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Devo Frontman And “Lego Movie” Composer Mark Mothersbaugh On Being A Great Collaborator

Mark Mothersbaugh has gone from Devo to film composing and back–and he’s learned a lot about how to be creative in every room he’s in as a result.

Devo Frontman And “Lego Movie” Composer Mark Mothersbaugh On Being A Great Collaborator
[Image: Flickr user Chuck Coker]

Mark Mothersbaugh is a funny guy. The frontman for legendary new-wave pranksters Devo-turned-film composer-turned-creator-of-everything-from-custom-glasses-frames-to-art-installations, Mothersbaugh is experiencing poor cell phone reception in a coffee shop in Denver when I ask him my first question, about how one goes from succeeding as a recording artist to succeeding as a film composer.

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Mark Mothersbaugh

“You have to be able to look at pictures, and write music that helps it,” he says quickly, before apologizing. “My phone was chiming a lot,” he explains. “Actually, there’s a lot to scoring a film. It involves being able to work with directors, working on someone else’s timeframe, and all sorts of other constraints. Each movie is a different animal.”

Mothersbaugh has experience with a variety of those animals. His first credit in the film world is 1987’s Revenge Of The Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise, and this week’s The Lego Movie marks his 54th time in the role of composer. Every time, though, the process is strongly collaborative, which can be the downfall for some musicians who are used to running their own show. For Mothersbaugh, however, collaboration is deep in his creative DNA.

“The lucky thing for me is that my band was two sets of brothers, and no matter whose name was on a song, or whose thing we were working on, we were always able to collaborate,” he says. “Collaboration was looked as an an advantage, because usually people were coming in to make something better.” So how do you translate an affinity for creative collaboration into a sustainable career in a variety of different industries?

Understand your role on the team

Because Devo was an inherently collaborative project where every member had some experience sublimating his own ego to someone else’s–being in a band with your brother has that effect on people–Mothersbaugh says that film composing wasn’t much of a shift for him. “Going to work with a director, or some producers, felt really natural to me,” he says. “It’s the temperament of the artist, and I think it’s really important, if you’re going to work on a film, to be able to understand that you’re helping a director achieve his vision. It’s not really the other way around. If you want to work in television or film, you’re a collaborator. You’re part of a team–they’re not making an image to bolster your music, you’re making music to bolster their image.”

Step up, when the situation calls for it

Making music to bolster someone else’s image may not sound too difficult in theory, if you’re talking about an accomplished musician, but Mothersbaugh recalls certain challenges that have been a part of that process in the past.

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“It can be very exhausting, because we come in at the end of the film, and we’re often looked to to help solve problems, or to fix mistakes that have happened,” he explains. “Maybe there wasn’t enough sun out during a day when there’s a car chase, and we need a sunny image for some reason–so you have to make the sun shine. Maybe an actor had the flu, or a terrible hangover, and did a lousy job that day–you have to make people believe that something horrible, or something brave, or something tragic, or something amazing is in the process of taking place. That’s all the kind of stuff that’s a responsibility, but it’s also what makes it fun.”

Find collaborations that give you the chance to explore something new

Mothersbaugh’s work with Devo was always boundary-pushing, in terms of what was happening in pop music in the late 70’s and 80’s, but in order to experience the thrill of pure creation, he says, there’s no better place to look than in scoring films for children.

“Writing music for kids is incredible. If you listen to the radio, the new song by Bruno Mars uses the same elements that the new song by Miley Cyrus uses. They all borrow from each other, and pop music is only allowed to move in tiny increments–you don’t reinvent pop music every six months, or even six years,” he says. So when he gets the opportunity to compose for kids–say, The Lego Movie, or his work in the 90’s on Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Rugrats–he’s liberated in ways that few musicians are allowed to be.

“If you’re writing music for a TV show or a film for kids, you can take all sorts of experimental steps,” he explains. “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.” Speaking specifically of The Lego Movie, Mothersbaugh explains that the project carried some especially unique opportunities. “It was a delightful project–I got to write a lot of music in very forward electronic sounds, and I mashed that up against a very traditional hundred-piece orchestra. It was one of my most enjoyable scores to date.”

Pick the right collaborators

Of course, being a strong collaborator is only useful if you’re on the right team. Mothersbaugh says that he learned pretty early on that part of his job is to collect the people he likes working with, and keep a note of the ones who he doesn’t enjoy as much.

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One of the filmmakers Mothersbaugh has meshed with is his frequent collaborator Wes Anderson. “I got a phone call from somebody at Sony, and they said, ‘We’ve got this guy with a pretty interesting film, and you were the only composer he’s willing to meet with,'” Mothersbaugh explains of his first encounter with Anderson–way back in the Bottle Rocket days. “I went out to Santa Monica, and they arranged for a bunch of Santa Monica high school students to sit and screen Bottle Rocket, and that particular screening was amazing: It had ninety walkouts. More people walked out of that movie than anything the focus group guy had ever seen. But I watched the movie and I loved it.”

21 Jump Street

Remember that each collaboration is different

Mothersbaugh’s frequent collaborators include folks like Anderson, but also guys like Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writing-and-directing duo behind The Lego Movie, as well as the 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs franchises–all of which Mothersbaugh has worked on. But, he says, the process of working on those films couldn’t be more different.

“You have different paints on the palette, and different things that you know you can use. With Lego, i knew that I had a hundred-piece orchestra, forty-piece choir, thirty-piece electronic band, and all the money I needed. With Wes Anderson, I know I have enough for six players that I have to record in my studio, and the budget was smaller. On the other hand, with Wes Anderson, 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.’ They’re different, but the difference is whether you’re having fun eating dinner at a sushi restaurant or an Italian restaurant–you just have different raw ingredients to work with.”

Play within the rules of the game

Each project is different, and that also means that it has different needs. That’s something Mothersbaugh takes to heart when considering a project like The Lego Movie. “For animation, you want a big orchestra, because all those humans bring life to animated objects and people, whether you can hear it or not. You can tell if there’s a hundred people playing violin, oboe, cello, flute, bass…” he says. “You don’t hear it literally, but you feel their hearts beating and blood pumping, and there’s something you don’t get from an electronic score. Animation often requires humans playing those instruments.”

Keep it Devo–or whatever it is that makes a collaboration feel authentic to you

When I ask Mothersbaugh if he felt a connection to The Lego Movie because its subversive, surrealist, irreverent take on big pop culture brands and properties was something that he related to from his days playing with those themes in Devo, he laughs. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “The writer/director team [Lord and Miller] have a really great sensibility–they can take something that you would look at, like a very slight book like Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, or 21 Jump Street, which I watched a YouTube video of the show and thought it was one of the lamest things I’d ever seen, and they made a funny film. I like working with these two guys.”

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That’s something he found in collaborating with Anderson, as well. “Wes was kind of like Devo, because he took some of the money out of the project in exchange for artistic control, which is exactly what Devo did early on,” he recalls. “We were concerned about who would do the artwork and the visuals, and we said we’d take less money if we could control that, and the label laughed–‘You’ll pay us just to let you do the work?’ That’s one of those people you want to collect. You say to yourself, ‘That’s a connection to keep.'”

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About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club

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