If the infinite alien worlds and timelines in “Rick and Morty” weren’t wild enough, imagine writing music fit to accompany Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s bizarre-o universes. The Adult Swim show flew under the radar when it debuted in 2013, but it has finally been recognized as one of the smartest, weirdest animated comedies on television. Composer Ryan Elder has been involved with the series since before Harmon; he scored Roiland’s short, “The Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti,” a loose “Back to the Future” parody that caught Harmon’s eye and would eventually become “Rick and Morty.”
“The idea of creating something that you’re supposed to have never heard before is very difficult,” Elder recently told Pitchfork. “That’s not something composers usually have to do. But it’s also very liberating.” Elder originally wrote the eerily catchy theme song for a different show of Roiland’s, called “Dog World.” When it came to creating a “larger-than-life sci-fi adventure score” for “Rick and Morty,” it “just seemed so perfect,” Elder said. They originally used it temporarily and planned to write a new one, but “everyone fell in love with it,” so they stuck with it.
Elder often has to create beats for Harmon or Roiland to improvise lyrics over with little more than a vague description for direction. In season two’s episode “Total Rickall,” Summer goes on a psychedelic ride with her “one friend,” a magical lamb named Tinkles. “The writers wanted the song to turn on dime from this really fun, poppy thing, and then all of a sudden be this really aggressive rap song,” said Elder. “I believe Dan called it ‘alien jazz rapping,’ which again was Dan just improvising lyrics. He’s a pretty good freestyler, believe it or not.”
All of the show’s songs are catchy, but some are surprisingly sweet. The dreamy David Bowie homage “Moonmen” is by far the most beautiful. Sung by the inimitable Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”) as a floating ball of gas, or a fart. Elder’s only note: “Fart sings a David Bowie-inspired song.” “So I listened to David Bowie for several hours, which was definitely one of the more fun parts of my job. Then I just sat down with a guitar and started singing those words, and the whole process of writing that song from beginning to end took maybe an hour or two,” said Elder. After Clement recorded his lines remotely from New Zealand, they only had 20 minutes to record the song. “Luckily he’s a complete pro. I used his first take on the whole song. He nailed it right away.”
Read Elder’s full interview here.