Just before heading into last weekend's Comic-Con@Home, Rick and Morty composer Ryan Elder (Boss Baby) jumps through a portal to Dimension SD-20 so we can discuss current events such as San Diego Comic-Con (or lack thereof) and what exactly is going on with the pandemic? I mean, our world currently suspiciously resembles something our two space adventurers might have to resolve. I start by asking Ryan if he thinks Rick has Cronenberg'd our dimension: "He's probably already left the planet. He's on to a normal life."
Even though the world does seem to be crumbling around us, Ryan assures me that things are fine for him on his end. "I'm used to working from home, I've always worked from home. That hasn't changed much, and animation is still going, they are still working on it. I am blessed to work in animation and still have work to do."
We further discuss that it looks like animation might be the one industry to mostly be unaffected by the pandemic. "Possibly, I know things have been delayed slightly as people figured out how to work from home, but at most it was maybe a month of people's schedules (being) delayed. The couple projects that I am working on are proceeding as normal at this point." Elder tells me that in addition to finishing up Boss Baby for Netflix, he has not gotten anything for Rick and Morty Season 5 yet. "Unfortunately I know as much as you do. I know that they're working on animatics. Hopefully, they will be getting "locked" soon and we will get to keep moving forward. But, they're writing season 6. So it's coming along and hopefully, the schedule will be regular from now on."
Moving on to San Diego Comic-Cons of the past, I asked Elder to reflect on his favorite memories from the pop culture paradise. "I have been twice, The first time I went was, you could still get your badge on-site, That's how long ago it was. It was great, it was fun. My wife and I were like let's go down and check it out for just one day. Finding parking wasn't that hard, kind of hard, but not that hard. I went last year, I think it was the year before (2018) because we did the soundtrack release. …Justin and Dan did a live DJ set of the music from the soundtrack at the Adult Swim On The Green party. That was fun, I got to be there for that. I just went for one day. I didn't get to go to any halls or see any of the stuff. I am really looking for a good excuse to go there and do it up 100%. Finally for the first time."
Ryan was friends with Dan Harmon (Community) and Justin Roiland (Solar Opposites) for a long time. Collaborating, in fact, on the famous "Doc & Marty" short that started this whole ball of wax rolling. I asked Ryan to remember the day he got the news that Rick and Morty had been picked up: "I had been working with Justin on several pitches before then, we did pitches at Nickelodeon and Fox, and various different things where I would do various pieces of music here and there. At the time when I first heard about Rick and Morty, it was still just a pitch presentation. I don't even think we were pitching a full episode or anything like that. I'm like "Whatever you need I'm onboard. Let's do it," he explained. "Then the next time I heard about it was a full animatic, which is what they based their decision to buy the show. Early on it was just another one of those presentations, and lets (see) hopefully, it goes somewhere. If it doesn't I love working with these guys, they're funny. And when I saw it I thought "Ok, this actually could go somewhere. This is really good. I knew it was really good, I knew I liked it but I still could never have guessed that it would have taken off as much as it has."
Was there ever any moment when he realized it was going to grow past that original thought of "Hey we have something here" to "OMG, What have we created"? "It is still evolving. Every single season it keeps getting bigger. I keep getting surprised by how positive the fan reaction is. One thing I will say is that in the beginning in season one there was a lot of hype about it on Reddit. And you really couldn't find anyone saying anything negative, which is almost impossible on Reddit, for one thing. So at that point, I was like ok, this show is resonating with people in the same way it was resonating with me. So that was pretty exciting. I thought we got a shot to be, at least, a cult classic or something along those lines. But I still can't believe it keeps getting bigger and bigger. I love it! It's great, it's really fun."
Regarding the many unique character and creature designs on the show, does he let these strange creatures influence his compositions? "Absolutely. I mean, especially when those creatures are performing music themselves. The one scene that comes to mind, in particular, is the alien band that is competing against earth in the 'Get Schwifty' episode and looking at these weird colorful aliens and their bizarre instruments. It's really inspiring to look at that and try to figure out what that would sound like. The cool thing, in a lot of ways, there are no wrong answers. Almost anything could have come out of that band and it would have been funny. The goal is to make it funny, as funny as they are visually."
"Rick and Morty" Composer Ryan Elder Discusses His Musical Influences and More
As the conversation moved on to influences, I learned that Elder is a huge Star Trek fan: "Musically I would say any movie that Jerry Goldsmith (Total Recall, L.A. Confidential) has scored is going to be inspiration for me. Aliens, Star Trek. I am a huge Trekkie and I love Star Trek more than any other sort of IP. I love the music from the old Star Trek. StarTrek: Next Generation, I still watch that, I am blown away by how good the music is. Everything is interesting. They never tread water as we call it. They never just sit there and play one note."
It's a trait that carries over to his work on the Adult Swim series: "That is a by-product of my working relationship with Harmon. Harmon doesn't want the music to try and grab your attention in the moment. So I tend to simplify, keep it simple so that it can sit in the background and support the story and the tone. Whereas I'll watch (Star Trek) Next Generation and I'll go "Wow." They are supporting the script story, and the tone, but there's these melodies going on. The music ends up getting lost because they have to turn it down so much to make sure those melodies don't fight with the dialog. It's amazing music and it absolutely is incredible."
Of course, this leads to the mandatory question: Which "captain" is Elder's favorite? Ryan smiles and doesn't hesitate with his answer: "Definitely Picard. It's not even close. I like Janeway a lot too. For me, Next Generation is when I fell in love with Trek."
Known for working with popular artists music such as Mazzy Star, Jemaine Clement, Blonde Redhead, and Chaos Chaos in the past, we talked about his latest collaborations from season 4:
"I worked with an artist named Kotomi. She's a good friend of mine. We wrote a song together that was in the season finale called don't look back that I am really really proud of. And it's doing really well on Spotify and Youtube and stuff. I also work with two amazing comedians Jessica Makenna and Zack Reno. They are from "Off Book: The Improvised Musical podcast", and they are comedy improvisers that also have a musical theater approach. So we did a musical theater song that's Rick and Birdperson performing a song together. All that you saw in the episode was 30 seconds, we have a full song we are just waiting for COVID to clear up so we could record the rest of the vocals.It kind of got pushed back. I am hoping you will see that song in it's full glory at some point. Those two are absolute geniuses, super funny, and super fun to work with."
Now we moved onto the nitty-gritty of songwriting. So exactly how much do Dan and Justin give detail-wise? Does he receive the title and the situation, or are there certain script or story beats that he has to hit in the song? How much free reign does he have with his work on Rick and Morty?
"Each of those examples are a different approach. For the musical theater one, Dan improvised some vocals. It was very rough and loose and they kind of did the animatic to those ruff loose vocals. (I thought) I could write music under what Dan did, or we can make this a real song and blow it out. I hired a band, we got a whole band together to record it. and recorded Dan and Justin on their parts, so then they conform the animation to what I had created for that.
For the 'Don't Look Back' song, that was supposed to function more like a needle drop. Where there was an existing song and we put it in the episode. The episode was temped with a modern song that had an introspective moody vibe to it. So I knew (to) do something like that. I mapped something out in terms of what would work with the story. There was no vocals in the beginning, and there was vocals that popped in in-between Rick's lines of dialogue. So I sort of post scored it. I wrote a real song that was post scored to the episode. .. I sent my sketch to Lauren, Katomi- her name is Lauren Culjak, and we "back and forth'd" it until it was a final, a song that we were both pretty happy with."
This triumvirate of Dan, Justin, and Ryan are pretty connected and always communicate during the entire process. Being so interconnected, I wondered if Ryan's music ever changes or influences the story at all, or the direction of the story. "That's not my job. My job is to support the story that they want to tell. I didn't write 'Get Schwifty' but that's an example of the music that already existed creating the story in a way. 'Get Schwifty' was songs that were (already) made, that Justin made using stock music for a flash animation game that Adult Swim released. The writers love that song so much that they wrote a whole episode around it. That is an example of how music can affect a story. But generally speaking, my involvement comes after the story has been pretty well fleshed out, set in, and baked in, and it's my job to support the story they are trying to tell. I don't want to be changing it, that's not my job."
While most of our time was spent discussing Rick and Morty, I wanted to see if Elder had any updates on future projects he would like to share. "Nothing yet that has been announced. I'm doing stuff but I can't really say, it hasn't been announced yet. I am working on something that has been announced, that I could talk about which is a Qubi show that Justin created called 'Gloop World.' Claymation, it's really cool. It's got a Gumby vibe. I don't know when that's coming out but it's supposed to be on Quibi soon."