Mark Mothersbaugh talks scoring Thor: Ragnarok and not sounding 'like wallpaper'
Mark Mothersbaugh is perhaps the most elusive household name in music. During a career spanning four decades, he has dabbled in many art forms, and whether you realize it or not, you probably know his work. He’s the co-founder and frontman of Devo, and he’s responsible for the music of some of your favorite films and TV shows.
“You know what somebody’s age is when they say that they watched Rugrats when they were a kid, or if they say they have a child that knows me from Yo Gabba Gabba, or if they’re a Devo fan, or if it’s a Wes Anderson fan, or someone that likes The Lego Movie,” Mothersbaugh says. With an impressive 193 composer credits on IMDb, these are just a fraction of the projects that he has worked on.
Mothersbaugh spoke to EW about some of his career highlights, including writing the music for the recent box office smash Thor: Ragnarok.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With all the de-evolution that’s going on these days, are there any plans to release a new Devo album?
MARK MOTHERSBAUGH: You know, there’s always something happening. Our music gets licensed quite a bit these days for films and TV shows and games and different things, and it just happens that we’re working on a coffee table book with a company in England right now. It’s making me look at all of these old photographs and try and remember where pictures were taken, that you look at and go, “Where was that?” So Devo is part of my life, and my brother Bob, who is a composer also, is working on a couple TV shows in Mutato, my studio on Sunset Strip.
Can you talk a little bit about your transition from Devo to writing music for TV and film?
Devo was in a situation where we were kind of on hold because our record company that we signed to was collapsing, and it put us in kind of a netherworld. I had been asked to score things before, and when my friend Paul Reubens called up and said, “Would you do Pee-wee’s Playhouse?” I said, “Okay, I’ve got the time to do it.” Then I found out that scoring each episode of TV was like half a movie’s worth of music, and instead of doing one album a year and then touring with it, it’s like all of a sudden I was doing an album every week. So it was a very interesting change, a step to the side, while still kind of going in the same direction.
You’re also known for your collaborations with Wes Anderson. What’s it like working with him?
It was one of those things where we were kind of mutual younger fans of each other. It’s been really nice whenever we work together. Whenever we talk, it’s always enjoyable for me. Between films and video games and TV shows, I’ve probably done 200 different projects in my career, and so you kind of look for people that are interesting to work with that either you’ve already worked with and you’ve had a good experience, or somebody that you think would be interesting to work with.
I spoke to Jeff Goldblum recently, who reminisced on wearing your glasses in The Life Aquatic.
Yes, Wes really liked the frames. He even asked me if I wanted to be in the movie and I said, “No, I’m not at all interested in acting.” And then he said, “Can I take your glasses?” And I said, “Absolutely.” I have a large frame collection, so I just gave him the ones that I was wearing and they just popped my lenses out and put Jeff Goldblum’s prescription in, and I never put mine back in. I still have those frames in case he ever needs an emergency pair of glasses.
You’ve also worked with Jeff on Apartments.com commercials. Did Thor: Ragnarok feel like a reunion between you two?
Oh yeah. But you know, the reality is that it’s kind of that there’s intellectual properties that get shared and mixed together that, when you’re a composer, you’re at the tail end. Sometimes if you’re writing a song for a project, you get brought in early. But usually they’ve shot things by the time you get there. Some projects are atypical. Like, by the time we got to The Life Aquatic, Wes was flying me over to Italy to walk through the sets with him and I would write pieces of music for him to listen to on headphones. But in Thor — I hope they let Taika Waititi do a director’s cut that’s about a half an hour longer, because there’s all this kind of crazy ad-libbed stuff that Anthony Hopkins and Jeff Goldblum did that’s really wild. You know, I like Jeff. He lives not that far away, and he’s a great pianist. I didn’t even know that until the last couple years. He’s been over to my place and played piano in my studio for the Apartments.com stuff.
Would you ever consider doing a musical collaboration with him? That would be fantastic.
Of course! Yeah. That would be, wouldn’t it? I’d like that. You never know. You never know what could happen. I would be totally up for it. Not that I need anything more on my plate right now.
It seems like your plate is constantly full. How do you choose which projects to say yes to and which to decline?
Well, you know, I’ve been around long enough that I know if I’ve got something that I can really contribute to something. Maybe people think I’m the right guy for the job and I’m not, and some things, there’s just not enough hours in the day. So it’s not that difficult. The hardest thing is saying no to something you really want to do, which does happen a lot. Right now, I’m straddling between TV shows and films, but I also got a commission for a 20-foot-something-tall sculpture that’s a foghorn cuckoo clock that’s going to go on the side of a contemporary art museum. So I’m working on that right now.
On top of composing, you’re also an incredible visual artist and work with a variety of different media. Can you talk a little bit about your creative process?
Well, you know, I was doing gallery shows as a visual artist before Devo. With Devo, we thought we were a combination of theater and film. We were making films years before there was an MTV, and we thought what we were doing was a combination of all the different art mediums. We didn’t think of ourselves as just musicians. Jerry [Casale] never thought of himself as a bass player. You know, we were both conceptual artists, and that was just one of the mediums that we worked in. So for me, it was odd at first for me to be involved in an animated film and not be contributing to the visual side of it or the story side of it, but then you just get kind of used to it. They hire people for a specific thing, and so I just kind of adapted to it. It’s part of being in Hollywood.
How does your process of writing music for games differ from writing music for film and TV?
They’re totally different disciplines and animals to work with. In games, you can’t even think of a game as a composer the same way that you think of a film. With a film, somebody’s going to watch it maybe a few times, but it’s going to always be in a linear fashion. They’re going to start at the beginning and go to the end. In a game, people are on level 1 for maybe 20 minutes every time they play, or 19 and a half minutes or 18 minutes or 23 minutes or seven minutes. And then as they go on, it gets shorter and shorter. Then they’re on level 2 and that gets shorter and shorter, and then level 4 and 5, and it keeps going. And so, you have to think about how your music has other requirements that you don’t have with a film or a TV show. Your music has to be able to repeat, and it also has to be able to change intensity seamlessly.
The Thor: Ragnarok soundtrack is unlike any other Marvel soundtrack. Was it Taika Waititi’s choice to bring you on board?
We didn’t know each other, but we both were familiar with each other’s’ work. Taika really lured me into the whole project because I was impressed with what he’d done with Hunt for the Wilderpeople and also What We Do in the Shadows. It made me want to work with him. But you know, we both had seen these things on YouTube where people had done scholarly critiques of Marvel music and had said that it sounded like wallpaper basically. It had had that effect on me in a couple of movies. I knew that I was going to do my best to honor what’s great about Marvel, because the films that Marvel makes are pretty strong. They have strong properties because there’s a lot of care taken and a lot of people that really worked hard on them. Music was just something that, as it gets pushed further to the end of the project, I think they were just trying to find ways where they could borrow time for effects and for visuals and things, and they took it away from the composer.
So when I went into this with Taika, I started early on writing things for him and writing themes, and some themes I wrote back in November  ended up being Thor’s main theme for the film. We also talked about how to bring things into the world of Marvel that hadn’t been there before. We had this perfect opportunity in the Jeff Goldblum planet, Sakaar, because it hadn’t been a part of the Marvel world before, and it gave us a chance to stretch out sonically. The intention was never to destroy something that’s already there that’s great and that there’s a fan base for. It was only to give them something new that was not offensive and was something that they would feel elevated the things and characters that they love. So that was our goal. Our goal was never to deconstruct things. It was more to expand.
I hope you both continue to work together. I’d love to see you collaborate on an independent film together.
I would love that too. You know, there’s something really exciting about working with a 100-piece orchestra in London at Abbey Road, but I’m good with working with three or four people in the room. I know how to work on whatever kind of budget. For me, it’s about ideas first.
Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do?
There was a time in Devo, before we had a record deal, that we were all Chippendale dancers. I’d like to go back to that, but as a choreographer. Of course, there are lots of other things. I have a production company with Tony Hawk right now and we’re interested in doing something on Broadway together, so we’ll see what happens with that. You know, you never know.