• 'Do a lot of it' Emmy-nominated Star Wars Rebels composer Kevin Kiner shares his scoring process

    Kevin Kiner is a Primetime Emmy-nominated composer who boasts a string of hit TV show credits including Titans, Narcos: Mexico, Making a Murderer, Jane the Virgin and Star Wars Rebels. Here he tells Mandy News about how he got into composing, about his scoring process and what composers can do to get noticed.

    22nd Nov 2018By James Collins

    Kevin, tell us how you got into making music, and how that took you into working for film and TV.
    I’ve been doing this for about 35 years - at least for television. I started playing in garage bands when I was a kid and playing at church. I’m a guitarist and my early influences were bands like Led Zeppelin,Yes, ELO and some of the progressive rock bands. I loved The Who.

    Anyhow, I was going to be a doctor. I went to UCLA as a pre-med and did some side-gigs to make some extra money. I got a job as a musical director for an act that was like The Supremes; three girls who were really good singers and dancers. We went on the road, so I dropped out of school in my senior year, and after that I sort of learned all my music on the road, doing arrangements for big bands, some string sections.

    I got married and got pretty lucky – a friend of mine knew a TV show that needed a theme. They didn’t have much money and were going to use a musical library, so we just walked in and handed them a cassette tape. We’d gone to a little studio and written what we thought they’d like for a theme. They said, “OK, our budget’s really low,” and we were fine with that. That show had quite a few producers who went on to get their own shows, so within a year I was doing four TV shows. It was crazy!

    I’ve never had a show like that where four different producers hired me from the same show. I’ve done thousands and thousands. I’ve lost count of how many – maybe 5000 episodes of television. That was ten years ago.

    I’ve done features as well. I did Leprechaun, Wing Commander. I did a lot of movies which never really did as well as we’d hoped. Then I did CSI Miami for 10 years. That was a good show to get on. It was number one in the world for a very long time. Then George Lucas chose me to do Star Wars: The Clone Wars and I’ve been working for Lucasfilm ever since. I did Star Wars Rebels and I’m about to start on the new version of The Clone Wars, which will come out in about a year, I think.

    I’m sort of a chameleon. From CSI Miami which is extremely electronica-based, to Star Wars Rebels which is extremely orchestral, through to Narcos, where I play a lot of solo guitar. I play almost everything on that show – the percussion as well.

    That’s three styles right there – I don’t think you can find a lot of composers who have made names for themselves in all three: super-acoustic, super-electronica and super-John Williams orchestral.

    How did Narcos come about?
    I teamed up on that show with Academy award-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla. They always wanted to use Gustavo but he wasn’t available. I think he’s working on the next Iñárritu movie. He’s a pretty busy cat so he doesn’t have time to score entire episodes. I’ve worked with him on numerous projects before – I did Hell on Wheels with him and Jane the Virgin.

    He sets the tone by giving us a big batch of music at the very beginning and that becomes the template for the way the series is going to go. I also come up with a bunch of stuff as well, but it’s all in Gustavo’s style, which has now become my style as well because I’ve worked with him for so long! He plays everything himself, as I do. It stems from his vision and his way of doing things.

    What’s the process of working on an episode?
    At the very beginning, Gustavo gives them a bunch of tracks based on some scripts and maybe some visuals that they’ve got. I’ll throw a bunch in as well. So, parts of the episodes will have our music in when we go to decide what music goes in. Some of that music stays, some of it doesn’t quite work because it needs to change with the action. Some of it is only placeholder music.

    I would say that about 30% of the music we did upfront stays in an episode initially and 70% is new music based on what we did, or going somewhere else.

    Is the composition approach for an episode always the same, or does it differ depending on whether you’re using orchestral, electronica or acoustic?
    Well, the approach is only the same dramatically and psychologically in terms of what’s going on in my head. I very seldom write music unless I’m motivated by some kind of dramatic visual or scenario. I really like writing to picture. So, in that sense they’re all the same because I’m hearing something and then I get going.

    It’s quite different writing Star Wars to writing Narcos, because the latter is so acoustic-based and has stringed instruments – we use guitars, the Middle-Eastern oud, the tambour, a mandolin, mandolas or mandocellos. I’ve got about a hundred different instruments and they’re all very odd! So when I started to write for Narcos, I might have a sound I’m hearing in my head, but also I’ll pick up an instrument and start playing it.

    We also have a lot of tough American instruments: Ronroco and charango, the vihuela, which is a Mexican instrument, a thing called the bajo sexto, which is from South America, the guitarron. So, I’ll pick up one of those and just start playing a riff, or a groove that I’ve heard in my head. Or maybe my fingers come up with it. It’s a combination of both.

    Many times we’ll stay with just a solo instrument, but other times, if we have a pretty high-octane cue, then I’ll add percussion to that and multiple instruments: higher mandolins, lower bajo sexto, ronroco and those kind of things to flesh it out. I just keep layering and layering in my Digital Audio Workstation.

    Is your studio based at home or do you have somewhere else that you like to work?
    Yes, I have a full-on studio at home. It’s bespoke, built from the ground up. I have a great English studio builder called Tim Wilson. I have a big 96-input console and a full pro-HDX system. I’ve got about 12 computers that are all doing different things. I have a live room I can fit about 25 people in.

    It’s all purpose-built. It’s not just out of my laptop.

    It must be amazing to have such a space to work in when so many composers work out of the box.
    Yes, there is a place for working out of the box. CSI Miami was out of the box. I have analog synthesisers that were built for that kind of thing. A lot of things are too much in the computer these days, I think.

    Even when I’m doing an electronica cue, it’s great to have a vintage synthesiser to go to because it’s just different to the stuff in the computer.

    Amazing! Now that you’ve finished Narcos, what are you working on that you can tell us about?
    I’ve just finished a show called Titans, which is a DC Comics show. It’s really, really good…

    It’ll be different to the other DC stuff that you’ve seen like The Flash or Gotham. It’s a really edgy, electronic score.

    Do you have any specific pieces of advice for anyone who wants to cross over in their musical career to compose for film and TV?
    That’s a really tough one. My sons are working with me quite a lot, now. My youngest son went to Berkeley College of music in Boston. My eldest son’s been a monster piano player since he was six years old. It’s very odd. I never dreamed that my career would be something like owning a bakery, that I could pass on to my children. That doesn’t happen very often with composers. They’re really good.

    We wrote some cues for Ghost in the Shell, the Scarlett Johansson movie. There was an action scene that I really wanted to work on and my oldest son also wanted to do it. So I said we’ll both do one and send them to the studio and they can pick what they want. They wound up picking his! That’s really cool because it’s not just me being a proud dad – that’s totally independent, blindfolded validation. They’ve got the goods.

    The reason I bring them up is that I barely know what advice to give them! They’re out on their own doing web series and Kiner Brothers Music, so I hope you guys check that out on Spotify!

    As far as other people getting started, I went to film school and tried to find guys with student films and scored some of their stuff, for free. I think that’s a good way to get in: just go to a film school or programme near you, check out some of the works in progress, then approach the directors and see if you connect with them.

    The biggest piece of advice I have is to really do a lot of it. I’m so much better than I was 35 years ago. One of my most self-deprecating comments is, “if you put a monkey in front of a set of speakers for 35 years, they’ll end up making pretty good music!” But it’s kind of true.

    If you really want to do it, get a computer, learn how to use your sounds. Hang out with anyone remotely related to film or live drama. Get yourself out there with creative people and practise a lot. Even if you don’t have a project, take a scene from Narcos, turn off my music and do it yourself! You could put that on your own demo tape - “Here’s what I would have done for Narcos…” I did that very early in my career.

    Listen to whoever ‘s out there doing really cool stuff like Alexander Desplat or Harry Gregson-Williams. These are the guys I think are at the forefront of our industry. They’re doing really great work. Delve into what they’re doing. Maybe imitate a little bit!

    When I started to learn guitar, I would do the Jimmy Page electric guitar solo from Stairway to Heaven, note for note. I think I can still play it! It’s not so much your ability to play that solo, it’s that it kind of gets in to your fingers and into your head and becomes part of your vocabulary. If you imitate a John Powell or a Harry Gregson-Williams cue, or Tom Newman or whoever, if you just riff off them, you get an insight into what their process is and what’s happening now in film music. That’s another way to do it.

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