When I heard that Mark Mothersbaugh, former DEVO frontman and film and television composer extraordinaire, was coming to the Seattle International Film Festival to teach a Master Class on composing for film, I knew right away that I wanted to score an interview with him. Mothersbaugh was kind enough to sit down with me for almost 40 mintues to chat with me about his days with DEVO, how he transitioned from playing with a band to composing for films, and how life has changed now that he's finally a father.
Cinematical: I want to start with the obvious topic-- your work with DEVO and how that influenced the work you do today.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Well, DEVO was kind of like – that was the first statement I ever made as an artist, really, that was my first statement ... and in a way I think DEVO influences what I do now because I think of what I do now is permeations on a theme, always. There may be those who say, I don't see a direct link to DEVO, but I maybe – I feel like there's a direct link, even though it's sometimes obscure. I think I'm part of that group of artists who make their best statements when they're angry young men. I first started writing music with Gerry Casale in 1970, we were art students at Kent State. And our school was closed down because they shot some kids. We were protesting the war in Vietman.
Cinematical: So you were there at the Kent State Riot?
MM: Oh yeah, Gerry was four feet away from one of the girls who was shot. And, you know, we didn't think that was gonna happen, of course, but it changed our lives. The school got closed down for the rest of that spring and that summer. We couldn't go to school until fall again. And during that time, Gerry would come over to my house and we were writing music, and we were trying to describe what we saw going on around us on the planet. And we decided, we weren't seeing evolution, we were seeing de-evolution, devolving, and we kind of followed our souls -- we were musical reporters, reporting on the "good news" of things falling apart. And I think to some extent, there's still some of that in what I do today.
Cinematical: I've read that those early DEVO videos on MTV were not actually made for MTV.
MM: Right. We predicted, back in the early seventies -- we were like Amway salesmen for a concept that was: Sound and vision. And we truly believed that sound and vision were going to destroy rock-and-roll and change what popular entertainment was. And MTV to an extent – it didn't really do any damage to rock-and-roll at all, in fact it kind of became co-opted by rock-and-roll and kind of became the home network shopping channel for rock-and-roll and for record companies.
Our vision for it was that people who just wrote music, they wouldn't be the ones who would be creating the art and creating the direction that art was going to go in our culture. We thought it was going to be people who were visually and phonically oriented, both, combined. Instead, MTV created this thing where people like Fleetwood Mac, ZZ Top, everybody – they just started hiring commercial directors to come up with an idea for their songs, and it wasn't really music that was written with a visual idea or concept from the beginning. They weren't really one and the same. One was created to sell the other. And that was my disappointment with MTV.
Cinematical: That it started bands writing music for videos, rather than writing music for music's sake?
MM: Well, I thought that what was happening was -- there were other artists – there was a band out of Arizona called Tone Set, they were visual-audio artists who were doing what we did – creating short films and putting them in at film festivals. In 1976 The Truth About De-Evolution did a circuit of film festivals and won at Ann Arbor Film Festival -- it took first place for a short film. And that was all we could do with it. We'd put fliers up at clubs we'd play at, by that time we were playing at places like CBGBs, places like that, and before we came out to play we'd put a sheet up, and we'd pull out a 16mm film projector that we'd rented and show a couple of films, and then we'd come out and play. But I think that what I do now, although it's like -- it's collaborations with other people that don't always share -- that my vision isn't the center of what we're doing, that I'm facilitating their vision, I still think what I bring to the party is something that goes all the way back to the creation of that band.
Cinematical: Let's talk about the collaborative process when you're doing music for film. You've worked a lot with Wes Anderson, you did the music for Rugrats. So how does that process work for you, how much influence do you have on shaping the films you work on?
MM: Well I believe in the power of music. And that music is a big part of the film, and TV shows too. And I think if you watched TV shows without the music, you'd see that. I think you probably know examples of that yourself. I think music is really important. All the time, the jobs that you're asked to take on as a film composer are everything from: Create a special universe that's specific to this film, to ... almost every single film has scenes that the director says, we had a bad day that day, the actors weren't giving me what I wanted, or the location sucked, this or that, and they ask you to move this scene faster. And so I'll come in on a film that it seems like it's moving too slow, and you put the right music in you can speed it up, pump up the pace a little bit. Or just the opposite, you can slow things down or ground it or make people pay attention to something in the background, something you're supposed to pay attention to in the scene, you can musically cue the audience and help that stuff out. So I really like the job.
As far as it being a collaborative media, there aren't that many people who come out of music who can make a good transition to film or TV, and I think that's because albums -- when you have a band you're used to being the center of the activity. And with DEVO, that was the case with us too, you know, we're two sets of brothers, and it might say my name on a song, but everyone in the band contributed to that song. Everybody. We were able to say, I think we should slow that down, or change that chord, or change that rocket sound to a lawnmower sound instead. We'd try different things. So I was already very used to collaboration with people. It didn't feel awkward or out of control to have someone say to me: This is what I'm trying to do, can you help me. Or this is what I want the movie to feel like. I like those kind of assignments.
Cinematical: Ever had a director not like what you've done?
MM: Yeah. Sometimes that happens. Especially because I like to take chances when I write music. Like, even on this movie I just finished, I think the music came out really great, the director told me he loves the music. It's called The Dog Problem, it's a little independent film.
Cinematical: So you work with indie films too?
MM: Mostly now. To be honest with you, I've been gravitating more and more that direction because of the energy and the artistic freedom. The pay sucks, but (between) the quality of life, and what you're doing with your time, I enjoy it more.
Cinematical: Has that become more important to you?
MM: Yeah, I'm old enough now, it's like, what, am I gonna make an extra million bucks, or an extra hundred thousand bucks, if I do films that suck instead of films that could be great? And so I just kinda judge films on that.
Cinematical: So we should be sure to give your number to all those indie filmmakers out there ...
MM: Yeah, but it has to be a great film, because there are a lot of crappy indie films out there. Because people -- in all fairness, people are getting started, and there are a lot of problems that can be solved with money, and indie film doesn't have those options. You have to measure twice, cut once.
Cinematical: Have you seen any indie films lately that you thought, Wow, that was great -- I wish I'd done the music for that?
MM: Well, there's a couple I got offered to do that I wish I would have done. Thank You For Smoking -- I love that film. But I was going to China to adopt my baby, and there was a chance -- he (director Jason Reitman) was mixing right when I was going to be in China, and if something went wrong, if there were any problems, he would have been screwed. And I just told him, look, all I'm thinking about is the baby right now, I love your film and I hope this doesn't ruin chances for us to work together in the future. I got asked to do the Amy Sedaris movie -- Strangers With Candy. It's really funny and it also happened at a time when I had something else going on, and it just wasn't going to work.
Cinematical: Seen any smaller indies lately that you thought were good? Do you get to see many films?
MM: No, I mostly go see films because I go screen it to see if it's possible to do it, or people send me films that they want me to score. I haven't been able to get out to see a lot of films lately. There's a film here I want to see -- the documentary about Sesame Street. I've never seen Sesame Street --
Cinematical: What? Wait. You've never seen Sesame Street?
MM: No, no, I'd just never had a reason to watch it, if it came on it was "click"...
Cinematical: But you didn't have kids then, right?
MM: Right. I didn't have kids, thought I was never gonna have them. My wife changed that for me, thankfully she was smarter than me.
Cinematical: And she's (daughter Margaret, 23 months) your only child?
MM: Yeah, but now she (his wife) is gung ho and wants to get more and I'm like, oh ... shit ... (laughs)
I gotta tell you, what scares me the most about it is I always thought that people who have kids are all pod people. It's like, they're all people who have their lives together, and they know they shouldn't do it. And then the day after they have the baby, it's like: Invasion of the pod people! They're all like, "This is the best thing that ever happened." And you look at them and you can tell they haven't slept but two hours, they've got two hours of sleep a night for the past three weeks, their clothes are a mess, they've got baby vomit streaked down the back of their shirt --
My engineer Bob Casale, who was in DEVO, he came to work when I was first starting my company and I had clients sitting on the couch directly behind him, we were in this small bedroom that was my studio at the time, and they kept looking at him and whispering. They'd been sitting behind him for like 40 minutes. I come over and sit where they're at, because I thought, maybe the music doesn't sound good from where they're sitting. And Bob had been burping a baby that morning, and he didn't know he had a white stripe down his back, it was disgusting! So when they came back from their lunch break he had on a pink t-shirt that I found for him in a dresser drawer for him, so he didn't have to wear that.
Cinematical: So have you become a pod person?
MM: Yeah. (laughs) In a way having a baby is like -- I adopted my baby in China -- but when I got the baby, it reminded me of the first time I took acid. In the sense -- the quality of the experience wasn't similar, but what was similar was how BIG it was. It was like, all of a sudden I walked through this door in my brain, there was this whole storm, this expansion, this part of my brain I'd never visted before ever, and I was like WOW, I didn't even know that was there, this whole dimension.
Cinematical: Has having a child affected your music?
MM: I'm sure it has. Yeah ... and I just have to -- I'm doing this show for no money for Nickelodeon just because it a Chinese American girl wrote it. It's got these really cute Asian graphics, and a little Asian girl is the hero. It's for two-to-five year olds., and they teach you Mandarin Chinese while you're watching a little Nickelodeon show, and you get to learn one word of Mandarin Chinese in every episode. So I was like ... okay, I'll do it, I don't care if I don't get paid, I'll just do it.
But yeah, she's an inspiration. She's only been in my life for 8 or 9 months, so I'm still in this place where I'm like -- every couple of days I wake up and I'm like wow -- this really wasn't just a strange dream, there's a baby in the other room
Cinematical: So she's 23 months now, right?
Cinematical: My youngest is that age, he turns three in August.
MM: Well, if you wanna do an arranged marriage –
Cinematical: Yeah, I'm a big fan of arranged marriage. We've dealt with the whole boyfriend thing with my 20-year-old, and I didn't really enjoy that.
MM: I am too, man. It scares the crap out of me. Cause I know how hormones work, I know how mine work!
Cinematical: Exactly. And should we really be leaving that up to teenagers, to decide their future and who they're going to be with? I don't think so.
MM: Heck no, I don't think so! Just tell me what you need for a dowry. That sounds perfect. We might have it all worked out, I'll introduce her to you, she's right across the hall.
Cinematical: First let's talk just a little bit about how you transitioned from music into doing music for film.
MM: It was kind of partly just that bands have a life span, and touring becomes -- you know, it's like, we were doing 12 songs a year, we'd write 12 songs, I'd have a few months to do it, then we'd go in the studio to record it, we'd have a few weeks to make a video for one of them, then we'd rehearse for a tour, and then we'd go on tour for nine months to support those songs, and then we'd come back and do the process again, and we did quite a few albums. Then I had this offer to do a TV show for Paul Reubens.
Cinematical: How did that happen? Did you know Paul?
MM: Yeah. And he had asked me to do his movie, and he'd asked me to do his live Roxy show and I was like -- I was always touring with DEVO, we were somewhere in the world and it didn't seem like it would ever be possible. Then we were signed to a bad record deal about six months before he asked me to do Pee Wee's Playhouse, and I had some time, so I was like, yeah, let's do it.
Pee Wee's Playhouse was really chaotic. They'd send me the tape from New York on Tuesday. I'd watch it Tuesday night; Wednesday I'd write the music. Thursday I'd record the music, it'd go out Thursday night to them, they'd have Friday to cut it into the picture, and then Saturday we'd watch it on TV. And it was like really fast, and instead of writing an album once a year I was writing an album's worth of music once a week, and it was really exciting. It was a new experience and it was a different creative process.
Cinematical: Were you working with anyone from the band on it or was this a solo thing?
MM: Well, the two Bobs (DEVO bandmates Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale) worked with me on it, and I was learning how to compose in those days, how to score to a picture. I didn't know about SMPTE Time Code, I'd never taken classes in composition, so I did everything wrong. That whole first year of Pee Wee's Playhouse, I didn't know how to lock a picture to a tape. I would turn on the tape, and when it got close to where I had to write music, I'd go, okay, 1-2-3-and-doo-doo-doo-doo, and I'd start playing it to the picture, but it would not be locked up, and then I'd try to match other tracks up with the track I'd first played. And it wasn't until a whole year after I'd started Pee Wee's Playhouse that I learned there's something called SMPTE Time Code and they lock and they stay locked! And I was wasting so much time in doing things the hard way. It took me a long time to get to the point where I could score, where I could write music for an orchestra. But that's how I got started.
Cinematical: So how did you get to that point? Was it just practice, trial-and-error? Did you take classes?
MM: It was like working with synthesized woodwinds and strings, brass and percussion, and then bringing players in for movies I was working on where there were like 10 players, or 12, or 14. I still would never have gotten a big orchestral gig if it wasn't for the Rugrats people, who didn't back down to Paramount when they did the first Rugrats movie. They said, hey, he's written all our music so we wanna keep him on as our composer. And they were naïve enough not to know that I could have fucked up the whole film for them or wasted a whole lot of money. (laughs) So it was a lucky thing and it was great than they stuck up for me.
Cinematical: That's the film that has the scene in the nursery with all the babies, right?
MM: Yeah, that was a fun song. Who sang that? There were like --
Cinematical: You had Lenny Kravitz...
MM: Yeah, and Iggy Pop, and all these people sang on it, it was interesting -- the B-52s, Violent Femmes, Cyprus Hill, and Patty Smythe. And she did it, she was like, I'll sing on the song but only if my daughter can come. Her daughter was a fan of the show, she was like eight. And at the end there's this banter among the babies, and Patty Smythe was like, "My baby would be saying this" -- she was ad-libbing and really getting into it,it was pretty cool. And somehow Paramount let it happen, and it was a really good experience.
And in typical Hollywood style, because that movie made like half a billion dollars at the box office, then that meant I could do more big orchestral scores.
Cinematical: So you became acceptable.
MM: Then I was acceptable, and it broke the Catch-22 thing for me. So now I get to do all kinds of movies.
Cinematical: Now you're working on How to Eat Fried Worms. Can you give me an idea about what that soundtrack is going to be like?
MM: I'm not even sure.
Cinematical: You haven't started on that one?
MM: I've written some things for it, I wrote one song for it.
Cinematical: I'm curious about that one; that was one of my favorite books when I was in about fourth grade.
MM: Really? I was reading the script, and when I first read it, I thought it was gonna be another bullshitty kind of Nickelodeon movie, and then this movie took a turn about three-fourths of the way through and you realize it's a buddy flick, and you realize it has a really good heart in it and instead of just being gross or whatever, the main character and the bully become friends, and both of them become bigger people because of the way their the actions their characters take towards the end of the movie.
Cinematical: So it's a kids' movie with a philosophical undertone?
MM: Yeah. I like working on kids' films that are actually good for them, because there's a lot of crap, a lot of crap.
Cinematical: Do you limit what Margaret watches?
MM: Hah. Here's the irony of that -- after working on maybe 30 different kids show, she is in love with one show, and it's Sesame Street, and I don't think I've ever done anything for Sesame Street. The two things that get her most excited when we go out of the house are watermelon -- she wants me to cut one open and let her eat it right there in the store. And the other is Elmo, and if she sees Elmo when we're out anywhere, she'll scream and scare the crap out of us.
(The SIFF Press Office guy sticks his head in to check on us)
SIFF Guy: You guys doing okay?
Cinematical: We're okay. You okay, Mark?
MM: Yeah, we still have our clothes on.
SIFF Guy: Uh ... okay. A couple more minutes, okay? (he leaves)
Cinematical: They keep you on a tight leash around here.
MM: Yeah, they do.
Cinematical: Maybe we should sneak out, then when he comes back he won't know where you are.
MM: We should get in the bed just to freak him out when comes back. (laughs)
Cinematical: So I wanted to ask about the Master Class that you're doing tomorrow. Can you give me a rundown of what you plan to do?
MM: Uh. Do you want me to be honest? I don't even know what I'm gonna do tomorrow.
Cinematical: You're totally making this up as you go along, aren't you? You're going to be flying be the seat of your pants tomorrow.
MM: Let me tell you what happened. When I got booked for this, I thought they just wanted me to come up for a panel, so I was like, okay, that'll be easy. So I have no idea -- they'll have some video footage from different movies I've worked on, I have no idea what they've cut together, and so I'll just talk about whatever they want me to talk about. I guess the guy who's moderating will know what he's doing. I hope. And hopefully somebody will ask me a question.