Mark Mothersbaugh on Rugrats
I’m not going to lie. Rugrats is one of the “golden age” Nickelodeon shows that I was never really that into. Sure, I would watch episode after episode as would any devoted Nick acolyte (I mean, what else would I do? Go outside and play?). And it did tend to come on between other shows more my style like Ren & Stimpy. So, I definitely gave it a day in court. Frequently.
But why was it that Rugrats has blazoned itself so indelibly on my mind, then? Maybe because, well, it was kinda a weird show, if you remember correctly. Something about it was rather off-putting. There were all these strange Kubrick-esque wide-angle shots that ostensibly mimicked the perspective of a baby crawling around on the floor (the “big wide world” all around him or her).
Christ, maybe the show was supposed to be kind of… scary. And strange. (Note that Klasky-Csupo — the close-knit team that put out Rugrats — would three years later concoct Aaahh! Real Monsters, not to mention the equally queer Duckman that gave me as many nightmares as a kid as anything on MTV’s Liquid Television).
Whereas Jim Jinkins’ Doug had all of the playfully innovative “mouth sounds” of the incomparable Fred Newman, one of the things that I most remember about Rugrats was its off-the-wall noises, sound effects, and music cues that made it ever-the-more unnerving for an imaginative boy barely out of elementary school. Not to mention the theme song itself.
That shit still gives me shivers on par with what I experience when I listen to the Twilight Zone opener or the inimitable John Carpenter score for Halloween.
Being cheeky, then, I took to calling up Mark Mothersbaugh who was the composer on Rugrats. He talked with me at length about what made the show so goddamn peculiar (namely an eerily similar sensibility between show creator Gabor Csupo and himself).
You might also remember Mothersbaugh’s “beautifully haunting” scores for such films and TV shows as The Last Supper, Happy Gilmore, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Wes Anderson’s flicks, as well as his work with that one band from the seventies and eighties who allegedly knew how to “whip it good.”
Mothersbaugh couldn’t recall the “exact year” he got involved with Rugrats (probably some time around when the show was devised as one of the three original Nicktoons in 1991), but said it all started with a call from Csupo (which, at least on my crappy recording device and through Mothersbaugh’s voice — that reminds one of a latter-day John Travolta — sounded like Tchuu-po).
“Gabor’s musical tastes ran toward the obscure,” Mothersbaugh said. “And he had found an album I had put out in Japan. In the eighties, I produced and wrote songs for a number of Japanese art bands [!!]. And he had found this album I had done, a solo record called Muzic for Insomniacs.”
Csupo asked Mothersbaugh if he could use one of the Insomniacs songs for a TV show he was creating at the time, to which Mothersbaugh of course replied, “I score TV shows.” Which is true, even in the children’s show realm. Remember that crazy-weird-awesome music from Pee-wee’s Playhouse? Along with a few pieces by the Residents, Danny Elfman, and a slew of others, Mothersbaugh was there, too, making the squirrelly theme song we would long remember along with talking sea foam green chairs and effete pterodactyls.
“What if I just wrote you something new in this style?” Mothersbaugh asked Csupo, and that was when things really took off. (Unfortunately, though he considered it a “good question,” Mothersbaugh told me he couldn’t quite remember which song off of that initial Insomniacs record Csupo had wanted.)
Mothersbaugh then invited the Klasky-Csupo crew over to his home studio at a time when they were first “building the characters” that would become Phil, Lil, Tommy, Angelica, and Chuckie.
“They would sit on these crates that I had because I didn’t have enough chairs for everyone,” Mothersbaugh said. Meanwhile, the Devo alum wrote the original music that would be used for the burgeoning show’s opening sequence.
I asked Mothersbaugh if he therefore believes his music and presence aided in the show’s development. To which he replied that he does feel that, followed by the revelation about the “legend” that Chuckie “gained some of his characteristics from observations of me.” (“We both had thick-glasses. We’re both near-sided. And had I pretty wild hair back then. I didn’t have kids yet, so it still had color in it.”)
“There was kind of a forum feel to it,” Mothersbaugh said about the almost jam-band type environment in which he worked to compose music while the show creators were working their creative magic. “I was definitely the one writing music, but they were drawing things and showing them to each other and scratching things out and changing things all the while.”
“It was interesting,” Mothersbaugh continued. “Rarely are you involved that early in a project unless it’s a stage show, like a musical or something.”
The only other director that took this approach with Mothersbaugh, according to the composer, was Wes Anderson. “He sat in the studio with me and would be writing the script. And he’d say, ‘You know, I’m thinking about putting a composer on the boat with everybody. What kind of equipment would he be using? What kind of keyboards and recording equipment would he be using?’”
Noting that such a multi-disciplinary and collaborative way of working has only happened to him “a few times,” Mothersbaugh confessed that normally “you’re almost an after-thought on a lot of films. It’s the nature of the beast.”
But this kind of work with Rugrats was very early on. He was there at the conception, to abuse a pun.
“I remember the theme being very easy to write,” Mothersbaugh said, adding that he usually overwrites everything he does. “I have a little bit of a neurotic side,” he said, and thus has at least one alternative for each cue, just to feel a little “safe” about what he’s writing. “I always think, ‘Okay, what’s a totally different way to think about this?’”
“But I remember I only had one or two possibilities for the theme of Rugrats,” Mothersbaugh went on to say. “I was really on when I first wrote it, and everyone else agreed.”
Who was in the room sitting on crates with him, making the show? Csupo, of course; Csupo’s production partner — as well as wife at the time — Arlene Klasky, and writer Paul Germain… and “production people” and personal assistants. “I hope I’m not leaving somebody out who will forever hate me,” Mothersbaugh timorously concluded.
In Mothersbaugh’s memory, the process of producing the theme song (as well as the show itself) was a quick one. “They must have had everything in place for the show by the time I came in. And that was a really exciting, productive time for Klasky-Csupo, too, because they had just come off of The Simpsons.”
And by “quick,” he means, “I think I wrote the song within the first few days of them giving me pictures to look at. I did some different arrangements on it on a Fairlight, which now seems like ‘Iron Curtain’ technology.”
For those of you out there who are familiar with this arcana, Mothersbaugh will remind you that Fairlights back then had “big seven-inch discs and a really low sample rate.” (You know, like 8-bits or less. This was a Fairlight II, mind you: not a Fairlight III.)
“But, I liked it and I think what Gabor liked about what I was doing is I was using acoustic instruments on that synth: cellos, guitars, upright basses, and horns.”
“They sounded more like those instruments than analogue synths did; it was what wood paneling is to real wood” (which led to a discussion about going to Home Depot that completely lost me, as I don’t even play the guitar).
Mothersbaugh brought me right back when he told me that he “sampled a lot of human sounds early on for Rugrats. I was sampling noises made from humans that became percussion and became bass instruments and things like that.”
I don’t know about you guys, but maybe its my love of human sounds that makes me such a diehard Mothersbaugh fan, from his work on Pee-wee’s Playhouse straight through to my purchasing of New Traditionalists a few months ago. (Not to mention his candid “buuuhm-buhm buhm buhm,” he uttered as an example of what he meant, along with “hums,” viz. “human sounds.”)
Perhaps that’s why Csupo loved the guy’s work, too.
Mothersbaugh told me that at this time he was particularly inspired by a 1966 album from the pre-digital mavericks Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley. For those who have never heard The In Sound from Way Out!, it’s not only some of the nuttiest goddamn “music” you’ve ever heard, but also a prime example of the painstaking labors one had to go through in splicing together samples before the advent of computer manipulation.
It also sounds a hell of a lot like the Rugrats theme song (which is not a jibe in the least; this is akin to saying the Beatles sounded a bit like Beethoven).
“What Perrey and Kingsley did was very time-consuming,” Mothersbaugh said. “I was using a Fairlight to do a shortcut of that kind of thing. And I was employing that in this piece of music, in the score for Rugrats. Some of that stuff stayed throughout the life of the show. It was even incorporated into the music for the feature once I had a hundred-piece orchestra. I still brought in some of those synth sounds.”
And his touch on Rugrats didn’t stop there. Mothersbaugh scored every episode over the show’s impressive nine-season run. Not to mention the live shows, commercials, and other ancillaries that followed.
“I wrote songs for it throughout the history of the show.”
When I asked if Mothersbaugh contributed to other aspects of the show along with his signature soundscapes and musical cues, he told me that he “felt like part of a creative team.” Although he went on to say that his job was never to write dialogue, he explained that those whose job it was to write did spend a great deal of time with him…
“You’re not going to find my name credited as a writer on the show,” he said, “but I think that we influenced each other.”
At this point in the conversation, I ventured to broach the subject of why the show might seem kinda weird (easily segueing into this by mentioning my then girlfriend’s admission to me that the show plain scares her even today, despite her being 23; to which Mothersbaugh laughed in a way that would have made the entire interview worthwhile even if it had ended right then and there).
“I’ll tell you what I think: if I brought something like that to the show consciously, one part of it was embracing the new technology that was going on, early on,” Mothersbaugh said.
From here he went on to bring up the exact same thing all the other Nick principals told me when we had similar discussions, which is, what especially made these shows so singular (whether you liked ‘em or not) was the fact that those creating them, in Mothersbaugh’s words, had “an aversion to looking down at kids, or playing down to them. I think Rugrats as a show was able to avoid doing that. And I think that was part of its success, was that parents could watch the show. It worked on a couple of levels.”
Mothersbaugh then explained that sound design is something that has always been very important to him, and that his use of Fairlights along with other rudimentary sampling devices allowed him to experiment in whole new, nearly uninhibited ways.
“Ironically,” Mothersbaugh continued, “kids that are in grade school are more receptive to more outrageous musical styling and more experimental music than kids in high school. Because kids in high school, really they just want to hear the hit song by the heartthrob that everyone loves, whether it’s Justin Bieber or My Chemical Romance or Lady Gaga.”
“They become robots. They’re trying so hard to fit into their society, into their culture, so they’re doing that. Younger people, they’re like, ‘Yeah I want to hear clog-dancing speed metal! I’m ready for some Mozart meets pygmy whistles!” (To which I had to reply sincerely that I’d love to hear some clog-dancing speed metal.)
“I think somewhere around high school, your brain starts to gel, to harden. Before that, there’s this time where anything is possible and the more things that you artistically and educationally have in your repertoire, the more you become a child of larger possibilities.”
We were getting closer here, so I then out right asked whether or not he was interested in “blowing minds” with the music he was producing. (After all, bringing Perrey-Kingsley into a kids’ show, then and now, is, again, fucking weird.)
“I was lucky thanks to the people I was able to work with,” Mothersbaugh answered, going on to take it seriously with a marvelously forthright admission: “If you were looking for a more traditional score, you found the guys that went to Berklee and were well versed in the world of John Williams. And if you were looking for something a little different, I would get the call. My reputation was already that of an ‘art/artist/not-mainstream’ composer.” (He thanks Pee-wee’s Playhouse, in particular, for bringing that reputation into greater focus for his career.)
To clarify: if the team at Klasky-Csupo hadn’t wanted to make something weird and wacky, they wouldn’t have gone to Mark Mothersbaugh to develop the music — the emotional portrait, if you will — for their show. Period.
But what does Mothersbaugh think about the show when he looks back on it these days?
“It was kind of one of those things that was really magical,” he said. “To me, Pee-wee’s Playhouse was a really great show that changed the way people thought about television for kids. I think Rugrats was very similar. One of the things that always impressed me about it was that it was early on when people other than Disney were trying to figure out how to carry that aesthetic into the marketplace.”
He then transitioned into a solid statement about the power of injecting something off-kilter (digital music madness) into something conventional (a cartoon about babies for kids): “Having grown up on Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan, I love the idea of going into a drug store and seeing Rugrats toothpaste or going into Burger King and seeing frozen chicken nuggets in the shape of Rugrats characters. I love that. I think, if anything, Rugrats had all sorts of early information for how to make an art form spread across different marketplaces, different presentations.”
Now that he works a few times a year for Nickelodeon’s Yo Gabba Gabba! as himself (“the art teacher,” as he put it), Mothersbaugh is somewhat delightedly resigned to the fact that he has a new fan base in “one-and-a-half year-olds.”
In fact, speaking of drug stores, he recounted to me a whimsical tale in which a young mother came up to him at such an establishment to tell him that her baby was screaming Yo Gabba Gabba! and pointing in his direction. At first, the frazzled mother checked the magazine racks, believing the baby was gesturing wildly at a cover with pictures from the show on it… but then she saw Mothersbaugh and had to go over to introduce the baby to him.
“I don’t think the guys who dress up in the plastic suits have the same problem,” he said.
Hinting that he might eventually do more on Yo Gabba Gabba! than act as the “art teacher,” he went on to expound upon the effect his work on Rugrats had on the rest of his career.
“Iggy Pop, the B-52s, Lou Rawls, ‘Bob Dylan’s kid,’ and Debbie Reynolds all started coming to work with me in my studio because of the songs I wrote for Rugrats. It was the first show where people said, ‘I got a cousin, I got a child,’ like Patti Smith. She sang on The Rugrats Movie and the only stipulation was that she got to bring her kid because her daughter was a Rugrats fan.”
“That was the first time I had seen that,” Mothersbaugh reminisced. “I totally understood that even before I had kids: you’re in entertainment, it all seems abstract or hard to get a hand in it for them. But when you say, ‘I’m a character in the new Rugrats Movie,’ it resonates with your six- or seven-year-old in a way that’s not quite as weird.”
Mathew Klickstein is the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, which is in stores everywhere and will tell you more about Nickelodeon than you probably should know.