part of the Fletcher Street Riding Club in a Northern Philadelphia town. Caleb McLaughlin, best known as Lucas on Stranger Things, plays Harp’s estranged son Cole. After he gets kicked out of school for fighting, Cole is sent to live with Harp, and the troubled young man is gradually inducted into the unique urban cowboy way of life.

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Idris Elba as Harp and Caleb McLaughlin as Cole. Cr. Aaron Ricketts / NETFLIX © 2021

Concrete Cowboy is based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri and is directed by Philadelphia-based filmmaker Ricky Staub. Staub was inspired to research the Fletcher Street Riding Club, a nonprofit city horsemanship organisation, when he looked out his office window and saw a horse and buggy rolling down the street. The movie shines a light on the little-known subculture of modern-day Black cowboys scattered across America, and real-life members of the Fletcher Street Riding Club appear in the movie. The film also stars Jharrel Jerome, Lorraine Toussaint and Clifford “Method Man” Smith.

Elba is also a co-producer on the film, alongside Lee Daniels, creator of the TV series Empire and director of films including Precious, The Butler, and The United States vs Billie Holliday.

Matley Family // Photo by Amber Zbitnoff Photography

The film’s soundtrack, which The Hollywood Reporter calls “a soulful score with subtle Western accents,” is composed by Kevin Matley, whose credits include the documentaries Kifaru and Mudbloods and the short films Still Here and The Cage. Matley’s work can be heard in commercials for brands including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Coca Cola, Ferrari and Adidas.

Speaking exclusively to F***, Matley shared about capturing the sound of the Fletcher Street Riding Club, creating a Western score while avoiding the cliches associated with the genre, his childhood interest in film music, what it was like collaborating with director Staub, and what he’s working on next. 

F*** MAGAZINE: Hi, Kevin, thank you so much for speaking to us, please tell us about how you came to be involved in this film. 
 
KEVIN MATLEY: I came to work on the film because the director and I go way back, we’ve worked on a handful of projects together, [including] a short film that did fairly decent in the festival circuit. And he sent me the script and I loved the concept; I fell in love with the story. Ricky Staub is the director and he co-wrote it with Dan Walser, one of the producers of the film. 
 
How would you describe your working relationship with Ricky Staub and how different was it going from a short to a feature; as I understand, this is his first feature?
 
Yeah, it’s funny, it was actually just kind of like an extended version. I mean we really connected right off the bat, when we started working together. He has a very keen sense of what he likes and doesn’t like, and I have gotten to know over the years of working with him pretty quickly what he doesn’t like, which is really, really helpful. And so, my process is I would write these little vignettes and pieces and send it to him, and then we slowly kind of work back and forth until it was something that we both really liked. That was pretty much the whole trajectory of the score, [it] was just a lot of back and forth, a lot of conversation.

You’ve worked on several documentaries. What are the differences in composing for narrative features versus a documentary?
 
I’m not sure if I have too much of a difference in my approach. Obviously, each film has a different musical genre, a different sort of world or creating different tones and temperatures, but I think that my goal is always to enhance and express the sort of unspoken emotion of the characters and let their dialogue tell the viewer what they’re thinking, and I tell them what they’re feeling. And so, real or fake, fiction, nonfiction, comedy, action, drama I think my approach is always the same: how do I tell the story of the film through music?

Photo credit: Oguz Uygur

Growing up, what made you interested in becoming a film composer?
 
It’s funny, I got into it really before you could just Google and find out names of composers. I was pretty young, so I started arranging some music with my brother’s guitars when I was pretty young, and sort of fell in love with the idea of creating music that way. And then, I started to notice music in film around the same age. I would actually pay less attention to the narrative, and more attention to how the music was affecting the characters and how it was affecting me. And I just really love the idea of how music and narrative together could create something so powerful.
 
So you were already interacting with movies as a composer might.
 
Yeah, long before I knew how to write music [laughs].
 
One of the things that Concrete Cowboy is about is how it’s important as a young person to have a community around you; oftentimes a community made up of people who have similar hobbies and interests to you. Was that something that you had with other composers or musicians growing up?
 
That’s a really good question. Really nothing, I mean, composers are kind of a mixed bag of people. I have my little hobbies and interests and composers that I know are interested in many different things. I think for me personally, as a music writer and just kind of an obsessive personality, I have to have things that sort of distract me from that so I can step away. I really love playing golf, I love photography, I love American football. And so, I think all of us composers are kind of similar in that, where we have to have things that can take our mind off of making music, so I think that’s probably a good similarity between all of us. 

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Ivannah-Mercedes as Esha, Lorraine Toussaint as Nessi, Idris Elba as Harp, Caleb McLaughlin as Cole, Jamil “Mil” Prattis as Paris and Cliff “Method Man” Smith as Leroy. Cr: Jessica Kourkounis / Netflix © 2021

Concrete Cowboy is set in a very interesting subculture that not a lot of people know about. How did you sonically capture the world of the Fletcher Street Riding Club?  
 
Great question. I really wanted to have a score that not only spoke to the emotion of the characters and what they were feeling, but also one that created the same world that Ricky was creating aesthetically. Ricky’s style is very visceral and very surreal and also very gritty, and so I wanted music that matched that. I wanted kind of a lush ambient sound with organic human[ity], just raw emotion on top of it. And to me, I think that that is that world, there’s so much passion with those people and what they’re doing with helping kids to get off the streets. And it’s just an amazing, amazing culture. 

Photo credit: Jeff Marsh

When we think of a Western a particular sound and style of music comes to mind and Concrete Cowboy is not a conventional Western. How did you play with that expectation in the music that you composed for this film? 
 
Yeah, also a great question. We kind of went through a few different styles before we landed on what was actually working. What we didn’t want to have was a traditional Spaghetti Western sound – I kind of toyed with that a little bit and it ‘cheesifies’ things.  
 
You didn’t want it to get too pastiche.  
 
Yeah, we didn’t want it to be cliche or kind of kitschy so we ended up trying to focus more on these people as human beings, and just aesthetic and visuals, and create that world and not think about “What are we trying to force here with this being a cowboy world?”
 
I listened to the score and I love the melancholic dignity in the horns.

Oh, thank you!

You’re welcome. I feel like that reflects how the Fletcher Street Riders are like the last of their kind, there’s kind of a twilight, because their way of life is being threatened by gentrification. Could you tell us about how you arrived at that?

I love that you said that; that’s really, really cool. 
 
Thank you!
 
It’s funny, a lot of the [score is] kind of focused on solo instruments. I feel like there’s a vulnerability to that that I was really after. There’s just something about trumpet in particular that to me is just so soulful, it’s almost like a voice, and I really wanted something like that, that I could use throughout the film. 

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Idris Elba as Harp and Caleb McLaughlin as Cole Cr. Aaron Ricketts / NETFLIX © 2021

Concrete Cowboy is a film about a father-son relationship, and it’s also about the bonds that humans form with animals. How did you express these themes in the music?
 
I think I was focused mostly on the father-son relationship. I really wanted the melodies to have, like what you said, sort of a melancholy feel to them. Cole comes from essentially a broken family and I think that there’s a lot of vulnerability to him, he’s sort of drawn into these two worlds: a life of crime, and then this other life that is giving him hope. To me, I just wanted melodies and instrumentation that reflected that.
 
The movie had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2020. Was the music recorded under lockdown conditions and if so how did you navigate that logistically?
 
It was actually all recorded before lockdown. It’s funny, we, we recorded the score in January of 2020, in Seattle, Washington, and I did a handful of more sessions and at that point, we had been hearing what was going on in China, then when we went down to Burbank to finish the post, the news was starting to break out and I think a handful of cases broke out in Washington around that time. When I flew home, the film was completely wrapped and that’s when everything sort of broke out. 

Photo credit: Oguz Uygur

Have you been working on other film projects during lockdown?
 
I haven’t been working on film projects, but I’ve just been focusing on a lot of family time, and then writing some personal records. 
 
What kinds of films do you hope to work on in the future, are there any specific genres or styles that you’d like to work in?
 
Well I will tell you one that I am going to work on it’s, it’s a documentary [called Between the Rains] about these two Kenyan tribes that have been at war for the last couple of decades, and it follows a young boy from one of the tribes, basically being raised as a warrior, and he’s just not a warrior, and it deals with global warming and the water runs out and they’re fighting over that. And it’s just a really powerful documentary and it’s with a buddy of mine, [producer] Andrew [Harrison Brown] who’s just shot it, and he and I worked together on a previous documentary called Kifaru. And so I love telling these stories. I love Kenyans; I got to meet some of the guys from the last film and I got to work with some Kenyan singers on the score and it’s a blast. I love documentaries, it’s a wonderful genre. 
 
It strikes me as something where there is perhaps more of an emphasis on authenticity or audiences might be more aware if something rings false to them, and then there’s extra work to do in research, in trying to make sure that you are being authentic in the sound you’re creating. 
 
Mm hmm, yeah, absolutely. 

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Caleb McLaughlin as Cole and Jharrel Jerome as Smush. Cr. Aaron Ricketts / NETFLIX © 2021

Finally, what do you hope audiences take away after watching Concrete Cowboy? 
 
If anything, people can see that these people are real people. It’s not just in Philadelphia, it’s around the country, and they’re doing good, and because of gentrification and a lot of different reasons, some of these tables are getting shut down, and it’s really sad. So if anybody is moved to take action and support or raise awareness, then I think that would be awesome. 

Concrete Cowboy begins streaming on Netflix April 2.

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