Red Stewart chats with composer Mark Mothersbaugh…
Mark Mothersbaugh is an American composer who has been working in the film, television, and video game industries since the 1970s. He is best known for co-founding the band Devo, as well as his work on projects like Rugrats, Thor: Ragnarok, and The LEGO Movie.
Flickering Myth has the privilege to speak with him to promote the Blu-ray release of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou as part of the Criterion Collection, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it.
First off, let me just say that it’s a complete honor to be speaking with you. I’ve talked to a lot of people in the industry, but you’re someone whose work I have always admired, not only because you composed music for some of my favorite childhood shows, but also for movies and video games that I have enjoyed over the years.
Oh, well I hope I don’t ruin it in the next 20 minutes. [laughs]
[laughs] So, to start things off, you are unique among other composers. Usually a musician will go to school, meet a filmmaker, and begin collaborating with them, thereby starting their career. But you’re different in that you began with a rock band called Devo. What was it like being a part of a band? Did those experiences working with other musicians and going on tours prepare you for your eventual transition into film where you have to work with different directors and move around a lot?
Well, quite honestly we were artists: playing music was only part of what we were doing. We identified more with the Dadas and the futurists from Italy and Suprematists from Russia who made fun of man and his center of the universe attitude. And we kind of brought our own flavor into it with our interest in de-evolution and our interpretation of de-evolution, which was that man was the only insane species of animal on the planet. We were the insane species that was out of touch with Nature. And we wanted to talk about that. And the band took on importance because we got signed onto a record deal, and it kind of gave a lopsided appearance of what we were about. For example, we made our first film before we made our first single.
So, I don’t know. I’ll tell you what being in a band did for me. I learned to write 12 songs, rehearse them for a couple of months, go record them for a couple of weeks, make videos about one or two of the songs, and put together a live show. Jerry [Casale] and I designed costumes and we did all the album covers and things like that, and then we’d go out on tour. And then a year later I’d get to write 12 more songs. We did that for like six or seven albums and then a friend of mine, Paul Reuben, said “would you score my TV show?” And he sent me a tape and on Monday I wrote enough music for 12 songs. On Tuesday I recorded them, on Wednesday I put it in the mail and sent it back to New York, on Thursday they edited it into the TV series, on Saturday we watched it on TV, and on Monday they sent me another tape. And, to me, I preferred creating music constantly instead of spending a year going out and performing songs where everything took so long. You know, I love the idea of getting to write another album’s worth of music every week.
In that regard, I can’t say that being in a band was what was attractive about going over to composing other than I preferred one over the other. However, I did learn how to work with smaller groups. Like for TV or small independent movies, doing Devo did give me training for working with smaller teams of people.
That makes sense that being in a band would have a lot of differences than working in the industry. But you mentioned the Dadas, and I know that you don’t just do music: you’re also a visual artist. And I’m wondering, I know a lot of other musicians like to incorporate sociopolitical themes into their work like Moby and environmentalism. But when it comes to being an actual artist, did your work as a musician influence that in a way, or was it the opposite where being an artist has influenced your work as a composer?
I think it was mutual because we weren’t solely visual artists, that’s why we were making film and making music. We saw ourselves as artists that worked in whatever medium was necessary to get the message across. And both of them influenced the other. Even when we were doing Devo, we sometimes had an idea of something we wanted to put in a film and then we’d write a song to support that. And vice-versa: we saw things that we thought would be interesting from a film. It could either start with a visual or it could start with music. More often, though, we would write the music first.
But our influences came from all over and back and forth.
Yeah, thinking about it, I suppose it would not just be a one-way relationship. Speaking of visuals, I’ve noticed that you’ve done a lot of visual-heavy movies like animated pictures or films where the cinematography is famous for using colors and bringing out the production. Like, you’ve of course collaborated a lot with Wes Anderson, and he famously does that with the mise-en-scène of all his films. Has your life as a visual artist been the reason you’ve sought out projects that happen to have important aesthetics?
You know, I am attracted to animation. The way a film looks really influences the way I write music. It’s like you can read a script and you get an idea of it, you can imagine what somebody is going to do when they shoot and edit it. But it’s not until you really see it that you know what the pacing is going to be or how intense the colors are going to be. Like Wes’s movies, he kind of has his own look, which is pretty great and you definitely notice that. And it’s inspiring.
Well, going off of that, how come you didn’t score Fantastic Mr. Fox given your relationship with Mr. Anderson and love for animation?
That’s more of a question for him, but I can tell you what was going on with my life at the time. He asked me to come to France to work on it with him and he called me up and I said “during the next two months I am going to be adopting a child from China and bringing her back and I’m going to spend time with her before I start work again.” So I kind of took off work right at the time where he wanted me to come over there. And that could have been the reason. He might have some other story for you, but that’s what I attribute it to.
And [Alexandre Desplat] is a good composer, and they’ve had good luck together. I would love to work with [Wes] again, but it’s his call.
Let’s talk about your more recent works then. Last year you did Thor: Ragnarok, this year you did the IMAX Panda documentary. And I actually work at a branch of the Smithsonian, so I’ve seen it a lot.
Oh god sorry.
[laughs] You’ve done those, you’re doing The LEGO Movie Part 2, Hotel Transylvania 3. When it comes to what projects you choose to do, is it more like you just hear the pitch and you say “yes I’ll do it” or is it more you’re drawn to the subject matter? Cause obviously Pandas is significantly different from Thor.
Well, that’s the third movie I’ve done with [director David Douglas] who did the Pandas movie. We did one about orphan elephants and baby orangutans, and we did one about lemurs. And I’ll be honest with you, I started working with him because of my kids. They influenced me to that. And I’m glad they did because I really love collaborating with him. His documentaries are all upbeat; it’s just kind of a nice, fun area to be working in. And you learn something about the planet that you didn’t know about before, so that’s part of the reason why I took the Pandas film.
But sometimes there are other reasons. Like with Thor, I was never a particular fan of Marvel movies: superhero things just weren’t my cup of tea necessarily. But I really wanted to work with the director, Taika Waititi, cause in some ways I feel like he’s a New Zealand version of Wes Anderson, and I like his sensibilities. I don’t know if you saw Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but he did one of the more imaginative juxtapositions of minimal 70s electronic music with the lush green New Zealand outback. He did such an amazing mash-up there that at first you’re listening to it and watching it and going “these two don’t match.” But then, as the movie goes on, you’re like “oh, he’s a genius.”
So yeah, different things make you want to work on different projects. With [Christopher Miller and Phil Lord], I first worked with them on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and it was such a slim book that I wasn’t sure if anybody could make a movie out of it, and they ended up creating two interesting films from it. And then we did a film called 21 Jump Street, and I remember I went and watched a part of the original TV series it was based on, and I was like “this is the worst show I’ve ever seen. [laughs] How could they make a movie from it?” And they made a great movie. And then [The Lego Movie] was the same thing. Everybody thought they were going to make a baby movie, and they made something really great.
So different projects have different things. And as you do more it becomes….you know, you don’t want the challenge of every single project, and there’s some of them that you’re just able to go “you know, somebody else deserves it.” [laughs] And so you pass on it. But I do take the ones that strike my fancy in some way.
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