By Aiyonna White
I talked to the creative minds behind some of your favorite music pieces in your favorite T.V. shows! I had the chance to interview Ryan Elder, Tim Kiefer, Mark Rivers, and Tom Howe about composing for animation, comics, and their favorite music genres! I also self-indulgently ask them about choir music and show off my music tattoo as an attempt of camaraderie.
Elder is a television and film composer best known for his work on Rick and Morty. He has also composed music for The Wizards of Waverly Place and the upcoming Boss Baby television series.
Q: Can you tell me how you got into composing?
A: When I was a kid my family was very musical. I took violin lessons when I was five and my dad had a little recording studio in our home, and he would help me write songs and produce them. I would write boyband songs when I was seven. So I’ve always been in music then in college I got a degree in composition, and after college, I had an opportunity to do an internship at a company that did music for commercials. I started working with them and I did commercial music for about 11 years and then during that time I became friends with the creators of Rick and Morty and they brought me on when it was time to do the show.
Q: How much freedom do you get in composing music or picking which songs go into an episode?
A: For picking the songs, I’m not involved in that, generally. That’s some other people. Showrunners or producers pick the songs. For the original music that I write, I actually get a ton of freedom. Basically, they send me the cuts with no music and I just do whatever I want. I get a lot of freedom. They generally like what I do and don’t have a ton of notes for me. What you hear is my idea. It’s pretty sweet. I’m pretty lucky.
Q: You have some great songs. My friends and I sang “Get Schwifty” for at least a year after we saw the episode.
Q: In the video you did with “Great Big Story” you talked about musical easter eggs. Can you tell me another one?
A: [laughter] I think when we filmed that episode seven of season three wasn’t out yet… it’s hard to explain. They’re not so point-outable as the “Jerry Daycare” one I mentioned in that video. In episode seven, I think it’s called “The Ricklantis Mixup,” I created a whole new sound of music for that episode. So there’s a lot of callbacks to the same sort of thematic material in that episode which I don’t always do. I barely ever use the theme song as a part of the score, just a couple of times. One time when Pickle Rick jumps out of the toilet, and stuff like that… so… yeah. Sorry, it’s not the most satisfying answer.
Q: That’s okay. Can you tell me about the process that you go through when you’re composing a piece?
A: I try to be as informed by the story that’s being told as much as possible. For me, the most important thing is helping to tell the story. The first thing I usually do is watch the episode and figure out, “Okay, do I have any questions about what’s happening here- questions about character motivations-is the audience supposed to feel tense in this scene or are the characters tense and we’re not?” For me, the first step is just nailing down, “What moods do I need to hit here to tell the story the way that Justin and Dan, the creators, want?” Then, after that, it’s like… as with any composer we all have like a bag of tricks that we pull from. And I could get really inside baseball and tell you like “Oh, I use the tremolo strings when I need this and blah blah blah,” but the basic thing is, I have the sounds that I go to for different moods and it’s all dependent on the mood or the story that needs to be told.
Q: Are some things easier to score than others?
A: Absolutely. There’s definitely scenes where the music is very much taking a backseat and in those scenes, it’s a lot of just pressing one note on the keyboard for a long time. Those are easy, right? Some are like very much more challenging, like writing the songs. “Goodbye Moonmen,” that was like a process. It didn’t take me very long once I started writing the music but I needed to prepare by listening to a bunch of David Bowie and figuring out how those lyrics were gonna work… y’know… it just depends.
Q: Just really quick, did you do “Get Schwifty”? Was that you?
A: I did not. I’ll talk about it in the panel, actually.
Q: I’m so sorry.
A: No, that’s okay. Because… this is one of the questions from the panel, actually, but those songs were done for a really small flash game that Adult Swim released. It was a mobile game or something. Morty finds Summer’s iPod in that game, and on the iPod, there’re three songs, and they all are featured in Season 2. “Get Schwifty” and “Head Bent Over” are two of them. Justin just improvised those lyrics over some stock music. When it came time to do the episode of “Get Schwifty” all the writers loved those songs so much from the game they said, “Let’s do a whole episode based around these songs,” At that point, it was like, “Let’s not reinvent the wheel. These songs are funny. Let’s keep the music as is.” I wasn’t really involved with them. I mean, I kinda mixed and mastered to make them sound good for T.V. but for the most part, it was just Justin improvising lyrics over these stock music.
Q: What do you like to listen to in your free time?
A: I like a lot of moody… [laughter] I listen to sad music. My wife always gives me shit about it but right now I’m into Sufjan Stevens–
Q: I love him!
A: Yeah, Carrie & Lowell, I think is like one of the best records of all time.
Q: When he sang at the Oscars I was just [grabs chest dramatically].
A: Ugh. So good. And then, I’m into this band Tennis, if you know Tennis. One of the reasons I got into them is because they invited me to their show. They’re big fans of Rick and Morty, so it’s like, “Oh, I’ll become fans of you guys then,”…y’know, I tend to listen to… if I’m going to listen to new stuff it’s a lot of stuff that my friends and people I know are working on. That’s the short answer.
Q: So, I’m really into choir.
Q: Just out of curiosity, have you ever sung in a choir?
A: I was in my high school choir and then in college, I was in an acapella group. The Macalester Traditions, I’ll shout them out. It was fun. [laughter] I learned a lot about-because I would do arrangements for them, in addition to singing- I would arrange a lot of the songs that we sang. So I learned a lot of stuff doing that, that I use on a regular basis. All the background vocals on “Goodbye Moonmen” are stuff that I would have done in the acapella group for sure. I want to hear an acapella group do “Goodbye Moonmen,” I hope there’s one out there that wants to try it.
Q: Do you have a favorite composer right now?
A: My all time favorite film composer is Jerry Goldsmith. I’m super influenced by him a lot. I mean, he was a master, and just incredible. He did some of my favorite movies, and certainly some of my favorite scores, like “The Planet of the Apes” score. It’s just mind-blowing. Whenever I get stuck on Rick and Morty, i’ll just put on the “Alien” score or something and try to be inspired by that. He’s definitely up there.
Q: What other music do you listen to?
A: I’ll just list off things. We just got Spotify, so I’ve been re-exploring stuff from when I was in high school and I’m old, so it’s all 90’s alternative stuff. I’m also way into… went way down the rabbit hole into “New Jack Swing” which is a style of music that was only around for like, five years in the late 80’s early 90’s. It was really specific. Bobby Brown, Ronnie DeVoe, these bands that did this really specific style of music. I got way into that and just started listening to every song I could find of that. As far as new stuff, I really like Miike Snow, if you know that group… Haim. I like pop music that is not radio pop music, but it’s pop-y. Things with good hooks, good melodies, that’s what I look for in what I listen to for fun. It’s hard as a composer, I will say, and I bet these other guys here with me today will say the same thing. When your hobby becomes your job, then your job is your hobby. You don’t really want to listen to more music on your time off. So I listen to a lot of comedy podcasts and stuff like that.
Q: Which ones?
A: I’m a huge “Comedy Bang! Bang!” Fan. My friend’s podcast “Beyond Yacht Rock Podcast” is really good. They come up with a new genre of music every week. It’s really fun. Any of the Earwolf stuff, the Comedy Bang! Bang! Spin-offs. I listen to my bosses podcast “Harmontown”, fairly regularly to see what’s going on with him. I shouldn’t tell him I listen to that. [laughter] I’ve been getting into the true crime podcasts like everyone else.
Q: Do you read comics?
A: When I was a kid I collected them. In the 90’s there was this huge boom when Image and Valiant were new publishers and everyone wanted them. I collected them because I thought they were gonna worth something. I read them, too- which I know is not a good combo. Reading them, and thinking they’re going to be worth something don’t really go well together. But, I haven’t read comics much lately. But I like comics, actually. I have so many hobbies. I play Magic: The Gathering all the time. I just have too many hobbies. Can’t make time for everything.
Follow Ryan Elder on Twitter: @RyanElderMusic
Originally posted on CherryLA.