Thor Ragnarok composer interview

When he was hired to compose the score for Thor: Ragnarok, Mark Mothersbaugh was well aware that Marvel Studios has been hammered with criticism about bland and unoriginal scores for their superhero movies. So when he met with director Taika Waititi, Mothersbaugh put a two-pronged plan in place: to live up to the scores they’d done previously, but also to widen the scope and bring something new to the table that we hadn’t heard in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before.

For the former frontman of the successful new wave band Devo and someone who has since scored over 190 films, video games, and TV shows, this was a new challenge. But Mothersbaugh rose to the occasion and ended up crafting a score that complements Waititi’s comedic approach to the mythological hero and his journey. I spoke with the composer by phone to talk about his approach to the material, “quoting” Michael Giacchino’s Doctor Strange score, working on the David S. Pumpkins animated Halloween special, and more.

You’ve had an incredible career spanning tons of movies, TV shows, and video games, but this is your first Marvel film. Did you pitch them with a concept for what this could sound like, or did they come to you? How did you get involved with Thor: Ragnarok?

About two weeks before I got a call, I had seen this movie called Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and I thought, ‘That’s a crazy and amazing concept for the music.’ I don’t know if you saw it, but it took place in the New Zealand outback and it’s beautiful, lush greenery for most of the movie, but yet, the music is ‘70s-era minimalist synth arpeggios. At first I was kind of shocked when the music came on, and then I realized, ‘Oh, this guy’s an artist. He’s a genius.’ So Taika was on my list of people to pay attention to when I got a phone call. Marvel had shown him a list of the composers they’d worked with, and he said, ‘How about Mark Mothersbaugh?’ And they called me up.

There are so many moments in this movie that undercut what are supposed to be big, heroic moments for comedic purposes. Is there a musical equivalent of making a joke, and if so, is that something you tried to bring to this film?

I think not playing the joke was the most successful idea. There were no ‘Womp womp waaaa’ moments musically. It was all just playing it straight ahead as a heroic movie. It’s a hundred piece orchestra. If it would have played jokes, I think it would have undercut them. The closest it comes to that is, I got to cut loose in Jeff Goldblum’s planet, on Sakaar. In my discussions with Taika, we had decided that we wanted to bring some new intellectual properties to Marvel music, because Marvel scores had been getting hit with poor critiques right about the time that he was hiring me. People were attacking them online and saying they sounded very cliche.

So I had this two-pronged goal, and one was to live up to the Marvel franchise and make music that was as good as heroic and as big as anything they’d ever had, but also to widen it by using synths that were based on demo mixes that Taika has been sending me. He had been putting together music that he liked and sending it to me, and none of it was orchestral. He had been sending me music that was all different kinds of electronic music, and a lot of it was in the same time period as Hunt for the Wilderpeople. For me, that was so great to have that as one of my two objectives, to bring something new to it. I went and pulled synthesizers out of the basement at Mutato, my recording studio, and added in over the top of a hundred piece orchestra and thirty-five piece choir, I added in about a fifty piece orchestra with [me and] the guys who work with me at my company. We used a lot of old retro synths from the early ‘70s on the film.

Do you have musical ideas floating around in your head that you’re just waiting for the right opportunity to unleash, or do you start from scratch for every project?

Both. As an example, I’m a visual artist. I’ve been a visual artist before Devo got a record deal, and I was doing gallery shows. I mix the two together, visuals and art. I had this show that toured around museums in the United States the past two and a half years, about nine museums, and in it there were musical sculptures where I’d taken discarded wooden pipe organ pipes, bird calls out of a collection of about 250 bird calls that I’d collected over the past 30 years, and a piece of sculpture that was tuned doorbells with about 50 doorbells on it.

So it was four sculptures in this touring museum show, and I wrote music for these sculptures where they all played together where they’d play all day in the museums. A couple of museums had big atriums, and you’d come in and it would sound like you were in a bird sanctuary with a drunken calliope. So I’m waiting for the right movie. (laughs) I’m waiting for the right TV show. I build instruments all the time. Maybe I shouldn’t talk about it until I’ve done it, but I’m building a foghorn cuckoo clock right now that’s about 25 feet tall.

Thor Doctor Strange

Can you talk about the music during the Doctor Strange segment of the film? Did you have any conversations with Michael Giacchino about that, or did you just listen to his score to get a handle on what that section should sound like?

Of course, there’s nothing better than to quote his score. He gets his writer’s credit for that. (laughs) Everybody wants that. It felt good. I tried a few different things, and when I tried that, it made everybody happy in the room. Kevin [Feige] liked it and Taika liked it, and I did too. I like the idea of having musical references to characters.

In a broader sense, do you listen to other film scores in similar genres for inspiration, or do you try to avoid them in case they burrow too far into your subconscious?

I remember things I listen to, so I’m always careful about that anyhow. But I do like to listen to what other people do. In particular, because I’d never done a Marvel film before, I wanted to know what it should sound like. I wanted to know what preceded me because I wanted to honor it. Marvel’s got a great – it’s just a great franchise. It’s an amazing machine, and I had no interest in blowing anything up. I wanted to only add to it, and hopefully we did.

Tell me about working on the music for the David S. Pumpkins animated Halloween special.

(laughs) Yeah. It came in the door and quickly got scored. (laughs) I think it’s going to be funny. It hasn’t aired yet, has it?

No, it airs tomorrow. [Note: This interview was recorded on October 27, the day before the special aired.]

That’s right. We just finished the music a day or two ago. You know what? I wasn’t that familiar with the character because I hadn’t been watching SNL for a while. It’s my own fault. I knew it from the old days because I was on it with the original cast and I knew all those people. Somehow, I’ve just been working so much that I’d get home, and before it came on, I’d pass out. But I went back and started watching it, and it’s a pretty funny character. It’s probably the funniest thing on SNL right now, so I hope you like it.

Thor Ragnarok TV Spot

Awesome. I think I have time for one more question, so tell me more about making music that corresponds to Jeff Goldblum’s delightfully Jeff Goldblum-ish Grandmaster. What was it like crafting music that matches that persona?

His character is pretty outrageous, and he’s a great addition to the Marvel world, I think. It gave me an excuse to go further out than what’s already happened in the world of Marvel. That was the perfect situation to go ahead and cut loose a little bit. When I’m liking something I’m working on, I end up writing a lot more music than I need to. So I wrote this whole other bunch of music for him that we didn’t use, and I didn’t know what to do with it. Some record label asked me a few months ago if I had anything they could put out on vinyl, so I gave them twelve pieces of music and they did a six 45 vinyl set. “Mutant Flora” is what I called it. If you listen to “Mutant Flora,” think about the Jeff Goldblum scenes and that playing in the background.

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Thor: Ragnarok is in theaters now.

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