“I assume we’ve boned, but could you remind me of your name?”
If the idea of Rob Lowe delivering this line as a sleazy and wince-inducingly narcissistic cop strikes you as more than a tad funny, then welcome to Moonbeam City. Slated for release in 2015, Comedy Central’s new, decidedly adult-themed animated cop show sees a cast that includes Lowe, Elizabeth Banks, Will Forte and Kate Mara, sending up vintage 80s crime dramas in Moonbeam City — “America’s most fluorescent metropolis.”
Conceived by former Funny or Die and Late Night With Conan O’Brien writer Scott Gairdner, the show also features the return of Mark Brooks to the director’s chair. Brooks, whose directing and writing credits include another well-known animated show — Metalocalypse — additionally handles the score and all original music for Moonbeam City with his electro synth-pop band Night Club. Brook and vocalist Emily Kavanaugh launched Night Club several years ago and have released several EPs packed with hook-drenched club anthems and dramatic atmospherics that conjure the captivating moodiness of that sound within the context of modern, upbeat synth-pop.
We sat down with Mark to discuss the origins of the project and the challenges of writing songs that sound like Toto.
For those who aren’t yet familiar, tell us about Moonbeam City.
It’s basically a show created by Scott Gairdner, who was a Funny or Die guy and also a Conan writer, and I met him last year after he had sold a pilot script for the show and he was looking for a studio to make it. He brought it to Titmouse because he was a fan of Metalocalypse, and (Titmouse studio owner) Chris Prynoski said, “You should really meet this guy because he’s really into 80s stuff. I think you guys would hit it off.” I realized that he was doing this 80s cop comedy, sort of like Miami Vice meets Blade Runner, which I thought was awesome. Chris ended up putting a little teaser together to get the Titmouse bid and he used Night Club’s music in the presentation. Scott liked it and said, “I really like that music, where’s it from?” So that started the conversation of us doing the music for the project, as well as me directing the project.
Scott’s pilot script and your presentation were enough to land that great icon of all things 80s, Rob Lowe.
At that point nobody was attached to it, it was basically just Scott as the writer and I was attached as a director, and tentatively we were going to do music, but that was basically it. (Producer) Richie Schwartz said, “Well let’s send it around and see who we can get,” and the idea came to send it to Rob Lowe. Everybody said, “No way, he’ll never do that. That’ll never happen.” Well, it ended up on his desk and he said, “This is fucking awesome! This is funny as shit. I wanna do this. Are you kidding me? I totally want to be (lead character) Dazzle Novak.” Rob already had this fantasy of his own 80s cartoon anyway and because he was such a big deal in the 80s, it made sense for him to do it. Once he got on board, we started getting all these great people, like Will Forte, Elizabeth Banks, Kate Mara and the cast gelled into a really stellar lineup. We spent last year making the pilot and Emily and I did the music.
What kind of direction to Scott give you for the songs?
Scott would write words for the songs because he really wanted to have moments in the show that were songs because he’s such a music fan, so we ended up setting his words to music. Anytime he had an idea for a song, we’d execute it for him. We ended up with this really weird, funny pilot and Comedy Central dug it, they tested it and it did well so they picked it up for ten episodes. The premiere will be sometime in 2015 although right now there’s not a hard release yet. Another thing that turned out to be really cool is that we got Tommy Blacha involved in it as a show runner, so he wrote on the show, did the writer’s room together with Scott, so it was great to work with him again. All the writers were really funny and I think the project turned out fantastic.
What other sounds of the 80s needed to be represented on the soundtrack?
Well originally the music that was used in the teaser was Night Club’s music, which is certainly inspired by the music of the 80s, although we’re not trying to be a nostalgia act, we just happen to have a heavy dose of that vibe in our music. So a lot of the music is very Night Club-esque: early Depeche Mode, early Ultravox, with that Gary Numan feel, so there’s a big chunk of it like that. Obviously it’s a score, too, so there’s a lot of Vangelis in there as well, sort of giving it a Blade Runner feel. It’s a cop show about this guy, Dazzle Novak, who works for the Moonbeam City police and he’s a narcissistic asshole cop who doesn’t really care about solving crimes or anything, he just cares about himself. He basically fucks off and doesn’t do his job and it’s set in this futuristic version of the early-80s. All of the artwork is that Patrick Nagel-ish vibe. It has that 80s animation flavor. There are moments when the music is very serious and very score-driven, and then there are moments that are completely ridiculous. Obviously when we’re trying to do Toto, we’re doing it for the laughs, but at the same time, we’re trying to make it as cool as the Toto songs really are. I love working with Scott because he really loves that kind of music, he really loves these obscure sounds and for a guy in his twenties to be obsessed with Toto is really funny to me, because he didn’t live through that originally. So he’s one of those guys obsessed with records from the past and it’s a really fun thing to work on because he’ll send you on these weird directions, like “OK, we need a wedding song for Rob Lowe to sing in the style of a Sammy Davis Jr. song from the 50s.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Metalocalypse was that the music was entirely authentic, whether you guys were doing death metal or sending up bands like Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses or even shitty generic rock — the attention to detail was so fine that you couldn’t tell if the songs were as parodies or as some type of homage.
That was the thing about working with (Metalocalypse creator) Bendon Small as a director or sometimes a writer. I never worked with him on the music, but I loved what he did. He taught me so much about music from just working with him — especially on learning how to score a project and to write music for a picture. I remembered the great things about Brendon’s music from that show and I took that to heart on this project. There are two great things about Brendon’s music: first, he was incredibly good at writing authentic death metal. His metal really was brutal and it helped the show tremendously because it wasn’t a joke, it actually was authentic fucking metal and it was awesome. But also something that he was brilliant at and I don’t think he received enough credit for was his score. It was amazing. Some of those things he wrote as interim music within the show was truly epic. It could have been in Conan the Barbarian! It was really awesome stuff and I took that to heart on this project because I had the chance to do a score and I wanted to play the sad moments as actually sad, the brutal moments as actually brutal and really play it as it cinematically should be played. So when Emily and I sit down and write a song for the show, if it’s got to sound like it’s from 1973, we make it sound like it’s a hit from 1973. Every single song that we did is very pop and very geared towards being a hit in its genre.
So you you were asked to write a song that sounded like Toto, what were the elements that needed to come to the forefront to evoke that sound?
One is that type of singing, and we knew a couple of guys who were fantastic at that type of singing. To me, it’s not going to sound like Toto without the vocals. Also I’m kind of a nerd for the way records are put together, so you know that they’re using Yamaha synthesizers in Toto, you know certain ways that they play their bass and the way they do the percussion. I just deconstruct stuff because I’m such a nerd about that stuff. When we were doing a rockabilly song, I listened to twenty rockabilly songs that were the hits and pulled out the common elements like the reverb, the guitar tones and the details that bring that sound to life.
Once the first season is finished, what’s next for Night Club?
We just released our latest EP, Black Leather Heart a couple of months ago. Then we’re going on tour, probably in April, hitting the west coast and midwest. Hopefully we’ll coordinate something when the show comes out as well. We’ve been so inundated with writing for the show — we wrote something like 140 tunes — so we’ve written a lot of music and that’s been its own job. But we’ve put out a new record and a new video and this show has been such a great opportunity and such a fun thing to do that we were OK putting the band on ice for a little while because this was such a big deal. I’m really thankful to Scott for giving me this opportunity because he’s got great ideas, he’s a funny guy and he’s just as big of a weirdo/nerd about this music as I am.