Kevin Kiner Interview: Peacemaker | Screen Rant

Kevin Kiner Interview: Peacemaker | Screen Rant

Peacemaker is on track to become one of the DCEU’s biggest successes to date. Helmed by The Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn and featuring John Cena at his best, the show delivers sympathetic looks into its characters, exciting action, and perfectly-executed music. James Gunn is of course well-known for heavily featuring songs in his work – a trend that continues in Peacemaker as early as its opening credits.

The show is also full of music written by veteran composers Kevin Kiner and Clint Mansell. Kiner is well-known to fans of the Star Wars animated shows, as he’s behind the scores for Star Wars: The Clone WarsStar Wars: Rebels, and Star Wars: The Bad BatchHere, Kiner talks discusses working with Gunn and Mansell, playing guitar, and collaborating with his sons Dean and Sean.


Related: Peacemaker Proves Why The Suicide Squad’s Spin-Off Show Plan Is Perfect

Screen Rant: So you’ve done Titans, Doom Patrol, and now Peacemaker, all in collaboration with Clint Mansell. How did you two meet, and what keeps you working together now that you’re three shows in?

Kevin Kiner: So Clint and I met at an awards dinner for BMI, which is our royalty society. We were both receiving an award that evening, and we just sat at the same table, and sort of hit it off, I think. Clint’s a really fun guy, and he’s also – you know, Clint is so out of the box, which is something that I cultivate and I love. You know, non-cookie-cutter people and composers. His personality is very non-cookie-cutter too, and he’s just a lot of fun. So, on a personal level, we got along really well. Then Clint had started getting some projects that he was working on – Noah, or whatever – there was another film that we worked on first, a long time ago. Well, before TitansI was able to take some of the overflow and help him out, and then when Titans came along, it became a true collaboration. Clint’s really really good with esoteric synthesizers and electronic music and had a vision for Titans that was less what had been happening with a lot of the superhero shows. Leaning into the ’80s and ’70s synths, and the orchestra is still there in Titans, but then even in Doom Patrol, we took it further and really really got crazy electronic, and continued to. And that really suits that show in my opinion because it’s just such an unusual show. I mean, something that’s based on donkey flatulence is probably going to need some kind of an unusual score. So anyhow, we’ve worked together more, and then on Peacemaker, I believe Clint knew Peter Safran, who’s the executive producer, and worked with him. And I know that James also had wanted to work with Clint too, and knew of Clint’s work. And I think he also knew my stuff, so it just worked out really good.

That’s great. And do you feel like, for those shows, you’re supplying more of the orchestral stuff, or organic – I mean, I see all the guitars behind you. Do you think there’s something that… not that he doesn’t have, but something that you specifically bring to the partnership?

Kevin Kiner: Not so much, really. Clint is really a “broad strokes” kind of person, and I know I have more of an orchestral background, although I don’t have any formal musical education. Now I’m doing, you know, John Williams classicism in the Star Wars franchise. But, I mean, I’ll lean into the electronic stuff just as hard as Clint does. So it’s kind of on a cue-by-cue basis. I’ll tell you what Clint’s really big on, and it’s really cool, is the emotions. James Gunn’s really big on that too, and when he talks about Peacemaker, he doesn’t talk about the jokes, or the action, or all that. He talks about the emotional journey that Chris Smith is on, who he is as a person, and all of his struggles with his father and his upbringing. And you start to see this – I mean, it’s super heavy, and who he is is really heavy. As the show continues to develop, he’s got relationships with the team, with Adebayo, with Harcourt, with Economos… there are personal relationships there that are opening up his emotional journey. And James would talk about that forever, and Clint really got into that, especially using guitar as the emotional instrument. That kind of evolved from the late ’80s, early ’90s hair metal influences that the soundtrack has. So, rather than using a piano, a cello, or whatever might typically be used, Clint was really big on using electric guitar, 12-string guitar… really leaning into being super melodic, the way bands were back in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Unapologetically accessible, ballad-y melodies.

Right. And the guitar does feel like the hallmark of the show, especially even with the songs that James Gunn is placing in it. But, are there other parts of the score that you’re really proud of, or that you think deserve more credit as well?

Kevin Kiner: No, you know, for me, I grew up playing Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. I grew up fairly poor, and I couldn’t buy a lot of records, but the ones I had… I had Led Zeppelin one, two, and three. And then, Sabbath Paranoid, probably wore that one out – wore the grooves out on that. And then also, playing solos, I was kind of into the Allman Brothers for a bit… Yes, the real technical kind of semi-classical rock fusion kind of thing… So I would say what I’m most proud of with the Peacemaker score is that it’s a hybrid score and it has the orchestra in it sometimes – they gave us a live orchestra for a lot of the soundtrack, you’ll have that when it comes out. But it’s still, in its roots, it’s all about rocking. So even though you have the orchestra there, the real foundation is a good groove. You know, philosophically, I feel guys like Hans Zimmer and Brian Tyler, when they do the *imitates rhythmic chord chugging*, when they do that with strings, it’s really a guitar lick that they’re just having the cellos, and the violas and the violins play. And so sometimes in Peacemaker, it’ll start out as a guitar lick… it’ll be just like *imitates guitar lick*, something that I do on guitar, and it’ll evolve into a string ostinato. I have so much fun, my head is banging, I’m just dancing around my studio when I do the show – I swear to goodness. So if you talk about what I’m proud of, I hope everybody else can just dance to some of the grooves that we came up with.

I think you were very successful in that. So where did you start learning composition, conducting, arranging, and all that?

Kevin Kiner: Oh man, we’d need about a three-hour interview for that one. So I started as a guitarist, and got pretty decent in my hometown, and my mother told me – she supported me, and would have bands over and everything over at our house, and have rehearsal in our garage, but you know, once I went to college I had to be a doctor or a lawyer. So I chose doctor, and then I started burning out my junior year and I started gigging around LA. And I saw that actually, I could play with some of the guys in LA. Coming from a small town, you don’t know that you can do that. And then I kind of got a job conducting for a group and then doing arrangements for them. And when you start doing arrangements, say if you’re doing trumpet parts or even violin parts – because we would do Tokyo and then we would have a whole orchestra that would back this group that I was music director for – when you start writing those, that’s kind of composing, because there’s not really a trumpet part for whatever song we were doing. So, you have to make that up as an arranger, and I think that naturally flowed into composing. But I have no formal music education. I continue to study scores – Stravinksy’s Petrushka is sitting on the floor, and I was studying that a few days ago. So, I try to overcompensate for my lack of musical education by continuing to study guys that I’m not familiar with.

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And you’ve been working with your sons Dean and Sean for years now, right? So, how is it to work so closely with family, and at what age did you start involving them?

Kevin Kiner: Well Sean was – after he graduated, he was going to be a screenwriter. He went to Pepperdine, and he graduated, and he kind of wallowed in that for a while. Then, I was doing a Clone Wars episode, and he walked into my studio and he started chuckling. I’m like “What are you laughing about?” and he’s like – do you know what a temp track is? They’ll put temporary music on a rough cut that they give me. So on this one Clone Wars, he goes “Oh, that’s from Indiana Jones,” and he told me the scene, and what Indiana Jones movie it was from, and I’m like “Wow, you really know this stuff.” So I had him start helping me temp, taking my old cues from Clone Wars and putting them into new episodes. So, he was kind of doing music editing, but in a way, composing.

Did he play instruments as well?

Kevin Kiner: Yeah, Sean possibly could have been one of those savant touring 11-year-old pianists. By the time he was ten years old, he was monstrously fast. He would practice every morning, and it was just a blur. Basically, he was trying to get the lesson over with, but he was a very good piano player. Dean was a guitarist and bari sax player, and both of them were in the high school band, and Dean went to Berklee College of Music. But Sean then became an alto sax player, and did solos in the jazz band and stuff like that, and learned from a really good sax teacher how to improvise jazz. So I never really encouraged them to become musicians, but they naturally were pretty good at it, and now what happens is there will be cues – there was a thing we did for a movie called Ghost in the Shell, and that was with Clint.  So, we worked on an action cue, and all of us wanted to work on this big action cue, I did, and so Sean really wanted to do it, so I said “We’ll both turn in our version, we’ll see what the studio takes.” And the studio winds up using his cue, not mine. And, I mean, that happens over and over and over. We write together sometimes, and we have our studio in the same place and I’ll walk by his desk, or Dean’s, or whatever, and I’ll add something, or I’ll have suggestions. I was just watching episode 4 of Peacemaker, and there was a guitar emotional cue that I did, and then Dean had walked into my studio, and he sort of heard another guitar part, and actually, the coolest lick in the whole cue is the thing that Dean came up with. It’s really amazing to me, and it’s very gratifying. It’s also gratifying that producers and studios and network executives will comment specifically on something that my sons came up with, and I know I’m not just being a proud dad or something like that.

Sure. And in terms of working with James Gunn… you’ve obviously worked with a ton of directors and showrunners over the years. Did something stand out to you about working with him specifically?

Kevin Kiner: Yeah. I mean, when somebody is really good… I’ve been doing this for thirty-nine years, and I can probably count on maybe two hands, I might need a toe or two, like the really really talented people I’ve ever worked with. I’ve done thousands and thousands of episodes of televisions, and fifty movies, or forty, or something like that, and you just know when somebody’s got it. He is concise in his communication of what he wants, he’s got a really good team and he trusts them. Fred Raskin is his main editor, and Fred is really good with the temp track, and you know, that’s kind of – the temp track is a way to communicate, whether it’s good or bad. And sometimes we will talk and say “Hey, the temp is really not working here,” and Fred will say something like “Yeah, I couldn’t find anything, we just put this in because it’s a placeholder, but maybe the tempo is right.” The temp track gives you an opportunity to talk about music in a concrete way. There’s this saying that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s very difficult. You can say “I want something dark,” but what the hell does that mean? Does that mean like Stravinsky dark? Does that mean Ozzy Osbourne dark? What does “dark” mean? So, the temp track gives you a really good jumping-off point, whether it’s good or bad. And James is spot-on, he knows what he hears, knows what he likes, and is really good about talking about that. Also, after we’ve done our first pass, his notes come back and there’s no vagueness in them, there’s no sugarcoating, it’s just “I like that, I really don’t like this, the reason I don’t like this is because of this and this. The reason I do like this is because – ” and that’s really important because when you find out why he likes something, you can do it more often. And so it just becomes a great collaboration, and then he trusts you to do go out and do what he likes. Once he’s told you a couple times, you should get that s***. You should figure that out and do it. And I think we accomplished that, so it was really really enjoyable. One of the smoothest experiences I’ve ever had. I wish I could just do that every day.

John Murphy scored The Suicide Squad film. Did his score for that film influence what you did on the show as well?

Kevin Kiner: I think what more had the influence on what we did was the influence of the late ’80s, early ’90s hair metal kind of thing. So, the rock influence was there, and I think that was there in John’s score to Suicide Squad as well. John Murphy is one of my favorite composers in film music right now. I think Harry Gregson-Williams, John Powell, John Murphy… those are really some of the great composers out there right now, and I have tremendous respect for them. What John did on 28 Days Later is insane, that’s a really really great score. I haven’t met John, we have a mutual friend but we’ve never actually spoken to each other. I would love to know – because I believe he uses guitar as an emotional component as well – and I don’t know if we independently came upon that, or what. It’s sort of like with Clone Wars, I know Ludwig used bass recorder, and I’d done that on “Ahsoka Leaves” five years before that on my Clone Wars… and I played the bass recorder myself on it. So, I don’t know where Ludwig – I’ve got to ask him if he got the idea from me or if he came upon it independently. Sometimes things just naturally flow that way, and they work. With Suicide Squad and Peacemaker, it’s going to be a rock score and it’s going to have – there are certain things that just naturally follow, I think.

Kevin Kiner peacemaker composer playing guitar

Sure, that makes sense. So, actually, mentioning Ludwig… You’ve worked on a lot of shows like Clone Wars or Peacemaker where the characters, themes, and tones have kind of already been established. Is it ever a challenge for you to jump in and add your own touch without being too precious about what came before? 

Kevin Kiner: You know, in almost all of these instances… like in Clone Wars, George Lucas really didn’t want us to use many of John’s themes that often. And when they were used, they were used in very important moments, so when you hear the Force theme come in, it’s like “Whoah, there’s something going on here.” So, I was given a lot of freedom in that sense. And then with Peacemaker, there was nothing that was taken from the Suicide Squad films in terms of thematically at all. Yeah, so, throughout my career, even in Titans or whatever, these are all new themes. I’m a composer, and Clint’s a composer, and we have our own ideas, and I’m pretty sure that’s what James was wanting out of us, was what’s our take? Given the parameters that the source music is this kind of hair metal thing, also the parameters that it is a film score, and we’re going to use an orchestra, and we’re going to be hybrid, so how are we going to accomplish that? And we went about that in the way, whatever came into our head, that’s what we did.

And, I don’t think we know anything about Peacemaker season 2 or anything yet, but is there anything – what are you working on now? What’s up next for you? I’m sure you’re very busy.

Kevin Kiner: So I’m currently working on an ABC show called Promised Land, which is about Mexican immigrants who become wealthy vintners in Sonoma, and they own a vineyard. I’m co-composing that with Gustavo Santaololla as I did the Narcos: Mexico score. It’s very different from Narcos: Mexico. Actually, that show comes out tonight (Monday, January 24) on ABC. I’m also working on a show for AMC called Dark Winds, and it’s after a series of novels about a Navajo detective. It’s called the Leaphorn/Chee series of novels. George R.R. Martin is involved. And, I’ve got a documentary coming out about murders in England, similar – not similar, but I did Making A Murderer which was a big thing a couple of years ago. Titans and Doom Patrol are about to start up again, and I have a video game that I can’t really announce yet, but it’s pretty cool, and I have another animated project that I can’t talk about, but it’s really cool. And I continue to do Star Wars: The Bad Batch, and maybe something else in Star Wars animated land that I can’t talk about.

So lots of free time.

Kevin Kiner: Yeah. My fingers are smoking right now, you know what I mean?

In a world where you do have free time, is there anything else musically that you’d want to explore at some point? Or do you get to flex all of your muscles with what you’re doing now?

Kevin Kiner: Yeah, just given what I just mentioned, and the variety of styles and stuff from classical orchestral Star Wars to playing weird guitar-based instruments for Promised Land, or – no. I’m doing exactly what I want to do, every day is a ton of fun for me. And the variety is really cool, and working with my sons is really cool as well.

More: Peacemaker Teases A Potential Threat Even Worse Than The Butterflies

New episodes of Peacemaker release every Thursday on HBO Max.

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