To children of the 80s, Mark Mothersbaugh is best known as the lead singer of the new wave band Devo, whose hit song "Whip It" rocketed them to stardom. After the singer and his Devo band mates went their separate ways, he moved on to a new career as a film and TV composer, crafting the theme song for Pee-wee's Playhouse and providing the scores for Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, Slaughterhouse Rock and a number of other movies, short films and TV shows throughout the 1990s. He gained a whole new fan base by composing the scores for early Wes Anderson films such as Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, proving himself to be one of the most versatile composers in the business. The musician reunites with his Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 and 21 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller for The Lego Movie, which has earned nearly $200 million worldwide after less than two weeks in theaters.
I recently had the chance to speak with the musician about how he first got started composing scores for movies and television, how he likes to bring a distinct style to each project, producing The Lego Movie's hit song "Everything Is Awesome," how he helped get Phil Lord and Chris Miller their job directing The Lego Movie, and future projects such as 22 Jump Street. Take a look at what Mark Mothersbaugh had to say in our exclusive interview.
Can you first talk about your transition from Devo into the world of film scoring? Was this a world you had always been interested in?
Mark Mothersbaugh: No, it was kind of accidental. Devo had kind of entered a cocooned siesta/hibernation state, and my friend Paul Reubens had called me up and said, 'Would you score my TV show?' He would send me a tape on Monday, I would write the music for a whole episode on Tuesday, we'd record it on Wednesday, send it back to New York on Thursday, they'd edit it into the show and the censors at NBC would see it on Friday, then, Saturday morning, it would be on TV. It was kind of exciting. It was like this instant gratification. It was different than being in a band, where you spend three months writing 12 songs, you record them for a month, then you make a video and go on tour for six or seven months, and a year later, you get to do another 12 songs. All of the sudden, every week, I was doing 12 songs with the music, and I loved that idea. I like performing, but I like the writing part better than spending all that time on the road.
I saw the film on opening weekend, and I loved it, along with, it seems, the rest of the country.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Oh, thanks.
'Everything is Awesome' was such a fantastic song. I saw you produced that song, but did you write that as well?
Mark Mothersbaugh: The song was, the idea of it, was in the script. Phil and Chris, before I came on to start scoring, they had already written the song with a friend. It's a smart thing. The song starts off as this irritating, mnemonic device, like the whip on people's backs, like another dose of caffeine to get you out of your house, into your car and going to work. It's this irritating song, but just because of the story line, when you get to the end, it transforms into a song where it's about people cooperating to do something bigger than they could have done by themselves. It takes on this whole other meaning, and it was clever writing on the part of Phil and Chris, really.
Did they have the music worked out as well then, or just the lyrics?
Mark Mothersbaugh: They had the irritating (laughs) 30-second TV commercial done, and I embedded it into the movie with orchestras and different instruments and singers.
I know that composers usually come onto projects fairly late. Since this is animated, were you on fairly early?
Mark Mothersbaugh: I was on pretty early, more so than with other films. This is my fourth movie I've did with these directors. And, in a way, they should be thanking me. I got them the job. Five years ago, the producers for the movie called me up, and they wanted me to help them do a presentation for Warner Bros., of another script for The Lego Movie. It was a totally different script. It took place in a bachelor's dirty apartment, and it was mostly live-action, but there were a little bit of Lego characters in it. It was a totally different story, and while we were talking, I was telling them about these guys I was working on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with. I said, 'You guys should check them out. We just did this movie and it came out really great. They're good writer-directors.' So, they probably should give me their agency, but they haven't offered it yet.
That's awesome. I saw there were a couple of different writers on board before them, so I assume that's the version you're talking about. It sounds like it was the complete opposite.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah, they were totally different beasts. These guys are really good at taking those kinds of projects... I remember when they told me they were going to do 21 Jump Street, and I went online and looked at it on YouTube, I thought, 'This is the lamest TV show I've ever seen' (Laughs). They ended up making a movie that was really funny, so they're kind of good at that.
Oh yeah. I remember there was a lot of skepticism about 21 Jump Street.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah, their composer was wondering too.
Even Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs as well. You look at a book like that, and it doesn't exactly scream a cinematic adaptation. It must be a real thrill to work with guys like that.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah, you do it for awhile, and you try and find the people you want to work with a second time or a third time, because there are a lot of people out here who are either neurotic or difficult to work with. Some of them even love their work, but after you get through with the process, it wasn't worth it. These are the guys you want to hang on to. Things are good so far. We're starting another one tomorrow, 22 Jump Street.
Oh, you're just starting to work on that?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah. I've been writing sketches for themes for the last couple of days, but I don't really come to work until tomorrow.
In this film, we see a bunch of different Lego universes. What kinds of things do you look for as inspiration, when coming up with themes for Cloud Cuckoo Land and things like that? Do you look at the toy sets, or other things to try and find the right music?
Mark Mothersbaugh: You know, I have to say, I didn't grow up with Lego bricks. I don't think they existed when I was a kid. I think we had Lincoln Logs or something else. When I saw early animation tests, and they had made big giant ocean waves crashing, and then there's a pirate ship rolling on the waves, and it's made out of millions of tiny Lego bricks, it kind of got me excited for the possibilities of how to you make the sound of Lego bricks? And how to you bring Lego bricks to life? I started playing with a lot of electronic things, because I knew you could go further and faster with electronics. I dug through my old Devo synthesizers and even newer stuff like Circuit Bent things, and stuff like Skrillex. I just came up with a palette I really liked, that had a plastic, living Lego block feel. Then, with animation, you just really need an orchestra to make things feel like they're alive. I don't know if people have done much animation, big animation, that you don't have a full orchestra to get that feeling. In this movie, I had 100 players and a 40-piece choir, and all those people are singing and playing, but what they bring that a lot of people don't notice is underneath everything, their hearts are beating and there's blood going through their veins and they're moving bows in real time. It's not like a synth, where you're just hitting a note and morphing into whatever it does. It's something about breathing humans making the sound, and I think that translates with an orchestra. I think it's important for animation because there are so many things you lose from live film, when you're shooting a little plastic Lego face, or if you're shooting Toy Story or whatever. The music has a lot to do with bringing animation to life.
What I liked about it too was there are all these little nods in the movie, like when I was a kid playing with Legos, I would make these weird sounds when the trucks would go off, or the ships would go off. It was so fun to see that come to life as well.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah, then you see kids play with them and they're obsessed. Then I find out how many adults are obsessed with Legos. Once I started working on the film about a year ago, I found out I have a lot of friends, either in animations or the art world, they go to Lego conventions and they talk about master Lego builders. They give them a plastic bag that's black so you can't see inside it, but you can feel the bricks, and you have to build something, and you're in a race with three other people. That's crazy. But it's impressive that Legos have permeated the world like that.
Mark Mothersbaugh: I think, musically, I'm going to lean a little heavier on electronics than I did last time. I'll revisit some of the themes, and then we need new themes. I hope I'm not ruining it for anybody, but the main characters (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill), they have a split and they break up for a big part of the film. It's pretty emotional, yeah (Laughs). Maybe this is a spoiler, but they do get back together in the end. It's a different kind of project, but it's a lot of fun. I just working in film. I will use some of the orchestral themes from the original. That's what's great about sequels, but there are about three or four new themes that I've already identified, so I'm in between phone calls, working on those.
Is there any chance of getting back together with either Devo or Wes Anderson? I know there are a lot of fans of your work on his films.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Probably both. You know, the thing with the director, I have to be honest, I don't use the same engineer every time, you know. There are different people who do different things, so you look for somebody, and sometimes, you're not always looking to go back to the same place. He's trying to figure out what his voice is. If I was a director, I might not use the same composer on every film. I worked on Moonrise Kingdom, but I worked on more esoteric things, and it actually lead me in a good direction in other places in my life. In watching early footage from Moonrise Kingdom, he gave me footage of the kids running through the woods, but there was no sound on the film. I kept thinking there should be some nature sounds in here. It sounds really unnatural without hearing birds, and I have about 150 bird calls here at my studio. It made me start playing bird calls, and I forgot about the movie, and just started writing music for bird calls. I've been doing that for about a year and a half now, because of that movie. And Devo, I hate to say it, but I think we're going to go out and play some more shows this year, because that's just what we do. We play every year. We did three weeks in Australia with Simple Minds, and three weeks in the U.S. with Blondie last year. It will happen again.
That's my time. Thanks so much, Mark. I'm a big fan of your work.
Mark Mothersbaugh: OK, take care.