Composer Mark Rivers shares his experience on Big Mouth during “Music in Animation” panel at WonderCon on Sunday, March 25th in Anaheim, CA.
by Aiyonna White, Contributor
I talked to the creative minds behind some of your favorite music pieces in your favorite T.V. shows! I had the chance to interview Ryan Elder, Tim Kiefer, Mark Rivers, and Tom Howe about composing for animation, comics, and their favorite music genres! I also self-indulgently ask them about choir music and show off my music tattoo as an attempt of camaraderie.
Rivers is a writer, producer, and composer for television. He is best known for his work on Parks and Recreation, and Kroll Show, and most recently Netflix’s Big Mouth.
Q: Can you talk to me about your writing process on Big Mouth?
A: Sure! The process usually goes something like… there are a lot of songs in the show. Not a lot, but they’re enough.
Q: There’s a lot.
A: They’re enough. There’s plenty of songs. Usually, as they’re writing the script, the writers and the producers will hit upon a moment where they think, “You know, this moment could use a musical number,” and that’s when they give me a call… “Hey, episode 208, we got a song coming up for you. We want to talk about that.” So we’ll either get on the phone or we’ll meet at their offices and just talk through what they want this musical moment to be. The style of music… we’ve done everything from big band to disco to flamingo… so I never know what’s coming down the pike. My job is to take that moment and to understand the characters’ voices enough, and to understand the story and the script enough to write lyrics that service that moment. So, I’ll go away and shuffle around in my backyard, write a bunch of lyrics, come up with a song, send them a demo, and… cross my fingers that they like it. Usually, they’ll come back with a few notes here and there, and then I’ll run with it… produce it, get the cast members in to sing it. Turn it into something that works in the show. Beyond that, the scoring is very different. That comes much later, when there’s an animatic to score to. We’ll sit down together and we’ll go through like, “That could use some music right there! What about that?” and we’ll have some temporary library music in place. “I can do something better and bigger, that fits the moment better,” It’s back and forth like that. I’ll send them stuff, they’ll have notes, and then back and forth until we’re all happy with it.
Q: How much freedom are you allowed in that process? Do they let you do whatever you want?
A: Yeah, they trust me to run with it, and if they don’t like what I’ve done they’ll point out why… particularly lyrically. I’m really psyched that they’ve come to just trust me, lyrically. It’s always a bit difficult to inherit a bunch of lyrics… “Stick to these lyrics, don’t change anything…” It compromises the flow of a song. It’s just hard to write music that way. So they give me a lot of freedom… you know, once we’ve agreed upon a direction, the parameters that I should be working within. So yeah. Enough. I’m given enough freedom.
Q: Can I just say that Big Mouth is so, so funny, and I think that the music
is the funniest part of it.
A: Oh cool! Really? Well, thanks. Thank you
Q: You did Parks & Rec, which is also so funny. I’m just a fan, I guess.
A: Oh good. I’m a fan of the show, too.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
A: I chase my kid around. I have an eight-year-old girl who’s not allowed to watch Big Mouth. I hang out with my wife and my kid.
Q: Do you listen to music? Or is it too much like work?
A: I try to. I have to make the effort to do it. My wife just bought me an Alexa, which immediately my daughter took over. Now she’s got someone to boss around. But I try to listen to more music. I don’t listen to as much as I used to… it’s hard to find stuff that’s like, “Wow, this is new and exciting!” like you did when you were a teenager and in your 20s. I find myself going back to stuff that I liked then… and I watch baseball and I drink beer, stuff like that. But that’s boring.
Q: So I’m really into choir music.
Q: Did you ever sing in a choir?
A: Did I ever sing in a choir? When I was a little kid. Well, in high school I sang in the Festival Chorale. I was a band nerd for a while, and then I joined the Festival Chorale because my friends were in it. They got to travel to Washington, D.C. every year and secretly party in the hotel rooms. That’s what I wanted to do.
Q: That’s what everyone wants to do when they go.
A: Yeah, yeah. It was more of the social aspect that drew me than the singing.
Q: Can I ask how you got into scoring, specifically T.V. shows?
A: Yeah… when I was a young man, I knew… I was playing in rock bands forever, but all my friends were comedians. I was living in Boston. I was friends with this whole budding Boston comedy scene. David Cross, who is a very old friend… and Marc Maron, and Louis C.K. and Jon Benjamin… these are all my friends and they liked my band and we would hang out. Years later when I moved to Boston, I had done Mr. Show with Bob and David– an old HBO sketch comedy show-I did that theme song… these guys were starting to get shows. My career as a rock musician had [raspberry sound effect, slams hand on table] grounded out. But these guys were taking off. I got into comedy writing, but also into writing music for these guys because they were old friends. They hired me because they knew me. I suppose they figured, “We can do worse than this guy.”
Q: Do you have a favorite composer?
A: I don’t. I don’t think I do. I mean… Beethoven? Have you heard of Beethoven?
Q: No. Who?
A: I don’t think I do. I have my favorite pop musicians. I was a huge Elvis Costello, XTC fan. That’s what most excited me when I was starting to write rock songs, pop songs. Bowie and The Beatles… other people, too. But I mean, that was sort of the foundation of all the stuff I liked. As far as T.V. composers there are people I like. I’ll hear music on other shows and think, “Oh, that guy’s pretty good! That Dave Porter guy is pretty good!” There’s a guy that does music on a kids show called Masha and the Bear, he writes these great little weird, off-kilter pop songs. They’re really good. Occasionally something will grab my ear, but I wouldn’t say… I’m too old to be a fan of anybody anymore.
Q: Do you read any comics?
A: I don’t. I don’t. The last comic I read… I liked Eightball. I was an Eightball fan. Dan Clowes… I know there are other people sort of like him and in the graphic novel world… I never kept up with it. I have a kid now…
Q: She doesn’t like comics?
A: Not yet! Maybe she’ll get into them. She likes reading. She likes books. She likes Judy Blume.
Q: I loved Judy Blume.
A: She was gonna read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret and we were like, “No no no no no, not yet!” She’s eight.