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Composer Kevin Kliesch Goes To Musical Battle In "Justice League: War"

Profile of Kevin Kliesch Composer of the DC animated film "Justice League: War"
Profile of Kevin Kliesch Composer of the DC animated film "Justice League: War"
Courtesy of Getty Images

Animation is a tricky genre to write for especially for talented composers of all types that include Oscar winners Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Randy Newman, Michael Giacchino and Alan Menken as well as the likes of Alan Silvestri, Elmer Bernstein, Michael Kamen, John Powell, Joel McNeely, David Newman and Thomas Newman. When you have the opportunity to write for something as memorable such as a DC Comics based project, you have to take the risk. That's where a composer/orchestrator such as Kevin Kliesch comes into play.

For many who don't know who Kevin is, he is one of the most respected and highly regarded orchestrators in Hollywood today working with the likes of Marco Beltrami and John Powell which are apart of Hollywood's elite. Kevin is also an extremely talented composer in his own right as well and his latest project, "Justice League: War" the latest DC Comics inspired animated film project which was released on Blu-Ray and DVD not too long ago, clearly demonstrates. Utilizing his musical genius to not only compose the score, but also was the one man orchestrial band performing the score himself with passion and gusto for 70 plus minutes.

For his very special interview with Kevin, he candidly shares with me his thoughts on Justice League: War, how he came to the project, the soundtrack release, his work on the animated revival of the great 1980's animated series, "Thundercats" and his latest and upcoming project, "Sophia The First". So enjoy our friendly chat!

Please tell the readers about what made you become interested in music and composing.

KK: I’ve been into music for a very long time; my parents tell me that I was playing songs I heard coming from the television at age 3. I started composing in 1984 on the Apple II using a program called Music Construction Set, which was way ahead of its time. Composing eventually became a full-time hobby, so I decided to attend the Berklee College of Music to further my compositional ability.

Let’s talk about your music to the latest direct to video DC Comics adaptation of "Justice League: War." How did you get involved with the film?

KK: Warner Bros. approached me to score the film after I had scored “Superman: Unbound” for them in 2013.

After viewing the film, did you have an idea of what type of a score this film needed that would suit the vision of the filmmakers?

KK: The producers liked the direction I took on the score to “Superman: Unbound,” but they wanted even more of a hybrid orchestra-electronic sound to the film. They wanted to try to get away from the orchestra-only approach to scoring the film, since that had been done so many times in the past. The direction I received was to introduce more of a synthetic element to the score.

Was it hard for you to come up with themes for your score or did take a little time?

KK: There’s really only one theme in the film, and that was for the League itself. I was instructed to specifically stay away from themes since this was the first time that the individual Justice League members meet each other, and it didn’t make sense to have character-specific themes being introduced. The theme itself didn’t really take much time to write, but it did take time to introduce, since the director wanted the theme to start out very sporadically and then by the end of the film, the full theme should take over as the heroes battle together as a unit. Ironically, the complete version of the League theme isn’t introduced until the end credits. As a little Easter Egg, I reused the theme I wrote for Superman in “Superman: Unbound” in a few places.

Please tell us about the recording sessions. What were they like and how long did they take?

KK: There were no recording sessions; I composed, orchestrated and performed the score entirely myself using samples.

While you’re recording your scores, do you always try to get feedback on what’s working and what isn’t so that you and the director end up in the same place to make the film better?

KK: The DC films are sent to me in 3 or 4 separate Acts which run about 15-20 minutes each, and are later edited together into the complete film. So after I finish scoring an Act, I’ll have the director and producer over to my studio and have a playback session with them. They’ll make notes on what’s working and what’s not, so then I’ll go back and make fixes and play the fixes for them the next time I see them.

All told, how much music did you record for the film?

KK: I wrote and performed about 70 minutes of score.

Will there be a soundtrack album released for the film?

KK: Yes, it’s been released on the WaterTower music label as both an Amazon Disc-On-Demand and as a downloadable mp3 version as well.

You also worked on the hit revival of one my favorite 1980’s cartoon’s, “Thundercats” not too long ago. How did you get involved with that project?

KK: After I finished working on Disney’s “Tangled” in 2010, the vice president of music for Disney introduced me to the head of music for Warner Bros. They told me about the “Thundercats” reboot and asked if I’d be interested in submitting a demo for it. I was up against 9 other composers, and I wound up scoring 4 scenes to prove I was the right guy for the job. Luckily they liked me!

Did you find it easy to come up with thematic material for the show once you were on board?

KK: I had a lot of inspiration from my favorite film composers and the scores they had done in the past to come up with the themes for "Thundercats.” The producers of the show asked me to sculpt the sound of the series in the style of “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” - epic, grand, other-worldly. I’m a huge fan of that genre so it was relatively easy to come up with themes.

Who was your favorite character to write a theme for?

KK: I enjoyed writing themes for all of the characters and am proud of all of them, but I think I’d have to say Wilykit and Wilykat were the standouts just because their theme is so playful and frisky. It was the one theme that didn’t have a sense of grandeur about it, and didn’t take itself seriously, unlike all of the other themes.

Let’s talk about the soundtrack album that La-La Land Records put out a while ago. How did the soundtrack come about?

KK: I had initially approached WaterTower about doing an album of “Thundercats” music since that record label is part of Warner Bros., but when they heard that there was so much music to choose from, I think they passed on it because they would have had to put out multiple discs. So I asked the guys at La-La Land if they’d be interested in it, and they jumped at the chance.

Was it difficult for you to find material to put on an album or did that take some time?

KK: It took quite a bit of time to pick what to put on the discs since I wound up writing over 9 hours of score for the series, and I was proud of everything I’d written, but I knew I had to leave out a lot of good material. Eventually I narrowed it down to just over two hours and we fit it on two discs.

How do you feel when a label releases a soundtrack of your music?

KK: I’m honored that the label sees commercial potential in putting out a soundtrack of mine! I’m also very happy that there’s still a demand for music in this genre, since nowadays there are so many other media options that an individual can choose to spend their time and money on.

What was your favorite episode during the series run and why?

KK: Probably the finale, which was episodes 25 and 26. Since those two episodes were set in a city in the clouds, I got to write a lot of science-fiction style action music. I also got to bring all of the themes to a satisfying conclusion.

Do you find scoring for animation as difficult as recording for a regular feature length film?

KK: It’s actually more difficult, because in animation, you have to hit everything on screen, down to the most minute detail. A feature-length film doesn’t typically require that kind of attention to detail.

What do you think the benefits of writing a score to animated film or television series would be to that of a regular film?

KK: One thing that it does is it teaches you how to manage your time, since in television, the time I get to compose each episode is relatively small, and I have to work fast to meet the deadline. Another benefit is that it allows you to continually improve your writing skills, since writing for television is an ongoing process and lets you try out different ideas in every episode.

You’ve orchestrated for a lot of composers in the past including James Horner, Marco Beltrami, Christophe Beck, Mark Mothersbaugh, John Powell and Teddy Castellucci amongst others. Who is your favorite composer that you’ve orchestrated for?

KK: I don’t really have a favorite composer that I’ve orchestrated for, but I must say that to have been able to work with Alan Menken on numerous projects was a true honor.

How important is an orchestrator to a composer?

KK: It varies from composer to composer. For someone like John Powell, who sends me complete mockups that are already orchestrated, there’s not much that I can bring to the table for him. I usually just put on paper what he's already done in the computer. But when I get the chance to orchestrate for Alan Menken, he sends me piano demos only and he relies on me to craft the sound of the orchestra.

When you write your own scores, do you usually like to orchestrate them yourself or like every other composer, get much needed help when you need it?

KK: I always do everything myself. I’m a little fussy about that. I’m sure there will come a point when I have to give up some of that control, but fortunately I’m still able to do it myself.

Name a composer who has influenced your style over the years?

KK: If I had to limit it to just one, which is really hard to do, it would have to be John Williams.

If there was one or more scores of your own work that you personally would love to see a release, which one (or ones) would they be and why?

KK: I would love to have a score release of my music from Sofia the First. I don’t write typical cartoon music for that show; it’s in the style of the full, lush Disney-style scoring we all grew up with. I’m very proud of it and I wish more people could hear the detail I put into it. I just received a Daytime Emmy nomination for it, so I guess the Television Academy would agree with me.

For your personally, which is your hardest genre for you to write for?

KK: Anything I haven’t done before. Anytime I’m asked to go outside of my musical boundary, I do a lot of research into what's needed and I’m not shy to ask for other musician’s help and expertise.

What was the hardest film you’ve had to score?

KK: I wouldn’t say any one film in particular was necessarily hard to score, since I’ve been lucky to have worked with some great directors and producers who have all been extremely pleasurable to work with and have provided me with excellent direction along the way.

What is your favorite film score that you haven’t written?

KK: Too many to list! I’ve got a massive collection of film scores and I listen to them every chance I get.

What is your favorite film that you have scored in your career to date?

KK: I don’t have that much of a body of work to choose from, but I’m very fond of "Sofia The First," since it’s so much fun to write for.

Please tell the readers about your latest upcoming projects you have.

KK: "Sofia The First" will be going through at least 2015, so I’ll be keeping busy on that until the series comes to an end, which probably won’t happen for a long time. I’ve also been asked to orchestrate a new television series called “Galavant” which will have songs written by Alan Menken and a score composed by Christopher Lennertz.

I really want to thank you once again Kevin for granting me this interview and I’m looking forward to your future projects.

KK: Thanks!

Very special thanks to Kevin for being so gracious to do this interview with me despite a time crunch. I'm very grateful to you and we have to stay in touch! Also very special thanks to Beth Krakower for your great support and best wishes on a great recovery.

"Justice League: War" is now available from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment on Blu-Ray and DVD @ http://www.amazon.com/Justice-League-Blu-ray-Alan-Tudyk/dp/B00GD9GNUS/ref=sr_1_2?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1402010199&sr=1-2&keywords=justice+league+war

The soundtrack to "Justice League: War" is available on Amazon @ http://www.amazon.com/Justice-League-Original-Picture-Soundtrack/dp/B00I86XWP8/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1402009953&sr=1-1&keywords=justice+league+war and on iTunes digital download

Please feel free to visit Kevin's official website @ http://kevinkliesch.com/ for updates on his latest and upcoming projects.

Here is Kevin Kelisch's Bio:

"Composer Kevin Kliesch earned his first Daytime EMMY® nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction and Composition for his work on the Disney Junior series SOFIA THE FIRST.

Originally from New Jersey, Kliesch is a graduate of, and former instructor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. A multi-instrumentalist, Kliesch plays piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, French horn, and saxophone.

Kliesch has worked as a composer and orchestrator on over 100 feature films spanning the past seventeen years, including FROZEN, THE HANGOVER, TANGLED and SHREK FOREVER AFTER. He parlayed his success as an orchestrator to composing, where he has found success in the animation genre – receiving his first Annie Award nomination for his work on the THUNDERCATS series in 2012. That year he earned two more nominations from BSO Spirit for their Jerry Goldsmith Awards in Best Television score (THUNDERCATS) and Breakout Composer of the Year.

Having worked on many successful Disney properties as an orchestrator, Kliesch was given the opportunity to compose for the Disney Junior series SOFIA THE FIRST. His work on the series would earn Kliesch his second Annie Award nomination as well as his first Daytime EMMY nomination. Kliesch’s recent composing projects also include DC Comics’ animated movies SUPERMAN: UNBOUND and JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR, along with the Walt Disney short film TANGLED EVER AFTER.

Kliesch currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife and their six-year-old twins."