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Composer Kevin Kiner Returns to a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Kevin Kiner is a multiple Emmy and Annie nominated composer best known for his work on Disney’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, in addition to his work composing series such as Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico, AMC’s Hell on Wheels, CW’s Jane the Virgin, CBS’s CSI:Miami, Cartoon Network’s Transformers Robots in Disguise and HBO Max’s Titans and Doom Patrol.

Kiner recently took home his first, well-deserved Annie Award for his work on the series finale of Clone Wars, “Victory and Death.” He will once again be returning to the Star Wars universe as he scores the upcoming Disney+ series, Star Wars: The Bad Batch. 

We spoke with Kiner about his musical influences, finding his voice in the Star Wars universe and continually learning his craft. 

Star Wars isn’t the first previously existing franchise that you’ve stepped into. When you’re first taking on a project like this, how do you find the balance between what the audience is expecting, in this case, the iconic music of John Williams, and what you want to bring to the table?

At the beginning of Clone Wars, George Lucas was kind of driving the creative process, along with Dave Filoni. It was an audition, and I got the gig out of the audition, but the one thing that George did not like in my audition piece was that I use the Star Wars theme. I used just a bit of the motif and part of it in a heroic moment. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t like the way I handled the theme. It was more that he just didn’t want to use john Williams’ queues and motifs that often. Now, there were times when he did want to use them, but he wanted to go in a new direction and move the soundtrack forward, like using world-influenced music. I still need to make it sound like Star Wars, but the definition of that has really changed. Look at what’s happening with Mandalorian. So, I think that we have freedom more and more to stretch things and to go in different directions because John Williams’ music has been explored quite a lot, and if anybody’s going to continue to explore it, it should be him.

Even though George Lucas wanted you to separate yourself from John Williams, as the show progressed, did you find yourself naturally finding your own footing as you became more familiar with characters? 

No, I felt early on that we established a really good footing, and I was really comfortable. I would say more than that, the music involved, either by my choice or by Dave Filoni or by George Lucas’s choice. We never really wanted to stand still. There’s a great heritage that George passed on to us of that he really does not like to do the same thing twice. 

You peppered in some electronic music into Clone Wars, and it still feels like it’s part of that universe. How do you decide at what point you want to include more electronic music or when you want to include more internationally influenced music? 

Ultimately, that decision comes from Dave Filoni. Now, once he gave us that direction, it was up to us to decide how it was implemented and how to make it sound like Star Wars even though it was electronic. Even at the very end of Episode Twelve, when we’re going through the graveyard of the clones, and then when we see Darth Vader, the music is still infused with this larger than life scope, which was something that was a hallmark of Star Wars music and of blockbuster films in general, from the Star Wars era. So that’s one of the things that I wanted to continue, and that’s why hopefully, it still feels like Star Wars, even though it’s electronic.

Did you get any initial feedback from the fans early on

I really stay away from social media. I’m super appreciative of the fans and, and many things do filter through to me. I was actually just made aware that my website was not forwarding a lot of fan mail, which I do answer. So, we’re trying to find a way to filter that so that I’m not inundated, and that we keep the negative stuff away from me (laughing). 

That’s a helpful process.

Yeah. There are so many variables these days. So, I’m very careful about it. But the answer is that I did hear that there was a lot of positive feedback from the fans, which I’ve heard from day one on Clone Wars. The Lucasfilm publicity department will tell me, “You are extremely beloved in the Star Wars universe,” which is amazing. I’m really glad because I love Star Wars, and my biggest goal was to be true to it and to do it justice.

What is your inspiration? What type of music sources are you pulling from? 

You know, as a musician, that’s a really complex question, because none of us really know what our influences were. I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Yes and some experimental rock groups, as well as The Who, and even the Eagles. My influences were in rock and roll. They weren’t in classical music. Then as I started scoring things, and when I heard John Williams’ scores, I made a point to educate myself and make up for my lack of classical education, as I continue to do to this day. I study Stravinsky and Peroutka. But getting back to what my influences and what I pull from, it’s hard for me to say because I don’t needle drop a record and then rip that off. It’s in my head somehow.

I sometimes use the analogy of growing up and learning the guitar solo on ‘Stairway to Heaven’. The goal is not to be able to play that solo note for note, unless I’m in a band and we’re doing Stairway to Heaven. The goal is to have those licks and those notes and that way of thinking under your fingers and then somehow it translates, but it becomes your own. In the same way, in listening to and studying John William, I’m sure there are times when I’m actually doing some of his licks, but hopefully, I’m doing it in my own way. 

I’m curious about your writing process. I know the guitar is your instrument of choice. Do you work things out on guitar as you write? 

No, I use guitar when I do guitar, like when I did Hell on Wheels or when I’m doing Narcos: Mexico. Then I’ll use a guitar. That’s the only time I use guitar though. There are a few guys, like Alan Silvestri, who is a fantastic jazz guitar player, that I believe composes primarily on guitar. And man, does he kick ass. I compose on a computer and on a keyboard. I used to do it on pencil and paper way back, thirty-some years ago. But once computers came in, it’s just become the way to do things.

Is there anything particular style that you’re naturally drawn to and is in your comfort zone?

I think less for me than other guys. I don’t know if chameleon puts me down a little bit, but I really enjoy stretching. I co-write with other guys, which really helps. Narcos: Mexico is co-written with Gustavo Santaolall. I’ve learned so much from him. Titans and Doom Patrol I co-wrote with Clint Mansell, who’s on the other end of the spectrum. I’m really proud that I’m able to stretch like that and pull it off authentically. I work super hard at that. I learned the Ronroco, which is a South American instrument. That’s Gustavo’s main instrument. I spent a lot of hours practicing that instrument and learning. Gustavo will say to me, “Oh, I wouldn’t slide like that. That’s sort of a jazz slide.” These are just little subtle things that help you be more authentic. So, I’m really proud of the fact that I love everything. 

After six or seven years on a series, do you find it easier to jump into a season once you’ve established what you want to do with the show?

That is a great question. I used to be a legendarily terrible procrastinator, and at times, writing music was really, really hard for me. A friend of mine once said that it’s like banging your head against the wall just so it feels good when you stop. That could describe some of my writing experiences early on in my career. I don’t know when the switch flipped, but I’m totally comfortable with it now. I don’t know when it happened, but I don’t procrastinate anymore. I love composing and find that my ideas come quickly and easily. I tell people that if you put a monkey in front of speakers with a piano for thirty-five years, they’d learn how to write music.

You worked on Rebels between season six and seven of Clone Wars, correct? 

That’s right.

Did coming out of Rebels influence how you approached season seven of Clone Wars?

I think if you take my journey from the first episodes of Clone Wars when George Lucas was heavily involved going up to seasons four, five or six, you can see that I change musically. From beginning to end, it seems like a great big jump. But if you go through the evolution, it just kept getting pushed forward. Like I said, George Lucas always liked to try different things. Dave Filoni is that way as well, and I’m that way too, I don’t want to write 100 and some minutes of music that’s the same. It was all of our goal to move things forward and be interesting and find new things. You make mistakes along the way. The more you experiment and the more risks you take, the worse stuff you end up doing. You’re trying something that nobody’s ever done before and there’s probably a reason nobody did because kazoos are not the right choice, or whatever the case is.

Now, Ahsoka made her live-action debut on The Mandalorian, as did her theme. Did you know that Ludwig [Göransson] was going to be incorporating your theme into the series?

I think I heard a rumbling about it. I knew she was going to appear in The Mandalorian. I have never met Ludwig, but I have tremendous respect for him. It was a great experience hearing what he did with it because he completely respected it and did it absolute justice, which was really a great compliment and also really satisfying. I’m not saying I’m John Williams to Ludwig, but I was in the position of having written something that is a big part of Star Wars canon, and now this Academy Award-winning composer is using my theme and doing a really cool job of it. So that’s great.

Can you talk a little about the music for The Bad Batch? Are you going in any different directions with it? 

Well, we’ve treated the music a bit more like live-action; more so than Clone Wars and Rebels at least. I also play an instrument called a GuitarViol which is like a cello, but I play it more soloistic in a cue. I don’t play it all throughout the series. There are just a couple of cues. I have an ethereal, electronic sound, and a vocalist, and then I have the GuitarViol, which is kind of bare and exposed. What I like about it is that it kind of sounds like a bad cello, in away. It’s smaller and not as rich as a cello, but there’s a raw edginess that I really like. So that’s one of the more unique cues from Bad Batch. I’m just continuing to try to find new things. When I find something new like that, it’s really part of me. I do compose on that instrument. That’s an example of my composing on a guitar. But that’s something that I bring that I think is rather unique. Star Wars: The Bad Batch premieres on Disney+ on May 4, 2021.

Jeff Heller

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Written by Jeff Heller

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