Fans of new wave music will instantly recognize Mark Mothersbaugh as a founding member of the groundbreaking post-punk band Devo – but even if you don’t have “Whip It” or “Beautiful World” on your iPod, you probably know his work. Starting with a gig as the composer for Pee Wee’s Playhouse in 1986, Mothersbaugh has made a career scoring films, TV shows, commercials and videogames; his most recognizable compositions include the music for Rugrats and Rushmore. He’s also a visual artist, presenting around twenty-five gallery shows a year – and for the past year, he’s been sharing his artistic talents with kids as the host of “Mark’s Magic Pictures,” the drawing segment of Yo Gabba Gabba. Babble talked to Mark about drawing, working with Pee Wee, and what his young daughters think of Devo. – Gwynne Watkins
I’ve been watching Yo Gabba Gabba. My son is a little too young for it right now-
He’s about seventeen?
Yeah, it’s a little too high-concept for him. He’s seven months old, actually, but he’ll love it in a couple years. How old are your kids?
Four and seven.
Do they watch the show?
They’re the ones who got me to even want to be on the show. I get offered all sorts of things that don’t interest me, and just don’t have time to do everything. But I had a DVD of the pilot that they’d given me when they asked me to be the art-maker, and I was playing it at home and the kids both really got into it. They were already singing whatever the songs were. They’re both adopted; the younger one has been with me since she was one, and the older one has only been with me for about two years now, so they don’t even know that their dad has done the music for about thirty different kids show starting with Pee Wee’s Playhouse. I’ve tried. I’ve put Rugrats on TV, and it’s like an alien thing. So [doing Yo Gabba Gabba] was a way to subversively get into their minds.
If I asked them “What does your dad do?” what would they say?
They would say I’m being silly on TV. No, they’d say I draw. Because the older girl, she’s obsessed with drawing. That’s one of the things we do have in common.
Are your kids fans of Devo?
Yeah, they got there by way of Devo 2.0. They came to a Devo show and saw Dad onstage. They thought it was ridiculous. They’re like, “Why are you dressed in this silly outfit and why are you singing these songs that Devo sings?” Yeah, they were kind of confused by that. But I’ve taken them to enough shows that they have it figured out.
So they think that Devo is a cover band of itself? Somehow that seems appropriate.
Watching “Mark’s Magic Pictures,” I remembered all the other shows that I watched as a kid that taught me how to draw, like Picture Pages and Uncle Floyd. Why is it important to encourage kids to draw?
Well, it’s a very easy, fundamental way to exercise all sorts of different things at once: your motor skills, your creativity, your understanding of the world around you. It’s a really easy way to go into our fantasy world. And it’s also a good communication tool. My oldest daughter, who had never heard the English language before we adopted her [from China] when she was five and a half – she was drawing and making little books and making stories that communicated with us before she was really fully talking English. Although it’s kind of shocking how fast a child can learn another language; my wife speaks Chinese, but nobody else does very well. We were all kind of, “Ni hao!”
Your first children’s TV gig was scoring Pee Wee’s Playhouse. How did you get involved in that?
Paul [Reubens, aka Pee Wee] asked me. He was a Devo fan. And Paul had asked me to do his film, but Devo was really busy at the time. And he had asked me before that to do his stage show, when he had Pee Wee as a stage show. But I was always on tour, and so by the time he asked me to do the TV show we were kind of on a hiatus. Like a cocoon, siesta state. So I gave it a shot and it was fun. It was addictive, because rather than spending all year writing fifteen songs, then touring for six months, then coming back and doing it again, I had to do an album’s worth of music every week or so. Then I’d see it on TV. I’d write the music on Wednesday, send him the music on Thursday, and then watch it on Saturday morning on TV. That was kind of exciting.
“Maybe if I’m homeless some day you’ll let me sleep in your garage.” I think the Rugrats theme song is like “Chopsticks” for my generation. It’s the thing that everyone sits down at the piano and plays even if they don’t know how to play the piano.
It does have a Pavlovian quality. [Laughs]
It’s in our brains forever.
Good! Well, maybe if I’m homeless some day and need a place to stay you’ll let me sleep in your garage.
Anytime! After all these years of scoring films and commercials, why do you keep coming back to children’s TV?
I don’t get a lot of censorship when I work on kids’ stuff. For me, the kids’ arena is great because kids come unfiltered, and the idea of a cha-cha mixed with hip hop with, you know, a classical string quartet on top of that is totally acceptable and they’re open to the experience. I’ve got to say, Yo Gabba Gabba is probably closest thing to what Pee Wee’s Playhouse was to its generation that you can get right now on TV. I think it’s the freshest thing. It has the most interesting take on entertainment and education for kids right now. That’s my word of encouragement about that lowly little show with a small budget.