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How to Score ‘Cobra Kai’: An Interview with the Composers

(Update, Jan. 2021: This in-depth interview with Cobra Kai score composers Zach Robinson and Leo Birenberg took place in 2018, when the show premiered on the former YouTube Red platform. Now it’s on Netflix, where its third season just debuted. First read the interview below, and then scroll back up and read our new interview about the new season.)

So, guess what? It turns out that Cobra Kai — a YouTube series that looks at the complicated modern adult lives of The Karate Kid foes Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence — is absolutely fantastic. Composer duo Zach Robinson and Leo Birenberg, interviewed here today, play a major role in the show’s success. Listening to the recently released Cobra Kai soundtrack only reinforces that assessment.

It was easy to be skeptical of the metamodernist YouTube Red show at a time when studios are bringing back beloved characters for new seasons or films with mixed results. But no, let’s be clear: Cobra Kai has great performances, an interesting story centered on family and redemption, hilarious dialogue, and a fantastic score that blends traditional orchestrations with 1980s metal and synthwave. (Regular Vehlinggo readers will recognize Robinson as early synthwaver D/A/D, something you can learn more about in my previous interview with him.)

“Musically, we knew we weren’t going to come in and score the entire thing like a D/A/D album, because that’s not what the show is about nor would it be appropriate,” Robinson says of the Cobra Kai soundtrack. “BUT, there are times, like with [new character] Miguel’s training montage, where we knew the score needed the ‘80s sound. It’s leaning into the sentimentality of nostalgia, while not weighing down the new material.”

In this Q&A with Robinson and Birenberg, who have worked together on the Christophe Beck scoring team for films such as Ant-Man and Edge of Tomorrow, we tackle: many facets of scoring for Cobra Kai; how damn hard it was to choose which tracks to include on the release that will include a deluxe CD edition via La-La Land on May 22; the character development of foes Daniel and Johnny; and how Cobra Kai treats the concept of nostalgia for such a beloved piece of intellectual property; among other things.

Cover art by Jarred Hageman.

How did you two get involved in Cobra Kai?

Zach Robinson: We saw an article about the show in Hollywood Reporter or Deadline and it looked like something that would be the right fit for us. We worked on a show together for YouTube Red a few years ago so we had a relationship with them. We had no idea what Cobra Kai was about or what the tone would be, we didn’t even know that Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso) and Billy Zabka (Johnny Lawrence) were reprising their iconic roles. But once we read the scripts, we knew we had to be a part of this. Our agent sent over a reel to the creators and we all hit it off really nicely. We were totally on the same page since day one.

Zach Robinson D/A/D Edge of Tomorrow Soundtrack
Composer Zach Robinson.

Leo Birenberg:
It was one of those serendipitous Hollywood moments. We made a reel unprompted to send and they called our agent having not even realizing that. When we went in for a meeting Zach and I were already pitching training montages and character themes and gelled with the creators (Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald) immediately.

Leo Birenberg (center) works steadfastly on some film score.

Let’s talk about the various facets of your approach to scoring Cobra Kai. I’m curious about your philosophical approach and instrument choices, and how you decided on a balance between ’80s and contemporary vibes. Additionally, 
how did you decide which of you composed what? And what were challenges with creating this score and what was easy?

ZR: The challenges we faced writing the score were similar to the challenges the creators faced: How we do update the story, while staying true to it? Of course, we were going to reference Bill Conti’s original score at points, either through direct musical quotations or through instrumentation, orchestration, etc., but beyond Conti, the score needed its own identity.

We settled on developing three unique musical worlds. Johnny is scored with a blend of hard rock and hair metal. Daniel is supported with a more classical instrumentation and an emphasis on Japanese flutes and percussion — the clearest callback to Conti — and our new Cobra Kai generation was scored with a lot of influences from synthwave and EDM.

Leo and I don’t share a studio together, but we’re basically on the phone the entire day. We generally divvy up the cues, do a pass, share with each other, add stuff here and there — rinse and repeat.

“As fans of these films, what would we want to hear if we were watching?”

LB: One of the first steps we took was a dissection of the original Conti scores and original film soundtracks. We wanted to distill down what worked about those into a palette of colors that we could draw from while still writing original music. With a franchise like The Karate Kid, we also tried to ask ourselves, “As fans of these films, what would we want to hear if we were watching?” Zach and I have worked together for years now, so splitting work and trading ideas back and forth all day has become second nature.

William Zabka returns to ‘Cobra Kai’ to play Johnny Lawrence and Ralph Macchio reprises his role as Daniel LaRusso. Each man is at a very different place in their lives, which makes for a fascinating dynamic between the two. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Television.

How was scoring for
Cobra Kai different from your past work — either individually or together? How was it the same? Also: Did you see the scripts ahead of time or is your score based on the finished shoots?

ZR: Most of the time composers are brought onto a project once post-production starts, but we had actually been hired before shooting began. It was nice to marinate with the scripts for a bit. You never know how if it’s going to work until you start writing to picture, but I think generally the ideas we had while reading the scripts ended up making it into the final product — which is awesome.

LB: As Zach said, it was great to get ideas ticking in our heads early. This story is completely character-driven, so reading the scripts was really important for knowing where our musical ideas needed to end up by the end of the season.

What did you like about the original The Karate Kid films? And how does it feel to have been able to work on this series? Must be kind of wild. Cobra Kai is a helluva lotta fun.

ZR: I love the Karate Kid for the same reason most people do: It’s the ultimate underdog story! Plus, I’m a total sucker for mentor/mentee relationship movies. Can’t really beat that here obviously.

The franchise means so much to so many different people.”

As for working on the series, it’s rare when you get to enjoy something so much, both as a contributor and as a viewer. The franchise means so much to so many different people — we know it’s basically Star Wars to Josh, Jon, and Hayden — and it’s in the canon of cultural Americana, so it was an honor and privilege to be able to contribute to this legendary saga.

LB: There were a few times when we were working that’d we’d look up at the screen and exclaim: “I can’t believe we are scoring this!” The KK universe is filled with so many iconic characters and Cobra Kai does such a good job of developing the web of relationships between them. Every once in awhile we’d just get a little overwhelmed knowing we were helping to bring it to life.

steelberg cobra kai
VHS artist Steelberg’s interpretation of the ‘Cobra Kai’ soundtrack art as a VHS cover.

What surprised you about the trajectory of the characters in modern times and how did you address that in your music?

ZR: This was a discussion we had with the creators a lot. The show does not take place in 1984 and these characters have been living their lives parallel to how we’ve been living ours. They’ve grown, had families, started businesses — at least in Daniel’s case. BUT, both of them in their own ways yearn for the glory days and there’s a big part of both Daniel and Johnny that have trouble moving on.

We had to figure out a way to musically bridge the gap between all those years. Johnny’s score is inspired by heavy metal and rock from the ‘80s, because that music is a large part of both his past and present identities. It’s how he hears himself. When we pick back up with Daniel, Miyagi-Do doesn’t exist anymore yet he still strives to live by its values — though perhaps not successfully. So we needed to develop his musical story as it evolved from when we last saw him in KK III.

LB: What initially excited us about the scripts was how so many character relationships from the original were being turned on their head (but tastefully): Johnny as an apartment-repairman-turned-karate-mentor; Daniel as a wealthy guy in Encino. It was great because it provided us with some interesting lenses to tell the story with music.

Just because Johnny has a karate student in this series doesn’t mean he’s going to sound like Mr. Miyagi — he has his own sound drawn from his own life experience, just like he has his own teaching style and imparts lessons to his students in his own way. The music needed to grow out of that and the tricky part was making it sound like a natural extension of the show’s universe.

Where do you see Cobra Kai in the evolution of ‘80s nostalgia?

ZR: This is a great question. The show balances nostalgia really well, and I think that’s part of the reason why it’s powerfully resonating with so many people. 

It’s too easy and detrimental to the storytelling to have “You’re the Best” playing on a radio station, or having “sweep the leg” be a constant punchline every episode. Cobra Kai proves you can revisit old stories, and honor those stories, while bringing something new to the table. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing more [properties] revisited with a similar approach. Almost feels like post-nostalgia.

“Cobra Kai proves you can revisit old stories, and honor those stories, while bringing something new to the table.”

LB: Exactly. We always wanted to treat the material with respect. It’s a continuation of the story — not a reboot. It doesn’t need a musical wink and a nod at all times. What it needed, and what we hoped we achieved, was a score that felt like an organic part of the franchise — that takes itself and characters seriously — while being just self-aware enough to hit home with audiences watching for the nostalgia factor.

Tell me about the soundtrack release. How did you decide on the particular cues that would show up on the release?

ZR: We needed the album to be a musical thesis for the score: It needed to be a balance of the three score worlds that we were talking about earlier. Also, we didn’t want this to feel like a “soundtrack” album, so we immediately eliminated cues that were either too short or that felt too underscore-y, which generally means the cue was used under dialogue and doesn’t have a lot of melody or movement happening. Some soundtrack albums are ordered chronologically, but we made a concerted effort to find the best possible album flow regardless of when the cues were presented in the series.

“We spent a lot of time agonizing over the [soundtrack] order.”

LB: We spent a lot of time agonizing over the order. We actually made a few versions and would each play them back-to-back to see which one felt right. Once we moved into soundtrack mode, our goal was to make a great album: a great musical experience regardless of what the listener’s familiarity with the show was. Sometimes that means “killing your children” and leaving out cues that we loved from the show that just don’t quite sit right. We think in the end we put together something that tells the story of the season, while still being an independent musical listening experience.

Will there be a season 2? (And what else are you two working on?)

ZR: We hope so! There’s tons of potential for an amazing season 2 and beyond. I’m about to start up on an indie feature.

LB: I’m just wrapping on an indie movie called Plus One, and am in the midst of two animated shows — one of which also involves a martial art! It’s fun to move between projects in radically different styles — keeps the brain fresh!

(Update, 1:22 p.m., NYC Time: In the hours since this interview posted, Cobra Kai social media properties confirmed that the series had been renewed for a second season. YES!)

(Update, March 17, 2019: Here’s the trailer for Season 2.)

Cobra Kai (Score from the Original Series) was released on May 4 in the digital realm, including Spotify (embeds were throughout this piece) and iTunes. La-La Land Records will be releasing a deluxe CD version with an optional longbox on May 22.

Here’s episode 1 of Cobra Kai:

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