Photos courtesy of Venture Bros/JG Thirlwell
JG Thirlwell should need no introduction, but we’re living in hideous times. Not necessarily the stupidest age imaginable—witch burning is relatively rare and (outside some glaring exceptions) we all agree the Earth is round as the top of a frightened hedgehog, maybe even rounder—but it’s not really a golden age of discernment either. So, fine. JG Thirlwell (under names like; Foetus, Clint Ruin, Wiseblood, Manorexia, etc.) is a New York composer and musician who, for over 30 years, has been making a dark carnival racket that, sophisticated and visceral, sneers at any delineations of the borders between high and low culture. From noise to orchestral composition, from the Melvins to the MOMA, Thirlwell has done, well, exactly what he likes, encompassing all—influences and obsessions both—that he likes.
Since its premiere in 2003, Thirlwell has scored the Adult Swim animated series, The Venture Bros. A show that began as a simple and funnily mean Jonny Quest riff has grown into a multi-layered, still caustically hilarious universe. Thirlwell’s compositions perfectly suit the antic, scathing sensibilities of the program. The first collection of his works for the show was released in 2009, and now he has just released JG Thirlwell: Music of The Venture Bros. Volume Two through a partnership between his own label Ectopic Ents and the network, which you can find here. JG was kind enough to chat about his work on the show and the record, and let us premiere a new accompanying video.
Noisey: Is there a wildly different process between composing for Venture Bros and your orchestral works? How about between the show and film soundtrack work?
JG Thirlwell: Scoring is a bit like problem solving in that you have parameters to work within, like the timing, mood, and tempo of a cue, which I figure out beforehand. It's not a blank canvas. I have created a musical universe that the Venture Bros inhabits. There’s a lot of leeway in that, and it changes all the time, according to the demands of the plotlines. But you are at the service of the show. I want to elevate and dramatize the show, but I get to know what works and what doesn't. It's pretty broad. In the show the characters may go to Greece, or outer space, in the last season there was a Velvet Underground-type band playing in the background.
You also create a musical language when you are scoring a feature, but the difference is that's one film and then it's over. I've been doing the Venture Bros for 13 years, and so far we've done about 75 episodes. I'm challenged to expand my writing to keep it fresh and moving forward. I think in Season Five I hit that Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour milestone because it seems like I got better and I was able to be more sophisticated and make cues that switch on a dime while still making musical sense.
Are you sent the show episode by episode or the whole season? Do you try to have recurring themes throughout the season, or is just what works for the individual episode/scene?
I get one episode at a time; I get the animatic of an episode, which is the storyboard with camera moves and the final dialog embedded on it. That's pretty final for timing, so I can score to that. If I’m closer to deadline sometimes I’ll get the finished animation, which is a little easier to make accurate hits on the score. There are recurring themes for characters, settings, and moods. Some characters have their own musical themes. I work pretty far ahead of deadline, so I don’t have to do too many episodes in a row, and I can do other work in between episodes, but usually by the end of the season I'm right on top of the deadline.
I know you’re a fan of Carl Stalling, but what are your other influences for this kind of work? Is it mainly other soundtrack composers or do you draw from some of the same well as Foetus?
For so many people Carl Stalling was the gateway to classical music! It's interesting because the last season some of the cues I was making a soundtrack music that was about soundtrack music, for example a couple of times using the "goofy" trope on the bungling villain. I don't know that I want to continue down that path, but there are a lot of "meta" references in Venture Bros, and sometimes I am called on to do "sound-alike" stuff. I listen to huge amounts of soundtrack music, and it’s been absorbed into my pores. I like modern bombast like Zimmer, Debney, Beltrami, Elfman, etc., but also classics like Goldsmith, Morricone, Herrman, and great TV sci-fi soundtracks. I tend to score it like an action movie as opposed to a Carl Stalling / Warner Bros cartoon where every gesture and eye blink is commented on musically (that's called Mickey Mouse-ing). My other projects like Manorexia, Foetus and Steroid Maximus have a fair bit of cinemania as well.
Do you ever find your work on Venture Brothers seeping into any of your other music?
I find that I get a lot out of my system in the scores for The Venture Bros that might have manifested itself in the rest of my work, so it’s the opposite, really. I already have an avenue for that. But what informs my work from The Venture Bros is that it has helped me work more quickly, and by the sheer volume of work that I have had to do have gotten better. That's a good thing, as I started scoring Archer as well this year.
In terms of process, how much input do the directors have?
I work closely with the director Jackson Publick. When I get an animatic I block it out with cues that suggest how I think the score should go, what should be scored and what shouldn't, just to get the feel. Then I sit down with Jackson, and we discuss what his vision for the episode is. Sometimes he has very specific ideas about certain scenes, tonal reference points, or in some cases specific ideas about a new piece of music. We talk about where it should change tone, dip for dialog perhaps, and where the cue should start and end, and whether it should trail off into the next scene, lots of details like that. After I'm done we do a round of revisions. Sometimes he might want to change the way a cue decays, or sometimes I rearrange the dynamics, all sorts of stuff.
Jackson has pushed me to do some things that I wouldn't have otherwise done. In the first season I didn’t want to do any sentimental and corny stuff. I tried it in season two, and when I saw how well it worked I started doing that when it was called for. He pushes me pretty hard; Venture Bros has a lot of score in it! I was particularly proud of the space episode (for which I was nominated for an Annie award), which invokes John Williams's Star Wars scores. But it was so demanding I felt like I had scored a feature after I had done that.
Along those lines, how much do you have to do with the video? Is it just Adult Swim people doing sort of a clip show? Clearly the music matches the action on screen even for the video. Or are you hands on?
I got the blessing of Adult Swim to make the video, and I asked Efraim Klein, who worked up at Titmouse, the production company that makes Venture Bros, if he could put it together as he knows the footage from the episodes backwards. He ran out of time and enlisted one of his colleagues, Jordan Olds, to finish it. I had an idea of the flow that I wanted to see—the outer space stuff, starting with scenes, and concentrating on "heroic" stuff. We went back and forth as I keep bothering them with changes and new edits.
Who is your favorite character? I’m assuming it’s a villain.
No, my favorite character is Brock Samson, the bodyguard. He is a badass.
Jim, I’m fucking sorry, but I’m a journalist and I have to ask. Have you played Pokémon Go yet? What is your favorite Pokémon?
Um, sorry I don't roll with Pokémon, Zack.
Zack Lipez is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.