An Interview with Mark Mothersbaugh
“The Hardest Geometry Problem in the World” is arguably the most beloved piece of original film music to hit the world in the last decade (or three). You may not recognize the name, but the mischievous baroque tinkling of the tune would be immediately familiar if you heard it played. Perhaps you’d even begin to picture the scene it underscores: the opener of Rushmore, during which main character Max Fischer daydreams about solving the eponymous math challenge after some lightning-speed blackboard scribbling. It’s the moment that sucks viewers into the film—and, for many, into the entire oeuvre of director Wes Anderson—and the song has a lot to do with that: The melody itself practically bursts with excitement and enthusiasm about what’s to come. The musical wizard behind this captivating passage: Mark Mothersbaugh, lead singer of the influential New Wave band Devo and the indefatigable Hollywood composer whom Anderson has tapped for all his films.
Mothersbaugh’s rich and unusual career began when he and fellow Kent State studio art major Jerry Casale founded Devo in the early ’70s after witnessing the murder of four students by the National Guard during the infamous Vietnam War protest. Searching for an effective method to expose the rampant consumerism and conformity they saw in America, they created their songs in tandem with short films that illustrated their lyrics, anticipating MTV by over half a decade. And when the music network launched in August of 1981, a number of Devo movies became the channel’s first videos. In the process, Devo scored a major hit with “Whip It”—and MTV, a channel designed to appeal to the masses, helped popularize a group that encouraged listeners to rethink the mob mentality.
Mothersbaugh has since written songs for more than a hundred television shows and movies, including Pee Wee’s Playhouse, The Rugrats Movie, and The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald: The Visitors from Outer Space, as well as a number of jingles—though he never misses an opportunity to adulterate. He’s suggested that it’s “entirely possible” he’s embedded the words “Sugar is bad for you” into a cereal commercial; and he has admitted to sneaking the phrase “Question Authority” into a kids’ show tune. “People are all hiding something,” Mothersbaugh claims on his web site. And while that statement certainly seems to apply to a man who plants secret messages in his music, Mothersbaugh is a refreshingly candid conversationalist. When I caught up with him, he was driving to a pre-screening of one of his latest collaborations, Herbie: Fully Loaded.
I. “THE BIG DRAW WAS A HALF-WOMAN, HALF-CAT WHO HAD SOMETHING LIKE TOURETTE SYNDROME AND WOULD ACT IN A FERAL MANNER WHEN SHE GOT ANGRY OR JEALOUS”
THE BELIEVER: When you get an assignment, does the director sit you down, describe the plot, describe the scene, describe the emotion, and then say: “Go for it”? Or do you watch the movie without a soundtrack before you start composing? Or do you spend a few days watching the movie being shot?
MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: Any and all those scenarios are possible, and have happened at one time or another. Let’s say you need to write a song that one of the movie characters, or maybe a band, is going to perform on camera; in that case they need your song before the movie even starts shooting—
BLVR: Have you had to write a song like that recently?
MM: There was a song in The Rugrats Movie where that was the case. The scenario was that there were a bunch of one-day-old babies in a maternity ward, all singing to each other a song called “How Did I Get Here?” They were comparing statistics—how many were male, female, that kind of thing.
BLVR: That sounds like one of the songs off that old Marlo Thomas album, Free to Be… You & Me, which my sister and I listened to all the time as kids. We thought it was hilarious. Mel Brooks did the baby boy, I think, and Marlo was the girl.
MM: That sounds pretty good!
BLVR: Who performed on your song?
MM: A lot of musicians: Iggy Pop, Beck, Jakob Dylan, Lenny Kravitz, Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of the B-52’s, Louis Freese from Cyprus Hill, Gordon Gano from the Violent Femmes—just to name a few. And they all had about two or three lines, and we had to record them all separately.
BLVR: No “We Are the World” scenario?
MM: Right. People came to my studio, or I went to other people’s studios. I went out to New York to record the guys from Depeche Mode and Patti Smith.
BLVR: And you wrote the music and the lyrics?
MM: Yep, but I had help with the casting. There was a wish-list of performers, and we got them depending on people’s availability, whether or not they wanted to sing for a kid’s movie, stuff like that. Though I was surprised how many people did. Like Patti Smith, who agreed to do it on one condition. She said, “You have to let me bring my daughter with me because she is a big Rugrats fan.” And then she really got into it. She said, “You know, I don’t think my character would shut up and only say two lines. I think she’d keep talking and make problems.” I’d never worked with her before, and it was fun. She brought a lot to the job.
For some other projects I’ve worked on, I’ve searched for some of the world’s worst lounge singers. I’ve found a couple good ones here in Los Angeles. One was a realtor and the other was a Frank Sinatra wanna-be, Nick Edenetti. Nick was in a couple things for me, including a pilot I was producing about three or fours years ago that was unfortunately too weird to make it on television.
BLVR: What was it about?
MM: It was an animated show, and I was working with a visual artist named Georgeanne Dean on it. It was about a nightclub in Vegas, in the seedy area, run by a guy who always wanted to be a nightclub singer, but he was terrible. So instead he just bought a nightclub. And the club would close for the night after he sang because the whole crowd would leave at that point. The big draw was a half-woman, half-cat who had something like Tourette Syndrome and would act in a feral manner when she got angry or jealous.
BLVR: That sounds like something I’d check out.
MM: Yeah, I think it was a really good pilot.
What do you think, am I going in the right direction to get to Disney right now? I think I am. I hate this part of Burbank over here; the roads get all twisted. Oh, here we go, yes, I’m going the right way. In a minute, the security guards at Disney will want to do a full-body check on me so I may have to set the phone down at that time.
II. “‘THESE GUYS SHOULD BE STOPPED!’ HE SAID. ‘THIS ISN’T MUSIC! THESE GUYS ARE MAKING FUN OF MUSIC.’”
BLVR: OK. Speaking of the entire audience leaving a show, can you tell me a little about one of Devo’s performances—didn’t you open for Sun Ra at a Halloween party, and clear the house?
MM: Those were the early days. I think that was 1975. Nobody knew who Devo was except for maybe thirty people in Akron. But we had already come to the realization that we were an excellent lightning rod for hostility—hang on one second. [MM talks to the security guards at Disney, who ask for his identification.] All right, now he’s got my driver’s license. He is going to examine it in the little booth and probably wave me on through. If you hear gun shots, though, you will know the “wave me on through” part didn’t happen. I’m here really early for some reason. I think I just wanted to get out of my studio. [The guard directs MM about how to get to the studio where he needs to be.] They have billboards for all the TV shows here. Super Nanny, Alias, Lost, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition… Now I am parking the car and we are almost home free. We’ve made it here without an accident.
BLVR: Are car accidents a regular occurrence in your life?
MM: No, I’m a pretty good driver. I haven’t gone through a windshield in a long time. Where were we?
BLVR: You were talking about the realization that Devo was a lightning rod for hostility.
MM: Yes. We had a different take on things than people into music at the time. And the first people who we unleashed our wonderful talents on were either confused by what we were doing—because it was so different from what was happening in the mainstream music scene at the time—or actually scared, because they didn’t understand us.
And the Sun Ra party—it was one of those nights that got a little creepy. Everyone at that party had long hippy hair, and liked bands like Joe Walsh, Michael Stanley, the Raspberries. I don’t know why they even hired Sun Ra, but I guess he seemed like a hoot—weird, but in a safe way. They were all in the kind of outfits you might expect: people dressed as pirates, mummies, Frankensteins. And in Ohio fashion, they filled a garbage can up with Tequila Sunrise, which is fruit juice and Tequila, right?
BLVR: Sounds right.
MM: And someone brought along a tank of nitrous oxide. Devo came out, wearing janitor outfits. And they just didn’t think we were funny. [Laughing] We looked like a clean-up crew. And then we had songs like “Jocko Homo.” [Example lyrics: “God made man / But he used the monkey to do it / Apes in the plan—we’re all here to prove it / I can walk like an ape, talk like an ape / I can do what a monkey can do!”] It was in 7-4 time, and those people just didn’t go for it, because it wasn’t the kind of song that went along with the natural flow of your body. When we got to the end of it, when it gets into 4-4 time, they thought we were going to let them off the hook—until they realized we were going to chant, “Are we not men? We are Devo!” for about twenty minutes. Or however long it took for them to get really angry. We went at it for a really long time until one of the DJ’s—the local radio station was hosting the party, which was in an empty auditorium—grabbed the mic and made an impassioned plea. “These guys should be stopped!” he said. “This isn’t music! These guys are making fun of music.” And there were a lot of people in the audience who agreed with him. They felt what we were doing was dangerous. So all of a sudden, drunk mummies were shaking their fists at us. Draculas were shouting obscenities at us. That made us even happier, and pissed them off even more. It turned into a bit of fisticuffs. It was a mess. But it made us feel we had to be doing something right to get so many people pissed off.
BLVR: Did Devo develop in part out of anger that the hippie movement—which started out as countercultural—became so conformist? Was there a lot of pressure, after a while, to be relaxed and groovy? Or what were some of the things you were reacting to, with Devo?
MM: Well, even back then we were already predicting that the hippies would become the capitalists of the ’80s.
BLVR: How did you figure that out?
MM: Because people, especially in the entertainment industry, were so quick to market themselves. The whole culture seemed to become very controlled by marketing. Everything had gotten co-opted—revolution had gotten co-opted. When Jerry [Casale, of Devo] and I first met, we joined Students for a Democratic Society, and we took part in demonstrations against the war in Cambodia and Vietnam. And after the shootings at Kent State, we watched the whole country fall asleep. People seemed to be saying to themselves, “Oh, we’ve gone too far.” Suddenly, people decided not to have a social conscience. And in the music business, the Bob Dylans disappeared.
We are now in the official Walt Disney commissary right now, on the Disney campus. I’m going to sit on a bench and talk to you for a bit, because I’m early. Anyway, there was nobody talking about what was going on and that inspired us. We wanted to be musical reporters. We wanted to talk about issues.
BLVR: Were you trying to wake people up with the sound of your music—not just the lyrics but the unusual beats, the loud singing, and so on?
MM: Here’s what it was. Somewhere around 1974, a friend of ours, Chuck Statler, came over to where we were rehearsing. He said, “Check this out.” It was a Popular Science article all about laserdiscs. “Everyone will have them next year!” it said. And they were described as whole albums which not only had sounds, but visuals. You could almost get a whole movie on them, the original ones, and they looked just like a vinyl record. And we thought, “Damn! That’s the end of rock and roll, because the great artists are going to be the ones who are into both sound and vision.”
We became totally convinced then that we wanted to make art for that world—the one beyond rock and roll, which we were sure was going to be populated by people who had something to say both visually and musically. Which felt good to us, since we were visual artists in college. So we were writing music that was saying good-bye to rock and roll. That’s what we thought we were doing: deconstructing music that was popular at the time—disco and concert rock, like Styx and Foreigner. The message for that music was “I’m white, I’m stupid, I’m a conspicuous consumer and I’m proud of it.” Disco, on the other hand, was music that was like a beautiful woman with no brain.
You know, there are squirrels around here and someone must feed them because they’re so tame. One just ran right up on my shoe. Oh yeah, I see what looks like almonds on the ground. Man, is this place beautiful. It’s like paradise.
BLVR: Is it your first time there?
MM: No, just my first time being this early. I’m probably being watched on video, and the guards are probably saying, “This man does not have a destination. What is he doing? Follow him.”
III. “THESE DAYS YOU PRETTY MUCH HAVE TO SIT ON AN ELECTRONIC DRILL IN A VIDEO FOR ANYONE TO REACT”
BLVR: So it really makes perfect sense that you have gone into writing music for movies.
MM: Originally, our goal was to make our own films. We made short films. Actually, we predicted MTV five years before it happened—we talked about the idea of music television in interviews. But we didn’t realize it was going to be so awful. We were looking for a new art form, a new way to think about our relationship to culture, something smart, a light step forward. Instead we ended up with a Home-Shopping Network for music companies.
The sad thing was that it didn’t have to be that way. In the beginning, MTV was getting bombarded by artists around the globe with short films that were not just about a Fleetwood Mac–lookalike band mugging in front of the camera, or some kind of retrofitted Tom Petty song. They were getting original, unusual things. I know this because MTV would have these contests that they asked me to help judge. MTV knew me, knew us, because by the time MTV started, we already had made all sorts of clips—we’d started filming them in maybe 1974—and so you would see one Devo song just about every hour. Anyway, that’s how I started helping to judge these contests. I remember one time, there was a band called Tone Set from Arizona. They were so cool. I was sure they were going to win. This was in the early ’80s and they were playing stuff similar to what became trance and rave music. They didn’t have guitars and they had an electronic drum kit. But I was voting with people from the music companies—managers, agents. And I think it was a band that just spoofed ZZ Top—spinning their guitars—that won.
I remember our first album had a song on it which didn’t use any guitar. And a reviewer, I think he was from Rolling Stone, was totally incensed by that. [Laughing] It was different times back then. These days you pretty much have to sit on an electronic drill in a video for anyone to react.
BLVR: Were there any bands taking advantage of the music-video medium in a way that you respected?
MM: Sure. People like Kraftwerk, for instance. It was just a major disappointment that bands were going for payola and sucking up to the existing record companies rather than trying to start something new. It was shocking.
BLVR: Do you think the internet and all the cheap, available technology of today has helped create a world that is closer to what you were hoping for back then?
MM: Maybe so. Because today, if a record company collapsed, who the hell would be losing, except the people who were out of jobs? Consumers aren’t going to be losers. And if you’re in music just to become a big, fat rock star, then I probably don’t like your music to begin with. It’s people who write music because they are obsessed that I like; because they have something to say and no other way to say it. And if you get rid of a lot of the poseurs by destroying record companies, maybe it’s a good trade-off.
BLVR: Speaking of people who are making music because they are obsessed, what new bands or musicians do you like?
MM: It’s almost harder today to keep up with everything. There is so much music out there. When I was a kid, I would go to the record store, where there was a bin of things they didn’t know quite how to classify. Those were my choices. That’s where you would find Captain Beefheart or an early electronic album. Nowadays there is so much stuff out there that the hard thing is weeding through it.
And albums are different than they used to be. Technology has taken its toll on albums in a tough way. The CD format and MTV really played havoc on artists. Before MTV, if you put out an album that sold 50,000 copies, your band could afford not to have day jobs for a while. That meant you could stick around, put out another album or two. Maybe it would be the second or third album where you’d make the statement you’d been trying to make all along. With MTV in the ’80s, you made your album but then you needed to use any money you made to create a video—instead of being able to use that money to pay for you and your band to live on while you wrote new songs. So MTV upped the ante of looking for one hit. Conceptual bands who didn’t have a hit were going to lose.
And with vinyl you had twenty-two minutes per side. CDs came along, and you had sixty, seventy, eighty minutes and people felt like they had to fill them up. They were like those Fuji apples from Japan. They look like perfect, super-gigantic versions of American apples. But when you bite into them, they’re tasteless. They taste like foam. That happened to artists. Instead of writing forty-four really great minutes, honing it down, people let their waistbands out and threw the kitchen sink into their albums. You thought you were getting more; in reality, you were getting less. That was the dilemma of the ’80s, if you ask me.
MM: Oh, man, this has turned into a depressing conversation! What else can we talk about instead that’s more uplifting? Can we talk about Iraq?
IV. “FOR RUSHMORE, IT WAS THE GLOCKENSPIEL AND CELESTE BECAUSE THEY REMIND ME OF EMOTIONAL THINGS FROM MY PAST. I NEVER USED THEM IN DEVO—WELL, EXCEPT MAYBE FOR DURING A BOOJI BOY SONG.”
BLVR: How about Rushmore? I was wondering about how you created an emotional effect with the music you composed for that movie. You used instruments like the glockenspiel, the harpsichord, and the flute for the original Rushmore songs—what effect do those instruments have on a listener? What made you choose those instruments? Did you talk about them with director Wes Anderson?
MM: Talking with Wes had a lot to do with it. He’s a major collaborator. When I write music for his films, he likes to be around while I record it. For Life Aquatic he was sitting in the back room of the studio with a laptop, working on the script. He said at one point—and this is pretty typical—“Mark, I’m thinking about putting a guy into the film who is a composer. He writes music in the style of the ’70s. So we’ll need some outdated Casio instruments that we can write some of the music with.” That character became Wolodarsky, the guy with the moustache [played by Noah Taylor]. And that’s the kind of relaxed relationship I have with Wes.
Anyway, for Rushmore, it was the glockenspiel and celeste because they remind me of emotional things from my past. I never used them in Devo—well, except maybe for during a Booji Boy song. He was this masked character who would end our shows because people would stop clapping for encores after he came out and sang one song.
So when I was a kid, one of the saddest things I ever saw on TV was this show called Barnaby and Me, with this local personality Linn Sheldon. He’d put on little pointy leprechaun ears, a straw hat and makeup that was too thick; he would show cartoons and talk to himself, be kind of funny. It was a show for kids. I’d watch it with my potato chip sandwich, with white bread and mustard, and a glass of milk, which should have made me throw up.
At the end of the show, a celeste would play the saddest music I’d ever heard in my whole life and Barnaby would come right up to the screen and say [in a weeping voice], “If anybody asks, just tell them Barnaby says hello.” And he’d burst into tears. At the end of every episode. It would make me really upset, even though I loved the show.
So the celeste was sad to me.
BLVR: Are you saying “cellist,” like the person who plays a cello? Have I been mispronouncing that my whole life?
MM: No. Celeste: c-e-l-e-s-t-e. It’s like a glockenspiel. A three-and-a-half- to four-octave keyboard.
BLVR: So the celeste and instruments like it made you think of this childhood experience that was happy, funny, sad, and a little weird—which reminded you of Rushmore?
MM: To me, Rushmore—especially because it had the school plays inside it—seemed almost like something that had been written by kids for grownups to act in. That’s partly because of Wes, and what he’s like. Since I’ve known him, he’s made quite a transformation, going from trying to get his first movie, Bottle Rocket, off the ground to having four films under his belt. And he’s in Paris today, writing a new script. He was saying the other day, “Come on over, Mark! Visit! I have an extra bedroom!”
BLVR: That sounds really nice.
MM: But I remember Wes and Owen and the other Wilson brothers being the guys who would show up at a party and immediately run for the food and start shoveling the nachos in because they hadn’t eaten all day. It went from that to, when we were doing the last movie, someone would come up to Wes and say, “Mr. Scorsese on the phone.”
BLVR: How did you get to know Anderson?
MM: A woman I know who was working at Sony at the time called me and said, “Come to an advance showing of this film Bottle Rocket. It’s really cool, even though everyone here is nervous about it. No one understands the director. But I think you might like it.” That day, there was a record set for the most walkouts I ever saw at a screening.
BLVR: Are you kidding? I think that movie is one of the funniest things around.
MM: They had recruited local high school students, half of them gang members, to watch, and they were really bummed out there was no flesh or murder. But I thought the movie was excellent, and I was really impressed by his choice of temporary music because he wasn’t trying to do what everyone else was doing. He’d picked obscure things, like Vince Giraldi and stuff from other soundtracks. So I thought we should meet; and we did. That was the beginning of a very rewarding relationship. His films are four of my favorites that I ever got to work on.
BLVR: I can imagine that. You can feel the joy in those films. And I always feel very excited by the music he picks for the soundtracks.
MM: He makes great choices. He’s really into music. He’s interested in B-sides, things besides the hits. It makes for a much richer soundtrack than if you just make a deal with the record company about what they will give you. And Wes and I trade music, trade CDs.
I really like working with directors early in their careers because they’re still excited about everything. It reminds me of Devo’s early days, when we were in Ohio, doing things for the love of it. But after someone has done maybe half a dozen movies or so, they seem to get really jaded. I was happy that this new movie I worked on, the updated version of Herbie the Love Bug, which I am here at Disney to see, gave me the chance to work with a young director, Angela Robinson.
BLVR: That reminds me of something I read about you—where you said that after a certain age, rock bands should give it up and pack it in. Did you mean that if you’ve lost your passion for it, you shouldn’t just be out there, hacking it up?
MM: Well, you know, after a while, being in a bus with six or seven guys, eating out of cans, sleeping on top of each other drunk every night, showering once every few days—that’s something for twenty-year-olds. Devo is playing about a dozen shows this summer, and that’s all I need to be fulfilled for a while.
V. “NOW THERE ARE SO MANY FILTERS THAT BY THE TIME ANY PROGRAM ACTUALLY AIRS, SO MANY PEOPLE HAVE PEED ON IT THAT IT’S A BIG YELLOW STAIN”
BLVR: When you left the band life, you started by composing music for television. Was creating the theme song for the Paul Reubens show Pee-wee’s Playhouse your first big job after Devo?
MM: That’s right. And then I would do music for the episodes. Paul co-wrote the theme with me, and Cyndi Lauper sang it.
BLVR: You’re talking about the one that goes, “Sit down and pull yourself up a chair—a Chair-y!” And Chair-y was this character, kind of a recliner with a smiley face.
MM: See? You even know it somehow.
BLVR: As a little kid I was kind of scared of Pee-wee—the geisha skin, the red lips, the beady eyes, the ill-fitting suit. He creeped me out. But when his show came around, I was a little older, and I became somewhat fascinated by him. Maybe a little like how you felt about Barnaby.
MM: Something like Pee-wee’s Playhouse couldn’t happen again—someone like Paul getting creative control over his show. Now there are so many filters that by the time any program actually airs, so many people have peed on it that it’s a big yellow stain.
BLVR: What was Reubens trying to do with that show? To me, it was like Devo, in that both the show and the band were trying to say, “Think about what you are watching, what you are listening to”—taking advantage of the audience’s comfort with a genre to do something slightly subversive, strange, interesting.
MM: Yeah. And at the time Pee-wee’s was airing, there wasn’t anything with an edge for kids. Simpsons, King of the Hill—they hadn’t come along yet. The network was kind of freaked by how loose the show was, but it showed up at a time when it was perfectly needed. And for me, the creative cycle moved very fast. I’d get a tape of the show Monday night or Tuesday morning. I’d write the music Wednesday, send it back Thursday—and by Saturday morning, the show would be on. I’d think, “That’s nice.” I’d just come out of the rock world, where there would be a whole year of working on just ten or twelve songs. For Pee-wee’s I was writing just about an album’s worth of music in under three days. It was a whole different kind of animal. It was really exciting. You’d hear some stuff and think, “I don’t even remember writing that,” or, “That’s pretty bad.” But sometimes it would be like, “Hey, that’s pretty good!”
BLVR: I was just thinking: I’m always making up soundtracks in my head for my own life—Big Star is playing when I start to have a crush on someone, Pink Martini when I’m at the grocery store, Red House Painters when I’m down, and so on. But you can create a completely original soundtrack for your own life, without relying on someone else’s music. Do you ever do that?
MM: Yes. I can never find anything that is exactly what I want to listen to. And I just wrote my own five-CD collection. Do you know those organs people used to have in their living rooms, with a beat box and sound effects and organ sounds? They were popular in the ’60s and ’70s.
Well, for Royal Tenenbaums, I thought I was going to use some of those synthesizer organs. And these organs, that once cost thousands, you can now buy for $50 or $100 at piano stores like West L.A. Piano. I thought Wes would be interested in that sound, but we ended up not using them. I’ve used them in a couple other movies, but just very short bits so far. But I had the organs because of that, and had been playing them in my studio. And three months ago I started doing stream-of-consciousness Muzak with them, and very rapidly, I had about five-and-a-half hours’ worth of music. So that’s what I am listening to in my car these days.
Listen, I better get going. It’s time for me to watch this screening. If you want, I could leave the phone on while I’m inside. That way, you can tape the soundtrack and put it out on the black market in China. What do you think?