The Joy of Creating Music with Kevin Manthei

by | Mar 27, 2018 | Closeup

If you grew up in the 80’s with chronic numb thumb, you can probably hum the “Super Mario Brothers” theme song and recall the victory tune that played when you leveled up and came one step closer to freeing Princess Peach. Likewise, each Saturday morning cartoon you indulged in had a musical score behind it that made the shenanigans of Scooby-Doo that much creepier, or the adventures of He-Man all the more exciting. And Looney Tunes? Well, there’s a good chance that Bugs Bunny was the first to introduce you to classical music like “The Barber of Seville Overture,” while he smacked around Elmer Fudd. There’s no question that musical scores breathe life into characters and storylines. The evolution of those scores from simple synthesized sound effects of the past to the cinematic symphonies we hear today is pretty astounding. In his custom built 2,400 square foot home studio in Sand Canyon, showcased in last month’s issue, Kevin Manthei enjoys writing such scores for some of today’s most popular animated shows, television series, and video games.
Growing up in Minnesota, Kevin was influenced by popular music of the late 70’s and 80’s. “I was a rock kid. I was into Metallica and heavy metal, but I also loved listening to soundtracks. I can remember my dad buying me the Star Wars soundtrack on vinyl,” Manthei said. His parents both sang and played the piano, and encouraged Kevin’s love of music. It was in high school that he parlayed that interest into composition.
“I started composing in high school, mostly writing flowing melodies on the piano. I loved to create emotions. That’s what drew me to music- just creating emotion. So, I honed my skills in high school and really wanted to study music in college.” Manthei continued to write at the University of Minnesota, where he studied music theory and composition. It was there that he built his studio, one synthesizer and keyboard at a time, making it possible to write complete pieces of music. “I would actually release my own albums for friends and family. I’d even have friends design artwork for the covers. It was my creative outlet,” Manthei explained. Soundtracks like Driving Ms. Daisy and Edward Scissorhands inspired Kevin to pursue his dream further, ultimately leading him to take a leap of faith that he attributes to his success today.
“I started to ask myself, ‘How am I going to make a living making music?’ I heard that USC had a post graduate program for writing music for motion pictures and television, and I applied in my senior year. They accepted only 20 students a year. I was accepted, married, and moved to California in the same weekend.” At USC, he studied under Jerry Goldsmith, famous for scoring movies like Rudy, Planet of the Apes, and Gremlins . “Many well-known composers came in and taught some of the classes, teaching exactly what I needed. I just knew this was what I really loved.”
Kevin completed the program and began writing additional music for horror films, composing for movies like Scream 2, Scream 3 , and The Faculty . More opportunities came his way when a marketplace emerged in the gaming industry for composers as games started incorporating high quality, cinematic music. Scoring for “Vampire The Masquerade,” “Sacrifice” and dozens of other titles, Manthei’s long list of video game credits is only matched by the slew of animated hits he’s contributed to.
“I was scoring horror movies, but watching that violence all day long can wear on you. When my wife and I started having kids, this amazing thing happened and I got involved in animation. The first show I scored was Invader Zim for Nickelodeon, and 18 years later I’m talking to them again about scoring the T.V. movie soon,” Manthei said. “I’ve worked on two different Spider-Man properties on and off for eight years. It’s great because my kids can just walk into the studio while I’m working and listen in.”
Kevin has channeled his early rock and soundtrack influences into his recent animated scores for Cartoon Network, like Robot Chicken and Ben 10. “I like to combine genres with each project. I try to come up with something I feel is a unique twist. So with something like Ben 10, the villains are very serious and over-the-top cinematic. Ben is punk rock, so the tone and style shift a lot to give him a unique character,” Manthei explained.
With success comes an incredible amount of hard work. Kevin is up before the sun, composing in what he calls the magic hours. His days might consist of meetings with producers, recording & playing instruments in his studio, or hours with his sequencer layering a multitude of sounds to create compositions that set the mood for whatever project is in front of him. “I’m always happy when I’m feeling creative. The goal is to really like what I’ve done. That’s the goal and through it, the creativity will show itself. You can’t just wait for creativity to come to you though, because you have to get your work done. Anything that’s of value requires hard work, time, and effort. Writing music is a lot of hard work.”
Manthei has some advice to young composers who aspire to make a living through their music. “Always be taking baby steps, and always be doing something to move forward,” he suggested. “Never say no to opportunities. Always be networking, and keep your ears and eyes open to opportunities and sell yourself. In this business, you need to be business-minded as well as creative. You can’t be afraid to put yourself out there.”
Kevin admits that facing his fears of leaving home and moving to Los Angeles all those years ago wasn’t easy, but it has definitely paid off. Following his dream to completion has led to a long list of impressive credits and even more projects on the horizon. “At the end of the day the reward is when you listen back to what you’ve created, you like it and it feels good. So yes, to me it is a job, but a very rewarding job. Some days are pure joy!”
You can follow Kevin on instagram and Facebook at Kevin Manthei Music as well as his website:

photos by Joie de Vivre photographie