Aside from a select few, most film composers are not household names. You probably know their music, but not their names or the other films they’ve worked on. In this post we’ll look at one composer in particular, Mark Mothersbaugh. He has had a long and varied career, and has written a lot of fun, beloved film scores.
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Mark Mothersbaugh is an interesting guy. He’s not just a film composer, he’s a multi-disciplinary artist who works in various mediums. His career has spanned over 40 years. It encompasses popular music, visual art, sculpture, installations, books, and music for television, film, and video games.
Mark founded the music production company Mutato Musika, which employs several other composers, arrangers, orchestrators, and support staff. His studio may not be as large as Hans Zimmer’s, but it boasts many impressive credits under Mark’s leadership.
If you’ve listened to the radio, watched TV, or gone to the movies in the past 30 years, you’ve probably run into Mark’s music. And it probably put a smile on your face.
Born in 1950 in Akron Ohio, Mark Mothersbaugh frequently tells the story about getting his first pair of glasses. He says that he was walking around legally blind, having never had an eye test. Upon walking out of the doctor’s office, the world came into focus, and for the first time he could make out details of the world around him.
“It was a joyous experience. It was something where I was like, ‘This is awesome. I love this.’ That kinda had a lot to do with me becoming an artist, was that experience. I wanted to record the things I was seeing for the first time.”
Attending Kent State University, he and his friends were personally affected by the Kent State shootings. Taking their ideology and focusing it toward post-structuralist art, he, Gerald Casale, and Bob Lewis formed Devo (which stood for “De-Evolution”). After becoming something of an 80’s pop music phenomenon, Mark started to focus on composing.
“My favorite films, I would put my answering machine up to the television set and hit record. I’d tape my favorite movies and then I could go back and listen to them again. I only had the soundtrack, I didn’t have the visuals. But I think it made me really pay attention to the soundtracks.”
His first full film composing credit was Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise (1987). But he was also composing music for television, starting with Pee-wee’s Playhouse in 1986. Since then, he’s scored over four dozen films and a ton of television shows. He continues to work across mediums, having also had over 150 art gallery shows and published several books.
Mark Mothersbaugh was honored at the 2004 BMI Film and TV Awards with the Richard Kirk award, which is given annually to a composer who has made significant contributions to film and television music. Then, in 2008, Kent State University awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters. This was followed by the key to the city of Akron, Ohio in 2016. He has been nominated for five Emmys, and one Grammy Award. He continues to work out of Mutato Musika in Los Angeles, California.
“To me I think artists in general make a statement – and for the rest of their lives – every album, every book – are variations on a theme.”
It’s hard to pin down Mark’s style into a few words. Devo started with the idea of “de-evolution”; that instead of moving forward, modern society had regressed into a herd mentality. They reacted against that notion with surrealist humor, often incorporating jokes and gags into their music, lyrics, and shows. Musically, they would utilize unique sounds and non-traditional time signatures.
As Mark’s output grew into music for film and television, that same playful spirit could still be heard. There’s something slightly subversive in his music, the instruments he uses, and the melodic content. It’s always slightly off, many times embracing kitsch. But it’s always fun. Even when there is a serious moment on screen, Mothersbaugh’s music can underscore the emotions while remaining light-hearted.
His unique approach is mirrored in the projects he has written music for.
To see all of Mark Mothersbaugh’s film and television work, read his imdb page. It’s an impressive list. Being extremely prolific, he reportedly enjoys working on several projects at once, since every creative project helps inform the other. At one point, he had three major television shows premiering on the same day that had all been scored by him. Some of the titles that stand out as seminal works are:
The Rugrats theme song is one of those endearing tunes that brings back nostalgic memories for anyone who grew up in the 90’s. Those calliope sounds that give way to samples and synths are instantly recognizable. It sets the stage for the quirky show that ran for nine seasons (every episode of which Mothersbaugh scored), all but defining the “golden era” of Nickelodeon animation.
“I think I wrote the song within the first few days of them giving me pictures to look at… I 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.”
The success of the show and its quirky music helped solidify Mothersbaugh’s spot in the composing world.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
He has been a frequent collaborator with Wes Anderson, going back to the director’s first feature, Bottle Rocket.
“With Wes Anderson, I know I have enough for six players that I have to record in my studio, and the budget was smaller… He was receptive to more esoteric sounds. He let me create a sound for his film–he says, ‘Mark Mothersbaugh created the sound for my movies.’”
Wes Anderson is a strong auteur, with very specific sensibilities. His films manage to be very funny, but also deeply moving – just like Mark’s film music. Maybe that’s why their collaboration works so well.
For more on working with directors, check out this post.
The Lego Movie
Mark Mothersbaugh is no stranger to writing music for animated films. He has scored the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Hotel Transylvania franchises.
“If you’re writing music for a TV show or a film for kids, you can take all sorts of experimental steps, you can mash up square-dance music with heavy metal with classical music; you can put a minuet into a punk rock song, which can be connected to opera. It’s all fair game, because kids are open to those kind of ideas. They’re open to a wide range of information, which makes it a really fun arena to work in.”
For his work on The Lego Movie, he faced some unique challenges. A lot of the final visual work on the 3D-animated film was still being done while he was composing. And so, he was often scoring to the script, not to the edited sequences. To cover his bases, he would “double compose,” meaning he would write two simultaneous underscores. One featured a 100-piece orchestra, and the other was all electronic. That way, when the final sequences were finished, he and the directors could dial in more or less of either element. When they wanted more emotion, they brought up the orchestral music. When they wanted the driving energy of the synths and electronic drums, they could bring those sounds up in the mix.
In the end, the score has a fun energy that still feels appropriately epic when it needs to.
One of his most recent projects is, uncharacteristically, a massive summer tentpole superhero flick – Thor: Ragnarok. Looking at the rest of his filmography, you might scratch your head as to how he came to be involved with the project. The answer lies in the film’s director, Taika Waititi, who has done several much smaller, quirkier films. If you watch Hunt for the Wilderpeople or What We Do in the Shadows, you’ll begin to see how Mothersbaugh’s sensibilities fit into the picture.
For Thor, he says that he and Waititi wanted to push the envelope on what a major studio would allow them to get away with in terms of subversive humor, and so they both worked within Marvel’s constraints to deliver a movie that seemed to be a comedy first, and epic action movie second. Take a listen for yourself and see if he succeeded in bringing something fresh to the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
Mothersbaugh has written music for a number of video games, including the Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Dexter franchises. But the soundtrack that stands out to me the most is The Sims.
The Sims 2
Much like the music for Rugrats, hearing the opening strains of The Sims 2 theme music triggers instant nostalgia. Again, it’s playful, kitschy, light-hearted, and fun without being too on-the-nose about it. As one of the best-selling games of all time, millions of people listened to Mark’s music for hours on end, over and over. One of his strengths as a composer definitely lies in his ability to create memorable themes.
Mark is an avid artist, and reportedly keeps a diary of nothing but sketches, filling hundreds of notebooks over his lifetime. He has shown work in over 150 gallery shows since 1975, and a sampling of his output can be seen on his website. Clearly he is a multi-faceted artist, and his music is just the beginning of his creative depths.
Besides photos, prints, and sculptures, of special notice are his hand-built orchestrions. These are works of art that mechanically play music, utilizing everything from discarded pipe organs to antique bird calls. They are like living sculptures that reproduce Mark’s music inside a gallery space. Check out the video below for a recent exhibition:
No profile of Mark Mothersbaugh would be complete without mentioning Devo. Their hit single “Whip It” is firmly entrenched in the 20th century pop culture pantheon. While many considered Devo a “joke band,” they managed to inject some avant-garde ideas into mainstream music.
Wearing their “energy domes,” and jumping around the stage in yellow jumpsuits, they are definitely a reminder not to take anything too seriously, especially music. Regarding their trademark helmets, Mothersbaugh has said:
“We designed them, Jerry [Casale] and I. We were influenced both by German Bauhaus movement and geometric fashion, and Aztec temples. We just liked the look. It looked good, and it didn’t look like any other bands out there. We weren’t interested in wearing groovy hats or groovy clothing. We kind of looked like Lego toys or something by the time we got those on our heads, and that was a positive thing.”
Mark Mothersbaugh is a very interesting guy, who manages to work fun, subversive material into mainstream culture. Not limited to just audio, he is a consummate, prolific artist. His musical output is consistently quirky, and adds life to the show it’s composed for.
Mark’s work is worth checking out for aspiring composers because he doesn’t necessarily approach composition and voicing in a traditional way. His use of electronic instruments and DIY sounds are unique, while also being accessible to even the lowest of budgets. His ability to write memorable themes is the cornerstone of any great film score.
In the end, I think he is the embodiment of what can be accomplished with a strong aesthetic driving creative decisions, and his music is endlessly enjoyable.
For more Mark Mothersbaugh, I recommend reading the following interviews: