As composer for Adult Swim comedy series Rick and Morty, Ryan Elder is part of the ground-breaking creative team which has gifted us one of the most adored television shows of all time. He spoke about the collection of tracks which make up the newly-released The Rick and Morty Soundtrack, and how comedic score trends have transformed in the modern era.
“I don’t know who made this, but I need to meet them – I need to be their friend.” This is the thought Ryan Elder remembers skating across his brain as he watched one of the first episodes of television Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland ever made, called House Of Cosbys (2005). “I was definitely a fan… I thought ‘If I’m lucky enough to get to meet [Roiland and Dan Harmon, fellow co-creator] and work with them, that would be fantastic.”
Meet and work with them Elder schwiftly did, writing the score to Rick and Morty’s antecedent The Adventures of Doc and Mharti, and eventually turning out the iconic material which populates The Rick and Morty Soundtrack, out this month. The release thoroughly chronicles the series and includes extant tracks used by the show (Blonde Redhead’s For The Damaged Coda in the climactic scene of season one’s conclusion), but it’s dominated by Elder’s original compositions – be they overt parodies (Get Schwifty, Summer and Tinkles, The Flu Hatin’ Rap) or beautiful mood tracks like African Dream Pop and Tales From The Citadel.
Elder’s talent for mimicking certain styles of music we can recognise from dramatic shows shines particularly in these latter two pieces, and he confirms he’s an avid consumer of all kinds of smallscreen fare. “There’s no better time to be a fan of television,” Elder attests. “I watch a ton of shows. I listen to a lot of TV scores as well. The first one that really stood out to me was the score for Lost. Michael Giacchino has gone on to do amazing films and a ton of great work [Jurassic World, War For The Planet Of The Apes, Rogue One], but I still go back to his Lost score. This is the genius of limiting the number of instruments you have available to you, to create a sound that’s unique to just this show.”
Making a show sound unique isn’t necessarily a matter of pairing each character with a little musical theme, or with one instrument (Peter And The Wolf style). “That’s worked for a lot of shows, especially animated shows, and especially kids’ animated shows,” Elder says. “For Rick and Morty though, we’ve always wanted it to feel like a film and less like a cartoon – like it would have an epic film score. I definitely stayed away from using melodies or instruments that are specific to a character. I have, on very rare occasion, re-used Human Music in situations where I thought it would be funny if Jerry was listening to it in another context. That’s the closest that I’ve ever gotten, and it’s only done as an inside joke.”
In the same vein, Elder has eschewed a classic technique which defined comedic scores in the past: you won’t find any dorkily plinking xylophones or oboe quacks to point out to viewers that a particular character or scene is supposed to be funny. “I think there is a modern trend in music in comedy to be the ‘straight man’ – not try to be funny in and of itself,” Elder says. “There are great composers in the past that have done amazing work that’s funny and also dramatic and interesting – the Pink Panther score comes to mind. The music itself has this playfulness to it.”
But that trend is also the result of a more sophisticated viewership, Elder says – or perhaps we’re just being given more credit. “It’s like a laugh track, right?” he says. “Goofy music is like the laugh track of the composer world. Shows like Arrested Development came around and didn’t have a laugh track, and really trusted the viewer. ‘We’re just going to put the jokes out here and if you laugh, great, and if you don’t, it’s not for you.’ Hopefully the right people laugh. For me as a fan of TV, that’s been really liberating as a viewer – to know that I can watch this and I don’t need my hand held.”
“I think most people are with me when I say I think TV is the best form of media right now, in terms of pushing the envelope and making really interesting things, and Rick and Morty is just one example of that.”
The Rick and Morty Soundtrack is out now on both CD and vinyl, via Sub Pop and Adult Swim.