Exclusive: Mark Mothersbaugh Talks Devo and THE LEGO MOVIE’s “Everything is Awesome”
I saw The Lego Movie over the weekend, and it was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Not just “best this year” or “best animated movie” but best movie, period. It was brilliant, hilarious, creative and even made me sentimental. I grew up on Lego, and practically lived and breathed the stuff. From my first construction equipment set, I was hooked. Now my son is into it, which means I have an excuse to play all the time. So, of course, I was pumped about the new movie and then blown away by just how well made it was.
We spent most of the car ride quoting the movie and busting into its insanely catchy song, “Everything is Awesome” performed by Tegan & Sara and The Lonely Island, written by Shawn Patterson, and produced by Mark Mothersbaugh. Mark is most well-known for fronting the band Devo, but he has also created music for over 150 TV shows, film and video-games, including Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and Rugrats. I caught up with him to ask him about “Everything is Awesome” and more.
Hello Mark! First of all, how did you get involved with The Lego Movie?
I was on it before the directors were on it. 5 years ago, Dan Lin, one of the producers, called me up and had an earlier incarnation of something they were deciding what they thought of it and how to pitch it — and they had animation about a totally different movie that took place in a bachelor’s apartment. It was mostly live action and hardly any animation. So he had called me to help with putting some music together for some presentation, and, in the process, I said “I just did a film with these two guys, Phil and Chris, from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and you ought to check them out.” So if it wasn’t for me, this film never would have happened!
Well, I’m glad it did! Everything is Awesome is one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard in quite a while. What was the process like for creating this song, since it’s such a central part of the movie?
It was written into the script. Phil and Chris wrote most of the lyrics, and it was a very clever script the way it’s written in. The way it starts off … it’s such an irritating mnemonic that’s playing everywhere, driving people to go to work and conform, their mindless numbingly boring jobs, and be happy about it. It starts as an evil, irritating song, but by the end of the movie, the way the story unfolds, it becomes ironic. It turns into being about cooperation and working together. It was a clever bit of writing by the part of Phil and Chris, I must say.
How did you/they decide to get Tegan & Sara and The Lonely Island?
There’s a woman Nikki in the music department at Warner Brothers, and she was along for the whole ride, even coming down to Australia where I recorded the orchestra. It was her idea to get Tegan & Sara, and we [also] talked to people who weren’t really a great fit. But [Tegan & Sara] were really enthusiastic about it and came over and sang the song in just a few hours at my place. I had met some of the guys from Lonely Island at Phil Lord’s girlfriend’s birthday party about three years ago. We had talked about how we wanted to work together sometime, so when Phil and Chris played them the song, they were really excited about it.
So is there some demo floating around somewhere with you doing the rap?
*Laughs* You know what? There are so many versions of that song it’s ridiculous. There are different raps, and… I’d have to go through and count all the stuff that’s in the film because there’s a lot of stuff that just never got there.
How do you decide what makes the final cut in a song that has so many variations?
It becomes the job of the directors. Even to the point where they had already started 22 Jump Street while I was writing the music for Lego. They didn’t come with me to Australia, so just to be safe I wrote probably almost 90% of the — there’s a lot of music that you never heard, because I wrote the queues that you’re hearing in the movie—one with an electronic, kind of ravey sound, and then another with a full orchestral sound so that at any moment in the film, to change the emotional content of the scene. they could dial more towards the electronic, or more toward the orchestral and choral. I wanted to give them every possibility to make the music fit. Part of it is, I write the music and the themes, but when it comes to the final job, while I’m writing music there are people that are editing the film, and people changing dialogue, and doing new sound effects that I never get to hear. Someone could put something blowing up at the same place I have something musically happening, and they just don’t sound good together. So I try to give my directors as much flexibility on the dub mix as possible.
I’ve noticed that “children’s” movies recently, especially Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie, have been just as entertaining for adults as for children, if not more so. Have you seen that trend, and are these films specifically targeting adult audiences?
While I think there’s a desire to make family films that resonate with everybody, it takes a good script and a good writer. I mean, Disney, at their best, did it first. But now as audiences get more sophisticated, you really have to have people that understand how to do that. Some people just have a talent for it, and I think Phil and Chris are good at it. They can also take things that people would say — “who would ever want to make a movie out of 21 jump street?” — because that was our next film. I went on YouTube and said that exact quote. But then I read the script and thought it was funny, and saw what they shot and it was amazing. So, they’re just really talented which is what it’s about. Then there are other people who, when you make a movie, you don’t want to make it just for 5 year olds, or 15 year olds, or 25 year olds. You want to find a movie that resonates with all people. That’s like the best thing; it’s when you feel the best about your art. I mean, it’s kind of great if you do something very nichey, like the Japanese anime that’s just for 15 year old boys and girls. I appreciate that very much, but it’s a bigger challenge to see if you can write something that everyone can identify with. They’re very clever, talented guys.
They’re different, you know? Funny thing is, Wes Anderson is really in touch with his child side. He’s very specific too — I like writing for him. But when you do a kids film like Lego, [it] had its own particular needs. One of them was to create a universe that was specific to Lego. I watched earlier footage, and I saw some of the first scenes with millions of Lego blocks rolling like ocean waves and a pirate ship crashing against a sea foam of Lego blocks that was very realistic and liquid-looking, and I thought that was incredible. I wanted to make music that matched it, so I decided I would rely on synthesizers for that stuff, for defining Lego World. So I pulled out everything I had. I brought out old synthesizers that I used to use for Devo, and more modern state-of-the-art rave stuff, and then circuit-bent things from crazy inventors all over the world. They don’t sound like anything else because they’re not supposed to even be synthesizers. I tried to make a sound palette out of all these different instruments, and I spent a lot of time on it. Then I used the orchestra to do the things like emotions, because that’s kind of what they do. Animation is always very needy in that aspect — it always needs something to make it feel real, and to make emotions feel real. There’s nothing better than 100 humans with their hearts beating, blood pumping, and their breathing, and playing their instruments. Even if you don’t hear that stuff, you feel it in the score. I went for the best of the both worlds, and basically scored the movie twice.
What are you working on next?
Tomorrow I start 22 Jump Street. Last week I just got back from a museum show of sculptures of mine. In October, I start a four-year museum tour with visual art. I’m primarily a visual artist, and music was just something I did too. With Devo we kind of took this path where people perceived us as musical artists, but Jerry and I were both art students who were making films. For our own films, we didn’t hire people to make them for us, like what MTV turned into. That was our art. So now, skipping ahead, I draw every day. Every day I do a drawing. I make music every day, and I draw every day. I don’t see them as separate; they all come from the same place. The director of the Denver museum took an interest in what I was doing, and said “there’s enough here to do a retrospective” so this is a show that will start pre-Devo and come up to the present time. I’ll take over three floors of a museum, then eventually it comes to New York City in 2017. After that it will probably go abroad, whatever that means! You should help us get it to Pittsburgh!
I’d love that!
I like Pittsburgh; it’s like if Akron would have had a happy ending. *Laughs*
Thanks again for your time, Mark. We can’t wait to see what you do next.
Check out Everything Is Awesome below: