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Rick and Morty, Adult Swim’s blockbuster sci-fi comedy, has helped usher in a new golden age of adult animation since its debut back in 2013. Along with other hits like BoJack Horseman and Big Mouth on Netflix, Animals on HBO and Bob’s Burgers on Fox, Rick and Morty eschews the predictable shock-jock nature of adult-oriented cartoons of the ‘90s and ‘00s for something much more subtle and thought-provoking—finding the emotional core of its zany characters, writing deep-diving narratives about family, love, addiction, and abandonment, and creating a show that leaves you both heartily laughing and a little soul-crushed as each episode concludes.

Yes, Rick and Morty is a show that follows the eponymous characters (a chronically gassy mad scientist and his terminally lame grandson) through utterly ridiculous alternate dimensions (not to mention a surprisingly moving subplot featuring a recurring character named Mr. Poopybutthole), but one of the things that makes it both a resounding critical and commercial success is the way it balances its gross-out humor with attempts to answer the universe’s bigger questions.

Creators Justin Roiland (who voices both Rick and Morty) and Dan Harmon are responsible for the show’s unique tone, but there is one key behind-the-scenes player whose contributions may be almost as valuable: the show’s composer, Ryan Elder. In general, Rick and Morty makes brilliant use of music, in ways that both enhance the show’s storytelling and its singular, wacky aesthetic. Whether its an entire episode that centers around an improvised electro-rap jam (“Get Schwifty,” Season 2 Episode 5), a David Bowie tribute crooned by a literal fart portrayed by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement (“Goodbye Moonmen” from “Mortynight Run,” Season 2 Episode 2), or a Mazzy Star song that underlines one of the most disturbing sequences in the whole series (“Rick Potion #9”, Season 1 Episode 5),

Rick and Morty’s use of music is both wholly intrinsic and weirdly incidental to the show’s appeal. And Adult Swim know this—this month, with legendary indie label Sub Pop, they released The Rick and Morty Soundtrack, a 24-track compilation of songs featured in the series as well as Elder’s surprisingly lush, beautiful instrumental scores. Much more than a mish-mash of random tracks, The Rick and Morty Soundtrack does an incredible job at balancing pieces like “The Small Intestine Song” (a parody of Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World”—you get the idea) and “African Dream Pop,” a track that wouldn’t seem out of place on an Animal Collective remix record.

In fact, Elder is in the midst of preparing a massive undertaking at the Adult Swim Festival on October 5th: The Rick and Morty Musical Ricksperience, where he will be live scoring an episode of the series with a full orchestra, which is going to be as epic as it sounds. We had a chat with Elder from his home in LA a few weeks before the Ricksperience was set to premiere, and he took us through a brief history of his time as composer of the show.

 

The Rick and Morty Musical Ricksperience seems insane. How are you preparing?

It’s coming up soon, and we’re performing an episode of the show with a live orchestra so the music will be presented in a way it will never have been heard before, I think it will be really exciting. Then we have five or six songs from the show, and some of the more popular songs we’re going to perform with guest artists. We have been doing tons of arranging, none of them have orchestra in them. Translating the episode from what I wrote to what someone can play on a page is a really huge process in itself. And because it’s going to be performed live to a synched video, there’s a ton of extra personnel and technical stuff needed that we’re all figuring out now. So yeah, it’s gonna be awesome.

What is the process like scoring the show? Do you work from a script, or do the creators give you more free reign since music is such an integral part of the series?

I work to what’s called the animatic, which is really well-done line drawings in a slide show format. It’s a very early form for the show. The timings are usual pretty close, and the audio is almost always what it’s going to be from the show. But there’s still a lot of time needed between that and the final animation, so I usually work in that window of time. When I get the animatics, the first thing I do is usually just watch it, because I love the show and I just want to see the episodes immediately. Then I’ll sit down and watch it again and sort of mark down where I think there should and shouldn’t be music, and any places where I’m not sure, I’ll send an email and get Justin or Dan on the phone and just figure out what they want to do. Oftentimes I’ll try and overscore, because it’s easier to take stuff out later than to add it in later when time starts getting crunched. I’ll do a whole pass at the episode just doing what I think works best. That’s unique to this show—a lot of times on other shows you work more closely with the showrunners as you’re deciding when and where there should be music, and often the shows are temped with temporary music that you can use as inspiration. Rick and Morty, no temp. I just do whatever I want, and then I send off the whole episode to Justin and Dan. But they’re great to work with, and they give me a lot of freedom and they have a lot of trust in me to do the whole episode without getting too much into the weeds with them.

What’s a situation where something you created on your own worked immediately with them? Were there any instances where something you personally really liked didn’t quite work with the show?

Yeah, for sure. I definitely will get the occasional note that’s like, “This is amazing, great work here,” but then the note I probably get the most from either of them is “There doesn’t need to be music here.” Dan is a big fan–and I am too, really–of letting comedy have its space, because music can really distract from comedy, in my opinion. You don’t want the music to be funny, because funny music on top of comedy is too much. So I like to play it straight, play it as serious as possible, and really set the comedy apart of the music itself. So I’m telling the story and the way that makes the comedy funner is by treating it very seriously.

It’s interesting you bring that up–and I’m skipping ahead here–but I wanted to ask you how you balance the tone of the show through the music. There are songs in Rick and Morty that are there for comedic effect, to move the narrative forward, and then there are scenes in the show that are very emotional and relatively toned-down.

I worked on advertising for 10 years before I did Rick and Morty, and writing music for advertisements is nothing if not completely insane. Every day you’re doing a different piece of music, you’re changing different styles by the hour, because you’re working so fast and you’re writing so much music, and they’re little short chunks, 30 seconds to a minute, sometimes even 10 or 15 seconds. So that definitely prepared me to be able to switch gears just as the scene demands. And my goal as composer is to tell the story, first and foremost—if I’m not telling a story I’m not doing my job. So those scenes that get emotional, it’s really important that the music bolster that because that is the story at that moment.

The music within the universe of Rick and Morty has a very distinct profile—you have this ’90s, indie thing, and then this ’00s electro pop/rap thing, like “Get Schwifty” or the insane rap breakdown on “Summer and Tinkles.” Why do those sounds work specifically with the atmosphere of the show? Are there certain artists who inspire you to achieve that sound?

Justin, Dan and I are all ’90s kids, so we all grew up listening to Tony! Toni! Toné! and Belly and all these bands. For us, it’s very second nature to pull from that music because we love it, and especially for Justin and Dan, as they do a lot of the curating of what songs get licensed for the show. But as far as me writing for the show, there’s this song on the soundtrack that appeared in Season 2 finale, “Alien Jazz Rap.” Rick and Morty are at a wedding with an alien rapper. Specifically, Dan said to me: “I want it to be like that ’90s, Digable Planets, jazz rap kind of thing.” I love Digable Planets, I listened the shit out of them growing up, so it was really easy to be like, “Let me get some upright bass, this real jazzy groove, and just play around in that world,” then Dan improvised the lyrics over the top. He’s amazing at that.

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In terms of the actual score of the show, my biggest influence is definitely the scores of Jerry Goldsmith. Planet of the Apes, Alien… I love the way he used avant-garde scoring techniques to create these sci-fi soundscapes, he was an absolute genius. Whenever I need inspiration I just throw one of those on.

You said that Justin and Dan have most of the say on who gets synced on the show, but are there any artists that aren’t on the soundtrack that you’d like to work with on Rick and Morty?

I’m not super involved with the licensing, but I’m still looking for my opportunity. There’s the band I absolutely love right now called Superorganism, do you know them?

Yeah, they’d be perfect for the show!

I just saw them in LA, they’re incredible, and they’re also fans of Rick and Morty. I think they’d be amazing for the show, because they have such a weird, eclectic, bizarre, sci-fi sound, but also an almost nihilistic tone to the vocals and the lyrics. I think they’d be a great fit for the show—maybe even too good, maybe it would be too on the nose, I don’t know.

I could definitely see them in a Star Wars cantina situation on the show, for sure. Like Rick and Morty are in a weird bar on another planet and they’re the house band.

Totally! Another band I’ve been dying to get involved with the show somehow because I really think Justin and Dan would love them is Tennis. There’s this way that Elena, the vocalist, sings that I think Dan and Justin would really dig, and I think some of their music could really work for some of the more emotional stuff.

'Rick and Morty' co-creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland
Getty Images / Maarten de Boer

Are there any situations or scenarios that haven’t happened on the show yet that you would like to score?

I mean, I’ve always wondered if we could do a true musical episode, where it’s music sung from beginning to end. I don’t know how they would get into that without being cheesy, like “Oh no, Morty we’re trapped in a musical universe!” I wouldn’t want it to be that obvious, and I’m not a writer. Something like that would be really fun, but I’d want it to happen organically. If they’re not feeling it, I’m definitely not going to push for it. Although I do always tell them, “Let’s do more songs, guys!” There would have to be a really good reason for a musical episode, it would have to be really, really next level.

Maybe it could be one of the Interdimensional Television episodes, only instead of commercials Rick and Morty are watching alien music videos from other planets.

Now we’re talking! That would be pretty fun, actually.

One of the things I really like about the score is that there are pieces of music that work independently from the show, but then there are some solid favorites that will resonate with die-hard fans. Like “Goodbye Moonmen.”

That song needed to be recorded before they had animation of anything, because they were going to animate to the song. I got the script early on, it was one of the first things they worked on for Season 2, and in the script it just said “Fart sings a David Bowie-inspired song,” with the lyrics the writers had written. So first off I was like, “Who’s going to sing this?” because I needed to know what their range was going to be like, and when they told me it was going to be Jemaine Clement, it was like, “OK, I can literally do whatever I want then.” I purposefully didn’t listen to Flight of the Conchords‘ David Bowie song, even though I knew they did one, because I didn’t want it to infect me; I’d heard it but it had been a while. What I did listen to though, was just a crap-ton of David Bowie which was, as you can imagine, a terrible experience—just kidding, it was awesome.

I just picked up my guitar and started plucking around with those lyrics. It rarely happens, but sometimes as a composer, the music will just write itself for you. Where it comes from, I don’t know, but it’s all there, flowing out of you. This was one of those songs, and that’s why it’s my favorite song I’ve done for the show. When it came to record, we booked an hour with Jemaine–he was in New Zealand, doing it over ISDN–and they needed to get all his dialogue for the show as well, so they spent about 40 minutes doing that, and then they were like “OK Elder, it’s your turn” and I had like 20 minutes to record him on the song. What you hear on the show is his first take, which is amazing. He’s so talented. He nailed it right away. I had this delay sound on my voice for the “The ground can be space…” line and he just straight up sang the echo, and we were all just dying laughing.

And that’s the best part of the whole song! Like with the Bowie spoof, there’s a fair amount of mimicry in the score, particularly even in the theme song, which riffs on aspects of the iconic Dr. Who and Twilight Zone themes.

Well, the story behind the theme is actually pretty interesting—Justin was pitching a show to another network that was an animated kid’s show called Dog World, and he wanted some music to help his pitch, so I wrote this song that has this kind of adventurous build. The network eventually passed on that show, so when we started working on Rick and Morty, Justin was like, “Oh, we just need some music for the main title section, just for now.” And I said, “Why don’t we use that music from Dog World?” I tweaked it a little bit for timing and everyone loved it. We never could come up with a good enough reason to try something new. I always say I wrote it for something else but it was destined for Rick and Morty.

That’s crazy because it works perfectly for the show, it kind of sets the musical profile out the gate, this wacky, zany, sci-fi comedy sound.

One of the very first things we set out to do, when Justin, Dan and I were discussing first writing music for the pilot, was that they wanted it to have a filmic feel, and for the music to really take itself seriously because then the comedy will be funnier, and these action scenes will be big and exciting. So part of that was making a main title that had this really epic, exciting, anticipatory build. In a way, it feels like it’s going somewhere but it never really gets there, it just kind of explodes at the end. It’s always building, building, building. That was on purpose, because I wanted it to feel like when you’re watching the show and you don’t know what’s going to come next.

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Speaking of not knowing what’s coming next, how do you write music for the completely improvised songs in the show? I’m thinking particularly of “Help Me I’m Gonna Die” and “Let Me Out” from the episode “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez,” when Rick is trying to communicate through his reborn clone that his real body is trapped in a vat in his garage. The songs are so funny but so weird and disjointed, lyrically.

Justin and I work together on those types of songs, because I know he’s going to be singing them, it’s his character. I think we got together for one of them, I brought my guitar over and we jammed out some stuff. Those are really fun, because I get to be kind of collaborative with him in a way that’s much more one-on-one than usual. Writing these little songs are the funnest part of my job, these dumb little tunes that Justin and Dan get to write insane lyrics to.

‘The Rick and Morty Musical Ricksperience’ makes its debut at the inaugural Adult Swim Festival on October 5th in Los Angeles. For more information, head to the official website.

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Words by Cameron Cook
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