‘Thor: Ragnarok’ composer Mark Mothersbaugh on breaking out his Devo keyboards for Marvel

<em>Thor: Ragnarok</em> composer Mark Mothersbaugh. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Guild of Music Supervisors)
Thor: Ragnarok composer Mark Mothersbaugh. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Guild of Music Supervisors)

Last year, a 13-minute video essay criticizing the music in Marvel movies got more than 5 million views on YouTube. Two of those sets of eyeballs belonged to didrector Taika Waititi and composer Mark Mothersbaugh, who took it as a challenge: Could they make the score for Thor: Ragnarok feel as fresh as Waititi’s zany, colorful take on the characters?

For Mothersbaugh, a prolific musician and artist who has scored hundreds of films and TV shows (but never a superhero movie), the process was a delight. To guarantee that Thor: Ragnarok wouldn’t sound exactly like any previous Marvel movie, Mothersbaugh employed a 50-piece synth band on top of a standard symphony orchestra, even dragging synthesizers out of his basement from his days as a founding member of the postpunk band Devo.

Mothersbaugh spoke with Yahoo Entertainment about bringing electronic music to the Marvel universe, appealing to Led Zeppelin for “Immigrant Song,” and collaborating with fellow comic book geeks. (And true to his reputation for artistic multitasking, he revealed at the end of the interview that he’d been drawing the whole time.)

Yahoo Entertainment: So this is a little different from any film you’ve scored before. How did you end up involved in Thor: Ragnarok?
Mark Mothersbaugh: They decided they wanted to use this interesting director from New Zealand named Taika Waititi, and lucky for me, instead of picking somebody off the list of people they’ve already gone with, he gave them my name. I was a fan of Taika’s already, so it made me really curious about working on this.

What did you talk about before you started, in terms of what he wanted from the score?
Well, he did not let me down in the least. He really wanted to find some new territory, and we had both seen online disparaging remarks about the lack of creativity in Marvel scores. [Laughs] We’d both been reading that, so we thought, “Let’s take the challenge, see if we can up the ante a little bit.” And it was pleasant. It was all great. It was my first project with Marvel, even though I think it was movie 201 [that I’ve scored], counting feature films and TV shows and things. But I’d never worked with them. It turned out to be a great experience.

How was it different than you expected?
The attention to what was going on, and the hands-on concern about everything, and knowledgeable concern from talented people within the company. And it kind of started at the top. Kevin [Feige, President of Marvel Studios] was a fan before he was head of the company, and you really felt that when he came to meetings. He was very invested in the film in an artistic way. Usually the executives are just all about dollars and cents, they know nothing about making a film. And he was very knowledgeable. And then their music department was excellent, and it was a surprise to find out that the lowly music editor that was working with me on the film also is pretty much the head of the music department. He was very supportive and contributed aesthetically in a really positive way to getting it done. So there were no let downs at all. It was really better than expected.

Listen to the ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ soundtrack:

Did you have a take on the characters going in, any ideas of things you wanted to bring out?
Well you know, I’m a comic book reader since I was a little kid, so I was curious to see how the characters were going to get treated. The first thing Taika said was, “Think of it as a road show for Thor and Hulk.” And I just imagined some big Cadillac driving down the Pacific Highway with Thor and Hulk sitting in the front seat. That’s not in the film, but it just got me very excited from the beginning about what the project was going to be. I started in December of last year, and to watch it take form through the months was really interesting. I just had a good time on it. You can’t say that about every film. There’s a lot of films where, as soon as they’re done, you’re really ready to pull the plug on the bathtub and move on to the next thing. But this was one where I felt everybody was putting in the right kind of energy at the right time, and they made something better than expected.

What were some of your musical influences for this score?
Taika has a real affection for ’70s-era synth. When he would play me things that he was listening to while he was working on the film, it was music from that era. So I thought, well, we got our hundred-piece symphony orchestra at Abbey Road, and we got a 35-piece choir, and so I put about a 50-piece synth band on top of it and pulled out old synthesizers from the Devo days that I had in the basement, and played them again.

And I wrote the music so that he could have a wide range of choices for any cue. You could almost take a dial and you could turn it one direction and it would be more traditional Marvel with the big heavy orchestra, and doing all the things that you want a superhero movie to do, or you could turn it the other direction and add in synthesizers and electronica that hadn’t been in any of the Marvel movies before. So my goal was to try and give him the best of both worlds and let him make the decisions for how far he wanted to go in each direction on each cue. And I really enjoyed it. And you know, by not working in superhero movies a lot, it was fun when I got to do things like the gladiator coliseum music.

Do you have a favorite sequence or scene?
I don’t want to give away any movie things, but there’s scenes where Thor revisits Odin. Some of the music is very emotional and touching and I really liked that. But Alan Meyerson, my engineer, did an amazing job I told him when we were recording the coliseum music that I really wanted the audience to feel like they were right in the middle of the ring there with Thor and Hulk. He did such a great job of mixing on the film and that particular scene stands out for me.

One thing that’s woven through the film is Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” Did you know that was going to be a part of the score?
Well, I helped them with some of the lyrics and I played some of the guitar parts no. [laughs] Yeah, I mean, everybody loved it in the trailer, so we knew we were going to have to talk Jimmy Page into it. And he saw the movie and loved it, so that’s how come he was agreeable to letting it be in the film. And it seemed to really work well. I love that.

I remember when Led Zeppelin wouldn’t let anyone use their music in films. I guess the process is still the same, where you have to appeal to them personally for permission?
Oh, yeah. You still do. You still do have to appeal to him personally.

Did they send you to do that? I would have sent you to Jimmy Page’s house.
[laughs] We’ve had dinner together, Jimmy Page and I. But no, they have people that are that are professionals at licensing music. And so rather than me coming back and saying, “Hey, he’s great with the idea and it will only cost ten million dollars!” they needed somebody that can say, “He’s great with the idea and we can afford it.”

Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie) and director Taika Waititi on the set of <em>Thor: Ragnarok</em> (Photo: Marvel Studios)
Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie) and director Taika Waititi on the set of Thor: Ragnarok (Photo: Marvel Studios)

What was your favorite day of working on Thor: Ragnarok?
Well, I’ll tell you. I could go to something specific and say, “OK, here’s my favorite day of working with Kevin and Taika,” or “Here’s my favorite day of working with the electronics.” But to be honest, when you write a score that an orchestra is going to play, and especially a 100-piece orchestra, you know that the only time you’ll ever get to hear the orchestra play it is right there in that room that day. You may have worked on that piece of music for four months. It’s one of those things where you just wish you could have all your friends there for that one moment when you go, “OK, we’re doing the emotional scene with Odin,” or “We’re doing Hela and Thor battling,” or something. You get to hear it one time with a hundred people playing it. And then after that you’re hearing it on speakers. It’s electrified after that, it’s on your computer, it’s throwaway. So that to me is the best moment, being there in the room with the orchestra.

Had you ever worked with an orchestra and choir of that size?
Yeah, yeah, lots. Because I work in animation a lot, and having humans in animation is really critical to bringing the movie to life. If you go watch animated films with only the dialogue and no music underneath it, it’s very plastic and very artificial. And music, especially a big orchestra like that, even though you’re listening to their instruments, there is this subtle addition of a hundred people whose hearts are all beating and they’re breathing while they’re performing the music, and synthesizers can’t do that. They can do other things that are totally different than what orchestras do, but that’s something that orchestras are so essential for, especially for animation. But in this film it’s the same thing. So I do get to work with big orchestras. I go to Abbey Road a couple times a year, usually. It’s just my studio of choice.

You’re a visual artist as well as a musician. When you’re working on a score, do those things inform one another? Does working on films appeal to that visual side of your brain?
It all comes from the same place as far as I’m concerned. I don’t differentiate. I was a visual artist before Devo, I had gallery shows. And then we somehow got a record deal, and then after Devo started to slow down, I got offers to score some things and found out that I really enjoyed writing music for pictures. So I don’t know, to me it’s all part and parcel.

I find often when I’m watching something I enjoy, your name comes up as the person who scored it.
I was sitting here drawing the whole time we’ve been talking. I had a museum show that just finished — the last museum it was in was in New York City — it was a retrospective, so it had artwork from the sixties all the way through Devo to the hundreds of art shows that I’ve done since then. I called it Myopia because my vision kind of inspired me to become an artist in the first place. I don’t want to go too far into the story. But I did this piece of artwork with an eye, and I’ve been drawing over top of them and making kind of like my own version of beatnik-devolved-poetry-graffiti. Does that make sense? So I just finished the 400th piece of art like that last night, and then I’m starting on piece 401 right as we’re talking. Every hundred of them go into a book, so there’s like four volumes of this book — it’s just called The Eye Book right now, it doesn’t have a better title yet. So if you see any of these and think of a better title, let me know.

Watch: How Mark Ruffalo gave Hulk a new voice in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

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