Rick and Morty is taking the world by storm. April’s surprise season 3 premier drew more than 1.6 million viewers, and the show’s fanbase is about as ardent as they come. We were recently lucky enough to chat to Ryan Elder, composer of the show’s brilliantly bonkers music. Here’s what he had to say:
Ryan, thanks so much for joining us.
Thanks for having me.
We’ve been doing things like only answering questions in Rick and Morty GIFs and YouTube clips, which has been really annoying most of the team. There’s been a lot of “I Like What You Got” going around.
That’s a good idea, I might just do that.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first get into music?
I started writing music as a child. My mom drove me to violin lessons every week starting at age 5, and my dad was very into early computer sequencing and recording; he had an IBM 8086 with Cakewalk 1.0 that he connected to a mini keyboard and a drum machine. He taught me how to use it to write the kind of cheesy pop songs you might expect to hear from a kid growing up in the late 80s (New Kids on the Block, MC Hammer and Kriss Kross were big influences.) So I’ve had this long history of writing music on a computer, which turns out is a huge advantage given that 99% of music production is now done that way. Later, I got a degree in music with a focus on composition from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.
I started my career as a professional composer in the summer of 2000 at Emoto Music (then Admusic), a place that did music for commercials and a few TV shows including Just Shoot Me and Wizards of Waverly Place. I started as an assistant, and back then it was a totally different era in media production. A lot of my job was driving VHS tapes and CDs all over LA, because people didn’t really use the internet to deliver content yet. I was also able to get into the studio and work on my own music, and even create some demos for the commercials that Emoto were working on. In my first month of doing that I got a track picked up for a Nestle Juicy Juice commercial, and over the years I transitioned from being the dub room assistant to being the composer. I worked for them until 2011, at which point I went freelance and transitioned to working more on television. But I maintained a very good working relationship with Emoto, and I still do some work for them occasionally.
How did you get started with the amazing phenomenon that is Rick and Morty?
I first met Justin (Roiland) and Dan (Harmon) in 2005 at a monthly short film competition here in Los Angeles called Channel 101 (that Dan co-founded in 2004.) I felt so strongly that they both were very talented and made such amazing and funny shorts for the screening that I offered to write music for them free of charge. Over the years we worked together on various projects and when they got asked by Adult Swim to create a show they asked me to compose the music. The show was originally a web series called The Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti, which was basically Justin Roiland’s attempt to get sued for using Back to the Future material in a really offensive way. That was actually the first project we worked on together, and those characters would eventually become Rick and Morty.
I knew that Justin was really funny and I wanted to work with him, because I found that the more you work, the more you focus on working with talented people and the more that pays off for you. He’s a super funny guy to hang out with, so over time, Justin and I started doing a lot of stuff together. Eventually he got asked by Dan to do something for Adult Swim, and they wrote Rick and Morty together. It was based on the two characters from that short way back in the day, and he asked me to do music for it because we had had this long relationship of working on stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever said no to Justin and I never will as far as I can tell. So that’s how it got started.
Can you tell us more about Channel 101?
Channel 101 is a great LA short film festival that’s set up like a network where the audience gets to decide which shows get cancelled and which get continued. Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab created it in 2004, and it’s been going on pretty much every month since. A lot of really funny people got their start there, including The Lonely Island, Justin and Dan, Randall Park from Fresh Off the Boat. I discovered it in 2005 and it seemed like something fun and free to do in LA. I just started saying, “Hey, if anyone needs music, let me know”, and I’ve worked on a whole bunch of stuff from Channel 101 over the years.
That seems like a great way of breaking into the industry – finding a bunch of talented people and making yourself available to them
Yeah. That concept of getting out there and meeting people that are making the kind of material that you want to work on has allowed me to skip a lot of steps in my career in the traditional composer sense. I spent many years honing my craft, working on commercials and stuff, so it’s not like I wasn’t out there doing the work. But you can really jumpstart your career if you put yourself in the position to get lucky. I definitely was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to meet Justin and Dan as their careers were about to take off. But if I hadn’t gone to Channel 101 in the first place, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.
How does working with animation compare to working on a live action show?
The biggest pro to working with animation is that I get a lot more time to work on the music. The production schedule for live action is very quick; usually you get a locked cut and you mix maybe a week or two later. With animation I get a locked animatic which is not a locked final cut, but very close to the final timings that I’ll have to score to. I get that maybe six months before we mix, so I get a lot of extra time which is both a blessing and a curse, as there’s a lot of extra time to second guess myself. But it also means a lot of time to organise my schedule in a way that works for me.
The animatics are detailed “pencil sketches” to what they call radio play, which is the audio recording of the dialogue. They are very well crafted and directed, so I’ll know the timings, the moods; everything that’s going to happen that I need to score. When the final animation is finished it usually just requires a few tweaks to make it work to the new timings.
Often the animatics will already include music that has been licensed for the show. How much does that inform what you contribute to an episode?
It often informs a lot. The licensed music tells me a lot about the mood or tone I need to aim for and how important a scene is to the show as a whole. For example, the use of “For the Damaged Coda” by Blonde Redhead in season one made it clear that there was an underlying mystery with a melancholic tone to it that I should be aware of moving forward. I also strive to make those moments with licensed music stand out so it’s important to me that I don’t tip my musical hat to them too much until we’ve heard them already.
Who are your biggest musical influences for the show? How engaged in the direction of the music are Dan and Justin?
My number one musical influence for the show is the great Jerry Goldsmith, but I also draw influence from plenty of other classic sci-fi shows and movies. The main title, while clearly influenced by Doctor Who, is also inspired by the themes to Farscape and Invader Zim. Justin and Dan are pretty involved with the musical direction. They knew they wanted a classic, cinematic sci-fi sound to the show where the score usually plays it straight and makes room for the comedy. Both Justin and Dan collaborate with me to make sure the music is both telling the story and stylistically relevant.
Given that there’s no music supervisor, who’s in charge of finding the licensed music?
The majority of the licensed music is chosen by Justin or Dan. On a few occasions an editor has placed a piece of music that was so perfect we had to use it. Justin and Dan have incredible taste in music, and luckily for them they are able to put a lot of great songs in the show. The first time I heard the Blonde Redhead song in the animatic for S01E10 I was like, “Man, this is amazing.” It works so well in the scene and I was so excited when they said they could get it. So yeah, I’m glad that they have great taste!
And then there are some great original songs that you’ve written for the show
“Goodbye Moonmen” is a good example of one of the original songs, and it’s hands down been my favorite piece of music to write for the show. I got the script really early on in that case because I knew they wanted to time the animatic out to the song. The script just said, “The Fart sings a David Bowie inspired song”, and then it had the lyrics. That was kind of the all the direction that I got. Then I learned that Jemaine Clement would be singing it, and I knew he would be perfect. David Bowie is a big inspiration of mine, and I got so excited and inspired when I knew Jemaine was involved. I knew I had a very wide range because he has an incredible voice; he can go very high and very low. I also knew it needed to be trippy and spacey because they’d probably do some kind of visual sequence for it.
Most of writing that song was research, because once I sat down with my guitar the song kind of wrote itself in less than an hour. I then did the temp vocals for it which ended up being background vocals with Jemaine, so you can hear me in there if you listen close. Because I knew it was going to be a big centrepiece in the episode, I also hired an engineer and a live drummer which made it sound even better. Working with Jemaine was a delight; he’s incredibly talented and professional. What you hear in the final version is virtually all from the first take.
The Rick and Morty fanbase is no joke. They are incredibly loyal and engaged! What’s it been like watching the growth of such a cult following? Have you seen the YouTube covers of songs from the show?
It’s crazy. If you’d told me, “Hey, you’re going to work on a show that people tattoo themselves with images from”, I would have just said, “No way.” Every day the fans blow my mind. I speak for the whole cast and crew when I say that the fan reaction is so inspiring and amazing. I know that if I give the show everything I’ve got that the fans will enjoy it that much more.
It’s very gratifying when someone sends me a cool cover of one of my songs. I get those tweeted at me a lot or sometimes they’ll tweet at Jemaine, and he always makes sure to tag me in the response. I love all of the covers and the different styles people do them in, they’re so good. I hope people send those to me forever. It’s crazy how the show just keeps getting more and more popular; it’s really exciting and unexpected. I’m a fan of the show too, and I knew when I started watching the animatics it was something I enjoyed. But you’re never really sure if something’s going to find its audience. Rick and Morty’s audience just keeps growing every year. I feel very lucky to be a part of this show and the fans are the #1 reason why.
Over 8,000 people showed up at San Diego’s Comic-Con Premiere Event!
Yeah, it’s crazy! I think they even had to turn some people away, which is terrible but also like wow, holy crap!
In a brutally honest Twitter thread last month, Dan Harmon explained why season 3 has taken so long. What was that like on your end of the production?
It’s been a very long and drawn out process for me as well but for different reasons. Mainly because I kept getting involved with projects that had much more pressing deadlines so I’d have to put Rick and Morty on the back burner for a while. I’m sort of sheltered from the drama because I work at home so I’m not at the office, and honestly I don’t think there was that much drama. I think there was just a lot of pressure to make a show that lives up to the hype, and I think they’ve nailed it. Everything that I’ve seen has been incredible. Currently we’re still in the process of fine-tuning the music for episode 7 and I still have to write the majority of the score for episode 10.
With the immense anticipation for season 3, how excited are you now that the season is finally dropping?
Incredibly excited. Season 3 has my favorite episode of the show ever and it goes places I never would have expected. Also, PICKLE RICK!
What advice would you give to composers starting out looking to compose music for media?
1) Make friends with people who are creators. This involves listening, communicating and building trust but most of all it means simply trying to be a cool person. Find out where creative people gather and get involved.
2) Invest in as many professional quality sample libraries as you can and learn how to use them.
3) Move to Los Angeles, New York or London.
4) Write music, lots of it. Write something every day, try to write something different every time and if you think there’s something you can’t write then that’s probably what you should try to write next. You never know when you might get a call to compose some African Dream Pop right?
Are there any upcoming projects aside from Rick and Morty that you wanted to mention?
Yeah. I’ve got another Dan Harmon produced project coming out on YouTube Red here soon called Good Game. It’s a sort of a sitcom about eSports, kind of like if the characters from Community ran an eSports team instead of a study group. It’s very funny, very irreverent, and very Dan Harmon. That’s coming out soon. I’m also scoring HarmonQuest for SeeSo, and I’m co-composing an as-of-yet unannounced Netflix children’s series.
Thanks so much for taking the time Ryan
You got it!