Recently, I had the privilege to speak with Kevin Kiner about his life and Star Wars. My hope is that this interview will help you grow a deeper appreciation for him and the tremendous work he has done at Lucasfilm. His devotion to the Star Wars franchise is unparalleled. He has a deep love for the franchise and its fans.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Joseph Forbush: I saw a brief highlight of your instrument collection in an interview back in 2014 with StarWars.com. What’s your favorite instrument and how did it inspire you to add your own style to Star Wars?
Kevin Kiner: That was a while ago and I’ve added another 40 or something, guitars. I know it’s over 100 now. I mean, I’m a guitarist. I don’t always compose Star Wars on guitar, though. I actually usually compose Star Wars using a keyboard or even with paper and pencil because it’s an orchestral score. I don’t know if the guitar is that applicable. Except in the few cues where I do use guitar, which aren’t that many. I mean, they go back to the 2008 movie. There were a couple of cues scaling the cliff. And I’ve done those in concert, too, where I play the guitar, which is a lot of fun. But yeah, mostly I compose Star Wars using a keyboard or pencil and paper.
Joseph Forbush: How was it stepping into the realm of Star Wars, along with the likes of John Williams? Did you collaborate with him?
Kevin Kiner: No, it was an audition process in getting the gig. I worked with George Lucas and Dave Filoni. And one of the things that George Lucas wanted me to do was not use a lot of John Williams’ themes, so I never even talked to John about Star Wars. I’ve met him a couple of times. But it’s just not something I ever brought up. I definitely revere him. And I studied him for years and years and years. And that was always the kind of composer I wanted to be. I also studied a lot of his influences, like Stravinsky and Korngold, classical composers, because that’s in a way, John’s roots. I had a bit of roots in jazz as well as John. There’s actually a fairly rare piano album where he plays jazz tunes from a very long time ago in the 60s, I think, when he was a piano player. I have a bit of a background in that too. In jazz, it’s a great learning environment in terms of learning some of the rules and also learning how to break some of the rules of music. But I have to make it my own. The palette and some of the classicism that John brought to Star Wars will always be part of the Star Wars sound. And then that’s a jumping off point for me. And then, trying to bring new ideas. I’ve done over one hundred hours of Star Wars music. So, it’s good not to make it stale. In order to do that, you have to really kind of stretch and go different directions.
Joseph Forbush: Tell me your story. How did you get into composing and how did all that musical history prepare you to take on The Clone Wars?
Kevin Kiner: I got into composing when I was playing guitar for a show group that was kind of like the Supremes. We were doing Las Vegas style shows. And then our music director and conductor got another gig and their manager asked me if I could conduct. And I told them I could. Which was not true, actually. But I went out on the road with them and I learned how to conduct. They had a lot of arrangements that were done by some really good guys like Nelson Riddle and Don Costa and some of the really great arrangers. When I was out on the road, I would study those arrangements and then it became my job to do new arrangements. So that was my first foray into composing. With arranging, let’s say there’s no string part. We go to Tokyo and would have to have a string section. I’d have to come up with the string part for our show. If there is no string part, then you have to write something. That’s the way of starting composing. Technically, it’s arranging, but you’re writing new material that goes along with the song. That’s where I first started arranging. Then I got married and I got off the road and stayed in Los Angeles and got a TV show just because we found out they were looking for something cheap. A friend of mine and myself went into a recording studio and without anybody asking us to, we wrote a theme for this TV show and they took it. It was a blooper show and it was around 1983-84. And from then, I started writing for those TV shows and then a bunch of producers from that show got their own gig. In fact, one of them went and got that show that I did a long time ago called Superboy, which was produced by the guys who did the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. That was my first taste of needing to write in John Williams style. However, I really had to do some homework quickly.
Joseph Forbush: You mentioned Dave Filoni earlier on. Did you have a working relationship with Dave Filoni?
Kevin Kiner: Yes, from the very beginning. Dave and I get along really well. I think our musical tastes are very similar, especially as it pertains to Star Wars. We both have a sense of how far away from the John Williams sound that we can push it, and then when we need to bring it back. I work with Dave on every single show and he gives me really good direction. Dave’s father took him to opera all the time when he was growing up. Dave has a really good way of expressing himself in terms of music and is very literate when it comes to classical music and just music in general. It’s a great relationship I have with him.
Joseph Forbush: What was it like to work with Dave Filoni? Was the creative process between Rebels and The Clone Wars different or the same?
Kevin Kiner: There was a completely different strategy for Rebels. Rebels was kind of a reboot, whereas in Clone Wars George Lucas had a lot of say and a lot of direction early on about where the music should be. He really wanted world music to be a big part of Clone Wars, and he didn’t want to use too many of John’s themes too often. It was ok to use the themes; he just didn’t want to overuse them. Mostly, he wanted to push the direction somewhere else. We did that for six seasons. Then Rebels started up and I was really fortunate to be hired for that show. Dave really wanted to do a reboot. Initially, the model for Rebels was “Let’s go back and watch A New Hope and see what the music was like then.” It’s really surprising that there wasn’t nearly as much music as you think there was in A New Hope. Even the Imperial March didn’t exist. So, strategically, during Rebels we would not play music for some scenes and let sound effects carry it. The first part of the Rebels has a very similar fight in the Millennium Falcon from A New Hope, and we really wanted to bring that kind of sound back to the animated shows. All in all, it was a strategic change from Clone Wars.
Joseph Forbush: Were there any episodes that were more difficult to compose?
Kevin Kiner: What sort of became difficult with Clone Wars was finding a different ethnicity. After you do a hundred episodes or so, you run out of ethnicity for each planet. Also, the big emotional scenes like when Ahsoka leaves were a little difficult. Star Wars music in general is really difficult to write. In the end, I wouldn’t say there was a time that was more difficult. There are some moments that are really important. In fact, one character that was one of Filoni’s favorites in Clone Wars was Plo Koon. Dave used to get dressed up and go to the midnight showings of Star Wars as Plo Koon, who was a Jedi master that was extremely obscure. There were a couple of episodes where Plo Koon had a really big part in Clone Wars. Coming up with his theme was difficult for me because I knew how important that character was to Dave, so I really wanted to be true to it. We actually had a Russian choir happening with Plo Koon’s theme.
Joseph Forbush: How do you know when you’ve hit the “sweet spot” when you’re composing music for a specific character or scene?
Kevin Kiner: I’m a baseball fan. I often use sports analogies. For example, if you go up to bat and you try to hit a homerun really hard, you probably won’t. You can’t squeeze the bat too hard, you got to relax, give it a good swing, and be free with it. It’s the same with composing music. I can’t get too uptight and stress out about how important this is, even though it is really important. When I overthink it, it turns out bad, so I throw it away. Sometimes, it’s better if I have a really terrible deadline and I have to do an all-nighter. I think stream of consciousness works so much better because it just frees you.
Joseph Forbush: As mentioned previously, you got your inspiration from A New Hope when composing some of Rebels. Did you use any specific themes from the Skywalker saga to inspire your work on The Clone Wars?
Kevin Kiner: When something really magical was happening, you would always go to the Force theme. We would still use the Imperial March every once in a while, as well as Anakin and Padmé’s theme. I wrote a few themes that I was really happy with like Ahsoka’s, Satine’s love theme with Obi-Wan, and the clone’s theme which are probably three of my favorites. Also, one of my favorite themes I came up with was transitioning from John Williams’ Star Wars theme at the very beginning of Clone Wars, and then into what I call it, “A Galaxy Divided.” And that’s what became the Clone Wars theme. I really like that. Another one I really like is Admiral Yularen from the movie, which is on the 2008 soundtrack.
Joseph Forbush: Who’s your favorite Clone Wars character?
Kevin Kiner: It’s got to be Ahsoka.
Joseph Forbush: Yeah, that’s a fan favorite. For me, mine is probably Anakin. Anakin’s character is beautifully portrayed. Clone Wars hits the spot in terms of musically orchestrating Anakin’s fall to the dark side.
Joseph Forbush: Did you ever think about changing the opening theme for the new season of Clone Wars?
Kevin Kiner: We definitely thought about changing it. I don’t even know if I took a stab at it, but it was decided early on that it was pretty iconic. We hadn’t touched Clone Wars for five or six years, so we got back into it and explored musically where it had gone with the producers and Dave Filoni. In the end, everyone decided early on that the theme should stay the same.
Joseph Forbush: Can you give us more insight into the creative process with Dave Filoni?
Kevin Kiner: The way it works is they get the show pretty well completed, not totally though. I get a pretty close rough edit of the show. There may be some scenes missing, characters that aren’t animated yet completely, or some textures not fully developed. But mostly, all the voices are there and everything. So, I watch the show, then Dave and I and some of the producers have what’s called a “spotting session.” And that’s literally where you find where the music goes. The term spotting session comes from an old film method where the music editor would punch a hole and there would be an actual spot where the music was starting, an actual dot. I’m not positive if that’s correct, but I’m pretty sure. But for us nowadays, it just means you sit down, and you find the places where the music’s going to go in and where it’s going to go out. And then also how it’s going to change during the course of that piece of music. Very often there is what we call “temp music,” which is temporary, and it can be pulled from Star Wars music, old Clone Wars episodes, or from other movies like Blade Runner. In the end, it is wherever they find a piece where music should go. We’ll sit down and we’ll listen to that temp music and say, “Is this doing the right thing or not?” It gives us a really good way of talking about music. There’s a famous quote that says, “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” The temp music gives you a really good anchor and a starting off point. We’ll ask questions like, “What do we like about it? Do we like the tempo, the feeling, the chords, and the harmonies? Do we like the trombones and the French horns or the violins? What are the elements that we like about the temp music?” And then more importantly, what Dave always focuses on is what the characters are feeling and what’s happening story wise–what the music should be saying, how it should be improving or enhancing the picture. And then, that’s my job to go and accomplish that.
Joseph Forbush: How has composing Star Wars music revolutionized the way you compose music in general?
Kevin Kiner: Well, I mean, I think it’s given me a great leg up. Even John Williams has talked about how hard it is to write. And the reason it’s hard is really complex. It has a classicism to it. Its roots are in Stravinsky, Mozart, and all of these great composers that came before. So, that’s really difficult. Learning how to do it and doing it well is really hard. Let me use a sports analogy again. You know, it’s like having LeBron James or Kobe Bryant making a three-point shot, which is really hard to do, especially when there’s a seven-foot guy trying to block them. After a while, when you work on something that’s difficult, you get pretty darn good at it. And I think that’s what’s happened with me. It’s improved me as a composer immensely, having to do this every day. Maybe tempered by fire is a better analogy.
Joseph Forbush: Are you planning on working on any future Star Wars projects?
Kevin Kiner: I have no idea. Sorry about that.
Joseph Forbush: No problem. I was expecting that response. I know you can’t say anything, even if you were working on a Star Wars project. There’s been tons of rumors that there’s a Rebels sequel. In any case, we hope that you’ll stay with the Star Wars franchise as long as we can have you. You’re one of the best Star Wars composers.
Kevin Kiner: Thank you. That’s high praise. And I believe I will be working for Lucasfilm and Star Wars for a really long time. It’s my hope that I will.
Joseph Forbush: Thank you so much for talking with us about your life and Star Wars.
Kevin Kiner: Nice speaking with you.
I’d like to conclude by thanking Kevin Kiner and the entire team at Lucasfilm for their dedication to the Star Wars franchise. Thank you, and may the Force be with them!
If you have any questions regarding this interview, feel free to send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.