Danny Jacob is a busy man. Coming off of the massive success of Phineas and Ferb, he’s has teamed back up with that show’s creators for Milo Murphy’s Law, a Disney XD series starring “Weird” Al Yankovic as a middle school kid who keeps an upbeat attitude in the face of the world’s worst luck. The LA guitarist and composer is also currently producing songs for TV series including Sofia the First, Elena of Avalor, and more. We talked to Danny about the new show, and about the unique challenges of writing music for comedy.
Danny Jacob: Hi, Garrett!
Nerdspan: Hi, Danny, how are you?
DJ: I’m good! How are you, sir?
NS: I’m doing well. I’ve had a weird string of luck lately, so I’m really grooving on Milo Murphy’s Law.
DJ: A string of luck, you say?
NS: Well…kind of…bad luck
DJ: Ha! A la Milo. Well, he knows how to turn it into good luck, so we should keep watching the show.
NS: You know, I’m fascinated by this whole thing. The construct lets you have an action show without an antagonist, and I think that’s brilliant.
DJ: Right. Hey, right, if you’re a Phineas and Ferb fan, there was always an antagonist. That’s a really good point.
NS: I’m absolutely loving it. So I know you’ve talked some before about where you’ve come from and how you got into the business. What I’m curious about is some of the mechanics of scoring for comedy, if that’s alright.
DJ: No, it’s fine! So, scoring for comedy, how I do it?
NS: Well I know there are some unique challenges when you’re looking at, “okay, do I downplay a joke and score this straight? Or do I lean into the joke?” The chase scene with the wolf and the bees being played straight, versus something like the egg drop scene.
DJ: I mean, you brought up a cue that’s such a perfect illustration. So, on that cue, you’re talking about, “That park was named for Peter Coyote! There are no coyotes here! He set this up as a wolf preserve!” And Zach goes, “You get how that’s not better, right?” And the next cut, they’re being chased by wolves?
NS: That’s exactly the one.
DJ: So the story on that cue is, I played through a whole scene that they had cut out. All through the scene I just said, I was playing scary stuff, and we decided to cut it because it was funnier just to hear the dialogue. And then to see the look in Zach’s eyes when he says, “You get that that’s not better,” it did make it funnier. So it’s not an exact science. But I find that with my bosses, who are the same creators that created Phineas and Ferb, Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, they like to just lay out of the jokes. So every time I play into ’em, which I do less and less…playing into it is great, but they don’t need any kind of funny percussion sound or something. They’re really great showrunners, so I’m finding with them that less is more when it comes to the jokes.
NS: I totally get that. So you’ve been working with them for about ten years, right?
DJ: Yeah, I mean for me, Phineas was a ten-year project. Maybe for the public it was eight years on television, but for me it was ten years, yeah.
NS: So do you mind describing your workflow with them a little bit?
DJ: Yeah, I like to think that it’s evolved, just like we’ve all evolved. Milo’s not quite Phineas but there’s a connectivity, and it feels great that we’re keeping the band together, you know what I mean? Some of same storyboard people, obviously the same creators, same music, same composer. The composer will get an episode last. Music is the last thing. So by the time I get it, it’s already been created and worked out. The thing that’s different is Phineas – and to a lesser degree Milo, but especially Phineas – was a song-driven series. And how I got Phineas was I’ve been a musician my whole life and what I got really good at was production. I love producing records, and producing songs, and that was sort of my door to becoming a composer. I’m answering your question in sort of a roundabout way, but the process starts with a song, and that’ll come way before the score. They’ll send me a song demo, it’ll just be a silly song on a guitar. And I won’t even know what it’s about, or what episode, or what the plot is, but I’ll listen to the lyrics, and they’ll tell me what kind of style they want, and then I’ll do a fully-produced song, a record. And then months later, I’ll do what’s called a “spot.” I’ll sit in a room, and we’ll watch the episode. And I’ll hear the song I did months ago and go, “Oh, I get it!” Like the video, it was just on TV, “Rooting for the Enemy,” it’s a song about how Milo’s football team always loses from his high school, so he rooted for the other team, and that’s how his team won, the Geckos.
But I didn’t know that. All I knew is they wanted a funk groove, and some grunge guitar, “Weird” Al Yankovic, who’s the star of the show, to sing it. And then, they’ll temp it. They’ll have an idea of what they want to do and they’ll pull music from Independence Day, Jaws, 10 Cloverfield Lane, there’s a lot of action/adventure crazy stuff when things go wrong for Milo. And then I’ll have an idea what they want on some of the scenes, and then I take it home and do the magic in my home studio.
NS: Awesome, well you touched on like four different things I wanted to ask you about. So you mentioned the temp track, and I know that’s kind of a hot topic right now. I was wondering about the degree to which temp music is helpful for you and how you use it…I know some composers feel obligated to hew close to it, but the preference for a lot of composers is to just use it as a jumping off point, so I was kind of wondering where you fall on that.
DJ: You know, I think a lot of that comes down to how confident you are in your bosses. In my case, everyone has amazing gifts to bring to our business, and they all come in different shapes and forms. In the case of Dan and Swampy, they’re musicians. They really are confident. And they’re also not insecure to admit that they may be wrong or unsure. So I love that. Because I respect them so much, they’ll temp something and it’s just helpful. I think the hardest part of starting a cue is, “Okay, what is it supposed to be? Who is this character?” I mean, once I figure that out there’s still a ton of hard work to do, but at least I know where this is supposed to go now. Well, if they temp something, and it works most of the time, I know where it’s supposed to go.
NS: I don’t want to jump around too much, but I wanted to ask – when you look at an individual episode, the music has to do so much so quickly. Like the :Undergrounders” episode. There’s the trainwreck, and then the French music, and then the music when they go underground. Or the joke with the physics teacher and the desk in the egg episode, where you just utterly commit to that romantic funk groove and then abandon it…how do you compartmentalize all that? Do you sit and score the entire episode and then they chop that up, or do you have to take it, like, ten seconds at a time because so much stuff is happening?
DJ: That’s a really good question. That goes back to the spot, and what’s great about my team is that we sit there together. By the time we’re looking at it they’ve seen it 100,000 times already, so it’s not fair to me, because I’m finally seeing it for the first time. (joking) But their job is to tell me what they want. So they’ll sit there, and sometimes like on the scene you were talking about with the teacher, I think that I just said, “FILM NOIR! Come on, let’s just go there, let’s just get really romantic and sexy.” It just happened together. I can’t remember who came up with that. But once somebody said “film noir,” I jumped on it. I think it works well. And it’s romantic; it’s not cheesy. I had a real woodwind guy, and I think that was the way to go rather than do something contemporary.
NS: I agree; I think it works. So how do you switch modes so quickly, or is that just something that comes with years of practice? I mean in the span of 60 seconds of that show you might hear 3 or 4 completely different cues.
DJ: That’s a good question. I believe that compared to Phineas, Milo is less stoppy-starty. But I’ll answer in two ways. The first answer is, by the time you’re done with a successful series like Phineas, you are forced through fear of mediocrity or being fired (and my biggest fears are mediocrity and being fired) to learn everything. There’s nothing like a deadline. There’s nothing like a real-world deadline to make you stay up late, and do whatever you gotta do to learn the style. So at this point, I have had to do every style, you know? My biggest strength is, I come from being a guitar player. I’m an LA guitar player that’s played every bar, every bar mitzvah, every nightclub. I did tons of sessions, I toured with big stars, I know what it’s like to play with a band, so I bring that to the table. And then it’s just been getting my chops up, falling in love with the orchestra. Starting out by the seat of my pants, and then studying it more seriously as time went on.
NS: I know there’s some orchestral stuff in there and some sample stuff in there, how do you decide when to do what? I assume time and budget affect that.
DJ: Yeah, you mean whether it’s live or sampled? For my world, when it comes to the big orchestral stuff, it’s always going to be samples. That’s just sadly the way of the world. But what happened to Phineas and hopefully will happen to Milo is when a show is successful then you get to do hour-long versions, or a movie. And then they give you a bigger budget, and you get to go actually work with a part of an orchestra, or a whole orchestra. That was the thrill of my life on the Phineas movie, and I hope to get to do it again with Milo. But if you listen to the main orchestral stuff, it’s always samples. But what I have done on Milo that was my idea, and it worked, and they’re giving green light, is big band stuff, instead of your basic action-adventure. When something perilous happens, there’s a few times now where I’ll do screamin’ Buddy Rich-style kind of big band. And that’s when I draw from my years of playing with all the great LA players, and I get live guys.
NS: That’s great. And it makes a difference. The flood, in the first episode? There was big band some stuff in that, right? That was a lot of fun.
DJ: Okay, so that one you’re talking about went from a techno kind of thing to big band. It started out all techno. And then we were watching together and at the point where the big band ending up being, they said, “Okay, I don’t want to hear that anymore,” or something like that. “What are we going to do?” And we were talking about what to do and somebody blurted out, “Big band!” I mean, it was that fast. I might’ve said it. I don’t know. But as soon as the idea popped up, I said, “Oh, yeah. I’m going to do that. And I’m going to call the guys, and I’m going to do something frantic with 13+4 chords all over the place, and just…fast. Weather Report chords, you know?
NS: Yeah! Well, and I think it works. When I first heard it, it didn’t sound like a substitution. It sounded more like a callback to that heritage of animation. Like in Looney Tunes, you might hear something over a similar scene, and it just felt like it was always supposed to be there.
DJ: I’m really glad to hear that. I mean I tried to make it seamless, and it was fun going from one to the other. I like the craziness about it. And I’ve done it again now a couple of times. On the egg episode, there was more of a Les Brown kind of thing, do you remember? I don’t know if you saw it.
NS: So long-term organization, musically. Obviously Milo has a theme, and I was listening to see if anyone else did. You could almost just have themes for differing levels of peril that they’re in. But do you thread material through, or do you look forward to going back and bringing this material back, or is it just a constant stream of new stuff?
DJ: The scariest and most exciting thing about a first season – and it should be for a whole show, however long it lasts – I’m still getting to know these characters. As you know, music is the last thing. By the time you get it, they’ve completely conceptualized and finished something. They’re five episodes ahead of me. When I do the action-adventure thing, it’s always new. And it’s not going to get locked into an exact formula yet. After a season is over, you could say that it becomes a little more of a formula. And you can hearken back to things that work. And then sometimes on a deadline you do that, and other times, if you want to stay on top of the curve, you want to push yourself and try something new. And it’s a scary thing to do. Because you only have so much time, and if they don’t like it, then you’ve just given yourself a couple of nights of no sleep. But you want to try to keep growing, I think. It certainly made me better.
NS: Thank you so much. I have had an absolute blast talking to you.
DJ: Same to you!