Here at guitar world, we tend to emphasize the guitar as a vehicle for writing and performing original music in the traditionally understood rock ’n’ roll paradigm — you get up on stage with a band to play songs, garner an audience and, if you’re lucky, make some records and build a career.
To be sure, that’s one road to success in the music industry. But there are, of course, many others to travel. Just ask Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson, two musicians who have built thriving careers as composers and scorers for film and TV, and for the last few years, have created all the original music for the breakout Netflix series Cobra Kai.
The show, as everyone with an internet connection knows by now, is an update of the 1984 blockbuster The Karate Kid, and revisits the titular star, Daniel LaRusso (played by Ralph Macchio) and his hard-living, hard drinking, hair-metal-loving high-school karate nemesis Johnny Lawrence (William “Billy” Zabka) in the present day as two (ostensibly) grown men navigating life, love and middle age — and who still want to kick each other’s asses hard. During two seasons on YouTube, Cobra Kai shattered records, with Season 1 named the world’s most in-demand streaming television show during May 2018. After moving to Netflix for Season 3, Cobra Kai became, for a period, the most viewed original series on a streaming platform.
And while the warring senseis, nostalgia-soaked relationships and comically over-the-top toxic masculinity are what keeps fans coming back season after season, Cobra Kai is, in many ways, held together by its music. Throughout the episodes, Daniel and Johnny’s individual hero’s journeys are soundtracked by a dynamic, innovative and downright fun score that is grounded in Eighties rock and hair metal, and then ornamented with everything from orchestral music and traditional eastern flutes and strings to modern synth wave, heavy metal and video game sounds. In fact, the score has garnered enough of its own fanbase that, following Season 2, Birenberg and Robinson, with a little help from some friends (including Johnny Lawrence himself), took the most well-known compositions to the stage of the famed Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood for a live performance of Cobra Kai’s greatest hits.
Birenberg and Robinson boast extensive resumes in the scoring world, but they’re also quick to acknowledge that working on a show with such rich history and, let’s face it, ties to badass music (what child of the Eighties can’t sing the chorus to “You’re the Best” or “Cruel Summer”?) is a dream come true. “It’s like the Hollywood story that never happens in Hollywood,” Birenberg says. On the eve of the premiere of Cobra Kai’s highly anticipated Season 4, the two sat down with Guitar World to detail how it all came to be.
How did you get involved with Cobra Kai?
LEO BIRENBERG It’s a dream story, which is that we read about Cobra Kai in the trades, either Variety or Hollywood Reporter, and there wasn’t any real information — it just said there was a show being made called Cobra Kai, and somehow it’s related to the Karate Kid IP. There was no cast announced or anything. But the article did say the show was going to be on YouTube Premium, and Zach and I had just done a show on YouTube Premium and we were looking for a next gig. And we were like, “This seems kind of like our jam…” So we put a reel together and sent it to our agent and said, “Hey, we don’t know anything about this, but it feels like the right vibe for us. Can you get it in the hands of whoever needs to see it?”
A lot of times when you do that, you never hear about a gig ever again; it just goes off into the void and you have no idea until the show comes out two years later. But somehow the wires crossed in serendipity, because someone over at Sony called our agents to talk about Cobra Kai. And our agent was like, “Wait, these guys really want to do the show — I have a reel!” He sent it over and got in the hands of the Cobra Kai show runners and creators, and I guess we nailed the vibe because they called us in for a meeting. And it was super-clear we were on the same page. Then they sent us some scripts and it was even better than Zach and I could have possibly imagined. First of all, Billy [Zabka] and Ralph [Macchio] were in it. And also, the vibe of the show, it hits that perfect tone of being reverential but also self-aware. So we had a great bonding session with the guys and they hired us like 15 minutes after the meeting ended.
Did your initial reel consist of the type of music you thought the Cobra Kai team would want to hear? Given the subject matter, I imagine there was an Eighties rock vibe.
ZACH ROBINSON Yeah, part of it was. We had actually put the reel together before reading the scripts. As Leo said, this was a total blind reel; we knew nothing about this show. This was just what we felt in our hearts that this music should be. We’ve both worked on big Hollywood movies — we used to work for a composer named Christophe Beck, and we wrote music for action movies like Edge of Tomorrow and Ant-Man, so we put some of that on, too. So the scope of the reel ranged from hard rock stuff to orchestral material, like that classic, symphonic film score sound, and all based off The Karate Kid. But I think the thing that separated us from anyone else that would have submitted was that we really leaned into the Eighties-ness of it. You know, we had some Eighties montage tracks that we had done as joke, because every comedy has an Eighties montage, right? But we were like, “This is where we do it for real.”
BIRENBERG That was a major part of our pitch.
ROBINSON I also had an electronic music project in the early 2010s, like a solo electronic music project that was kind of synth wave before it was called synth wave. And there was some of that on there as well. So it was like, “We do Eighties rock stuff. We do Eighties synth stuff. And we also do film scores!”
You guys clearly aren’t old enough to have actually grown up in the Eighties. Is this music that you truly love, or do you just have a knowledge of and appreciation for it from a distance? BIRENBERG For me, it’s more like one of many types of music I listen to. I’m really all over the place in my music background; I grew up playing saxophone and clarinet and flute, and I was heavy into jazz. My guitar loving background comes much more from a Pat Metheny place than like a hard rock place. So my aesthetic is less pure hard rock. ROBINSON It’s music that I love. Growing up in L.A., I was a metal head — your standard classic-rock-into-metal guitar player. That’s kind of a rite of passage there, because that type of music is in L.A.’s DNA. Later on I got into film scores and all that, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Eighties aesthetic.
For those of us unfamiliar with scoring, can you walk us through your process? BIRENBERG The process is pretty similar for each episode. We sit down with the showrunners and have a meeting — it’s called a spotting session — and we’ll watch episodes. We usually work on two at a time, so we watch them together and go through every scene with the editors and say, “Should there be music here? What’s the music going to be like?” And we just make a list: “Okay, here we need some emotional stuff, here we have a big fight sequence, here we’ve got this, here we’ve got that.” Then Zach and I split off and start sketching things out. We’ll go into our separate studios and start working. Once things are listenable and put together we start trading files, trading mixes and piling on ideas. A really good example would be [the composition] “Strike First,” which plays during a scene in Season 1, Episode 1, where Johnny beats up some kids in a mini-mart parking lot. In a lot of ways that was our thesis statement for the show.
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