Red Stewart chats with composer Kevin Riepl about Higher Power and his work in video games…
Kevin Riepl is an American composer who has been working in the film, television, and video game industries since the early-2000s. He is best known for his work on projects like Gears of War, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers, and Unreal Tournament. His latest score was for the science fiction film Higher Power, directed by Matthew Santoro.
Flickering Myth had the privilege to interview him, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
Mr. Riepl, thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak with me. This really is an honor because you have done many games and shows that I enjoyed over the years. So thank you again.
Hey, no problem man.
Now, I hope you don’t mind me starting off the interview with a bit of a curveball because one thing I have to honestly say is I only recently learned about you, and that shouldn’t have been the case. Looking over your discography, you have been associated with so many things that I love. You did Gears of War, you helped with Xiaolin Showdown and Invader Zim, you’re doing Justice League Action. Because of this I’m wondering, do you think composers should take an active role in promoting themselves? Like, I know you have a website for example with samples of your work on it.
Oh, without a doubt. As much as one can do without being annoying [laughs]. I mean, before I had a PR company helping me out, I was all over the Internet doing the best I could to promote myself. And that was not only from social media but even going so far as to make phone calls to production companies and trying to get a hold of producers who oddly enough left their numbers on their website.
But yeah, it takes a lot of work, and there’s a lot of effort into having an online presence. However, composers should definitely promote themselves. Especially when starting out, spend some time promoting your material, your work, your demos. There’s a myriad of ways of doing it today with so many different online avenues, you know whether it be Bandcamp, Soundcloud, YouTube, personal sites, Instagram accounts, or Twitter.
I think it is imperative that composers promote themselves. I mean, even with a PR firm, I still do a fair share of putting myself out there without trying to be annoying. Of course, I can’t say that I am annoying or not. I guess that’s for everybody else to decide [laughs]
[laughs] I respect your enthusiasm and I agree entirely. More fans should know about composers because they are the people who set the tone of a piece. So going from there, I was hoping I could ask you a quick video game question, because, as I said, I happen to be a big fan of the games you’ve composed for, and you really are unique in that you got your start in the industry with video game titles.
Some time ago, I had the privilege to speak to Mark Mothersbaugh, who co-composed Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter, and he told me that doing music for video games is challenging because you have to take into consideration tempo and instrument changes brought about by player interaction.
But he was talking about platformers, which are paced differently and encourage multiple approaches. For you, you do a lot of shooting games that are heavy on action, where gamers are more likely to be consistent with their approach. So I’m wondering, how does player interaction affect you as a composer when the goal of most shooters is simply to get to “Objective A “while blowing past as many enemies as possible? It tends to be very frenetic.
In the early days, back when I first started out in 2000-2001, it was basically just writing one style, one tempo, one dynamic of music. And, if there were no names or certain maps or anything, we would just label them “action 1,” “action 2,” “battle 1.” I mean there are still names like that floating around in video game music, but back then it was less interactive and it was essentially, for lack of a better term, needle-drop music. We would write music for a certain map or level and it would just play along and loop constantly. Like a three minute loop or maybe a four minute piece that would repeat over and over again.
But as technology advanced, even with the run-and-gun shooting and getting from point A to point B, it became more and more reasonable to craft the music to sort of go along with what the player was doing; to be triggered by where the player was or how many enemies were left. So I think, even though it’s not a linear story so to speak, technology now allows the composer to provide different levels of intensity within one piece of music. And that was achieved by writing a full piece of score and then breaking it down into audio stems and then providing that to the developer, and then having them go through the game and have certain amounts of intensity increase or decrease according to what the player was doing.
So it’s still sort of the same approach, like you’re writing a full-on action piece, but now can provide separate intensities within one piece of music, and have the software in the game be triggered by what the player is doing and, in turn, figure out different levels of the music. If that makes sense.
No it does. So based on what you said, you’re not specifically doing the tempo changes, but you’re keeping them mind as you’re composing.
Yeah. With the dynamic music, that is applied to one piece of the score: it’s easier for implementation if the tempo of it does not change. And if it does modulate to a different key, it eventually goes back to the original key because, in the end, it still needs to have a looping point so as to make it cohesive and run smoothly. It helps if it’s in the same tempo or even in the same key throughout the whole piece.
That’s interesting to hear. I’ll definitely think about it when I listen to video game music in the future. So, before we can talk about Higher Power, I have to briefly mention another TV show you did called Atropa, which actually came out in a similar time frame. I haven’t seen either, but based on the plot synopses and the trailers, it seems like both deal with heavy science fiction themes of time and self. Is it coincidence that you’re doing both? What was it that attracted you to these two projects?
It’s purely coincidence that they’re happening within the same year, but Atropa was the second project I worked on with the director Eli Sasich. I worked on his first short called HENRi, which came out in 2012, and so we have a great relationship now; we’re really good friends. And he pretty much wants to use me for the rest of his projects and I want to work on the rest of his projects, so that was how I came to work on Atropa.
And with Higher Power, I was, for lack of a better word, stalking the director for quite a while [laughs]. And when I say stalking, I mean letting him know that I liked his style and that it would be great to collaborate in the future. And he was putting some concept stuff together, and I was sending him a bunch of demo tracks, and he liked the music that I was making. So he sort of kept me in mind, and when it came time to choose a composer for Higher Power, he hit me up and we talked and we sort of just clicked.
I met him two years before actually starting on the project. And that sort of falls under what I was talking about earlier about self-promoting. You know, contacting directors, not only directors who are doing blockbusters or studio tentpole films, but also guys who are are sort of trying to break through at a quality level and doing quality work. I spend a lot of time trying to make contact and start relationships with those types of producers and filmmakers. And sometimes it pays off, and with Higher Power it paid off, and I really enjoyed working with Matt Santoro on that.
And one of the things I really loved about the Higher Power promotional material is that it hearkens back to those R-rated indie sci-fi films of the 80s that ended up being some of the greatest works in the genre, you know like The Terminator and Solaris. I’m curious, did it being an indie or lower-budget project affect you at all as a composer, or did you approach it the same way you approach other projects? Cause I know you do a lot of children’s cartoons as well.
No, I enjoy doing the cartoon stuff and I enjoy doing the dark serious stuff. And because it’s such a dramatic difference between those two styles, I enjoy it that much more! But the low-budget aspect of it doesn’t affect me in any way, other than limiting my ability to hire a full-wide orchestral ensemble. For this film, the budget was tight, so I was limited to a full orchestral string section and some brass. But that’s really where it’s only limited. It doesn’t limit the creativity or the time I put into it.
That makes a lot of sense. You mentioned that you had access to full strings for this film. I’m curious, because I’ve been through your discography and I saw that you’ve dabbled in electronics and orchestra. For Sky High you were credited as the music programmer, you used synths, and for Six Degrees you were credited as the orchestrator, so you used an orchestra. For you as a composer, do you have a preference? Or do you like combining both to bring out the best work?
Again, it depends on the budget. A composer should be at a level where they’re working on low-budget features, or TV where there’s no budget for a live orchestra. You need to have the chops to provide a quality score using orchestral samples. I prefer, for the end result, to be all live. If I’m going to have orchestral samples, I would love to have that be live. Sometimes, you can’t, because of the budget, so having the ability to combine sampled orchestra and live orchestra is a talent that’s a must. And then you have scores that are just basically all synths, with no orchestral sounds in it at all.
But if there are going to be any orchestral samples in a score, I do my best and try to work in some sort live element to help out the score.
No, I think that just goes to show how versatile and talented a composer you are that you’re able to jump between these worlds without any pretense.
So one thing I found intriguing, going back to Atropa, is that you are credited as an associate producer on the series. What exactly did that entail for you and did it change anything about your composing or give you more control?
Not at all, and it wasn’t a control thing. It was because I was good friends with Eli, and we pretty much have the same outlook on film and storytelling; we have the same idea on what the film or series needed to do. I was with him from the get-go when the story was created, but it was not that I was asking to be credited as an associate producer. I mean, when I saw that credit on screen, that was a huge surprise for me: I had no idea that he was going to give me that!
And his reason for doing so was that we talked so much about ideas and so much about possible ways to convey the story. You know, he bounced stuff off of me a lot, and being that I was his friend and not just his composer, I would give him my flat-out honest opinion on whether I thought something worked or something didn’t work. And it just served as a type of back-and-forth, and I was doing it as a buddy of his who appreciates the same cinematic experiences that he does.
So I thought nothing of it. I was just a composer on the series and then, when I saw the credit, I was pretty amazed and taken aback. It was a very nice gesture on his part.
No, that’s very sweet to see that that kind of friendship persists in the industry. You know, us outsiders often hear a lot of stories about how it’s very cutthroat, but there are plenty of great anecdotes like yours Now, as we briefly said before, you’ve of course done a lot of cartoons, and you started off in the industry helping with Invader Zim and Xiaolin Showdown as an assistant composer. But nowadays you’ve taken the reins as the full composer with Batman Unlimited and Justice League Action. What’s the biggest difference between doing additional music versus being the full composer for animated television shows?
Well, early on with Invader Zim and Xiaolin Showdown, I was an additional composer under the lead composer, and the big difference is….when you’re the additional composer you really don’t have to deal with any business aspect of the show. You don’t have to worry about relationships, outside of the one with the lead composer. It’s the lead composer who handles the relationships with the production company, the producers, the director, and so forth, while also, if they have an assistant or an additional music composer under them, managing them and working their contributions into the timeline of what the show is allowing everyone to write a score for.
If you are going to give an additional music credit or give another composer some additional music to write, you have to make sure that they can write it in the same amount of time that you can, and that they can turn it around: make fixes in the same amount of timeline that you can make fixes. So essentially, being an assistant composer, all you really have to worry about is writing your music. When you’re the lead composer on a show, there are a lot of facets you have to be concerned with, as far as scheduling and the connections involved. And I never thought I would say this, but, as a lead composer now, I really enjoy that aspect of the whole business.
And then there’s also just having the overall creative voice of the show. I mean, that’s another thing: a composer whose writing additional music has to use the lead composer’s musical voice when writing that extra music. They don’t become their own voice on the show. They sort of have to become a shadow or a ghost composer. So a downfall of being an assistant composer is you’re limiting your own voice to help out another composer.
But in turn you’re getting experience and some additional music credits. So it’s a trade-off, but I enjoy being the lead guy on the job [laughs].
That’s surprising to hear. I have to admit, I never expected the composing aspect of the industry to be very bureaucratic.
There’s a huge business side of it. Knowing how to deal with people and knowing how to work business relationships, it’s a huge part of the deal. And I do enjoy it.
My last question to you, and this is something that I love to ask every composer I get the privilege to speak to, is what are three pieces of music that have had the biggest influence on you as a composer? They can be band albums, music scores, or even video game scores.
Oh my goodness [laughs]. You got some time for me to sit here and think about it?
Well, the one piece that got me interested in music period was Van Halen’s “Jump” back in 1984, I believe that was. After that, it was the Star Wars theme [by John Williams]. That came before ’84, but when I saw a trumpet player play the Star Wars theme, that was my foray into being able to understand that “hey, I can play that instrument and make that same music.” So that was integral.
And the last one would be Gustav Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War“. Honestly, the first time I heard that, if I remember correctly, it was a cassette of Emerson, Lake & Powell doing a synths cover of it. That was my first introduction to “Mars,” and then I heard the orchestral version and I was just floored. So yeah, I would say those three tracks.
All wonderful choices. I actually hadn’t thought of Van Halen in some time, so that was a bit of a throwback for me also [laughs]
But thank you so much again, Mr. Riepl, for taking the time out of your day to speak with me. I wish I had discovered your career before because you have done so many things I love and you really do stand among all those other three influences. So thank you again. I wish you the best in your career!
No problem man, thanks for the interest. I really appreciate it!
Many thanks to Mr. Riepl for taking the time for this interview.
Higher Power will be available on DVD August 14th, 2018.