An abridged version of this interview with Mark Mothersbaugh ran on Little White Lies in December 2016. Read the original article here.
As the co-founder, lead singer and keyboard player of pioneering new wave band Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh carved a reputation as one of the most distinctive frontmen in rock music, with the band’s striking dome hats, unique sound and satirical, often surreal, live shows garnering a cult following. As a composer, he has scored a number of TV series, notably including all nine seasons of Rugrats, while his film work has straddled multiple genres including regular collaborations with Phil Lord and Chris Miller on the likes of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the Jump Street series and The Lego Movie.
Yet it’s Mothersbaugh’s work with Wes Anderson that remains among his most memorably and well known. Having first met in the mid-’90s, the pair have since gone on to develop a fruitful partnership over four films. With the Criterion Collection releasing The Royal Tenenbaums on Blu-ray in the UK for the first time, I sat down with Mothersbaugh to reflect on his work with Wes, the duo’s plans for a theme park and everything in between.
On shaping the Wes Anderson sound
We created a universe together that still somewhat holds up throughout his other films, even. Alexandre [Desplat] still pays homage to it on the films that he’s done with him. And the thing that I think was different about the early films is that they were smaller, more intimate scores – before Fantastic Mr. Fox there weren’t any large groups. There were one or two cues in The Life Aquatic that got fairly big. They got in to an accumulation of about fifty players by the end of it, but there were always certain elements that we kept from film to film and we kept a lot of the same players… There is a common thread through them all.
Wes is a very meticulous guy… I remember on the set of The Royal Tenenbaums he was walking me through the set in Harlem and we went in to the boys’ room and it was where one of them had been on the upper bunk and they had been drawing on the ceiling. They were going to be shooting in that room that day and he was talking to me and then got absorbed with the artwork and said, “Paint over that”. And he came back in himself and re-drew on the wall the way he thought the kids would do the drawings… He’s kind of like one of the more hands on – in every department – directors I’ve ever met. Although he didn’t play an instrument, which was good.
On seeing Bottle Rocket for the first time
There was a woman, Pam Lillig, who worked at Sony in the music department and she said, “I know you’ve never heard of the guy, but you should come and check this film out. He needs a film composer and any of the suggestions that his producers or the film company are giving him, he doesn’t want to use any of those people.” So I went to a screening out in Santa Monica and it was one of those things where kids got out of school in High School and came in for a screening for free. They ate their food that they got for free and they left in the middle of the movie.
I remember him telling me a couple of days later, “You know, Mark, they told me that that was the biggest walkout that they’ve ever had for any of their films.” It’s kind of partly the way that they do their focus groups. People were writing things like, “We didn’t see any tits,” or things like that. Those were the comments that were coming back, but I saw this film with the temp music that he had in it and you just knew right away that this guy had an original voice and an interesting take on our times and so I really wanted to meet him.
On meeting Wes for the first time
Wes was fresh out of college and had done a smaller version of the film while he was at school, but he was telling me that the producers were kind of panicked. They’d go, “How come it looks like your student film?” and he’d say, “Well, what did you think I was making?”… And we talked about music and he said, “They don’t get my music ideas at all.” But he was very articulate and he was a passionate artist. You don’t meet people like that every day. I’m in a business where you read a script and you go, “How are they gonna mess this up?” And then you sign on, they give you a copy of the film and you go, “Oh, that’s how they’re gonna mess it up.” And there are so many things that can go wrong. At first I thought, “How can there be so many bad films?” And after I worked in Hollywood for a while, I went, “How can anybody make a good film?”
On musical preferences
In Bottle Rocket, [Wes] wanted all these very high sounds. By the end of the first day, I understood that he didn’t like bass sounds. He didn’t like brass. He liked plucky things and he liked things that were up high – celestes and bells and flutes and piccolos. He liked those high tones, for some reason. And he developed a palette over the course of those first four films to the point where he got comfortable enough to want to use an orchestra and to even record outside of my studio. For a while he would just want to sit in here with me. For the first three movies we just sat in here. We couldn’t go to a soundstage. Because I didn’t have a big enough room to bring in a 40-piece orchestra, we’d bring in six to eight people at a time and they’d leave and something that would have taken one afternoon on a soundstage would take us a week, but it was the way he wanted to work at the time and I ended up liking all our music that we did together.
On disregarding the opinions of Bottle Rocket’s producers
I remember we’d bring the producers over and people from Sony would come over and they’d listen to the music and every time they left, they’d send me another VHS copy of the movie Big, with Tom Hanks, which had this kind of happy jazzy score to it, which is what they thought would be a better fit for the movie than the music we were putting together. And said, “Wes, what should I do with this Tom Hanks movie?” And he’d say, “Just don’t pay any attention to it. Don’t let them throw you off. We have to do this our way.” So he was really firm… I have two or three unopened VHS copies of the movie Big, if you want one. They’re somewhere in storage downstairs.
On scoring Rushmore
[Wes] had something that he played me – some Italian opera, believe it or not. It sounds hard to believe when you listen to that score for Rushmore, but he was playing opera and when we would listen to Vince Guaraldi in the first film, by the second film we were listening to other things, including going a little more jazzy – like at the beginning with [the musical cue] ‘Hardest Geometry Problem in the World’. That one we still recorded it in an empty bedroom at my house, so we were still recording up in the hills in Hollywood at that point.
On working around other people’s material
I learned right away that I needed to find out what songs he had where so that the score, which was stitching things together, was in the same key or was complimentary to what was happening right before it. Because the thing about songs like that – source music like that – is when it’s not all coming from one composer’s pen, you just have to be more aware that you’re interacting with other things sonically and not just visually… It was always enjoyable and we never had any freak-outs or anything.
On Wes and his relationship with the studio
He has his run-ins with the studios, that’s for sure. I know at one point, I was told by somebody at Disney, “He said that the head lawyer for Disney couldn’t be involved with Life Aquatic.” And that’s impossible! They said that was impossible. So they just had to not let him know. He had a really bad falling out with them after Tenenbaums and so – the head lawyer – Wes said, “They’re not allowed to have anything to do with my contracts.” He’s a very… determined artist. He was very protective of his aesthetic and the things he was doing. I always feel that about him. He still is.
On scoring The Royal Tenenbaums
[Wes] loves harpsichords. He was always an aficionado of harpsichords. There was this grumpy old lady on Larchmont Boulevard, who does harpsichord rentals for the orchestras in town, and he enjoyed going with me there and playing all the clavichords and harpsichords and trying them all out to find which one of them was going to be used in the film… By the time we had got to that film, we had worked together long enough that I was already sending him music while he was still shooting, so he would have music to play in headphones while he was directing, so a number of the themes for that film were written already by the time he was shooting.
On covering The Beatles and George Harrison’s death
I remember recording Hey Jude at my studio and him coming out and singing and I put together singers for it. Wes even does some Michael Jackson yells in it. He was getting so excited that he went and grabbed the mic and started doing some little yells while we recorded it. But I remember it was right after George Harrison passed away that we recorded that… We knew he was ill and we heard about it and, just, it was kind of a really sad coincidence…
On the strange, sad energy behind The Royal Tenenbaums
There was some odd kind of energy while we were doing that, both because of George Harrison, but also because Elliot Smith was going to record [Hey Jude] and he killed himself. And I talked with him a couple of times on the phone and he was all freaked out about how the contracts read and I said, “You’ve kind of got to not worry about that stuff, because otherwise it will just get in the way of you making art.” And he was kind of already deteriorating by the time I talked to him and he never was able to record it, and so we did it. And it was, strangely enough, the day that George passed away, so there was an odd feeling to the recording for all of us.
On scoring The Life Aquatic and plumbing Devo for influences
[Wes] was living at, I think, the Chateau Marmont – my studio is on Sunset Boulevard, so it was just a quarter mile walk away, so he could just come over here and he would sit on the couch and he would be working on his script and one of the days he came over and I was writing some music for him and… he said to me, “You know, Mark, this boat, these guys – they’re kind of like loser, jock Cousteaus. They haven’t had the same financial success that Jacques Cousteau had but they’ve been doing this since the 70s, so while other people would have gotten new equipment by the 80s, they’re still using the same old stuff that they bought when they first bought the boat. I was just wondering, what kind of synthesiser would they be using if they started out somewhere in the early 70s?”
And I said, “Well, let’s go downstairs and look in storage, because it would be all the early Devo stuff that I used to use. It would be the same synths.” So we went downstairs and pulled some things out and pulled out an old Oberheim called a TVS1 and it had just a little 8-step sequencer in it… and that became an integral instrument. And it was kind of the most synths we’d ever used… Thinking about what kind of instruments he would have on the boat was really fun. That became a fun soundtrack.
On turning down Spielberg, Zemeckis and the role of “Doc” Brown
[Wes] scared me for a minute on The Life Aquatic. He said, “Would you want to be in the film?” And I said, “No way.” I hate acting. I remember, I got offered film parts before. Steven Spielberg and Bob Zemeckis – I thought they wanted me to score a film and I came in and they said, “Well, we have this movie that we’re making where there’s this mad scientist and it’s called Back To The Future and we think you’d be perfect for it. We saw you on stage last week and we thought you’d be great for it.”
I just went, “Oh, no, no. I don’t know how to act.” And they go, “Come on. We saw your films that you’ve made.” And I go, “Yeah, but I made that stuff up. I can’t do what you want me to do. I have to do what I do.” And I just remember leaving and going, “Man, I thought they were gonna ask me to score it,” and being kind of bummed out.
On Seu Jorge’s Bowie covers
Wes said to me, “Mark, I was trying to decide if I was going to use all Bowie songs or all Devo songs, and everybody just told me, ‘Bowie’s much more popular than Devo. You should use all Bowie songs,’” so that’s why he didn’t have Seu Jorge cover us. And that all came out so good, all of that stuff that he recorded… I remember getting a phonecall from Wes while he was working on it and he went, “Mark, I gotta tell you what’s happening… We’ve been recording these Bowie songs and… I know a little bit of Spanish, but I don’t really know any Portuguese. There’s something similar about it, but he’s singing and I’m going, ‘I don’t know the translations, but I know that can’t possibly be the right lyrics.’ So I asked him and he goes, ‘Oh, I’m not singing Bowie lyrics…’” [Laughs] He says, “I couldn’t believe it. We’d just filmed him singing his own homemade songs this whole time and didn’t realise what was going on.” He didn’t translate the Bowie lyrics. I love that.
On plans for a theme park with Wes
Well, the physicality is the thing that’s gonna be interesting, but the blueprints are being put down for it. After my catalogue [Beautiful Mutants] came out, I got, not a hundred, but I got quite a few job resumes from people who all wanted to work on it. It was kind of interesting to get all these things from people who were like, “Yes, I’ve worked on theme parks in Japan and I would love to work on your theme park.” We talk about it now and then and there are some people who are very serious about pushing us along on it. You never know.
On future plans for Devo
I would love to do something else with Devo that was more interesting than just playing on some stages. I know that’s what people want, but if there was a way to re-purpose it, so that they got what they wanted… because, honestly, if you told me that David Bowie was going to come back from the dead today and I could have the choice to hear a new album that nobody had ever heard, that he only had in his mind but he’d play it that one time and I could be there, or he plays the whole Ziggy Stardust album front to end with the original players, and I get to pick that concert? I’d pick that concert, just because I’d have to. And I don’t blame them for wanting to hear something that reminds them… but I want to figure out a way to repurpose a show so that it was something new and it was something that was exciting to me too.
On unused material
For every one of Wes’s movies – just because I loved the movies so much – I scored every single movie I have ever done with him three times. Even Moonrise Kingdom, which I did a few cues on, I wrote a whole separate score for it. I have about two and half hours of outtakes for Wes Anderson movies that were all other pieces of music that I said, “Here. Check this out. What do you think of that?” And they’re in different styles, just out of the excitement of working on something that I really love.
On the prospect of releasing it commercially
I never thought about it! I write so much music that just ends up being for me, that sits in my car for a while or sits in my house for a while, that I never think about that stuff. I don’t know why. Maybe. It could. Now that vinyl’s popular again, there are people that want to do these small runs of vinyl. Maybe that could be an interesting thing. It would kind of be up to Wes too, because when I wrote the music, it was for his movies… There have been times where he’s taken something that I wrote for Rushmore and put it in Tenenbaums, for instance, so I just feel like I’m creating this material for whatever the next thing is. It’s all potentially for the next thing.
Illustration by Dan Pritchard