Rick and Morty offers a bizarre universe full of otherworldly sounds, and composer Ryan Elder’s creative process building the audio of the multiverse would probably drive a lesser man mad. “I need to know what a frog planet’s instruments might sound like,” Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon demands of Elder in a 2017 “Behind the Music of ‘Rick and Morty’” video. Elder used percussion instruments from all over the world for that particular request to help depict an alien band that gets annihilated in “Get Schwifty.”
These strange and wonderful creations are showcased in the recently released Rick and Morty soundtrack, and they’ll be put on stage for the “Rick and Morty Musical Ricksperience” as part of Adult Swim festival this weekend.
Inverse spoke with Ryan Elder, the composer and music director for Rick and Morty, about the recently released official soundtrack for the show and the “Rick and Morty Musical Ricksperience” at the first-ever Adult Swim Festival October 5 to 7 in Los Angeles.
We caught up with Elder just before the festival to talk about the soundtrack, the festival, and how improvisation is “quite possibly the heart and soul of the show” — also, yes, a little bit about Rick and Morty Season 4.
What went into curating that tracklist for the album?
Obviously the iconic songs we’ve licensed for the show, I felt definitely needed to be on there. In addition to that, there are a few cues in the show that people have always asked me for longer versions of. “Hey is there a full version of this song from this scene?”
So I wanted to make sure I made full version and put them on the soundtrack so people could get them. One of the cues was a fan writing to say he wanted to propose to his girlfriend using this one song, asking for a longer version. So now hopefully he gets to propose to his girlfriend with it.
Some of my favorite tracks on the album are those ones. What was challenging about expanding these cues into longer songs?
Those were some of the most fun cues to write, for sure. But they had their challenge, certainly for some of them. Especially with the case of “Jerry’s Rick” it had been almost 5 years since I had last opened it up and worked on it.
So there was a bit of “Oh wow I don’t remember this sound in there at all.” It felt almost like remixing someone else’s track. I took these elements from five years ago and they were very fresh for me, so using that as a starting point to build out a fuller song just felt more like a remix project.
Are there any tracks that you created for the album that didn’t make the cut?
Almost everything ended up on there, but there are a few songs we did wind up cutting. One that comes to mind is a song we used in Season 3 when the President turns the TV on. There’s a sad song playing.
That was a secret project between me and Chaos Chaos, one of the bands we license for the show a lot. We created a new band called Trayci Jenkins and the Jenkenettes. We wrote this one song that was meant to be really over the top and cheesy, but it accidentally wound up kind of a great song. I wish we’d had room on there, but I’m also fine with Trayci Jenkins and the Jenkenettes being as obscure as they are.
Whatever happened to that song?
You can find it on Spotify, so it’s out there for people to listen to but we never really hyped it up. It was no “Terryfold,” that’s for sure. In a way, we were trying to recreate the whole Terryfold thing — put out a full version of a song from the show and see what people do with it.
Speaking of “Terryfold,” that song appeared in “Rest and Ricklaxation” and then went on to hit number 33 on Billboard’s top songs last year. Why’d that song achieve that level of success?
My theory is that it’s insanely good! It’s just a really funny song with a great beat. As I understand, Chaos Chaos had just the beat with no vocals. Justin [Roiland] did just one take improvising vocal. Then Chloe and Asy with Chaos Chaos added background vocals, which legitimizes his vocals and makes them sound intentional.
It’s similar to how Justin works on the show. They write a script and then he goes in and kind of improvises around those lines and then they rewrite the script based on his new improvised dialogue. In a way that’s exactly what they did for the song too — they made it into a legitimate series of lyrics by adding background vocals. Without those background vocals it just wouldn’t be the same.
From your perspective, how important is improvisation for Rick and Morty as a whole?
I think it’s quite possibly the heart and soul of the show and certainly for the songs we create for the show. Most of the lyrics for songs, especially those with a character singing — like “Terryfold” or “Sons and Daughters” — the lyrics are all fully improvised. There are exceptions like “Goodbye Moonmen” where the lyrics were in the script. Most of the others are fully improvised lyrics.
Also, a lot of the rap songs are fully freestyle rap. Dan loves to freestyle rap on his podcast, Harmontown. He has a lot of experience doing that. It’s pretty cool how they’re able to go, “Hey we want to have a band performing at the dance. Send us over a beat that Dan can improvise rap lyrics to.” And then he just improvises the “Flu Hatin’ Rap”. And there we go: it’s a funny and interesting song with totally improvised lyrics.
Speaking of Dan’s sick rap skills, what have you learned about freestyle rap from Dan Harmon?
Dan had Open Mic Eagle on his podcast Harmontown maybe last year or the year before. He’s a great freestyle rapper and he helped Dan get over a crutch of his. Dan seems to always need to tell the listener that he fucked their mother in his freestyle raps. He kind of always goes there, so he was trying to get Open Mic Eagle to help him get over that. So if anything, he helped me realize that getting over a crutch is important.
One thing I’ve been wondering for awhile: did you also do the sad music that appears in “The Poop in My Pants,” the sad montage of Mr. Poopybutthole’s life?
It’s the perfect tone that makes it feel like Up!. What were some of the prompts and process like?
They sent me over an early animatic of that. The timings lined up with sketches in a slideshow, so I knew the time and the way the story would unfold. They said they wanted something emotional and hopeful and gave me a few keywords. I actually remembered that I love the Cider House Rules soundtrack by Rachel Portman. There’s this really amazing, emotional piano piece on there. I went and listened to that a couple of times and then in order to not be too inspired by it, I set it aside but kept the DNA of it in my head while writing.
I love that “Great Big Story” video from a few years ago about the first few seasons of weird song requests. It got me thinking: What were some of the weirdest Season 3 requests you got?
There’s a scene in Episode 5, “The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy” where Jerry is getting convinced by this mob boss type to kill Rick — Risotto Groupon is his name. At the end of the scene he says goodbye and leaves Jerry to go back into the theme park, and you can hear him singing a children’s song. They just had him singing so I had no music under him to work with. I had to work backward from his vocals to find what this alien child’s band would sound like if they’re going out to perform. What would be the alien theme park version of The Rock-afire Explosion band from Chuck-E-Cheese’s?
What was the most challenging song in Season 3 to work on? Are there any that really stand out to you?
Yeah. There was a scene where Jerry and Rick go through through cosmic apotheosis in that same “Whirly Dirly” episode. There’s this long-drawn-out kind of trippy, sci-fi animated sequence. That music actually took a little while to nail down in terms of creating the right texture and tone, because I knew we didn’t want it to be anything with a groove or anything that would feel like a music video. It needed to feel almost like the sound of being in cosmic apotheosis as opposed to just a soundtrack to that.
So, for that one I played around with a lot of reversing pitched ethnic bells and stuff like that, and creating synth textures using various synths that I have. Kind of threw a whole bunch of stuff in there and then started pulling stuff out to get it to sit well underneath all of the other stuff that’s going on there. That was tricky, I think I went back and forth with Ryan Ridley, one of the show producers, working on that cue several times to nail that one down.
Are there any musicians that you would love to collaborate with for Rick and Morty?
Tons. That’s a good question. There’s two bands that I’ve been working with outside of the context of Rick and Morty that I would love to get involved in the show, one of which I think is a perfect fit, and that’s this band Superorganism. They’re this really cool band made up of some people from the UK, some people from Australia, and their singer is Japanese.
Their songs are just so fun and joyful, but also a little bit ironic and quirky, and they have just a really cool sensibility. And there’s eight people in the band, so they have this sort of sense of … and they all live all over the place, so they work over the internet. So their music kind of comes together in a way that’s very unexpected, which I see a lot of my process in their process. I think they’d be incredible to work with. It would just be a matter of finding the very right way to get them involved.
One thing I I’ve always wondered about: What does Rick, Squanchy and Birdperson’s band “The Flesh Curtains” sound like?
Oh, my god. I can’t wait to answer that question. I hope I get to someday. But I haven’t thought about it that much because I want to wait and see how they look when they’re actually playing and really get an idea. If we do cross that bridge, which I hope we do, I’m very excited to go there. I mean, they look like a metal band, right? They look like they played some hardcore shit.
Maybe they might sound like the Ball Fondlers’ music, which is this like really, really hardcore metal stuff that me and Justin’s friend, Tommy Meehan … he’s in a band called the Manx and they do folk metal and he’s just an amazing composer, also. He’s worked on Uncle Grandpa on Nickelodeon. So he did that Ball Fondlers theme which is pretty insane.
What can you tell me about the Rick and Morty Musical Ricksperience? Are you stoked?
Ah, God, I’m so stoked. We just had an off-site tech run through last night, everything looks like it’s gonna be great. We’re performing live with a 37-piece orchestra to an episode of the show. So it’ll be the music performed live by an orchestra which has never been done before or heard that way before. And then we’re gonna perform four or five songs from the show, some of the fan favorites, and we’re gonna have guest artists singing and rapping, which should be pretty fun. I’m excited about it.
Is a 37-piece orchestra a typical number for an orchestra? Or is that meant to be a deliberate in-joke of Dimension 137?
I didn’t even think of that! Then we should’ve gotten a 137-piece orchestra. No, you know, there’s a lot of factors that go into choosing how many players. Part of it is how much stage room we have. The score is very big, it’s very large and cinematic, so I knew we definitely needed a fairly large orchestra to do it. And yeah, 37 was kind of like the most we could get that would fit on the stage that would give us that sound. But I love that it’s the same … Dimension 137, I never thought of that.
Are there any other kind of surprises you can tease as far as what sort of guest vocalists might be onboard?
No, not really, but I will say we are performing at least one song that does not appear on the soundtrack. I think people are gonna really enjoy it. I think people are gonna have a good time hearing these songs performed in a way that they haven’t been performed before, and I think it’s gonna be pretty cool. Some of the songs, definitely gonna be anachronistic to hear a 37-piece orchestra performing on them, but that’ll be half the fun.
Have they gotten you involved in the development of Season 4 at all yet? Or is it still too early?
I am not involved at all yet in anything with the new episodes. I hope that it’ll be soon, but I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to them. I know they’re writing it, and usually that means that it’s not too long before I get involved. I’ve been focusing on the soundtrack and then right after that went right into festival planning. So, my hope is that they’re holding off stuff so that they’ll send me stuff once I get done with this. But I don’t know if that’s true or not. I literally have no idea. I take it as it comes. When it comes in the door, I drop everything.
So does your part in the production process usually come later in production?
It’s right about in the middle, if I had to … it varies. I’m working on it all the way up until right before it airs, usually. But they usually get me involved kind of in the middle.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.