Rick and Morty is one of the most beloved shows on television for many reasons, but one aspect in particular that makes the animated series stand out as noteworthy is its music. Creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon take great care in telling fascinating, incredibly smart sci-fi stories with each episode and layering that with lofty themes about humanity and family and depression, but on top of all of that, Rick and Morty boasts a bounty of exciting original music and songs. Whether it’s an epic full-length number like “Goodbye Moonmen” or a short diddy like, “I’ve Got a Doo Doo in My Butt,” each and every Rick and Morty song stands on its own as a compelling (and yes, hilarious) piece of music.
The man behind the piano, so to speak, is Ryan Elder, who’s the composer on Rick and Morty. In anticipation of the first-ever soundtrack release for the show, which includes extended and all-new versions of songs from the series, and the live show at the upcoming Adult Swim Music Festival, I recently got the chance to speak with Elder about his work on the series. During our extended conversation, Elder talked about how he first became involved with Rick and Morty, his collaboration process with Roiland (who writes the lyrics to most of the songs), and the challenges involved in creating the music for a show like this. Edler also got specific when detailing the creation of songs like “Get Scwhifty”, “Human Music”, and “Fathers and Daughters”, and talked about the exciting new avenues he got to explore in the episodes “Pickle Rick” and “The Ricklantis Mixup.”
Elder also discussed what fans can look forward to hearing on the soundtrack album, and how excited he is to play some of this music live at the Adult Swim Music Festival on October 7th. It was a delight to get to pick Elder’s brain for a bit, and he gave a lot of insight into how the wonderful and sometimes delightfully silly music of Rick and Morty gets made.
Check out the full interview below. The Rick and Morty soundtrack will be released by Sub Pop on September 28th.
I’m sure you’ve answered this question a lot, but how did you first get involved with the show?
RYAN ELDER: Justin and Dan and I go way back to this monthly film festival in LA called Channel 101. It’s like a mini TV show network where the audience votes for their favorite shows. So I met them there. Dan started Channel 101 and when I first started, Justin was the hot new show maker. He had this show House of Cosbys that just brought the roof down on the place. I knew I wanted to get in with these guys. I was working on commercial music at the time, a lot of advertising, and I just said, “Hey, if anyone needs any music, I’m free and I’d love to work with you,” and Justin and Dan, over many years, took me up on that offer and we made a lot of shorts and little things, and I helped Justin with a lot of pitches to various networks and stuff, until when it came time for them to make a pilot for Rick and Morty, I think I was fairly high up on their list of composers, certainly ones they have worked with before. That’s how I got the opportunity.
So, once that pilot gets worded to series and once you guys start digging in together, what were your initial discussions about what the score for the show should be?
ELDER: Justin’s vision in the beginning was that it be as filmic as possible, and that the music always take itself seriously, to play against the comedy. He wanted it to feel like a classic sci-fi movie score, and he had a couple of TV shows that he had in mind. He really loved Farscape, so that was one of the reference points, and I sort of brought in for the main title certainly the Doctor Who vibe, and I’m also very heavily influenced by Jerry Goldsmith, the Alien score, the Planet of the Apes score. I think they’re genius, and if I ever need inspiration I listen to those and I’m good to go.
That’s awesome. I can definitely feel the Jerry Goldsmith influence in there.
ELDER: Cool, thank you. That’s a huge compliment.
It’s an interesting thing, because it’s such a silly show, but the music does have to do the work, especially in the action sequences and the thriller sequences. You’ve got to feel the stakes of what’s going on.
ELDER: Yeah, and there’s a lot of jokes in the action sequences that if I pointed them out in a way that was jokey, it would just ruin everything. There has to be this throughline of tension, drama, action, that really helps elevate the comedy in my opinion. All credit to Justin for having that vision of having the music be very classic sci-fi.
You mentioned the main title. I really love the main title theme, and it kind of sets the stage and really digs into the sci-fi of the series. This isn’t Family Guy or Bob’s Burgers. It’s a show that takes the sci-fi very, very seriously. As seriously as the comedy. How did that main title theme come about, and what was the evolution of that?
ELDER: Yeah, interestingly that main title, I really wrote that for a different show that Justin was pitching. It was called Dog World. Elevator pitch would be, a planet where dogs evolved from men, kind of. It was also very sci-fi. It was more kid oriented, I think. I don’t think it was an adult show, but that pitch ultimately never went anywhere and we still had that song, which he loved, from that pitch and when we were doing Rick and Morty he was like, “We need something for the opening credits. Just for the pitch,” and I was like, “Why don’t we use the Dog World music, because I know you love that and I also love it,” and we put it in there. It worked really well, and we could never beat the champ. It was just always the best thing we had available. That’s how it stayed.
That’s really funny. This is also a show that has a lot of really great songs. Do you remember what the first original song was that you wrote for the series and how that evolved? Because it’s now become such a vital part of the DNA of the show.
ELDER: Yeah, the first original song I wrote for the show was probably in the episode Anatomy Park. There’s a Small World parody, “Small Intestine.” That was one of the first ones we stared working on, so that’s just what I worked on first but I also, very early on. “Human Music” was one that I did very early on, and I’m trying to think. There’s a lot of songs in Season One. They’re smaller, they’re not as big as “Goodbye Moonmen” and “Get Schwifty,” but there’s “The Rick Dance” in the final episode. I love doing the songs. Whenever I see Justin and Dan in review I’m like, “Write more songs into the scripts,” because they’re really fun and they let me go loose and make something really fun.
In hindsight, they’re such a vital part of the show. Was there much discussion when you were first doing those first songs about what it should be, what it should sound like, how seriously we should take it?
ELDER: Yeah, for sure. Usually the lyrics to the songs are written into the script, so they always have an idea of what they want it to sound like. For example, for “Goodbye Moonmen,” the script said, “Fart sings a David Bowie inspired song,” so it was very clearly in the script, and then the lyrics were all there, exactly what I used. For that, it was very clear. Others like “Human Music,” I had to call Justin and say, “What the heck does human music sound like?” Then “African Dream Pop” from Season One as well as an instrumental that Gavin puts on when he’s turning into a creature, a Cronenberg. So that was just in the animatic as African Dream Pop, and so I was like, “Oh man, what does African Dream Pop sound like?” And that one I got to just go off on my own and figure out how I wanted to emulate that, but it was all in the title, right? It’s gotta be African, it’s gotta be Dream Pop.
What does human music sound like? That’s one of my favorite songs in the show, and it’s such a great gag, but I don’t know. Where do you start with that? How do you even begin? What did Justin say?
ELDER: Yeah, that’s a good question. Same question I had. I called up Justin, I said, “What are you hearing in your head for the Human Music part?” And he’s like, “Oh, it should be just really, really, really simple,” because the joke is that they’re on low power simulation, so the music has to be as simple and dumb as possible, and he’s just saying over the phone, he’s like, “It should just be dun, dun, dun. Dun, dun, dun,” and I said, “Hold on, let me call you back and record that,” and I’d literally just did exactly what he sang to me on the dumbest, cheesiest synthesizer sound I could find.
That’s funny. Does Justin write music on his own, is he a musician? It sounds like he’s pretty intimately involved in the creation of all of these songs.
ELDER: Yeah, he’s definitely a musician. He was in bands and stuff growing up, and he was a lead singer in a couple bands. He definitely gets songwriting and being in a music-writing situation. He wrote “Terryfold,” that song with Chaos Chaos that was in Season 3. He wrote all the lyrics and everything for that. They had this instrumental and he improvised lyrics and stuff over it, and then they added the background vocals to match him. He definitely has a very good sensibility for music. Which makes him really great and fun to work with from my point of view.
Yeah, it sounds like it’s the perfect collaboration for a composer, for a show like this.
ELDER: Totally, totally.
So you have songs like “Goodbye Moonmen,” which are full fledged songs, but then you hear these tiny snippets of songs, like “I’ve Got a Doo Doo in My Butt.” Do you know when it’s gonna be a full song? Are there a bunch of extended versions of songs that exist somewhere, because there’s these little ditties everywhere.
ELDER: Yeah, well so there are several extended versions of songs on this upcoming soundtrack release, which is being put out by Sub Pop, and Doo Doo Butt or “Fathers and Daughters” I believe it’s called is one of the songs that’s gonna be on there in its full glory.
ELDER: That song is so funny. The story behind that. So, they knew they wanted a touching father-daughter Cat Stevens-y Harry Nelson kind of a folky vibe there, right? But they didn’t have any lyrics for me yet because this was very last minute. I think I wrote this the week before we mixed it. It was really close to being done. So close to being done that when I sent it to Dan to do vocals for it, it was like the night before we were gonna be done, and he was supposed to be doing something else I think and he just powered through those lyrics as quickly as possible, and I had put a scratch track of vocals on there for him to be inspired by, and I just sang, “Doo Doo Doo, Doo Doo Doo,” just as a whole placeholder. I could have sang any syllable, but he took the doo doo doo and ran with it, and so that’s why that song has a lot of doo doo in it.
That’s definitely one of my favorite songs, and the whole scene opens with Rick singing doo doo on the guitar. It’s kind of layered in there. I have to ask about “Get Schwifty,” which is the most iconic song from the show. What’s the origin for that song, and what was the collaboration process like for that whole episode? Because, it’s so music heavy. You also have to craft music for these other alien worlds.
ELDER: Yeah, yeah. That episode was really fun, really inspiring. “Get Schwifty” and “Raised Up”, actually the episode was written around those songs. They already existed from a Flash game that Adult Swim put out called Rick and Morty’s Rushed Licensed Adventure. It was during Season One, and there was this whole Easter egg where you’re controlling Morty and you go—it was like a point and click adventure game, and you go into Summer’s closet and you find her iPod, and there are three songs on her iPod, all of which make an appearance in Season 3, but two are “Get Schwifty” and “Raised Up.” I didn’t work on that game, so those songs were stock music with Justin rapping and singing over them and everyone loved those songs so much. They were so funny. They were like, “Let’s write a whole episode around it,” and then when it came time to make the episode, it just was stupid to try to change the music since everyone loved it so much. The team’s like, “Let’s just keep what everyone loved,” so I actually didn’t do too much on those original “Get Schwifty” and “Raised Up” from the episode. However, for the soundtrack I’ve remixed them and fluffed them up, for the soundtrack release.
ELDER: The ones on the soundtrack are different dimension versions of the songs.
That’s funny. How did you go about composing the music for the other contending planets in that episode?
ELDER: I drew a lot of inspiration from world music, actually. There’s a lot of cool instruments all over the world that I would have to guess, I don’t know for sure, but that a lot of Rick and Morty viewers are unfamiliar with. Sounds that to our Western ears sound almost alien, and so I have a bunch of recordings of instruments like that and I just dug in and was like, “What sounds cool, what sounds weird?” For the alien band that was playing, they immediately get disqualified because they’re bad, so the music also can’t be that good. The joke is funny if they’re like, “This is the best they had to offer? They’re in the finals of this competition.” So, I wanted it to be cheesy and corny also, so I started with a bed of cool, ethnic and world instruments, and then I added some weird synthesizer sounds to give it a sci-fi kind of, “Oh, this could be from an alien planet,” vibe.
That sounds really fun.
ELDER: That one was really fun.
You kind of have a composer’s dream job, getting to work within so many different genres and avenues with this one show.
ELDER: Yeah, I mean definitely. I got really lucky with this show. As television composers, we never get to actually pick the shows that we work on, usually. We try to work on as much as we can, so to get a show that is not only fun to work on, but also that I would just simply love to watch. Even if I didn’t work on it, I would be a huge fan of the show, is really, really, really lucky. Really inspiring and really lucky.
One of the interesting things about Rick and Morty is that it’s not a show that’s filled with wall-to-wall music. There are a lot of scenes that play out without any music at all. What’s the process like of deciding which scenes need score and which scenes can play out on their own?
ELDER: Dan is a big fan of leaving a lot of space for the comedy, and I am too. He and I are on the same page there. In fact, one of the common notes I get on my scores is, “There doesn’t need to be music here,” which is fine by me. I love to leave space for the comedy. I think, especially when just people are talking to each other. I don’t need to help that. It’s there. It works. So my goal is to tell the story with my music, and that is when things are happening or the tone needs to be tense, but when it’s just Beth and Jerry talking in Jerry’s study, I don’t need music for that unless it’s an emotional moment or something, then maybe it could use a little bit of help. I definitely think of myself as a supporting character and not someone who’s trying to take center stage all the time.