Cartoon composer Ego Plum shares the musical influences behind his quirky signature sound
In a Q interview, Plum discussed his weird and wonderful taste in music
Click the play button above to listen to Ego Plum's full interview with Tom Power.
Ego Plum's zany scores for popular animated series like The Cuphead Show! and SpongeBob SquarePants have earned him a reputation as "the cartoon composer."
He was able to rise to the top of his profession with zero formal musical training, as he said composing quirky instrumental music is something that just comes naturally to him.
"I don't need to pretend that I know how to read music — my tool is my ears," he told Q's Tom Power in an interview. "I have to trust my ears and my instincts because that's all I have and that's all [I've used] to get this far in this business."
The very first record Plum made in his early 20s was an album of instrumental cartoon music for non-existent cartoons.
"That was the music that was in my head all the time," he said. "That's what I wanted to do. I didn't really know if I was ever going to work on cartoons, because at that age, I really didn't see a door into Hollywood."
To develop his distinctive sound, Plum said he simply listened to and absorbed the kind of music he's drawn to. "I'm just a fan," he said. "I take it in the way any non-musician would — just passionately listening, dancing, you know, being at a show…. It's the way I learned."
In his conversation with Power, Plum walked us through some of his musical influences, from 1930s jazz to the East Los Angeles punk scene of his youth. Here's some of what he had to say.
Raymond Scott's 'quirky, peculiar jazz' was a hugely important influence on him
Plum said he relates to American composer Raymond Scott, whose jazz compositions are familiar to many as the music of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, though Scott never specifically set out to score cartoon soundtracks.
"Raymond Scott was a composer famous in the '30s and '40s with a group called the Raymond Scott Quintet," Plum told Power. "He was making this very quirky, peculiar jazz…. It sounds like cartoon music, but he was not writing for cartoons. This is just the music in his head. This is how his brain worked."
All this insane music that Raymond Scott wrote … was sort of just seeping into my brain and infecting me and sort of forming who I would ultimately become as a musician.- Ego Plum
Scott's music was adapted for cartoons when Warner Bros., musical director Carl Stalling decided to license his tracks to use alongside the adventures of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig and more.
"I was a little kid listening to … all this insane music that Raymond Scott wrote, not knowing that it was Raymond Scott, but it was sort of just seeping into my brain and infecting me and sort of forming who I would ultimately become as a musician," said Plum.
"That exposure to Looney Tunes was the first place I learned about this music and a lot of classical music, frankly, and opera and Mozart and that kind of stuff. But yeah, Raymond Scott is such an important influence to me. And I just love him so much."
He credits his older brothers for a lot of his musical tastes
In his formative years growing up in East Los Angeles, Plum said his older brothers exposed him to some incredible music.
"I was very lucky to have three older brothers with great taste in music," he told Power. "I was listening to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols and, you know, Black Sabbath, and then just weirder bands too at, like, a really young age."
When Plum was 13 or 14, his brothers took him to see a live show called Cube E, which introduced him to the Residents, an avante-garde art and music collective based in San Francisco.
"[The Residents] were anonymous," said Plum. "They wore these costumes and you never knew who they were. Their music was really strange again, like cartoon music, but dark."
When Plum saw the Residents perform their "strange, twisted, cartoony circus carnival music, but in a pop rock format" he realized that maybe he could make that kind of music as well.
The sound of Pee-wee's Playhouse was pivotal
Before Plum even knew who the Residents were, he was unknowingly listening to the group's music. The Residents and other experimental musicians like film composer Danny Elfman worked on the soundtrack for the kids show Pee-wee's Playhouse, which Plum said had a big impact on him.
"I'm 11 years old and it's 1986. Pee-wee's Playhouse premieres on ABC and I'm watching this and I'm like, 'this sounds insane,'" he recalled.
"Even before I was a fan, I was listening to that as a child, essentially, and absorbing it all not knowing that, you know, in four years I'd be at a Residents show…. Pee-wee's Playhouse was pivotal, you know, and I thank, in my head, Paul Reubens. And I thanked him once in person for the amazing and beautiful show he created. It just meant so much to me and so many people."
Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Jennifer Warren.