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Mark Mothersbaugh: From Devo to becoming Wes Anderson's composer

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Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo performs at the medal ceremony on day 11 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo performs at the medal ceremony at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

The new wave music icon talks about how he got his start in scoring for television, working with a variety of directors, and how important score actually is to TV and film.

When you think of Mark Mothersbaugh, you probably picture him in the red plastic energy hat, playing new wave songs with his band, Devo. But Mothersbaugh has also forged a more behind-the-scenes career as a film composer.  

Rushmore score

 He’s worked extensively with Wes Anderson, he composed music for Phil Lord and Chris Miller's “The Lego Movie,” and '90s kids will remember his theme for “Rugrats.” Most recently, Mothersbaugh worked on the Fox comedy, "The Last Man on Earth," starring Will Forte as one of the lone survivors of a post-apocalyptic world. 

The Frame's John Horn talks with Mark Mothersbaugh about how he got his start in scoring for television, working with Wes Anderson, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and how important score actually is to TV and film:


How did you get your start working on the 1980s TV show "Pee-wee's Playhouse"? 

Paul Reubens was at The Groundlings theater. So he was connected with all the artists and musicians that were around then. And he had asked me to score his movie when he did "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." I was touring with Devo and there was no chance it was going to happen. But by the time "Pee-wee's Playhouse" came along, we had accidentally signed a record deal with a company that soon went into bankruptcy. So I said I would love to score "Pee-wee's Playhouse."

Pee Wee Theme Song

There are a number of great composers I can think of off the top of my head who were great rock musicians — Cliff Martinez from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Danny Elfman from Oingo Boingo. Is it a natural evolution or do you have to stop doing one thing and use a different part of your brain?

In a band, part of it is you're writing music. But the biggest part of it is like being on Broadway. You re-do the songs every night. You perform them again every night. And if you like being on Broadway and doing the same show every night, then it's more fun to be in a band and to tour. If you like the creation and writing new music every day, then doing film and TV is much more exciting because you get to write new music every day.  

On writing music with Wes Anderson: 

He's absolutely a true artist. He was sitting in my studio with his laptop, writing parts of the story for "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and talking about it with me while I was writing music for things that he was going to have in his headset while he was shooting. 

On working with Phil Lord and Chris Miller: 

Every project that we've done, it always seems like they brought something more to it than I expected. I remember going on the Internet to look up the "Jump Street" TV show and [thinking], Somebody wants to make a movie out of this? And they made these really funny movies. I like working with them. At the end of their project, they're playing with every little piece — they're re-editing, pulling shots out that they forgot about to try and make a joke pay off. 

Lego Movie Score

What role do you think scores should and should not play in a movie?

Well, I think on the conservative side, 30 or 40 percent to about 90 percent of the film — that's my feeling.

It's that important?

I think the score is really important.

In terms of how you feel, how you react to it, how you understand the story?

I'm kind of kidding. But yes, I do think so. We have a lot of roles we play as a composer. I won't name the actor's name or the film's name, but [the director said]: "Our lead actor had diarrhea and we were doing love scenes all day. And it looks more like he has diarrhea than that he's in love with this woman, so can you help us?" And you gotta write music that compensates for an actor that's like, wearing a diaper, and everybody in the room knows it. 

So if we look for your scores for the cue called "gastrointestinal distress," that would be that song?

[Laughing.] Right. "Depends," I think, is the name of the cue.

"The Last Man on Earth" is currently airing its second season on Fox. 

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