Starting with Foetus (and all its permutations) in the early 1980s and eventually extending his tentacles into projects like Wiseblood, Steroid Maximus, Baby Zizanie, and Manorexia, composer JG Thirlwell has had a long and illustrious career. A large part of what makes the silly, brilliant, and wickedly witty Venture Bros. succeed as well as it does is the symbiotic relationship between the characters show creators Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick have conjured and Thirlwell’s scintillating score.
As the show prepares to enter its sixth season, fans are eagerly anticipating the new characters, narrative arcs, and musical mayhem that will soon be revealed. Dirge asked JG Thirlwell about his work on the show as well as what other tricks he’s got up his sleeves.
Dirge: According to Jackson Publick, it was your Steroid Maximus project that inspired much of The Venture Bros. and as a result, your musical aesthetic has been a part of the show since its inception. How has scoring the show influenced your other musical projects?
JG Thirlwell: I believe Jackson was writing the pilot for Venture Bros. when he first heard Steroid Maximus and felt that sound crystallized what he imagined in a Venture Bros. universe. Then he tracked me down. It has been a unique opportunity to come up with a musical identity for the show. A lot of the ideas I would have explored in Steroid Maximus have been explored in my work for Venture Bros. I also immerse myself in soundtracks and a lot of that interest has avenues of expression in the context of Venture Bros.
The sheer volume of work that I do for Venture Bros. and its demanding nature has influenced my writing. I’ve gotten faster and better–past the 10,000 hour Gladwell milestone–but I always try to bring my A-game. Scoring can be a bit like problem solving because you work within certain parameters: length of time, beats for dialog, the emotion you want to portray, and the twists and turns you make following the action. Each time Jackson comes in with a new story or new location–say a Greek Island and then outer space—there’s a new musical palette to come up with. It’s challenging and I really credit him with pushing my abilities.
You’ve talked before about the different ways of conveying emotional beats through music on the show. You’ve created and inhabited characters in your own music for many years, so is it ever a challenge to try and evoke someone else’s emotions through music, especially without using lyrics? Do you ever imagine yourself as the characters on the show, for example, Brock Sampson? Or Action Johnny?
I don’t imagine myself as characters in the show, although some people might think of me as a cartoon character (all the best people are).
We recently talked to Doc and Jackson about the upcoming Season Six premiere and they mentioned that you are a “constant student of music” who is “not done learning.” How do you think that your music for the show has evolved over the course of the last few years?
That is very accurate; I am always trying to extend my craft and musical vocabulary. As the show has progressed, I have expanded the type of music I write–for example, in the first season I didn’t really want to write sentimental music. On being persuaded by Jackson, I saw how well it worked and I became open to it. Then as time has gone by, I’ve been discovering more emotional nuances, including being neutral. With some of the characters we’ve started exploring getting a bit whimsical on occasion. Often I am using the action to create soundtrack music that comments on soundtrack music. The show is full of meta-references, and there are sometimes musical jokes, too.
You scored filmmaker Eva Aridjis‘s movie The Blue Eyes in 2012 and more recently, you scored her documentary called Chuy, The Wolf Man. What do you like about doing film scores that is different from scoring Venture Bros.?
When working in live action I dial back the extremity of what I do compared to Venture Bros. With cartoons you can use big gestures.
For the musician nerds in the audience: Tell us a bit about the kinds of instruments and equipment, including software, that you use to create the score.
I use a Mac Pro working in Logic and a lot of software instruments libraries, notably East West orchestral sounds and various others. A lot of Native Instruments and soft instruments, too. Occasionally I’ll bring in outside musicians and vocalists. This season features guest vocals from Jennifer Charles and Clara Kennedy, and some guitar work from Simon Hanes, but mainly it’s just me.
There has only been one soundtrack release for Venture Bros. so far, but you have hinted that more are on the way. Can you tell us when and will they be available on different formats?
Venture Bros. Soundtrack Volume 2 will probably be released in April / May (on LP, CD, and digital) on Ectopic Ents in an arrangement with Williams Street / Adult Swim. I hope for there to be a Volume 3 as well.
You just performed at the Ken Jacobs Nervous Magic Lantern Festival at Anthology Film Archives in NYC on January 24. What else do you have planned for this year?
I am scoring another TV show, which I will announce soon. There’s also the “Cholera Nocebo” album as JG Thirlwell, which is my solo electro-acoustic project, and an album of the collaboration between JGT and Sarah Lipstate (a.k.a. Noveller). I have also been working on material with Anika.
I am writing a big commission for Great Learning Orchestra in Stockholm which should premiere in the Fall. I just finished commissions for Zephyr Quartet and Jeffrey Zeigler. freq_out returns with an installation in April. Lots more on top of that. There’s so much more that I want to do.