Coming Up Clausen: An Interview with The Simpsons Composer
Alf Clausen explains the workings behind the music of The Simpsons, and shows how he fits right in.
Everybody and their mother can hum The Simpsons theme song. It was composed by Danny Elfman, the former Oingo Boingo leader and current big-time movie soundtrack scorer. But if you assume Elfman composes all of the sounds for this popular animated program, you'd be wrong. That man is Alf Clausen.
"I've been living with that for a long time," Clausen comments. "I like to say that Danny came in for one day, and I've been there for 17 years. And yet the public doesn't really always understand that, only because they don't know the way the business works. But, you know, it's just something that exists and there's not enough time to worry about it."
Considering all the bold humor running through The Simpsons, one wonders if Clausen was asked to score the show for his musical talent or sense of humor. Or both. "They never really shared that with me," Clausen admits. "I think probably what encouraged them to call me was the fact that I had orchestral ability, composition-wise, plus I had just come off four seasons of doing a drama show that had its own kind of wackiness, which was Moonlighting. My hunch is that they felt the combination of those two things was extremely valuable to them."
In celebration of The Simpsons' musical legacy, Shout! Factory has just released The Simpsons Testify -- A Whole Lot More Original Music from the Television Series. In addition to the show's regular cast, this disc also includes the sounds of Los Lobos, Shawn Colvin, Weird Al, and Jackson Browne. Obviously, The Simpsons draws a lot of big name talent to its Sunday night broadcasts. Yet when asked about his favorite moments with the show, Clausen struggles to narrow down that extensive Best Times category.
"Oh my goodness, there have been so many. It's hard to remember them clearly. One of the fabulous days was being able to conduct a recording session with the late Tito Puente and his orchestra. We'd done a couple of songs I wrote for him for the "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" episode. I specifically remember that day because I didn't know what to expect. And I walked into the studio and Tito walked up to me and his first words were, 'Well, are you going to tell me what to do or am I going to tell you what to do?' And I said to him, 'Well, I'm a really good listener, Tito.' So he says, 'Well, good. Then you tell me what to do.' And we got along really well and the session was just an amazing experience. That was fun."
"Also, one of the sessions that I got to produce a song for was the one with U2 and Bono and the song called 'The Garbage Man'. So I got to record Bono in the studio, which was just amazing." Bono is an intense artist. Even so, Clausen enjoyed working with this Irish rock icon. "We got along great. He had a lot of respect for my craft, and I have a lot of respect for his and we worked very, very well in the studio together. I was extremely pleased."
Although it's difficult for Clausen to remember all his best show experiences, he cannot think of many bad celebrity encounters. But this may be because, unless he's scoring a song for a guest performer, he's just not in direct contact with star participants.
"I didn't encounter artists that gave trouble. I don't encounter all of the names that come in because I'm really busy composing the underscore on a weekly basis. And oftentimes when they have name artists come in, the producers deal with them. And the producers tell them how they want their lines to be spoken -- the written lines -- so I avoid a lot of that hassle. But I don't get to participate in the joy of it either, which is a little bit frustrating to me sometimes."
Clausen, probably like many on the show's production team, had no idea The Simpsons would last this long, or become such a large part of American culture.
"I started from pretty humble beginnings on the show of simply being the underscore composer. I knew that in doing my first episode, which was 'Treehouse of Horror' that this was going to be a very interesting experience because my very first episode had 42 cues in it, in a 23-minute show at that particular point. I thought, 'Well, obviously they believe in the power of music, which is great for me because that's what I do. And I think maybe we're going to have a good partnership here.' And little did I suspect that it was going to just blossom into what it's become and also the fact that I would get an opportunity to eventually write all of the original song material."
Indeed, The Simpsons probably has a lot more music in it than most other TV shows. Whether the program is parodying a Broadway musical or incorporating rock music with real rock musicians, it's not unusual for characters to break out in song. But, of course, the primary voice talent is comprised of actors, not musicians, which might make creating music a little harder.
"There are some that need a little bit more coaching than others. I'm always very pleased with the final outcome, because several of them don't look upon themselves as being singers and yet they really rise to the challenge and sing the material beautifully. I think that the other challenge, of course, is that it's one thing if a person can be a terrific singer, but then to sing in character is a totally different story."
Clausen's contributions to The Simpson are integral, even though many might still take his involvement for granted. Nevertheless, he's not in at the ground floor during the episode production process.
"As the underscore composer, I'm in very late in the game. To give you an idea of how late in the game, I have a music spotting session with the executive producer, Al Jean, where we decide what spots are going to contain music. We do that on a Friday. We have an average of 30 to 35 cues per episode. So as soon as the music spotting session is over, I go about my business of composing the cues and record them the following Friday. The mix session is Monday and Tuesday of the following week. And the show goes on the air on Sunday. That's how close to air date my process gets involved. The entire process of doing the whole episode, from the inception of the script, I would say it's close to ten months. From the time that a script is turned in, it's about a seven to eight month turnaround before the episode comes back to me."
There is talk these days that The Simpsons is winding down its run. But Clausen doesn't seem to read that dire writing on the wall. He still sees a bright future for the program.
"When we celebrated the 350th episode mark, [creator] Matt Groening came out in the press and he says, 'Well, I think we're halfway there.' There are no plans to call it quits at all because the ratings are still great. As long as the writers can keep coming up with interesting stories and as long as we can continue to rise to the level that we're expected to be at, then we're going for the whole thing. We're going for gold."