Ryan Elder has been composing the music for the Adult Swim show, Rick And Morty, since 2013 and has been writing music for commercials and TV shows for years. Recently, I sat down with Ryan to talk about working on the show, his songwriting process, how he got involved with composing, his essential music gear for his studio, and more!
What is your main instrument?
Well, I studied violin since I was five. It’s hard to call it my main instrument. If I had to pick a main instrument it would be a Windows PC [laughter] but I studied violin since I was five, I also play guitar and bass, and a little bit of keyboard. Hardly a main instrument.
So then what would you say is the instrument besides the “PC” that you would say you practice the most?
Guitar. It’s the one I enjoy the most.
Have you played live shows or do you mostly focus on studio work?
I’ve played one live show [laughter] so 99.99999% studio work. I just did this one live concert where we perform the music of Rick and Morty live. “The Musical Ricksperience” is what it was called at the Adult Swim Festival a couple of weeks ago and I performed guitar and keyboards live on stage with a 37-piece orchestra.
First gig since high school!
No pressure or anything! Since you don’t usually perform live, what do you find to be the stand out differences performing your songs in the studio versus performing them live?
There’s a lot of layering in “Goodbye Moonmen”; two acoustic guitars, several background vocal parts, etc. When we performed it live, we sweetened the performance with these elements that weren’t represented on stage but we did have an orchestra so it wasn’t like we were being lazy [laughter]. I tend to layer with effects and sounds that I call “Fairy Dust” referencing the Troggs tapes like “put some fairy dust on it”. It’s those little elements that are harder to get live unless you use prelays. In “Goodbye Moonmen” there’s this radio sound effect and it’s really subtle and you can barely hear it but it does contribute to the overall picture to give it that spacey sound. Granted, I could get someone with an old radio to sit there and dial it around on stage and create this sound live but you’ve gotta draw the line somewhere, right?
What would you say was your big break in composing for TV/Movies?
My big break was probably Rick and Morty. I had a relationship with Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, the co-creators of Rick and Morty, since 2005.
From Channel 101?
Correct. I met them at Channel 101. It was a monthly film festival in LA. We were just friends and they made these short videos and TV shows for no money and no budget. Occasionally, I’d write music for them for no money and no budget because they were my friends and I thought they were really talented people. As their careers progressed, they got me involved working on stuff with them. When they sold Rick and Morty as a pilot, they had me work on the music for that and it just took off from there. For TV, it’s Rick and Morty. Composing professionally, I was an unpaid intern at an advertising music house in 2000. I worked as an intern for 3 months and came back as a dub room assistant, basically. At this time, it was the early 2000’s so I was driving 3 ¼ inch video tapes all over LA for my job but at that studio, they let me come in and try my hand at composing for commercials. One of the first ones I did ended up going final and airing; it was for Juicy Juice. I guess technically that was the first time I actually got paid to write music. That was a long, long time ago.
I looked you up on IMDB and learned another one of your big credits was Wizards of Waverly Place. How did you get that gig?
Actually, you could make a case that Wizards of Waverly Place was a big break for me as well. However, when I worked for this company they did ad music called Emoto Music. They also had a division that did television work and they pitched for a lot of Disney shows and a lot of the time when they pitch for a main title theme or a show score, they would have me submit demos as well just to round out the presentation. For Wizards of Waverly Place, I wrote this theme song demo for it that was sort of presented as “Oh, this is through this company and not just myself” so there were actually 4 co-writers on that song. Disney loved it and we had Selena [Gomez] come in and record her vocals. Since Disney liked it so much, Disney had us write transition music based on the main title so I ended up writing a lot of those cues since it was a sitcom that had a lot of 3 second cues. That was a big break and a really good credit. People still react very positively that I wrote that theme song but that wasn’t on my own yet so I say that Rick and Morty was more of my big break.
So you go from Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place to Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty. What would you say were the big differences between working for both shows?
When I worked for Wizards of Waverly Place, I wasn’t personally in direct contact with people at the network or the people making the decisions about the music at the network. I was working more with the producer and other composers at Emoto Music to do what they wanted and then they would send it so the notes would get filtered through them. My experience working that way was working with people in my office in a more intimate way. With Rick and Morty, it’s not, not intimate; I still get to call up Justin and Dan just to talk, but Adult Swim never has notes for my music; they totally trust that Justin and Dan are on top of that and that if the music is good enough for them, it’s good enough for the network. Adult Swim gives us a ton of freedom to make the great show that we try to make and the greatest show we can make. We of course have to deal with S&P [Standards and Practices] notes such as swearing but other than that it’s pretty much “Let’s just make a great show!” That definitely trickles down to the music.
What music inspired you to write the music for Rick and Morty?
When we set out to figure out what the score would be like, we had the main title that I wrote before, I actually wrote the main title earlier and was obviously heavily inspired by Doctor Who, but also a lot of 70s adventure/sci-fi film score stuff like, Planet of the Apes by Jerry Goldsmith which is one of my all time favorites; huge, huge influence on how I score Rick and Morty. We wanted it to be cinematic, big and almost always the ’straight man’; if the music could be so serious, then that would make the comedy stand out even more. The goal was always to make this big, filmic and serious. I went through a lot of Jerry Goldsmith and listened to his Star Trek original series music, Alien, and more to get inspired when I do the main scoring of the show. For the original songs, the influences vary depending on what Justin and Dan are going for but in a few cases, I’ve gotten to do whatever I wanted. For a song like the “Let Me Out” dance which is when Tiny Rick is trapped in the garage and he’s singing about how he wants to be let out of the garage, I knew it needed to be this fun, poppy thing. I love Prince so I tried doing a stripped-down, old school funky Prince track, so I got to do something like that. Regardless, it all depends on what we’re going for in the moment.
When you write the original songs, is the songwriting process similar with each song or is each song circumstantial?
The process actually depends on if there are visuals that match up with the music or not. Say, for example, “Goodbye Moonmen”, my favorite song I’ve written for the show. That song needed to match specific visuals in the show so I needed to work on it before they started editing any of the visuals. That means, I have to get a script to work on it and the lyrics were in the script. The style of music also happened to be in the script it said, “Fart sings a David Bowie inspired song” and then they had the lyrics. In that case, I have to write that song well before we have any visuals to work with but thankfully we had a script. In other cases, we write the song after the fact. There’s a song from season three called “Fathers and Daughters (Doo-Doo In My Butt) which we wrote very close to final mix because we knew there was not going to be someone specifically singing it visually on screen or any action score to that song so that one was post-scored, I wrote it after the visuals were in and recorded Dan on vocals four days before we had to mix the whole show.
Speaking of “Goodbye Moonmen”, Jemaine Clement who voiced “Fart” in the episode “Mortynight Run” and sang the song has been vocal about his David Bowie fandom. Did Jemaine come in to the writer’s room and recommended a David Bowie song or did the team specifically hire Jemaine knowing they were doing a David Bowie inspired tune?
The lyrics and the character were written and then they cast Jemaine as that character so I knew Jemaine was going to be the singer when I wrote the song.
So you wrote it in a style he would be able to sing?
Even more specifically, I wrote it in a range and key I knew he’d be able to sing that would show off his voice in a way that he would be able to nail and managed to do it in the first take!
How did you figure out key? Was it from watching and listening to a lot of “Flight of the Conchords” songs?
Yep! Exactly! I listened to a bunch of “Flight of the Conchords” songs and found ones that had his widest range. Actually, the way I had written it he went up even higher above my original melody when he does that really high note; that was not in my mockup and he improvised it and I thought “Man, this guy’s range is INSANE!” He seems like he has a really low voice when he talks, right?
But he can get really, really high! Amazing singer with incredible range. When I sat down and realized his range was way bigger than you would think based on his speaking voice, I knew I could do whatever I wanted.
Besides “Goodbye Moonmen”, “Get Schwifty” is arguably the most quotable, meme-d and recognizable song from the show. Was there anything you guys were thinking while making this song and did you have any idea how impactful this song would be?
Funny enough, that song was not created for the show. It was created for a little flash game that Adult Swim released called “Rick and Morty’s Rushed Licensed Adventure” after Season One. It was a point-and-click adventure game. At one point, you’re controlling Morty and you go into Summer’s bedroom and you find her iPod and on her iPod are three songs that Justin essentially improvised in an afternoon over stock music. I didn’t write the music for the original “Get Schwifty”. Justin used this stock music and improvised these lyrics and created these songs including “Head Bent Over” originally titled “Raised Up” in the game which is the one they win the whole contest with in the episode. This other song called “Love Connection Experience” which appears in the Season 2 episode “Auto Erotic Assimilation” where they listen to it in Rick’s spaceship where Summer, Rick and Morty are singing along with it. All three of those songs were on Summer’s iPod in this game and the writers heard those and they loved them so much they were like, “Based on what we as viewers see in those songs and how great and funny they are, we knew in a way they would be popular and funny because we thought they were super funny,” and so they wrote whole episodes around these songs from Summer’s iPod.
Since we’re on the subject of musicians that have been on the show featured as characters and songs, is there a musician you hope to work with on a future Rick and Morty song?
There’s so many people. I could give you a list. Picking one person is so hard. I’m tempted to pick someone who I just personally want to meet [laughter] like Rafael Saadiq (which would be amazing), Andre 3000; we actually had Rafael Saadiq in the Season 2 episode “Look Who’s Purging Now” via the Tony! Toni! Toné! song “Feels Good” we licensed for the episode. I think they’d be amazing, get the show, and they’d be funny. However, there’s this band I’m obsessed with right now that I think would be so incredible and they have this crazy sense of joy that I think would be a good fit for Rick and Morty called SuperOrganism. I LOVE them! I love their style and sensibility. Their music is so happy but it has a layer of ennui that would fit really well with the show. I’d love to work with those guys and come up with something crazy for the show because their creative process is so interesting to me and they’re such an interesting band.
Recently, you, Adult Swim and Sub Pop came together to make an official “Rick and Morty Soundtrack”; after 3 seasons, how’d that finally come to be?
After Season Three was done, Adult Swim and I got together and they were discussing how they wanted to do some stuff for the show in between seasons. One of the ideas they had was to put together a soundtrack so we started listing every piece of music that was soundtrack worthy in a big spreadsheet and figure out what it was going to entail, including which songs we were going to make longer. I lengthened several cues that people loved that I got requests for and made them into full songs. We started culling it down and then we started working with Sub Pop to put the whole thing together to release it and that’s when the track list got nailed down and put in order. At San Diego Comic Con, I got to see the prototype art for the vinyl and the deluxe vinyl and it totally blew my mind how much incredible artistry and effort went into making this vinyl for these crazy dumb songs like “Human Music”. I just loved that all this amazing art and amazing people that made this soundtrack happen are so cool to me, and I feel really lucky that I get to even talk about this soundtrack existing. It was a really fun process.
Speaking of “Human Music”, it seems like the most basic song to write. You could hypothetically do it in Garageband. I can’t believe I’m asking this question: what is the process of writing a track like “Human Music”?
My first inkling that I had to put something there musically was watching the animatic and Jerry clearly turns the radio on and then the audio goes, “And now, Human Music,” and Jerry listens and when I got it, there was NOTHING there; he’s just sitting there and goes, “Hmm. I like it!” I thought, “I have NO idea what they want for ‘human music’!” So I call Justin and ask, “What does ‘human music’ sound like?” and he tells me, “Just take the cheesiest, simplest synth sound you can find and just go, ‘bum BUM bum. bum BUM bum.’” I asked him to call me and leave it on my voicemail so I had a recording of exactly how to perform it. Sadly, that voicemail is long gone.
It’s ironic how Justin turned out to be the composer for that one.
Exactly! He was the composer for that one! But that’s my job: if they wanted to dictate everything to me, I would do it happily!
What’s your greatest challenge when writing and recording in the studio?
The challenge comes when I don’t immediately know what to do in terms of style, approach or even mood. I work to animatics, which are basically slideshows of line drawings of how the show is going to be laid out with the audio track; it’s very visually rudimentary as a presentation. Sometimes the mood, tone, or emotion isn’t immediately obvious through dialogue. The biggest challenge I face is figuring out the mood or tone. Granted it’s easy to solve by calling Justin and Dan and asking, “Hey guys, what’s going on in this scene emotionally? What’s the story we’re trying to tell?” Sometimes it’s a bit of a stumbling block for me. Otherwise, I’ve done 31 episodes now, so I kind of know what to expect when I watch the animatic whether it’ll need action music, emotional music, etc. Most of what I do is pretty well spelled out before I start writing and recording.
What essential pieces of music gear do you need in order to write and record music?
For 95% of the score, what I need is all in the computer. I have a studio here in Los Angeles in my apartment and I use a lot of software and sample libraries. Everything is done in Pro Tools; it’s the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) I started with and also translates quicker to a mix stage. You have to deliver to mix stage in a Pro Tools file anyway so I work with that. I use Native Instruments Kontakt and tons of Kontakt-compatible libraries. The big ones that I love are Cinematic Strings, Cinematic Studio Strings, all the Symphobia libraries. The sound of Rick and Morty is very Symphobia heavy, actually. If you wanted to do a fan score of a Rick and Morty fan episode, you would need Symphobia to make it sound like I do. I use True Strike Orchestral Percussion library which is amazing; timpani and stuff like that sound fantastic! In terms of outboard gear, I have an Avid HD Omni I/O that I use for Pro Tools, a Universal Audio LA-610 preamp for anything I need to go in with, a Korg Prologue which is great, a Korg microKORG which is also great, and if I need something funky, unpredictable and weird, I have an old Moog Rogue.
It’s a very old keyboard that, I believe, they repackaged. Do you remember the brand Realistic?
They were a Radio Shack in-house brand I think. They sold the Moog Rogue under the Realistic brand as well but it’s the same thing. I have the actual one but you can get the Realistic ones too. It’s so pitchy and so hard to get it to do what you want; you kind of have to use it when you want to be surprised [laughter]. I also have a Yamaha DX7 that I break out now and then, my dad’s old Yamaha DX100 which is the smaller version of the DX7 which is great too. My dad made electronic music in the 80s and was one of the first. He’s probably one of the first non-professional musicians to make music on a computer during the 80s.
Yeah! He had an IBM 8086 with 16k of RAM, it had no hard drive, this was way before hard drives existed and you would load Cakewalk 1.0 onto the computer into RAM and then you take out that floppy disc and put a different floppy disc that had your MIDI files on it in instead and load those up. He had old drum machines, keyboards and stuff that you would make songs with and take them all to the bar in his small town and plug it in, his spacebar and do his own one-man karaoke [laughter].
That’s RETRO but cool as hell!
As far as guitars, I have a Sam Ash custom Martin Limited Anniversary model that’s a 000 with a cutaway, 59 out of 76. I bought it on craigslist and fell in love with it the second I touched it. It’s my absolute favorite guitar and I use it any chance I get. I have a Gibson Les Paul Standard from ’96. When I went on a buying spree of guitars, I was like, “I’m going to get all the guitars from when I was in high school!” because that’s what people do! [laughter] I also have a ‘97 Fender Strat and a ’95 Fender P-Bass.
What mics do you have in your rig?
I have an AKG C414B-ULS, for guitars I like to use the AKG C451B that I have, and I have custom “Get Schwifty” Sennheiser E935 mic by Sennheiser that’s more of a live mic. For headphones, I use beyerdynamic DT 770s and also have a set of DT 880s that I mix with. As far as a MIDI controller, I use a Komplete Kontrol S61. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention I use Spectrasonics Omnisphere.
What is the first instrument you ever purchased for yourself and do you still have it?
I received a violin when I was 5 to start learning violin on and I still have it; it’s one of the tiny half-sized ones. It doesn’t make sound anymore but it’s cool to have it still, so I have it hung up on the wall. The first instrument I bought was a guitar my friend and I split that we found at Goodwill for $35. Neither of us could afford the full $35 so we shared an electric guitar and I don’t remember the brand. It was such a strange and weird guitar. I literally shed blood on that guitar and put it to good use!
That’s how you get better!
What is one piece of music gear you wish you had in your collection?
I have been coveting a Shure SM7B for so long and I’m always thinking “I don’t do that many vocals” and don’t feel like I have a good reason to own it. As soon as I get a gig or work on something that I need a really great vocal on I’m going to go get that mic. That’s the top of my current wish list right now.
What musician or musicians inspired you to play guitar as well as get into composing music?
In high school, I was obsessed with Smashing Pumpkins. I wanted to be Billy Corgan and play guitar like him; I loved everything about that band. So I started learning to play primarily because of them and also probably Led Zeppelin. I discovered both bands in the 90s when rock became cool again all of a sudden, since it was really cheesy for a while. I was actually mostly into R&B and stuff and then rock became cool and I was simultaneously discovering my dad’s old music and this new music that I love. Led Zeppelin and Smashing Pumpkins were what really got me into guitar. Originally, I wanted to be a record producer when I was younger. My goal was to be like Flood or the next Butch Vig and produce bands. Those guys are what inspired me to be behind the scenes. In terms of being a composer, I took composition class in college because it was fun and it was the easiest part of music for me at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s more well known for liberal arts and not really a music school but they had a fun music program while I was there and I learned a lot. When I came to do my internship, I thought I was going to be an engineer because that’s the path towards being a record producer. However, I also saw they were writing music for commercials so I thought I would try it. I found that I was much better at that sort of big picture creative process rather than the detail oriented world of being a sound engineer, especially being a second engineer. I’m just not cut out for doing menial tasks and remembering details. I’m much better at seeing things from far away. Composing actually ended up being easier and more fun for me and happened to be much more rewarding, much quicker than being an engineer so I ended up going down that road.
What have your experiences at Sam Ash Music been like?
My Sam Ash Music is the Hollywood store and I love that location! It is so dead center right in the heart of Hollywood. I love going there even though it’s a trek for me but it’s worth it. I just got this new Komplete Kontrol keyboard from there.
If you could get anyone to compose the score to your life, who would it be?
I would trust a really good friend to do that for me. I don’t want to call anyone out because I have a lot of composer friends but they can all think it’s them. [laughter]
Fair and democratic answer! Is there anything in the world of scoring you wish more people understood?
Background music, which is most of what I do, does go pretty heavily overlooked. It’s usually not that interesting because we’re just setting a tone but I think people would be surprised how many people are involved in the process of putting together a score for an episode of TV, especially an hour-long episode. There are A LOT of people involved and it’s not just the musicians and the composer. Sure, the composer gets the credit for the score but there’s so many people that work with the composer; assistants, copyists, arrangers, music editors, mixers, the engineers that make it locally, and the episode mixer that makes it all sit well with the dialogue and sound effects. There’s so many people and it’s easy to look at the credit and think it’s a lot of people but until you’re actually involved with it, it’s really hard to get a grasp on how many people are part of the process of making music for a TV show.
You host a podcast called “Snakes, Rats, And Goats: A Survivor Podcast”. What musical instrument would you want to be stranded on a desert island with and why?
If I’m going to be a true Survivor fan I’d have to say a ukulele because the first person that brought one got kicked off immediately because they would sing too much [laughter]but my real answer is guitar because it’s so fun and everyone likes a campfire sing-along, right?
As long as you’re not annoying about it!
Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians or film scorers you wish to pass onto others?
My number one piece of advice is, this, learn how to be a fun person to be around. Learn how to connect with people on a level that is more than just professional because your opportunities will open up significantly because of that. People want to work with others that they trust and are friends with so if you can make friends easily, be friendly towards people and earn their trust outside of a professional environment, that’s going to make them trust you in the professional environment that much more.
Ryan Elder can be found on Twitter: @RyanElderMusic
The new Rick And Morty soundtrack can be purchased in multiple formats from SubPop, as well as purchased or streamed wherever music is available.
Rick And Morty is available to stream or purchase on iTunes, Adult Swim, and Hulu. Follow Rick and Morty on social media for updates on Season 4.