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Mark Mothersbaugh on scoring ‘The Last Man on Earth’

By Jennifer Walden

So, the toilet pool is a growing national trend — at least according to the uber-talented composer, artist and musician Mark Mothersbaugh. His recent composing work on the Fox TV series The Last Man on Earth, executive produced and partially directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller of The Lego Movie fame, inspired him to install his very own toilet pool. For those of you who haven’t seen the series yet and are confused as to what a toilet pool is, well it’s simple: it’s a pool that you use as a toilet. If this doesn’t make you want to watch the show, now available on Hulu, I don’t know what will.

To be fair, Mothersbaugh actually credits his daughters with the implementation of his own toilet pool. “I came home one day and the kids had cut a hole in the diving board so we all started using that,” he explains, admitting they were a little self-conscious about it initially, but he feels it’s a great way to get use of the swimming pool during the winter. Now that spring is here it’s got him thinking about using the pool for its original purpose again. “We’re going to have to get out the leaf-net and clean it up a little bit because the kids are going to want to swim this summer.” Mothersbaugh reports the toilet pool doesn’t smell as bad as you’d imagine, thanks to help from the pool chemicals and Mother Nature. “The sun kind of helps. The birds and the squirrels they come and peck at it, so they help clean it too.”

Mark Mothersbaugh

Mark Mothersbaugh

Ok, so we’ve digressed in a way only Mark Mothersbaugh could. Let’s get back to The Last Man on Earth, which tells the story of last-man-on-earth Phil Miller —played by series creator/writer Will Forte — and how he copes with the transition from complete isolation, complements of a super virus that wipes out nearly all of humanity, to potential repopulation with last-woman-on-earth Carol Pilbasian (30 Rock’s Kristen Schaal). As the last remnants of civilization begin to show up, thanks to Phil’s “Alive in Tucson” billboards, things get hilariously complicated. Season 1’s twisted ending sets up some surprising situations for next year’s Season 2.

From a creative standpoint, Mothersbaugh, co-founder of Mutato Muzika in West Hollywood, says the show offered an opportunity to create an unconventional score. “The world of TV doesn’t typically allow for you to make many big steps in any direction in the music department,” he says. “Music usually plays a backseat role, and it’s very tricky to work in anything new or original. For The Last Man on Earth, we were able to play around with music almost the way Phil was playing with the soccer balls and tennis balls by putting faces on them [a la Tom Hanks in Cast Away]. It’s a primitive substitute for people, so we made substitute instruments, like using pieces of wire wrapped around nails in wood and created things on our own.”

Initially, Mothersbaugh experimented with an instrument he designed about five years ago called an “orchestrion,” which uses 65 antique and modern bird calls made out of wood, metal, plastic, rubber and leather. “I was writing a lot of music with it and then we realized we couldn’t use it all the time because there are no birds in this world.” But he was able to use the orchestrion as a “psychological enhancer” for Phil’s toilet pool cleaning score in the episode called “She Drives Me Crazy.” The orchestrion, layered into an upbeat score, makes little squeaky-clean sounds as Phil starts cleaning the pool, but soon the clean squeaks transform into longer laments when Phil’s frustration makes him curl up in fetal position. The orchestrion blends with a sappy piano as Phil finally breaks down and sobs beside his filthy toilet pool.

Fun With Porta-Potties
At the end of the “She Drives Me Crazy” episode, Phil installs a port-a-potty in his house. Mothersbaugh wrote a Mariachi-band inspired song featuring a vocal performance by Forte himself. “He is our producer, so when he says ‘I shall show you that not only am I an actor but I am a singer,’ then you just say, ‘Okay dude,’” jokes Mothersbaugh, who notes that a few other composers in his studio lined up to be the temp vocals on the track. “A couple guys in the studio have more porta-potty appropriate voices than me, so they volunteered.”

So why a Mariachi sound for the ‘Porta-Potty” tune? Mothersbaugh connects the dots. “Mariachi bands play a lot of weddings and outside events like receptions and summertime festivals where they probably use porta-potties. So it just seemed appropriate.” Perfectly sensible!

Weeks before writing the song, Mothersbaugh had real-life porta-potty inspiration parked outside Mutato Muzika on the Sunset Strip. “We are right on the path for the marathon and for some reason, right in front of my studio, they put a row of six porta-potties,” he explains. “During the marathon, runners would run in, use the porta-potty and run out.” Mothersbaugh went across the street to snap a few photos of the porta-potties in front of Mutato Muzika’s green, flying saucer-shaped building, which is designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. “It’s a great photo,” he confirms.

Fun With Keyboards
The theme that starts Episode 1, what Mothersbaugh dubs the “Simple Man’s Theme,” can be heard in multiple variations throughout the series. Mothersbaugh notes it’s very versatile and can be adapted for both humorous and sad situations. It was written on a pocket piano, by Critter & Guitari, a gift from Mothersbaugh’s daughters. “They found this little thumb piano with not very many keys. What’s great about it is it has a recorder in it. You have the ability to not only record and play back a loop but you can also change the pitch and timing of it, and record changing the pitch and the timing. You can make the notes detune and have this crazy, weird tremolo effect,” he explains.

Another keyboard used for The Last Man on Earth came from director Jon Turteltaub, who worked with Mothersbaugh a few years ago on the Last Vegas score. Turteltaub brought an old Wurlitzer to Mothersbaugh’s studio for the Ray Charles-inspired electric piano sound for Last Vegas and just left it there. “Jon got it by accident,” says Mothersbaugh. “He bought a house and everything was moved out of it except for this one old electric piano. The prior owners, Eydie Gormé and Steve Lawrence, said they used this piano for years to compose on, so they just left it with the house because it belongs there. So much music was written on it.” Not knowing what to do with the Wurlitzer, Turteltaub put it in storage until Last Vegas. “A number of the cues for that film were recorded on that old Wurlitzer, and that was also our secret weapon for a lot of the electric piano sounds in The Last Man On Earth, including the ‘Simple Man’s Theme.’”

There’s a poster on Mutato Muzika’s website, in the Notes section, promoting Mothersbaugh’s work on The Last Man On Earth. It shows Forte’s character, Phil, wallowing in a margarita pool. The text over the image reads, “Would you get clean? Or bathe in margarita?” To this question Mothersbaugh answers, “I never was a heavy drinker, but I started doing some projects in Mexico, both art projects and music projects, and it’s like tequila solves everything down there. The idea of a margarita pool seems to me like a good one, one that I could imagine others replicating. There’s probably more margarita pools then toilet pools because of this show. They should even market one of those. If you did it right you could fill the outer ring with ice so that would keep the margarita mix chilled even when your body was in it. That would be nice. Okay, next year, margarita pools for everyone in the press.” Brilliantly stated, Mr. Mothersbaugh. I’ll take my margarita pool in pink please.

Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer.

One thought on “Mark Mothersbaugh on scoring ‘The Last Man on Earth’

  1. Jordan

    Very interesting to see the thought process behind the score. I was surprised at the skill that was in the show, and how versatile that one song seems to be. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Reply

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