When the world is about to end, the first thing you need is a solid soundtrack. Netflix’s Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts boasts a fantastic collection of songs, cultivated by music supervisor Kier Lehman. He’s the music mixologist behind Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and is making the looney “tunes” for Space Jam 2. We talked with him about the art of building a mixtape and all the ways music can express more than words about a character.
In our review, we praised Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts for its story and style, but especially for its music. Featuring a collection of great tracks and original songs, it perfectly encapsulated life in the show’s Miyazaki-esque post-apocalyptic wasteland. Lehman shared with Gizmodo the process of building Kipo’s soundtrack as well as the one for Miles Morales, gave us an update on the Spider-Verse sequel, and told us what we can expect from the music for Space Jam 2. In short: It’s going to be huge.
Below is our condensed, edited interview.
Gizmodo: Can you tell me how you got involved with Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts?
Kier Lehman: Oh, yeah. I got involved in that project through DreamWorks, I had done some work with them a while back on one of their first TV shows that was part of this kind of Netflix deal. I worked with them on King Julien for a little while and I think they knew that they wanted to make the music of Kipo something really special.
Gizmodo: How much of the story of the first season were you privy to before you started putting the music together? Did you have scripts? Did you watch episodes? Did you just have summaries?
Lehman: Early on we had scripts, but there was still no animations of the show. We had some stills and, you know, we had the online comic version that had been out. So we were kind of based it off that and then, talking through it with [showrunner Radford Sechrist and executive producer Bill Wolkoff] as far as what their goals were and some of the references they had for what they wanted the show to sound like. And we went from there.
Gizmodo: So, what do you look for when you’re building a soundtrack, when you’re building the sound for a movie or TV show? And how does it come together?
Lehman: It’s a lot of conversations, you know, meeting with directors and producers and getting kind of their vision of how they can envision the idea, and help me kind of translate that into artists that would fit in with what they want or a composer may, you know, work with a sound or style that could fit with what their vision is. And kind of going back and forth between sending them some ideas and having a conversation about things that they like and things they don’t like, and then using that to hone in on a specific sound and style and artist and works for their project.
Gizmodo: When it comes to building a soundtrack and creating that tone, how do you balance setting a scene and matching the director’s wishes, while also expressing things about the characters internally that the audience doesn’t know? How do you strike a balance between those two?
Lehman: You kind of start with priorities of what does the song need to address and work on through the layers of emotion and story. Sometimes the right song might only address some of those things, and sometimes we get lucky and we can find a song that tells a deeper story. Usually, of course, the director has the final word, so I’m really working at their direction. I present options to them, and they get to make the kind of decision as far as, like, what choice they want to make and how they want to use the music and tell that story.
Gizmodo: Speaking to Kipo specifically, when you were trying to match songs for the characters—like Kipo, Benson, and Wolf—what did you want those songs to express, in terms of their characters?
Lehman: Yeah, they had different—each character had their own story and kind of where they came from and how they came into Kipo’s story. And, you know, obviously Benson had this part of his character that he was a music fan and he would dig through stereos and pull out tapes. He was kind of going through this post-apocalyptic world and listening to them in his adventures.
We had some kind of ideas and directions from [showrunner Radford Sechrist] about, like, this is the kind of thing that Benson would listen to, and then we would kind of take that direction and figure out a way to make it work within our budget. We may have gotten a reference song for what Benson’s first song is that he plays in the first episode, and so we took that and tried to find other music that kind of gave a similar feeling, that we could afford to use in the show.
That was kind of a similar process with all the characters, where they have these backstories, kind of where they came from, and what kind of animal they were or what their community was that they lived with, and built out music for them based on that.
Gizmodo: Yeah, I mean a lot of the artists on this soundtrack were people I’d either never heard of, or maybe had heard, like, one song from. And you were mentioning Benson kind of searching through the wasteland for the perfect music. Is that kind of how it feels for you sometimes, having to dig really deep and just find the right songs?
Lehman: Oh, that’s a great analogy. Yes, it does. I think for my work, you know, there’s a lot of factors of course that go into why a certain song ends up being in a project. A lot of it is creative direction from directors or producers, part of it is the budget, and part of it is kind of my taste and experience and, you know, knowledge of music industry and trends, and what I can help bring to a project to make it special or stand out or have its own unique sound.
Gizmodo: You mentioned finding a balance with your own sound and preferences. What is your sound—if you could classify it?
Lehman: Good question. My sound. I want to say—I’ve got to think about this. I work on a very, as you see, a range of projects from all different kinds of genres and styles. So I kind of avoid saying there’s a specific genre or music or artist, that kind of thing that defines my sound. It would have to be something more, like, a broader definition.
Gizmodo: What do you feel music can say about a person that can’t be expressed in a look, or dialogue, or other forms of communication?
Lehman: Music is, really, a language of emotions. So it’s a good way to help express somebody’s emotion, a character’s emotion—not only just with the sound of the music, but what the lyrics can tell about a story or character development. Where the music comes from. Is it new, is it old? What are they literally singing about? How does that tell our story, or is it a metaphor for the character’s inner monologue?
There are so many levels to a piece of music on its own that when you marry it with picture and character story, it can really expand on what you’ve already seen. You could see somebody with a sad face, but with the music can tell you why they’re sad or kind of explore deeper about this sadness and how it’s related to something in their past, or something that just happened, something they’re thinking about. There’s so many levels that music can—or ways that music conveys emotion that’s extremely helpful to add depth to what’s there on screen.
Gizmodo: I think one of the standout moments for me from the first season was when you have the frog character, he gets excommunicated from his clan. He’s walking alone, really sad, and then you hear “Ten Million and Two” [by Yvonne DeVaney], which is a song I did not expect to hear in that moment. Was there a particular song or scene that stood out to you, that was a particular favourite of yours, or something like: “That just clicked right there.”
Lehman: I love the—what are they called, the cats that do the “Yumyan Hammperpaw” song?
DreamWorks rep: Timbercats.
Lehman: Timber, thank you. I was, like, the woodpecker cats? But that was just such a fun one to work on, and that was an original one that we had an artist write for us, for the Timbercats to perform in the episode. And it was really great seeing that song evolve from the demo into the final production, and then getting to see that realised through the animations, and they’re singing. It’s just such a great scene.
Gizmodo: Many of our readers are very familiar with your work from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. We covered the soundtrack extensively. How did you use music in that film to describe the character of Miles Morales?
Lehman: Yes, Miles is, you know, a modern kid and we wanted to make sure that the majority of the music in the movie was from his perspective. Things that he would listen to lyrically, telling his story. So we made sure to pick artists that somebody his age in his kind of community would either be hearing on the radio or listening to personally. And with it, kind of the things that would be touching them emotionally.
Then, there were a couple of characters around him—especially his uncle that had a big musical influence on him and also had a lot of musical space within the movie, with the kind of classic hip hop sound. It was, you know, just me trying to represent an authentic kid growing up in that place in our time. What would be their music? And so, that was really the guiding light for all of our choices.
Gizmodo: The sequel for that film has been announced. Are you currently involved in any preproduction or building a portfolio of songs for that film?
Lehman: It’s very early. Yes. But it’s, you know, we’re not close to getting into that yet. But it’s something that we are thinking about and talking about in the early, early stages.
Gizmodo: So, will you be involved as well—will you be a music supervisor for that film, or is that still in the works?
Lehman: I’m not sure yet. I’m just talking about it with [Chris Miller and Phil Lord], but it’s so far away, it’s like I don’t know how exactly the role is going to be.
Gizmodo: Of course. I see that you’re also the music supervisor for Space Jam 2, and the first film’s music was very popular at the time. It came out right when I was about 10 years old and I listened to the soundtrack a bunch because it had a lot of famous artists I really admired. What can we expect from the sequel?
Lehman: Another huge, amazing soundtrack. It’s going to be really exciting, you know, lots of everybody’s favourite artists and inspiring music. A lot of fun.
Gizmodo: And with something like Space Jam—unlike a TV show even like Kipo, where there are a few characters and you’re kind of keeping it a little bit narrow—this one is very much an ensemble. It has so many characters. It’s also a mix of live action and animation. There’s so many moving parts. Does that change your style at all?
Lehman: No, not necessarily. I think there are a lot of characters, as far as the Looney Tunes, but I think we will probably keep it pretty simplified as far as not giving each of them a different music style. They kind of come as a group. But there are younger characters in that movie, and LeBron [James] is obviously a big part of that, so there will be music representing those key characters and the Looney Tunes for sure.
Gizmodo: And then, you know, everyone remembers the first song from the movie. I’m not going to repeat the lyrics, but it’s the one about the slam and welcome to the jam. Can audiences expect Space Jam 2 to deliver its own song, or maybe a cover of the original?
Lehman: Yeah, I mean it’s early on that, maybe too soon. We’re putting together all that stuff now.
Gizmodo: I know a lot of people out there who would love to basically be, like, “I make amazing mixtapes for a living that match these shows and films that I love.” What do you love the most about what you get to do?
Lehman: I mean, I love a great marriage of music and picture, and so I get to do that all the time, which is really rewarding that I get to kind of see those two things come together and create something bigger. That’s really fun and exciting for me. And then, I also love getting to support artists through placing their music in film and TV shows.
The first season of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is currently available on Netflix. Space Jam 2 is currently in production, set to come out in July 2021, and the sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is on the calendar for April 2022.