Interview: Cobra Kai Composers Leo Birenberg & Zach Robinson

For those of you living under a rock these past several years, there’s a little show called Cobra Kai on Netflix that continues the story of The Karate Kid trilogy — and it absolutely rocks! With a fourth season on the way, ComingSoon.net reached out to series composers Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson, who were kind enough to discuss their musical approach to the ongoing adventures of Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence.

Oh, and if that weren’t enough, the duo was excited to reveal the upcoming Cobra Kai – Original Soundtrack 3XLP from Mondo — a must-have for fans of the show.

Here are some more details from Mondo’s site:

“Mondo and Madison Gate Records are proud to present the premiere vinyl release of Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson’s incredible score to the Netflix streaming phenomenon Cobra Kai. The 3 disc vinyl set features music from the first 3 seasons of the hit series, curated by the composers into themed collections of music: Disc 1: Cobra Kai – a mix of music scoring the most badass dojo in the Valley, Disc 2: MIYAGI-DO – selections from the music scoring the LaRusso family and its ties to the Miyagi legacy, and last but not least Disc 3: FINAL FIGHTS – the music from all three of the explosive season finale episodes. All of the music has been hand-selected, and in some cases expanded from its original form, for the most definitive Cobra Kai listening experience available.

The Mondo Exclusive version comes with a Bonus cassette.”

Purchase this amazing collection here!

[As an aside, we did ask about Cobra Kai Season 4, which Zach and Leo answered enthusiastically. However, in order to avoid spoilers, we refrained from printing their response. Suffice to say, fans are going to dig Season 4!]

Jeff Ames: What drew each of you to Cobra Kai?

Robinson: So a few things, one of which was Leo and I, before Cobra Kai had been announced, really before we knew what it was, I saw in the trades that there was a Karate Kid sequel show being made by YouTube Red and Leo and I had just done a project for YouTube Red — that was a small show called Sing It! — and we had had that relationship with them as a network, so we figured, “Why don’t we have our agent just kind of look into this, because it seems very much up our alley.” We have no idea what the show is. We did not know Ralph Macchio was coming back. We did not know Billy Zabka was coming back. We didn’t know the tone of the show. We didn’t know anything. We just said, we have the relationship with YouTube Red.

We also like to identify as ’80s enthusiasts, especially me. That was one of the things that drew us to [the project]. Then what ended up happening was we put together a reel — kind of a spec reel — like, we don’t know what you’re asking for, but this is what we think Cobra Kai should sound like. And a lot of the stuff on that reel definitely translated into what we have now, because [when] Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald, and Hayden Schlossberg heard it, it immediately clicked. And they’re like, “How did these guys know what we were going for without hearing anything about the show or reading the script?” It was one of those synergistic things that the universe brought us together. But we also very actively sought it out and it just happened to work out that way we were very fortunate.

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What was on the demo tape?

Birenberg: It was all our music and it was a mix of big action — there was a very cinematic component to it because Zach and I’s background, when we were getting started in the industry, was working on some pretty big movies. So we had these big action cues to just show the cinematic scope a bit and we had a lot of 80s inspired pieces that — Zach has this parallel music project called D/A/D that’s amazing, first of all, and a treasure trove of hip hop sound — but I think what really tied it all together is before this, we had been working on some comedy shows where we had been continually asked to write “training montages,” but always as a joke, because any TV show on television, if you make enough episodes of it, somebody will be like, “We gotta do an 80s training montage,” like around the yard, run off the steps; and they always want some kind of ’80s, Rocky-like, “Eye of the Tiger”-inspired kind of thing.

We had put at least one of these training montage tracks on this reel because, even though we knew nothing about the show, we couldn’t imagine that they could do Cobra Kai and not have training montages be a major part of the equation. So, we put that front and center on there and when we got into a meeting with Jon, Josh, and Hayden, they were like, “This is what we wanted!” It was such a springboard for our relationship with them. Basically, our pitch to them in the meeting was “We keep getting asked to write ’80s training montages, and it’s always a joke! We want a genuine 80s-inspired training montage where we are in it with the characters for real!” And they were like, “That’s the show we’re making! Let’s do it!” And the rest is history.

One of the interesting aspects of the show is how it’s able to poke fun at the previous Karate Kid films while still serving as a sequel.

Birenberg: Exactly. The show is super self-aware. So, it pokes fun at itself as a property and franchise through those moments of awareness, but it’s never a joke.

How do you determine how much of Bill Conti’s score to use alongside the new material?

Robinson: It starts out mostly as a directive or a creative choice from the creators. They generally, especially in the first couple of seasons, there are a lot [of callbacks] when you’re getting back into this world or when you reintroduce a legacy character or a location like Okinawa, those are times where they do want to needle drop a piece of score from The Karate Kid. Or, if there’s a character that comes back, same type of thing. We’re in the middle of our fourth season, but we have three seasons of lots of themes that we’ve created for the show that are new. You know, Johnny has a theme, Daniel has a theme, etc. Everyone has a theme and we spend a lot of time using those and we get a lot of mileage out of them.

I think we tend to want to use those because this is a different story; and we feel that when they choose to use Conti for a specific reason that it’s really for that nostalgia of, “Hey, remember this from this movie?” There are times where we quote some of Conti’s theme, there’s a particular theme that we use fairly frequently, but we only use that again when there’s a very clear reference to something from the original film. We try our hardest to — as much as we love Conti’s theme and we honor it and the show honors it — this is our show. One of our biggest challenges was, “How do we call follow in Bill Conti’s footsteps?” So we’re constantly aware of it. And we’re just happy that we were able to successfully navigate all of that.

Can I just nerd out a bit here, but one of the defining moments of the first season of Cobra Kai was the moment where Daniel starts training again, and you work in “Daniel’s Moment of Truth,” which I thought was brilliant.

Robinson: That’s a perfect example of the guys Jon, Josh, and Hayden knowing when to utilize those Conti moments, because when they do it’s a really great, big part of the story and that’s an excellent example.

Birenberg: A huge part of those moments being so successful was that those are the original recordings — with making it sound like 2021, pristine or rearranged, or beefy. That’s the original recording. So, it’s a double punch of that nostalgia for the fans.

How would you say the music has evolved now, especially considering the way the show expanded in Season 3 — going to Vietnam, bringing back even more familiar faces, etc.?

Birenberg: Well, it just gets more and more fun to tell you the truth, because like Zach said, we’ve been setting up themes for all of these characters and concepts and rivalries … there’s so many themes and you get to a season, like Season 3, where suddenly we’re in Okinawa with Daniel and we’re digging up ancient Miyagi Do teachings. Meanwhile, you’ve got Kreese who’s already come back from the dead, basically, and now you’re getting this flashback to Vietnam and suddenly turning him into a lot of shades of gray. Half the season you’re cheering for him and the other half you’re not cheering for him, like in parallel. We basically just get to go hog wild with our thematic development and find more ways to weave things together and find new ways of interpreting melodies or material.

I think one other thing that is really exciting about that is that the pool of influences for Zach and I really opens up when you start suddenly bringing Vietnam war movies into it and anime or samurai epics. Suddenly, there’s just more for us to draw inspiration from, because Zach and I, we really like doing things that are stylized in such a way that it’s totally new music, but can also be evocative of the same feeling one might get when you are watching an animated movie or something, or a Western, or a war movie — we love tapping into those pallets.

Robinson: We’re constantly, like, wink, wink, nudge, nudging in our music. If you get it, you get it. And a lot of people get it. Sometimes you don’t get it, just enjoy!

RELATED: Netflix’s Cobra Kai Season 4 Finally Wraps Production

What is the one thing this show has taught you from a musical perspective as a composer?

Robinson: That’s an interesting question. There’s two parts. One part is it has taught me that I am able to get things done on a tight deadline. (Laughs) I am capable of physically surviving and doing that. So that’s one. And then on a more emotional level, it has proven to me, I think our dreams as composers, in general, is to write music that we’re proud of, and the show has proven to me that it is possible, to be able to successfully use your voice and feel creatively fulfilled. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into it between me and Leo and our whole team that helps us out. I think everyone is just incredibly passionate about the project. Every year, as you can tell, it just pushes us to our limits.

Birenberg: I will say one thing that I think is really fun for me and I think I can speak for Zach too, is unlocking the power of collaboration — and Zach and I are really lucky in that. We do a lot of stuff and a lot of times we work separately and sometimes we work together and it’s a different creative process. As a result, you write things you wouldn’t otherwise, write when you’re locked in a room by yourself. I think we both really enjoy that constant back and forth during the couple of months, every year, that we are working on Cobra Kai — they’re the most fun months of the year. Like Zach said, we just create something that we’re super, super, super proud of, and so I’m just really thankful that we have that outlet.