On the surface, The Venture Bros. is a blatant, and extremely funny, parody of Hanna-Barbera's classic Johnny Quest with elements of Fantastic Four and James Bond thrown in for good measure. Watch a few episodes, though, and the popular Adult Swim series morphs into a cartoon for music geeks. David Bowie references are abound here and when a fictionalized version of the star finally appears, he's flanked by henchmen Iggy Pop and Klaus Nomi (the latter's falsetto and bow tie can cause serious damage). Family patriarch Dr. Venture's college buddy Dr. White is an asymmetrical haircut-sporting former college radio DJ who claims that he played "the Bauhaus" first and Triana Orpheus, the goth teenage daughter of necromancer Dr. Orpheus, is voiced by Lisa Hammer, former singer of the goth bands Requiem in White and Mors Syphilitica (Doc Hammer, a co-writer on the show and the voice of Dr. Girlfriend, was a member of the same bands).
And then there is the music itself, highlighted by a theme that begins with a thunderous crash of piano keys and the dizzying melody of a chase scene, a cross between an avant-garde composition and the score of a '60s action flick that lets viewers know that Venture is on the horizon. The Venture Bros. score, which was recently released on vinyl and CD, was created by J.G. Thirlwell. A musician of many monikers, Thirlwell is perhaps best known for his electronic project Foetus, which helped define the industrial sound of the early '80s and continues today. Over the course of three decades, he has collaborated with a wide variety of artists including Marc Almond (seek out the Flesh Volcano album), Lydia Lunch and Sonic Youth. He also helms the projects Steroid Maximus and Manorexia and has composed music for Kronos Quartet.
Recently, Thirlwell spoke to the LA Weekly by phone about his work for The Venture Bros.
How did you get involved with The Venture Bros?
Well, I was contacted by [show creator] Christopher McCulloch-- Jackson Publick-- when he was working on the pilot. He approached me about scoring the pilot and he had heard one of my earlier Steroid Maximus albums, which had been inspirational for him in completing the writing on it. I didn't really want to score. I wasn't interested in scoring, so they asked if I was interested in licensing some music. I said, knock yourself out. They ended up licensing several tracks from Steroid Maximus and also another instrumental project of mine called Manorexia. That's how the pilot episode was scored. They took it to the Cartoon Network and Cartoon Network liked it and wanted to pick it up for a series. They came back to me again and asked me if I wanted to score it and I kind of considered it. I got on really well with Chris and they seemed to be into my vision, so I thought that this was an opportunity to do something where I have carte blanche...I was kind of being a bit rigid about my own plans and I thought I should deviate from that, which I did.
Have you seen Johnny Quest?
I hadn't seen Johnny Quest before and I still hadn't seen it until about some way into the third season. I decided to get the DVD box to see what it was that they were making reference to just for my own interest. I could see some of the parallels with what they were doing after that, but I think that they're making a lot of different references. I certainly didn't use that as any sort of musical template.
What were your references for the music?
The first season was a matter of finding a musical vocabulary, really, of what I wanted to do with it and drawing on a musical vocabulary that I could do fairly quickly because I do spend a long time on my music. In doing something like this with television, you have to work a lot faster from the start. You're are [aware of] the fact that your music is going to be the third priority, behind sound design and dialogue. The first season took a lot longer than the way that I work now. I did work a lot faster after that. It did depend on the episode, where it was situated what was going on. There are several sort of standbys of emotions that tend to get hit in a Venture Bros. episode. There's action, suspense, intrigue, some kind of corny stuff for the boys or sadness, many variations.
There are different types of cues as they go on. It's a matter of what works. Some episodes have longer sections of more kind of spacious, ambient cues. Really, I'm trying to illustrate what's going on there and make it musically interesting for me too. I sit down with Chris quite extensively and work with what he's trying to do with a particular scene. A lot of times, I would like to propel a scene, but I have to leave spaces where he might want to add an emotional weight that I don't perceive.
Do you have a favorite episode?
Once I'm done, I don't actually watch it because I want to move onto the next thing.
I tend to like the action-oriented episodes because there is much more to get my teeth into and it flows a lot more. If I feel like the music is moving the episode, that's what I like. I like to hear these pieces that elevate the action. Whereas with long, talking sections, it's hard.
Word is you're working on a new Foetus album.
I have an album that's coming out next month, which is an archival album called Limb. That's my minimal and experimental works from 1980 through 1983. It's coming with a DVD documentary that was directed by a French filmmaker, Clement Tuffreau, which has about 40 extra minutes of unseen live material as well. That's going to be packaged with a book of my minimal illustrations. I'm also working on a Foetus studio album that probably won't appear until next year.
In the meantime, I have another project called Manorexia. The live incarnation of that is a chamber ensemble-- string quartet, piano, percussion and laptop. I'm making an album of that material in the summer and that will probably come out in about January. I'm also working on some new commissions for Kronos Quartet, which will premier in New York next March. That's kind of why the Foetus album is taking longer than I thought. I'm also working on season four of The Venture Bros.