“You are only as interesting as your influences”: Netflix series ‘The Cuphead Show’ music composer Ego Plum

Musician Ego Plum, known as The Cartoon Composer, has composed for popular shows like SpongeBob Squarepants, Harvey Beaks, and so on. Plum believes that unusual musical influences have a lot to do with creating something out-of-the-box. For him, diverse musical influences win over technical soundness of any composer. It is all about ideas and the ability to cross boundaries and take risks. His latest composition for Netflix’s The Cuphead Show features original 1930s jazz tunes in the tradition of Duke Ellington, Raymond Scott, and Cab Calloway.

Plum’s musical world includes drum kits made from discarded car parts, Puerto Rican cuatros, malfunctioning Casio keyboards, children’s toys and so on. 

“It is not so much about the unusual instruments I use but my diversity of influences and my willingness to take risks that make what I do effective. You are only as interesting as your influences. I don’t even think technical prowess at any instrument is that important. Ideas are more important. Like John Lennon once said, “I’m an artist, you give me a fucking tuba, I’ll get something out of it.” So the skill-set I value is: risk-taking, good influences, new ideas, and the quest for your unique voice,” Plum told Animation Xpress in an email-interview.

Speaking at length about his inspiration for the music of his latest project, he said, “As much as I appreciate the musical work of all the 1930’s jazz greats, there is something exceptional about Raymond Scott that makes his influence profound. Raymond described his work as ‘descriptive jazz’ and gave his compositions colorful titles such as, Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals or The Oil Gusher. He was essentially scoring non-existent movies and cartoons with his playful music and painted images in the minds of his listeners. His work instantly became a huge influence on the music I wrote for The Cuphead Show. Another whimsical composer that influenced me was Leroy Shield. He was responsible for the scores to the American shows Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy. His work is silly and playful and I drew a lot of inspiration from that sound as well.”

The musician who loves to explore is always looking for unusual ways to make music.

“For The Cuphead Show, I wanted traditional big band jazz instruments to do non-traditional things. So I borrowed a technique from Scott, who had his trumpet player stick the bell of his instrument in a bucket of water to perform his music! My friend Jeff Winner (who runs the Raymond Scott Archives) also introduced me to a very talented saxophone duo by the name of Moon Hooch. These gentlemen make ‘primitive techno’ sax music with giant traffic cones at the ends of their instruments and produce otherworldly sounds! I realized they were cut from the same absurdist/innovative cloth as Raymond Scott and I brought them on to my project,” he said.

For the catchy title song Welcome to The Cuphead Show, the song demo existed before Plum was hired as composer, so his job was to arrange/produce it into a fully realized song.

“That was lots of fun to do and you can hear both of my arrangements at the beginning and end of the show. What I’m most proud of is bringing in the talented rock & roll/soul singer Gizzelle to record the vocals. Many years ago, my friend Roque took me to see her perform at a small club in Los Angeles and she made a wonderful impression. When it came time to find a soulful singer, I was reminded of her performance and brought her to Netflix. I wish I had more fun stories about recording, but the fact is I did most of this work during quarantine, so I had very little real-life human interaction,” he revealed.

With a very energetic and vibrant work style, Plum’s source of energy and creativity cover myriads of influences.

“I pride myself on some of my more unusual musical influences. Some of these names will not mean much to many people, but I assure you they mean the world to me: The Fibonaccis from the USA, The Cardiacs from the UK, The Confusional Quartet from Italy, The Plastics from Japan; these are all semi-obscure artists that have taught me the meaning of controlled chaos and musical lunacy. The frenetic energy and unhinged musical style of these artists have played a bigger role in my work than actual film and television composers,” Plum said.

Talking about the importance of music breathing life into any animated character, he said, “Music can often give animated characters that final push towards the realm of believability. It works almost subconsciously if done correctly. Oftentimes, an audience will not even hear the music anymore; instead they will just feel it and interpret it as an emotion coming straight from the character or situation. I think music is vital to animated storytelling but cartoons are truly a massively collaborative effort.”

According to him, while composing for any animated series from scratch, the most important thing to keep in mind is that your music is in the absolute service of storytelling and the emotional needs of the characters.

“You are not writing music for the sake of writing music, and it is not about you. How do we convey what this character is feeling? How do you make the audience feel the same thing? How do we make an audience feel the characters’ sorrow or how do we make them laugh? These questions are the most important questions as a composer. This will always hold true regardless of whether you are scoring with a 65 piece orchestra or a Casio keyboard,” he said.  

Plum has composed for amazing projects like Making Fiends, Harvey Beaks, Welcome to the Wayne, SpongeBob Squarepants, and so on. The whole idea of creating something amazing excites him. Regarding this he mentioned, “I love the emotional journey a good piece of music can take us on. I love it when music helps tell a story. I love when music makes me feel things I’ve never felt before. I can clearly remember the way I felt the first time I heard an amazing record, saw a live band, or was moved by a TV show or movie. I want to do that for other people. If I can help tell stories with music then I’ve served my purpose. If I can inspire a young person to make music or be a storyteller, I’ve achieved my goal.”

The Cartoon Composer signed off by saying, “Right now I’m most excited about The Cuphead Show and I would encourage everyone to watch it (starting) 18 February 2022 on Netflix. Sometime in the future I will have new episodes of Jellystone! on HBO MAX and Cartoon Network, as well as new episodes of The Patrick Star Show at Nickelodeon. Thank you very much for your interest in my work.”