Ego-Mania: ‘The Cuphead Show!’ Composer Tunes Us in to His Latest Project

Pulling influences from Carl Stalling to Mark Mothersbaugh, Danny Elfman and Os Mutantes to create a contemporary, quirky, self-taught sound, Ego Plum (né Ernesto Guerrero) is known as “The Cartoon Composer” for a reason. The award-winning Mexican-American composer, musician and producer caught the industry’s attention with his original score for Making Fiends, and has gone on to work on hit toons SpongeBob SquarePants and its spinoffs Kamp Koral and The Patrick Star Show, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Harvey Beaks and Jellystone!

Plum’s latest project is the highly anticipated Netflix animated series The Cuphead Show!, set to premiere this Friday, February 18. We caught up with the melody maker to learn all about brewing up a soundtrack that goes down smooth with the show’s 1930s cartoon aesthetic:

Animation Magazine: Congrats on another fantastic animation score, Ernesto. Can you tell us how you got involved with the Cuphead show?

Ego Plum
Ego Plum

Ego Plum: I’ve known showrunner Dave Wasson since we worked together on my first series, Making Fiends (Nickelodeon), so when he started on The Cuphead Show!, he asked me to write some music for these funny lyrics he had. This was essentially my audition and what I wrote ended up being “The Devil’s Song” (the Devil’s introduction number in the first episode). I had to win a bunch of people over, and that song did it for me. It got me a job!

By the way, I love that you call me Ernesto; my mom would approve! I don’t think she’s ever called me Ego before, despite what my driver’s license reads!

When did you get started on the series? What stage was the production?

Back in 2019 when the world was a slightly prettier place. Cuphead was still running from the Netflix building in Hollywood and the show was in the writing stages. When songs are needed in an animation production, I’m brought in pretty early. It could be during the writing or animatic stage. In this case, the songs were written first and then the animation was done around that. We also did this for dance numbers. Can’t believe I’ve been working on this show for four years!

The Cuphead Show!
The Cuphead Show!

What do you love about this cool retro show?

There is so much to love! As a musician, I’ve often felt like I was born at the wrong time. I grew up enamored by the Looney Tunes of the ’30s and ’40s. While kids were aspiring to be astronauts and fire fighters, I wanted to be like Warner Bros. musical director Carl Stalling and “Cartoon Jazz” composer Raymond Scott. Unfortunately, nobody was asking for that! As a teenager, I was quite literally writing music for non-existent cartoons with a casio keyboard on a four-track recorder. All roads have led me to The Cuphead Show!; a place where I can pretend like I existed next to Raymond Scott or Leroy Shield scoring one of these new fangled animated moving pictures.

The Cuphead Show! is a love letter from all of us to the great animation of that era. The Cuphead Show! feels like something that should have always existed but never did. My goal with the music was to create melodies that felt like they’ve been around for 80-90 years. The show represents all that was weird and wonderful from that Fleischer era of animation, and this is us doing our best to honor that creative tradition.

Tell us about your creative process. How did you come up with the sounds? Did you take a deep dive into the Fleischer toons of yesteryear and the music of the era?

Coming up with the sounds was simply a question of sticking to the instrumentation you’d hear in traditional 1930s jazz. Of course, we’d venture away from that now and again in the interest of creating specific moods, so you’ll also hear strings, accordions, musical saws and other things, too.

As for deep dive, I don’t study or research music in an academic sense. I’ll simply enjoy it. I’ll put on a record, have a drink, dance around, fight someone — you know … the usual. That’s how I study music. In addition, the goal was not to recreate the music of the 1930s, but to capture its essence in the interest of storytelling. Additionally, as much as I love what Kristofer Maddigan did for the original Cuphead game, I wasn’t looking to imitate him, either. I was looking to drink from the same fountain of inspiration as him and create something that would run in parallel to the game.

The Cuphead Show!
The Cuphead Show!

Do you have any favorite numbers? Episode sequences?

Yes! My favorites are any time there’s a crazy fight/chase sequence like in “Carn-Evil,” “Ribby & Croaks” or “Root Packed.” I got to write these erratic, high-energy jazz numbers that were super chaotic and so much fun. At first, I wasn’t even sure if I was capable of doing it, but I seem to thrive outside my comfort zone. I’m also very proud of the King Dice theme I wrote for Wayne Brady to sing, and the Devil’s song.

Where was the music recorded? Which instruments did you write for?

For all the parts I played (organ/piano/banjo/percussion), I recorded that at my studio, ODDIO INC. in Silverake, California. For most of the musicians I worked with, they recorded at their own studios and work spaces. I wrote for baritone, tenor and alto sax, trumpets, trombones, piano, bass, drums, nylon guitars, etc. I use fairly conventional instruments doing lots of unconventional things.

What was the toughest part of the job?

The toughest part of the job was this little hiccup known as a global pandemic that nearly shut us all down. We lost a lot of time and I had to restructure the way I worked.

Initially, I had this vision of all these jazz players in a room recording a live score, but everything changed around March of 2020. It was a scary time! The idea of spit valves and hot infectious steam coming out of a brass section in my studio had me wigged out. So we had to record remotely with players capable of self-recording. The blessing in disguise was that I got to work with talented musicians around the country and around the world. One day a musical saw player in Greece would send me files while the next day horn players would be recording for me a few blocks away, or in New Jersey. It was wild!

The Cuphead Show!
The Cuphead Show!

How did you get started in writing music for animation?

As a youngster, I gravitated towards weird art, weird music and anything that was outside the ordinary. When I heard the music in Pee-wee’s Playhouse or Rugrats, there was something different happening there that didn’t exist in popular music. I would listen to Looney Tunes scores while I did my homework! That felt normal to me. I was 15 years old making strange, frenetic music that sounds not much different than the cartoon stuff I write today. The main difference is that now I have better equipment and can get big studios to pay for orchestras every now and again.

How do you juggle working on so many animation gigs? Tell us what else you are working on!

Great question. I have to be very organized. I plan ahead. I schedule all my days. I write every day. I have an amazing assistant! I am very grateful and lucky to be working right now. I know the last few years haven’t been easy for a lot of people.

Right now, my focus is on The Cuphead Show! but I do have some fun stuff coming out later this year: A bunch of new episodes of the Hanna-Barbera reboot, Jellystone! on HBO Max/Cartoon Network, as well as new episodes of The Patrick Star Show on Nickelodeon.

The Cuphead Show!
The Cuphead Show!

Any good career tips for newbies who want to write music for animation?

Two things:

1) Your musical output is only as compelling and interesting as your influences. I grew up listening to really weird shit and I am grateful for the impact that has had on my work. In my mental music library, I can pull a stylistic reference from obscure ’80s post-punk band Suburban Lawns, combine that with a guitar sound from ’60s Brazilian psychedelic band Os Mutantes and perform it like a Khachaturian Waltz from the ’40s. Having a broad appreciation of all these musical languages has allowed me to make interesting creative choices that are especially useful in cartoons where surrealism, absurdity and innovation are paramount.

2) When I was starting out, growing up in East L.A., the idea of becoming a composer seemed impossible. Even though Hollywood was 45 minutes away, it may as well have been another planet. I was also a bit timid, so the people I loved, like Danny Elfman or Mark Mothersbaugh, couldn’t have been more inaccessible to me. They felt like untouchable rock star space aliens. Be bold, confident (and polite). Reach out to the people you admire and ask questions. Hell, just write to me! I’d be happy to listen to your work, give you my thoughts and offer advice if I am able. I don’t want anyone else to spend a decade in a cubicle like I did before getting a shot at their dreams. Good luck!

Read all about The Cuphead Show! in Animation Magazine‘s feature story here. Find more of Ego Plum’s work at egoplum.com.

 

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