Kevin Costner Headlines Inaugural Malibu Guitar Festival, Reveals Musical Influences

Myriam Santos

The 'Black or White' star tells THR that the music fest “gives me my best chance of having an authentic relationship with a bunch of people without it turning into autographs or pictures.”

Kevin Costner headlined the first annual Malibu Guitar Festival last weekend, an event that saw dozens of musicians performing in several venues. Guitarist Robby Krieger of the Doors performed at an opening night fundraiser for the Malibu Boys and Girls Club & Little Kids Rock at Casa Escobar. The restaurant was formerly the World Famous Malibu Inn, a singular concert venue that was run by Neil Young as the Crazy Horse Saloon for a time in the 1970s.

The festival was organized by Jimmy Kimmel Live! executive producer Doug DeLuca. “Every household in Malibu has a guitar and every other household has a hack or a legend guitarist,” he says. “The goal is in years to come that everywhere you look — the pier, the park — there is a jam happening. We want to have guitarists teaching all weekend and to have two-minute solo contests where you're running guitarists up against each other. We want to have a night of a thousand guitars and break a world record on the beach with a thousand guitars jamming to the same song — like ‘My Sweet Lord.’ It’s like bring your surfboard, bring your guitar and come eat great food, listen to great music and have fun.”

Costner performed on Sunday with his band Modern West in the lot beside the lagoon in the Malibu Village shopping center. Opening acts that day included White Buffalo and phenom Orianthi, known for her performances with Michael Jackson and Carrie Underwood. Costner plays a brand of music not too different in tone from his more heartfelt films. He spoke with THR about his music and how it relates to his work as an actor.

Your growing musical career seems to be the epitome of a passion project.

Yeah, this band has been together for about 10 years. Not many people know about it, but we have played around the world. That wasn’t even planned, but that’s what has happened. Two guys in this band were in the first band I ever played in, so I just decided to play music. And we have played really a lot of places — it’s surprising.

I have a feeling about music that a lot of people do. It seeps into my work and it seeps into my life. I like to play live. I like the drama of it all. I like the communal feeling about it and I feel like it gives me my best chance of having an authentic relationship with a bunch of people without it turning into autographs or pictures. Some of our songs are about when we’re in the fifth grade and some of them are about Iraq and some of them are about people dying and some of them are about falling in love and some of them are about how come we are in love [laughs]. You have to become a fifth grader again or you’re really not thinking back. Mark Twain says if a man’s lived his life correctly he’s never forgotten his childhood.

And to be able to perform with your daughter Lily — that seems like an amazing opportunity for both of you.

Yes, she’s a singer songwriter herself. Lily had a song on our last record, Famous for Killing Each Other — it’s a concept record about the Hatfields and McCoys. She came out when we were shooting [the 2012 History channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys], she went home and wrote this song and we put out this album. So she was in town for the festival and I said let’s play.

What musicians or artists in other forms have inspired you?

I was trained classically on the piano and I got my music out of the church — the Baptist church. And my grandmother played piano, so I ended up training classically on the piano for about four years. But I came up in kind of a blue-collar background, so I didn’t think that was a way a person could make a living. I don’t think my parents shined on that idea. It was the same for acting.

But I grew up in the sixties and I love the diversity of music. I like the Four Seasons as much as I like the Doors. I like Motown as much as I like Carole King. I love melody and I love structure — in any form — when I hear rap or anything else. But my music is pretty structured. I’ve been influenced by a lot of things. I’m a James Taylor guy, a Springsteen guy, a Carole King guy. My problem is that I like all those people and then our music ends up sounding like our music. I think you’ve got to just be a complete asshole to just love your own music. I think in life you love other people’s music more, but you think I want to do that too, so here’s my song.

All the band writes and a lot of times our songs don’t make the grade and I have to decide that. That’s what I do — I break all the ties in my band and I think I’m pretty good at making sure the cream gets to the top. I have a very good feel for my own work and if it is not good enough then it just does not make it.

Could we ever see you score a film? Is that something that you would want to take on?

John Debney was kind enough to use four or five of our tunes in his scoring of Hatfields & McCoys. The band has been very interested in scoring, so I have brought them in and explained to them as much as I could about how to do it. And movie sets are where most of our songs are written. I have a tendency to do more music when I am making movies. We always say — when we go off to tour we say ‘Oh, this will be great — we’ll write all this f—ing music. It will be great.’ We don’t write anything when we go out to play. We don’t write a single song that I can remember from the nine years of going on tour. But when I tour with the band I write screenplays. And vice versa. When I am making movies, it seems like the pressure is off and we do better with the music.

In McFarland, [USA, Costner’s February 2015 film about a high school cross country team], there was a song that I mentioned to the director, Niki Caro, and she put it in the movie — in the quinceanera scene — so once in a while I’ll put my two cents in. It’s like with the Dolly Parton song ‘I Will Always Love You’ [from 1992’s The Bodygaurd]. I really knew that was the song I wanted her to sing. People were like, wait a second, Whitney Houston singing a song from Dolly Parton? I don’t think so. I said I do think so and here’s the bad news — she’s going to do it a capella for the first half of the song. 

There are powerful issues of race and social justice in your recent films. The fact that you produced Black or White yourself speaks to how important this subject is to you right now. Do you have other projects planned that further this discussion?

Right now I am just doing a movie where I stab a bunch of people. I guess I’ve lost my moral compass here — my North Star. I’m doing a pretty commercial movie [Criminal, 2016, directed by Ariel Vromen and starring Gary Oldman and Tommy Lee Jones] where I play a criminal. But I have those kinds of movies in my head and I will make them. It’s not easy — I had to finance Black or White myself, so I did that. Then I’ll go make another movie so that I can make a movie like that. That’s how I work — so then I can go make a western. I think I can make a western that is really poignant to people, where you think you just saw yourself. I think I can do that. That may sound odd. But for me when you make a western the obligation is to create an architecture where you think I put you in the movie, and you kind of go ‘What would I do just now. What the f— would I really do?!’ Because then you measure yourself up against how guys had to act 100, 120 years ago — and you realize it’s different. And so I like creating those situations and so for me those kinds of movies have an equal meaning to me.