Greetings! You're friendly neighborhood ScoreKeeper here bringing you a unique interview with Kevin Manthei, the composer-of-choice for a host of animated small-screen comic-book adaptations, direct-to-DVD superhero films, and videogames. He's probably most well known for his work on JOHNNY TEST (2005-2006), INVADER ZIM (2001-2006), JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER (2008), two segments of BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHT (2008), GENERATOR REX (2010-2012), and his latest endeavor ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN (2012). It's his most recent project for the latest Spider-man series that piqued my interest in his work and led me to interview him about his career.
Kevin is among a growing hoard of "working composers" making a name for him or herself with low-budget, high-quality music produced quickly and with great skill, passion, and expertise. His background offers great insight into the business and how a student fresh out of college can turn himself into a working composer making a living writing music.
I'm excited to have had the chance to chew-the-fat with Kevin and talk about the high stakes of on-demand superhero musical magic…Enjoy!
ScoreKeeper: Kevin, it's great talking with you today. I'd like to start with ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN. Can you give me the story on how you got involved with this project?
Kevin Manthei: Well I had been doing a lot of superhero projects in the past and I’ve worked with Warner Brothers, Cartoon Network, pretty much everybody. I even worked on a Marvel game project in the past, MARVEL UNIVERSE ONLINE, which was subsequently cancelled. It sort of morphed into this massive multiplayer online game called CHAMPIONS ONLINE. Most interestingly, I scored a Marvel videogame called ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, but this is more or less sort of a coincidence than actual reasons why I got the job.
One of the guys who is high up on the show I had worked with previously on XIAOLIN SHOWDOWN, a Warner Brothers animated series, so he was real familiar with my work and he brought me in to test for ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN. At the time I was scoring GENERATOR REX for Cartoon Network, which was like a punk rock based orchestral hybrid kind of score. Then I was talking to this producer and he was telling me how they wanted SPIDER-MAN to be kind of a punk rock infused orchestral score and I’m like, “Oh boy, this will be really interesting, because I don’t want to just repeat myself and do exactly what I was doing on GENERATOR REX." It’s interesting, it really morphed and changed throughout the first season, so what initially we started with was me scoring a trailer that they had created for Comic Con, a trailer they had created just to highlight the animation style and how the show would look. So I scored that for him and went through a couple of revisions until he was really happy with it and he played it for his boss and then they liked it and hired me from that point.
SK: This hybrid sound you talked about fuses modern rock/punk idioms with orchestral textures quite successfully. It seems appropriate for Peter Parker/Spider-man's universe; however, as obvious as it may seem, it really hasn't been a musical approach taken in any previous Spider-man adaptation I've seen.
KM: I think because Peter Parker in this ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN… he is in high school and he’s younger. I think that guitar is an easy thing that represents, especially punk rock, because when you take out the angry lyrics what you’re left with a lot of times is really fast, but fun and energetic music. I think that as an underscore, the fast and energetic tempo and somewhat simple melodic and harmonic structures can really lend itself to underscore angst while at the same time fun and excitement.
SK: Tell me about the actual production of the music. How do you go about creating it? How much of it uses live elements?
KM: On ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, all of the orchestral stuff is synth or sample based and then what’s live is bass guitar and all of the guitars. Typically I have anywhere from eight to twelve stems of guitars going on any time there’s guitar stuff. The way I write for guitars is kind of interesting. I play guitar and bass a little bit, but I’m not proficient enough to be able to just bang out what I write really quickly, so I have a guitarist who I send stems to. I write my music using Digital Performer and I have a bunch of guitar and bass patches loaded, synthesizer patches, and using some pretty good samples. Whatever I’m imagining, I’m able to realize the music using the fake guitars and the fake bass in a fairly realistic way good enough so I can send it to the guitarist. Anything I can’t reproduce I will notate with markers, or with dialog, or comments and then he will take that and flesh out all of the guitar and bass and send me back wav files of each individual step. Then he or I will mix the music, mix all of his stems in with all the rest of the synth stuff. I’ve always wanted to work with live drummers, but I’ve found the ease of using some good drum software…I’m using Addictive Drums (XLN Audio) and it’s such a great program. I’m really happy with it and I love programming my own beats. It’s one of the joys of composing.
SK: That's pretty much what I thought. Although, I'm surprised the drums were programmed. I thought they were live as well.
KM: A lot of these drum programs are getting really good too. What’s cool about some of them is you use some of their loops if you want to and they are not static loops that don’t change, but they are really more like MIDI-loops. You drag in a pattern that they have and this pattern can be played by any of their drum sounds and altered and once you drag that pattern into your MIDI-sequence then you are in control of all of the notes and you can change it around. I find that it’s just faster for me to literally play around. I start with the bass and the snare and then I do my high hats and then the tom-toms, just slowly add that drum programming to put all of those layers together. If you do it right it sounds real.
SK: Let’s talk about the schedule, because that’s something that always amazes me too. I know TV is tight and I thought maybe animation might give you a little more breathing room, but it doesn’t sound like it. You said it’s 20 minutes in four days? Is that typical?
KM: Yeah. In fact, when I was working on GENERATOR REX we did sixty episodes. I would say once I’m past ten episodes into a show I’m really into a groove and I can really get through an entire episode usually in three days, another day to mix and another day to possibly do revisions from the previous week’s work. Also I have a few different tricks up my sleeve that help me to write faster when I need to. Sometimes I will have assistants come in and do what I call “MIDI-orchestrations” or “synth-estration." Instead of me having to program every single timpani roll, I’ll just write in my markers “put timpani rolls here” and “put some suspended cymbal rolls here” and “take the strings and put it into the brass” and various things like that with exactly what you would have an orchestrator do if you were taking a cue and getting it really for an orchestra.
SK: Is it week after week or do you get breaks in between? How quickly do these episodes get churned out?
KM: On GENERATOR REX and also ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN it seems like we’ve been on a schedule where it’s roughly three weeks on, one week off, and sometimes because of the schedule you will go four or five and then have a couple of weeks off, but typically my experience has been three on, one off. The first show I ever scored was INVADER ZIM and that show had a really great schedule. They were just so into making sure every episode was really perfect and they were two twelve minute episodes per thirty minute episode. So we would do one twelve minute per week, which I think meant I needed to write two or three minutes of music a day or sometimes less, because suddenly now I didn’t have to write twenty minutes of music a week. I only needed to do this twelve minute episode, which inevitably would have eleven minutes and forty-five seconds worth of music, just because animation tends to be wall to wall, but that’s the one time where I’ve worked on a series where I’ve gotten more time. It was a very good one for my first series, because I really didn’t know what was typical of the industry, but after scoring that show and then moving on to some other ones I quickly realized that they usually expect you to get that whole score, which is generally about a twenty two minute episode done in a week’s time. You know they really give you two weeks and say “Oh, you have two weeks,” but you come to realize is even though you have two weeks, those weeks are built on top of each other, so yes, I have two weeks to score one episode, but really only one week later the next cycle starts, so you can’t really utilize those full two weeks, otherwise you’d get way behind.
SK: How often do your projects overlap? Are you working on other things at the same time?
KM: Well right now I’m working on a videogame for Cryptic Studios called NEVERWINTER. What’s great about videogames is their schedules tend to be flexible and I’m able to work on those projects at the same time and still have time. So that’s why a lot of times I can score an episode in three or four days depending on motivation and what needs to get done. Then that leaves me two to three days a week to work on other projects. Last fall I was finishing the last season of GENERATOR REX while I was starting SPIDER-MAN, so that was really intense, because I had two demanding shows happening at the same time and because of that three weeks on, one week off, there was some rest in there, but there were definitely some weeks there where I was doing both in one week, so I had to come up with some creative ways to do that. Every step of the way, when you’re programming those drums, make sure those drums are right before you move on to the bass guitar and make sure the bass guitar is right before… that kind of thing. I find just having a good process is really important to being able to make the schedule work.
SK: As a composer, looking back on all of your work as a whole, what would you say your strength is and what is your weakness?
KM: Well I’ve always thought that one of my strengths is dealing with the client in terms of taking what they are thinking and their adjectives and what they are wanting in the music. The client can’t sit there in front of you and write a piece of music and tell you “make it like that,” that’s your job, so what your job is, is to understand what they want and then translate all of the words and adjectives and everything they are talking to you about, take that and translate that into music. I feel like that’s something that I’m good at doing and that I’ve been blessed with. Not having to make lots and lots of changes and being really frustrated with every project I work on, I’ve found that ninety-five percent or more of the time that things have just run pretty smoothly, of course I’ll have tweaks here and there, but for the most part I feel like I deliver exactly what the client wants and they are happy. So that would be a strength.
Weakness? I don’t know. (Laughs) Nobody likes to talk about their weaknesses. The thing about weaknesses is I would never tell people my weaknesses, because I’m smart enough to know that… Let’s say a client comes to me and asks me for a style of music that I’m not as comfortable in, I’m confident enough in my own ability to either know I’m going to research and figure out how to do that or I’m going to get a good enough team around me that is really confident in that arena to help me ascertain what to do and to get done what needs to get done, so that I look extremely confident even if I’m not on the inside.
KM: I mean there are certain styles of music that I don’t like as much as others, like I’m not a huge big-band kind of guy, so if someone asks me to do a big band jazz kind of score I would rely on certain orchestrators and players. I would approach it in a different way. I’m not like a monster jazz piano player, so I would approach it in a way that would make sense for me and then still get the job done correctly, but I would welcome that challenge too.
SK: That’s understandable. Well let’s talk a little bit about your background too, because not knowing that much about you I’m curious to know maybe how you got your start. Did you go to school for music? Can you tell me about those school days of yours and how you ended up in LA and how you got your career going?
KM: Well I think at the age of ten I started piano lessons and quickly realized that I really liked it and at an early age I was always fascinated by it. Before I even knew how to play the piano I was fascinated by creating moods on a piano just by playing up high, playing down low, playing loud, playing softly… It really captivated me and I was really blown away by it. Once I started learning how to play piano I started writing my own piano songs and by the middle of high school I had a small recording studio and I was starting to create my own albums of music and that lead me to study music at The University of Minnesota, Theory and Composition, and I did a four year degree there. Meanwhile I was still writing a lot of music and I really saw myself as being a modern day court composer. I took music history in college and they talked about Beethoven and Mozart and all of those guys and they wrote music for money basically. They did it as a profession and they had to please their clients and I thought “Who is like that now? What do I have to do to be like that?” The answer is a film and television composer and at the time games were just beginning, so I realized a few years later that a game composer is in a similar boat.
So with that I struck out to California and was accepted into The University of Southern California Scoring For Motion Pictures And Television program, which a lot of composers have gone threw and that was the first big step into starting my career. A lot of people from my class actually got very successful and I ended up working with them and then struck out on my own a few years after that and have been doing it ever since.
SK: Can you talk a little bit about those early years? What did you find was the biggest challenge and how did you over come that?
KM: When you first start out you don’t have any credits. One of the big things I always told myself was “Never take a full time job that has nothing to do with music,” so my idea was “Do anything you can that’s related to music to make money, so that you have time to continue to go towards your dream and to go towards what you want to do.” So for example I did music copying. I did music editing. I was an assistant to composers. I had my own little jobs scoring stuff. I mean even when I was in college I had different projects for guys. I had some relationships already at a local cable access channel and those guys had some shows they were doing and then they got their own infomercial, so I did some music for stuff like that. So then you are able to have a resume of sorts, even if it’s not super awesome, but you basically do whatever you can do and put yourself out there. Once I graduated my biggest fear was just marketing and selling myself and that’s just something that you absolutely have to do and news flash for everyone – now twenty years later I still have to do it.
KM: And it’s never going to end. I think any successful composer you talk to is going to say “You still need to sell yourself and you still need to be out there networking and marketing,” that might be different to each person, but it’s really important. A lot of times I’ve even found people like “Oh, he’s doing good. He’s successful. He’s probably too busy to work on our thing,” so they might not even think to ask you, because they might just assume that you are busy. So I’ve had that where being successful actually makes people think you wont want to work on their project, but a lot of times I’d be willing to work on anything, even if it’s small, because I just like working.
SK: And there’s still always a hustle going on, I mean you’re still always fighting and clawing, so when people assume that it’s kind of frustrating. (Laughs)
KM: Yeah, it is. So my biggest challenge was just getting over that fear of making calls and selling myself and just letting people know that I exist. Once I did that, I had this breakthrough moment. It was very much a pivotal point and I remember it very clearly, once I decided that I would do it I remember sitting on the couch talking to my parents about it and I started crying, because I was just so scared. I knew what I needed to do, but I just didn’t want to do it. Once I got through that point and I started to make my calls and really start to be diligent I actually found out that I really liked it and it was kind of fun. It was like a challenge and for the first couple of years I also made a decision to purposely go after videogames, because I had scored a pretty big one at the time, it was based on a children’s movie, so it was a really good credit for me to be calling around and I had a decent demo I thought was really solid. It had some orchestral stuff on it and various things. It was very well-rounded. So I took that and just started doing it. I had this philosophy of “Look, if I have to make 500 calls to get one job, that’s totally worth it.” That was the approach I took and within I think six months to a year I had gotten a couple of decent things from my efforts.
SK: Throughout your career you have done a lot of animation. You’ve done games, superhero-related properties, geek franchises… Are you satisfied with where you are now? What goals do you have for the future? Tell me a little bit about where you hope to be going.
KM: Well I love scoring animation and I really love scoring games, so I’d like to keep continuing to do that. I’ve done some independent films and it would be fun to work on some more films and it would also be great to get involved in some non-animated TV. A dream job would be something like a BATTLESTAR GALACTICA show or BREAKING BAD or HELL ON WHEELS, just a drama or an action drama that requires some unique music would be really fun to work on. Also some of those shows don’t have as much music as animation, so that would be cool too. I think every composer is like “I wish I was scoring big blockbuster films and stuff,” I just want to put it out there that I’m very content and happy with where I’m at now and would be happy to be known as an animation composer and videogame composer and I would be very happy with that for the rest of my life, but a lot of times… You know, you’ve got to get out there and sell yourself, but also sometimes your career will just go a certain direction that you maybe never imagined it would go. I never thought I was going to be doing animation, but it was one of those few things that kind of fell in my lap and it was through an interesting series of events and when you’re given that opportunity, you take it. I don’t know what the future holds and I can try to sort of push the career one way, but a lot of times I’ve found over the many years I’ve been doing this is that you may be pushing really hard on one wall and before you know it the wall right behind you collapses and you’re like “Well, I better go out that way.” Then you’re like “Wow, I didn’t even think this would happen.” That’s a really great thing. So I’m excited to see what happens in the future and I’m game for anything.
SK: Are there any future projects that you can talk about with what you’re going to be working on in the next couple of months?
KM: Well I just started this NEVERWINTER project for Cryptic studios based on the Dungeons and Dragons franchise. I’m doing some new content for STAR TREK ONLINE, a videogame I did for Cryptic a couple of years back and then starting season two of SPIDER-MAN here in October and that will go through next May and then there’s a couple of other things that are kind of in the works, but nothing I can really discuss now, so that’s kind of what’s on my plate right now.
SK: Cool. Well it was good talking to you, Kevin. I’m glad we finally got to make the connection.
KM: Yeah, you too! I hope we can stay in touch.
SK: Thank you. Bye.
On behalf of Ain't It Cool News, I'd like to thank Kevin for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk with me. I'd also like to thank Chandler Poling for helping set up the interview.
ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN can be see on Disney XD. Kevin's music has not been released on CD but the first season of the series is available on iTunes and other online digital video retailers.
If you're on Twitter look me up...