'Rick and Morty' Composer Ryan Elder Details New Soundtrack, Unveils 'Goodbye Moonmen' Demo: Exclusive

Temma Hankin
Ryan Elder

The official soundtrack for the hit animated comedy Rick and Morty is getting a proper release on Friday (Sept. 28) via Sub Pop and Adult Swim, with fan favorites and newly expanded tracks available for the first time at physical and digital outlets.

As the mastermind behind the spacy, sci-fi score, composer Ryan Elder has had to find the proper accompaniment for such abstract ideas as intestinal exploration, a floating fart bubble ballad and the introduction of a multiverse composed entirely of the two titular characters.

In a conversation with Billboard, Elder details his process working with showrunners Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, revisiting old tracks for the soundtrack and the upcoming Rick and Morty Musical Ricksperience at the first annual Adult Swim Fest in October. Along with a deep-dive into his work, Elder shares the original demo to the classic season 1 track “Goodbye Moonmen” -- which was later recorded for the show by guest actor Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords -- exclusively on Billboard.

When you get a new script and there’s a cue for music, whether it be an original song or score, what is your approach?

Why don’t we take “Goodbye Moonmen” for example, because that is a song that I wrote, that’s one of my favorites, based on the script. [Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon] sent me the script for that because it needed to be animated to the song. They wanted things to fit with the song. The script just said, “Fart sings a David Bowie-inspired song.” It was that, and the lyrics were all I had. So my first step then was to find out who was going to sing it, because that’s pretty important in terms of how far I can push the vocalist, and since it was going to be Jemaine Clement, I knew I could do whatever the hell I wanted because he’s amazing. The next step was just listen to a ton of David Bowie. I probably spent half a day listening to stuff, really keying in on some of the more spacy, sci-fi stuff from earlier in his career. Then I just got my acoustic guitar out and printed out the lyrics sheet and played around with it for a while. It was one of those songs that as a composer, we so rarely get but treasure every time we do, which is that it basically wrote itself. It just came out. There was not a lot of tinkering once I got started actually writing it. Then I mocked up the vocals with my own voice, sent that off, Dan and Justin dug it and then they started working to that.

Later on, after they had been working to it for a while, we got Jemaine on the line and he was in New Zealand and we were in L.A. We recorded his vocals for the show, his character’s lines and stuff, and then they said “Alright Elder, it’s your turn. Go for it.” Then I was like, “How much time do we have?” “Oh, 20 minutes” [Pause] “OK, let’s do this.” But to Jemaine’s credit, he’s incredible, he nailed it, and I believe what you hear on the show is his first take.

I originally intended for there to be an echo effect on his voice when he says “space,” but he sang the echo and we were all laughing in the booth so we just left it in because it was too funny.

At that point, it was like, "Let’s get some real musicians on this." I got a drummer, an engineer, and we made it sound really good.

What is your reaction to seeing the final product? Are you a part of the process, or do you not know what it looks like until it finally airs?

I get final color animation around the same time everyone else does, which is usually a few weeks before we mix it, but depending on the episode, it could be very close to when it airs or a couple months ahead. So I see the final animation right when it comes in from the studio, and because I need to conform my music that I’ve written so far to the final timing, it’s pretty important that I see that.

It’s great, it’s exciting. I work with the animatic, which is an early version of the show that’s sort of like a slideshow, and the radio play, which is the recorded audio; it’s like a simplified version of the show. And even then, as soon as I get it in my email, I’m like, “Oh my god, I need to watch this immediately,” because I love the show too and I’d be a fan of it even if I wasn’t working on it.

Regarding “Goodbye Moonmen,” you mention a lot of Bowie influence. Where do you draw the line between being influenced by something and imitation?

Well there’s the legal line, like would it stand up in a court of law, and then there’s the smell test. I have worked in advertising music since 2000. I did it on a daily basis for 11 years, and there’s a lot of that “Let’s be inspired by this song” or “Let’s be inspired by that song” kind of talk in advertising. So you learn where that line is pretty quickly when you work on ads, because you’re constantly being asked to push up against that line.

For me, it’s really like, does it feel like it’s inspired by or an homage to something, or does it feel like you’re crassly trying to take someone else’s stuff for your own gain? I think the public is usually pretty clear on where they fall on that line. I try to avoid doing anything that was specifically done by that artist, whether it’s a chord progression or a specific melody. But you can do a chord progression that the artist would have done if they had run across it and it’ll work out pretty well.

So is the demo that’s being released for “Goodbye Moonmen” the one that you wrote in an hour after your Bowie session?

Yep. That’s the first thing I sent over to Justin and Dan to check out, and they used that to animate to until they got Jemaine on there.

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What were your broad-stroke inspirations for the show’s score?

My biggest one and the one I always go to when I need inspiration for the show is the sci-fi scores of Jerry Goldsmith: Alien, Star Trek: The Original Series and Planet of the Apes. Love those scores, super inspiring, and I’ll often pull inspiration from them.

One of the things that we talked about when we first started on the show was that Justin and Dan wanted the score to feel like a movie every episode. They wanted the music to be big and exciting and filmic and have this whole orchestra feel. So that’s what I go for every time, and Jerry Goldsmith is definitely my starting point.

Have there been any influences or motifs that you’ve pushed to include in the score?

I get a lot of freedom to approach the score how I want to. I usually do the whole episode with just maybe a short phone conversation to prepare me with Justin and Dan, and then I’ll do the whole episode the way I think it should be, and then they’ll come back to me with their thoughts on that. So in a way, I’m always pushing for references or musical influences that I think fit just by doing them and seeing what they say.

Has there ever been something that you’ve gotten pushback on that you really wanted to put in but weren’t able to?

Not that I recall. We can usually have a discussion about it and I can make my case. You know, most of the notes I get are like, “There doesn’t need to be music here,” so I can’t recall anything, no.

We have a pretty trusting and good working relationship between me, Dan and Justin in terms of music. They put a lot of trust in me and I get a lot of freedom to do what I think fits.

How has your longtime working relationship with Dan and Justin starting from your Channel 101 days in 2005 factored into your collaborative process?

Oh, it’s incredibly important. With 13 years of working together on things that were very low-stakes and had no expectations about going out into the world and making a big splash or anything, that builds a lot of trust. Lots of late nights with these funny little internet videos trying to make them funnier with music, that stuff builds a lot of trust. Just being friends with them, hanging out, playing board games at Justin’s house, stuff like that can make or break a professional relationship as well. It’s just, we like each other so it’s kind of a no-brainer.

You have an extensive musical background from your parents raising you on music to a more formal education, so what has surprised you from your upbringing that has come in handy working on the score?

My dad had a home recording studio and he got it when I was 6, so I learned how to use a computer to make music when I was very young. I was using my dad’s IBM 8086 in 1985 to make little songs and beats and little boy band songs that I was into, with my dad’s help of course, and I got to use his computer to make music my whole life.

Rick and Morty is composed almost entirely on the computer, so the concept of using my computer to make music is almost second-nature to me.

With a full soundtrack coming out, how much do you consider your songs standing on their own when you’re developing them?

That has grown more and more. As the show has exploded in popularity, the idea that these songs might have life beyond the show has become more front-and-center. So at first, I didn’t really consider making [season 1 track] “African Dream Pop” an entire song, because it’s only going to be on the episode for seven seconds, but now I would absolutely make an entire song right away because people will ask for it. [Laughs] It’s fun to be able to say, “Hey, this thing we used for seven seconds is actually a real song, check it out,” and people will want to hear it. So yeah, absolutely it’s become more important to think of it that way.

For the soundtrack, I got to go back and take a lot of those cues like “African Dream Pop,” where they were intended to be short for the show but people have really responded positively to them, and I got to go back and make them into full-length songs. There’s a couple of songs on the soundtrack that only appear for a short time, but people responded well to them.

What are you most looking forward to for the release of the soundtrack?

I’m excited for these pieces of music that I get a ton of social media requests for to be out there in their full form for people to use and listen to however they want. There’s one cue I wrote for a scene [in season 1, episode 10] where Jerry is saying goodbye to Doofus Rick, and it’s a sad theme. Jerry’s looking out the window and it’s raining. There’s a cue I wrote there that’s an emotional piano thing that I get a lot of requests for for a full version of, and one time I had a fan write to me and say, “Hey, I’m going to propose to my girlfriend and I would love to use the theme music while I do that”, and I was like, “Oh man, it was only like 20 seconds long.” So to be able to have that out there for people to propose to their girlfriends to at a full three-minute length is just great and I’m excited for that.

Not quite what you expected when you wrote it, I assume.

No, definitely not. [Laughs]

Is there anything else you have coming up?

We have a live concert coming up in LA, the Adult Swim Festival. We’re doing a full episode of the show with a 37-piece orchestra performing my score live, and then we’re going to do five to six songs from the show with guest artists and the orchestra. It’s gonna be pretty fun. It’s going to be music from the show in a way that a lot of people haven’t heard it before.