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Mark Mothersbaugh on "The Rugrats Movie"

by Karen Jaehne

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You don't need a Rugrats movie to know who Mark Mothersbaugh is. You don't even need to be a boomer, since Mark and his group Devo are still giving concerts with the very hip Beck. (Some people just have a knack for being hip.)

Mark made an appearance in a hotel suite to promote The Rugrats Movie, because he had coordinated the music for the film - and done a stupendous job of it (think Patti Smith in a maternity ward). The words that keep coming to mind during this movie are "goofy" (as in, why not?) and wonderful (as in "bingo"). Obviously, the audience it targets is parents, and if they don't have a good time, then they don't deserve to be parents. This is how Mark sees it.

Q: So how did you get involved in a Rugrats movie?

Mothersbaugh: Basically because I'm an insomniac.

Q: Like most parents of little rug rats? Why are you an imsomniac?

Mothersbaugh: I worry about things...The hear these things in the news about centuries old animosities, but from the books I've read, it's worse, and they have no idea about that stuff - it's frankly worse, and it freaks me out. I think about that, and I worry. Do you think sending in forces can do anything? Can they take the guns away from these people?

Q: Well, our government is getting involved in a peace-keeping mission now.

Mothersbaugh: Our government? Our government's who sold them all that stuff, didn't they? It's not what I want to talk about now though....

Q: Or you'll make us all insomniacs. Talk to a nine-year-old audience for a minute though about Rugrats. You never talk down to them.

Mothersbaugh: We try to acknowledge the fact that on one very important level of human existence, kids are smarter than all of us. They get it. As you get older and go through life, you lose something. But they don't have all the information, so they have to be educated, and when they're two, they need Barneys and repetition, but bim-bam, before you know it, they're on your level, and because they're smart, they'll tune you out if you talk down to them. You think they don't know - they've heard the word Bosnia and kiddie porn and mass murders. They really want to feel like they're serious and taken seriously.

What I like about Rugrats, in general, is its two parallel universes: you see the kiddies and then the adults, and you see the kiddies exasperated by the adults, because the adults communicate with each other but not with the kids, because they have some agenda that's just not with the program...

Q: Do you watch the show on TV?

Mothersbaugh: Yeah, I do, because it reminds me of how I felt - or feel. I also like the fact that they're kind of ugly, which is realistic, because you know how somebody shows you a baby and says, isn't my baby beautiful, and looks like Rodney Dangerfield. But you can't say, your kid's a mutant.

Q: You brought Rugrats to Radio City, and it sold out!

Mothersbaugh: Yeah, but they found out something interesting. It was really important to the producers to have live voices for the characters, and they got all the regular people who do the main characters, but they got people to sub for the secondary characters, and the kids were upset. "That's not Grandpa," they'd they had to change that after about three shows.

Kids listen. They hear everything very clearly, and they remember. We gotta remember that they remember.

Q: Had you ever scored a film before?

Mothersbaugh: Well...No is the best answer. I'd never worked with a hundred-piece orchestra before. It's amazing they let me. From a composer's point of view, it was an absolute dream, and I got to write 8 different songs that were integrated into the movie to advance the plotline - like a good musical should. But then, after doing that, they let me come back a year later and do the actual score as well.

Q: Why are you so surprised they let you do the music? After all, you're Devo.

Mothersbaugh: Sort of. My brother and I score the TV series now, but for the film, we used much bigger sound - commensurate with the look...hence, the London Metropolitan Orchestra.

Q: Would you think of doing something else that big - the way Bowie has...?

Mothersbaugh: It's seductive. It's mostly synths, an occasional instrument, but then you show up and there's an army of people holding their instruments and looking at you to be a conductor. Q: Did they look at you like, here comes the rock star?

Mothersbaugh: They were very kind, considering the fact that my background has no training for composing. I have very little professional musical training. In grade school, I was forced to sit with Mrs. Fox and after two years with her, I found a jazz instructor in junior high, and then I had enough to know what I was doing in the garage.

Q: And then some. What is the status of Devo?

Mothersbaugh: Well, being a band was never something we were obsessed with. We made all these films then, before there was an MTV and talked about how sound and vision was going to kill rock'n'roll. Devo to us was a method for talking about things you were concerned about....Bosnia!...and the music thing was a driving force for remaking the world in a total fashion that would bring about change. We talked about how visual audio artists would take over, and they would take over the world and have their own network and it would be great. But rock'n'roll swallowed it all, and MTV figured out how to take the art out of the films they made to go with the song, so it wasn't anymore an audio-visual artist but a kind of paint by numbers with the music....We were influenced by elevator music. We pulled lyrics out of Charles Laughton movie on one of our songs, and for a song called Too Much Paranoia, I stole lyrics from a Burger King commercial - because it was so divinely awful - using the Pachabel "hold the pickles, hold the lettuce..."

Q: So who do you relate to most of the Rugrats?

Mothersbaugh: Chucky. Everybody loves the nerdy kid, the insecure one, because we're all insecure. But there's something there in every character to get into.

Q: Is Devo doing concerts anymore?

Mothersbaugh: Yes, we just did one with Beck. It turned out he liked us, and so I asked him to be one of the babies in the maternity ward scene, along with about twelve other people. But that song is atypical of the rest of the songs, because I really wanted to give each of the babies a chance to sing, since they were all performers who would be there for only that scene, that one day.

Q: So you got all the hippest dudes in the music scene...

Mothersbaugh: We got the ones who are the most fun to work with, I think. I think it works in the movie too. With the rainbow...?

Q: Yeah, all the babies are peeing into one big rainbow coalition. You got a vision, Mark, you got a vision of life as it is. Thank you.

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