We Spoke to the Musical Masterminds Behind 'Adventure Time'
Casey James Basichis and Tim Kiefer have been scoring the world’s biggest pop culture phenomenon since it's conception.
You will rarely find a cartoon that manages to cross the boundaries of age, race, gender, and sexuality to become an international success. For that reason, Adventure Time is one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons of the century. Created by Pendleton “Pen” Ward, Adventure Time follows Finn the human and Jake the dog as they try to navigate a post-apocalyptic world. It is both belly-crampingly hilarious and bleak, morally guided and totally fantastic, megadorable and weighty all at the same time. It’s kind of like the Ren & Stimpy of the millennial generation, except with animation that doesn’t make adults cry and fewer blatant sexual metaphors.
But underlying all the shape-shifting, butt-kicking, and burrito-making is a musical score that’s largely responsible for the vibe of Adventure Time’s whole introspective and nonsensical world. Mixing chiptune with metal, J-pop with beatboxing, the sonic boundaries of Adventure Time are just as warped as the logical boundaries of the show in general. And even though the plot rarely alludes to popular music, the characters often express their emotion via song. From Marceline shredding on a guitar, Lemonhope and his harp, Finn and Jake’s perpetual turning-life-into-a-song, the music of Adventure Time is absolutely essential to the tone of the show as well as making up a substantial portion of the narrative.
Creating the soundtrack to Adventure Time basically sounds like the most fun job ever, so to find out more about it we got in touch with Casey James Basichis and Tim Kiefer, the musical minds who have been musically mapping the Land of Ooo since its inception.
Noisey: Hi guys! So before we get into Adventure Time, I read that you guys were in a band for a while called Casey James and the Staypuft Kid. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Tim Kiefer:I’m glad you asked, Emma. Casey and I self-released a few albums and generally crashed the SoCal music scene back in 2007. We were the world’s (but more importantly Myspace’s) foremost Gameboy ukulele duo, spray painting furry fabric CD sleeves, writing music in Casey’s apartment-cum-pirate-ship, and obsessing over fanmail. The album artifacts are alive and well on my site, timspace.com.
And then how do you go from that to getting into Adventure Time?
Casey James Basichis: We are all creatures of the CalArts dorms. Pen’s early Bueno the Bear webcomics fused earnestness and wit in a way I had never seen, exploiting the obvious at no one’s expense. I chased him down on the Chouinard lawn and gushed. He eventually asked if we would score one of his projects—this was Pen’s 2001 Bueno the Bear short—proto twerking to 90s dance music, our first collaboration. But Adventure Time came out of the blue and was a blank canvas… a slip and slide into the delicate minds of the global youth.
There are a lot of writers on the show and the characters can go in a lot of different, unexpected directions, but you have both created the music since the beginning. How do you think Adventure Time has evolved across its six series, and how has this affected the music?
Tim: By this point it feels like we’re neck-deep embroiled in "The Hero’s Journey" narrative. The characters have taken on countless new dimensions; fresh relationships forged while others fall away. The music has largely evolved in step. My pieces have all but left behind the stark simplicity of the first few seasons in which Finn blithely floated around Ooo. Still earnest, only now refined and more robust.
We’re starting to get glimpses into the far-flung past and future (à la Evergreen or Lemonhope), stretching way beyond the familiar faces of even Marceline, leaving us to look at our previous compositions as mythology.
In terms of working with Pendleton Ward or any of the producers, do they tell you roughly what they want or do you just take a look at the storyboard and run with it?
Tim: Before Pen stepped down from the helm, we almost exclusively worked with him. Fond memories abound of him articulating his vision for the episode. For a snippet from the episode "Power Animal" he requested an “Intense cacophony of religious sounding... ehh, stuff...," for a moment in "Slow Love," “Sexy sting here... Build it up with whistles and wolf howls Kenny G. Lots of sax. Strip tease,” and for Finn and PB’s Rube Goldberg-esque prank on Lemongrab in "Too Young": “Silly rascally montage music! Have fun with this, man. Give it a full sound. And dancey beat. I want little kids to dance in front of their TVs!”
That kind of explains why music is so diverse. I mean, the compositions feature chiptune, beatboxing… pretty much everything. But how do you decide what fits where, and how do you mould these pre-existing “genres” to fit the tone of the show?
Casey: Pen’s directions for the Adventure Time pilot were very open. The operatic howls embody the mosh pit of realities I was trying to create. I wanted an atmosphere gripped with juvenile silliness and unbiased curiosity, recalling the time in life where everything is new. The music isn’t subordinate to the picture, it intentionally injects foreign elements into the space, dragging and shoving the audience into new realities; good-natured roughhousing.
When Pen described the post apocalyptic scenario, I realized the amazing opportunity. Suddenly music was all of the genres that have ever been and all of the genres and forms that will be up until this apocalypse, followed by a thousand years of simmering where context evaporates leaving each its own misunderstood ancient opera. I live in constant horror of the zillions of ways I don’t fully realize that universe.
Tim: I think people forget that there’s continuous space between predefined genres… I just explore it. Plus, it’s a fun challenge. Simply emulating a style is a hollow chore, and that has its place—just not in Adventure Time. And that’s my characteristic approach, whether it’s programming an evening of bands/DJs, crafting a DJ mix of my own, or brewing up beats. I take great care to creatively blur the familiar with the foreign, so that my audience gets as much a sense of fuzzy comfort as electric wonder. Engaging people in an expressive dialogue and the resulting creative feedback loop is the most beautiful thing to me.
You must need quite a broad knowledge of music to pull that off, though. What kind of music do you listen to in your free time?
Casey:I like to “curate” entire music collections from OCD hoarder fetishists and randomize playback. Swimming in other people’s musical personalities. Numbers I don’t have, but would like: Angel Haze, Blood Orange, Chance the Rapper, CharliXCX, Chris Gaines, D’Angelo, David Bowie, Death Grips, Dej Loaf, Devendra Banhart, Flying Lotus, Grimes, Haim, Iceage, Jessica Pratt, Joanna Newsom, John Williams, Justin Bieber, Kendrick Lamar, Kera & The Lesbians, Koji Kondo, Marilyn Manson, Miley Cyrus, Moses Sumney, Obama, Oval, Prince, Rae Sremmurd, Rich Homie Quan, Rustie, Sophie, Squarepusher, Spooky Black, St Vincent, Taylor Swift, Tom Brosseau, Tune Yards, Yoko Ono, Yung Thug.
I might be able to hook you up there. What about you, Tim?
Tim: Big caveat here. As a DJ, event producer, and neophyte record label boss, my music intake is both boundless and boundary-less, impossible to quantify by the metric of “favorite," and in general, eluding definition. That said, my list of current essentials looks something like: Eero Johannes, DJ Nate, Julianna Barwick, Acid Arab, Skin Town, Matias Aguayo, Nils Frahm, Heterotic, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, and Various Production.
Where do you do most of your work and what is it about that environment that helps?
Tim: I’m a cloisterer. When you don’t see or hear from me for days at a time, your best bet is that I’m holed up feverishly making music magic en studio. The intensity of the network TV schedule lends itself well to this mania—deadline adrenaline is real. Quite recently I’ve started taking this imposed fervor on the road, finding nooks and crannies around the world to nestle and compose in. Next stop is the fairytale German countryside.
Casey: There is something dungeon-like about studio life. I wander through the Santa Monica Mountains on foot, singing into my phone. I’m devoted to an AI project, constructing an environment for discovering second millennium music, staring into our phones, wandering around the wilderness, bumping into bears. Super futuristic.
Do you tend to work together or separately?
Tim: Collaborations are a sweet rare thing; squeezing them into aforementioned schedule is tricky. But when they happen the added chaos is plenty rewarding. Ashley Dzerigian, who’s constantly touring around the world with big time bands, defined the Marceline axe bass sound in Evicted! Opera singer extraordinaire Karen Vuong floored us with her supersonic improvisations, while Yvette Dudoit gave a dark classical backdrop to Jake The Brick. I can't forget my stepmom Lisa Gygax—she and her banjo set the scene for flooping the Pig.
When it comes to the more coherent song-based stuff—when Marceline or Finn are singing about their feelings, for example—do you have involvement with the lyrics as well as the arrangement?
Tim: Those songs are fleshed out early on in the episode production process, way before we have any creative input on the matter. Though Casey has managed to exploit the network’s time crunch pandemonium and slip some lyrical content past the watchful eye of the network.
Did you know someone made a Marceline-inspired hip-hop song?
Casey: I flipped when I found out Fifty Shades of Grey had its origins in Twilight fan fiction. Oh, to be a textural fixture in someone’s interior life. A complement to the Colt. | (• ◡•)| (❍ᴥ❍ʋ)
Tim: It’s been a trip watching the ripples of AT reach further and further out. Before long I expect we’ll all have personal BMOs.
How do you evoke or mirror the character's traits with music? Do you have particular samples or sounds that you attach to particular characters?
Casey: From the inception of the show, we knew we wanted each episode to be something of its own movie, its own world. Choreographing the music to the characters’ emotion contributes to creating a kind of world. We try to anchor the musical design in different ways to give different effects to each score. Some of this is character-centric, but trying to think up something new and intrinsic to the story is the ideal. Whatever the design, thrashing around in a sandbox of sounds and instruments to get a sense of the attitude and mannerisms of a musical entity is by far the most enjoyable part.
Adventure Time feels very heavily inspired by video games—the music as well as the plot. Are or were either of you game enthusiasts and do you have a favourite video game soundtrack?
Tim: Pen often referenced old NES games for the mood he wanted to set in a scene—Friday the 13th, The Legend of Zelda, and so on. Gaming-wise, I’m a sucker for all things old school, so it was like speaking a secret language! My top video game soundtrack pick is a tie between Mega Man 3 and Katamari Damacy. Choosing between those two is futile 'cause they’re worlds apart.
Casey: Locating Mario 3, three days before its release, was one of this lifetime’s coups. Within hours I was tearing through the house mortified, all of the joints in my right hand locked backwards. Metroid and Double Dragon were also in heavy rotation. As a kind of oblique strategy, I try to imagine the material of music I’m working with through the spatial perspectives of video games. I love the music of video games and the clarity that comes from their economy of means, but for me the visual simplification of information has always been a gateway into musical experimentation and construction.
Were you big into cartoons before Adventure Time?
Casey: Growing up in the 80s and 90s to the backdrop of shows like Small Wonder, 90210, and Dynasty, we were living at the tail-end of an age where everything was helplessly a cartoon. The principle optic of being was skewed in all sorts of absurd ways, and as a kid you you have no idea. Animation is the tip of that iceberg.
Everyday all day Ren & Stimpy, Daria, Beetlejuice, Tom and Jerry, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Aeon Flux, The Head, Dragon Ball Z, Ghostbusters, Sesame Street, Rocko’s Modern Life, Dexter’s Laboratory, and countless others had their say in who I am. Others, while highly questionable in construction, were critical in their expansive qualities—the honing of the soap opera regions of my mind. I do wish I had a bit of Lego Movie philosophy powering my blender early on.
I love watching the evolution of Adventure Time mannerisms as they become their own voice in Steven Universe, Over The Garden Wall, Clarence and the rest.
Tim: Ghostbusters in a big way. My childhood Saturday morning ritual.
What do you think makes Adventure Time so relatable?
Casey: In the casual, throwaway moments you feel the characters enjoying themselves, being silly and having fun with each other. It’s a sense that these characters are living in the moment and you can engage with that, they are not plot pawns.
Tim: That and the fact that you’re completely disarmed after that megadorable theme song. I so want Pen and Casey to pick up from there and start doing Styx covers.
And finally, if you could be any of the characters in Adventure Time who would it be?
Casey: LSP speaks to my cultural heritage as a spacey valley boy, which is a dubious label in constant need of vigilant positive representation. Also: loud, impatient, preposterous with a heart of gold.
Tim: Finn, except in the instance of playing Card Wars. In that realm, I’m SO Jake.
Mathematical. Thanks Casey and Tim!
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