Thirty years ago this month, America’s favorite animated family made their debut as part of The Tracey Ullman Show. To celebrate, CoS will be broadcasting live from Springfield all week with a slew of Simpsons features. Today, Lior Phillips talks to longtime composer Alf Clausen, who’s arguably the eldest member of the Simpson family, having been there since the beginning.
You might not know the name Alf Clausen, but he’s been one of the most influential, talented musicians you’ve listened to for most of your life. For more than two and a half decades, Clausen has been in your living room, the roots of his music entangling the joy receptors in your brain for half an hour at a time. He’s covered seemingly every genre, from Latin jazz to Broadway show tunes. He’s composed songs that you know by heart, songs that can stretch a smile across your face year in and year out.
Alf Clausen, of course, has composed the music for every episode of The Simpsons for the last 27 years. He’s the man behind endlessly fun hooks like “We Put the Spring in Springfield” and “You’re Checkin’ In” (both of which netted him Emmys). He’s the never-seen but always felt main character alongside the intrepid Simpson family, the brains behind the 30 or so musical cues in each episode. Simply put, he contributes a beating heart and dramatic counterpoint to the brilliant stories, the two halves inseparable and feeding off each other in a beautiful crescendo of hilarity and yellow-hued surreality.
Because no celebration of The Simpsons could be complete without hearing from the one and only Clausen, Associate Editor Lior Phillips spoke with the Springfield maestro for a nice afternoon chat. Together, the two discussed Clausen’s entire career, specifically his transition from engineering to music, getting The Simpsons job, what it takes to compose the music for each episode, and his personal affinity for the Comic Book Guy.
What’s a typical day for you? Do you work from the studio or from home?
Well, I don’t work every single day, and when I do I typically work from home. With The Simpsons, we have kind of a scattered schedule for recording.
So that you could give yourself a little bit of time off and a necessary break between the episodes?
Yes, it’s funny you’re bringing that up because we are now enjoying the fruits of four weeks off before we go back to work.
Oh my gosh! Do you get four weeks off every year? Or is this quite a rare occurrence?
No, this one just came out of the blue. The network changed the schedule a little bit and everybody’s really enjoying it.
So what have you been doing on your time off?
I’m so sorry, that is awful.
Yeah, that’s no way to relax, is it?
No, but at least you’re mentally giving your brain a little bit of a break off from being creative all the time … unless you feel like you’re getting creative with your taxes, which is not a good thing! When do you go back to work again?
Yes! [laughs] I think the next recording session is April 21st. Then we start recording and we do three shows in a row in three weeks. Then we’re finished for the season. For us, it’s 28. Amazing, huh?
It really is remarkable. While it’s a series that’s ingrained in pop culture, I don’t think a lot of folks realize that it’s the longest-running scripted primetime television series of all time. And you’ve been a part of this for such a long time. Do you take any time to sit and reflect on things like that, on how it is such an important part of culture?
Well, I don’t have much time to think of that. When we first put out the first Simpsons music CD, with a lot of the songs that I had written, it was on Rhino records the first time around. We worked really hard, we got the CD all finished and ready to release, it got released, and spread out to radio stations, and what not, and I did an interview with a guy who was hosting a primetime drive-time in San Francisco, in the morning, at nine o’clock. So I got on the phone with him, and he was very cordial. He said, “Let me ask you a personal question. What does it feel like to be an icon of pop culture?” And my first instinct was to turn my head 90 degrees, look over my shoulder, and see who he was talking about.
Ha! I’m not surprised. With longevity comes loyalty and legend, at the core it’s an animated series full of dramatic characters that you really do feel like family, and you have been such an integral part of it. Does your family watch the show?
Well, I don’t think they really understood it. Some of them do. Not all of them, but some of them do. I have a grandson who used to poo-poo The Simpsons when he was young, but now he’s grown up with it, and he’s eight years old, and he has watched every episode of The Simpsons. Little by little we grew into it and started to realize that something special was going on here.
Are you saying that when you first watched it, it was a little bit left field for you? Did you not relate to the humor, or did you just think it was something you’d never seen before?
To me it was pretty much the writing and the actors’ delivery of the writing that really hooked us in. Well, it’s been an amazing ride, if I can put it that way.
Were you fascinated with music from a very young age?
What’s interesting is that I started by majoring in mechanical engineering. I went to college in North Dakota at North Dakota State University, which is where I grew up. What happened was, I got a chance to go to New York City and stay with my cousin for six weeks. My cousin was a professional musician, a choir director, and a piano instructor. He and his wife just completely turned my life around. They wined and dined me in New York City for six straight weeks, and boy I’ll tell you I was just amazingly moved at all the Broadway shows I got to see, like My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, and West Side Story with Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Seeing those things on Broadway for the first time, it was awe-inspiring. So, when I came back to North Dakota, I thought, Well, guess what folks: This mechanical engineering stuff is not for me. So I changed my major, and majored in music from there on. I went to Berklee College in Boston.
While they’re completely different fields, there is a certain amount of critical thinking necessary for classical composition. And then, skipping ahead, Matt Groening asked you to score a couple of episodes.
Yes, I believe it was back in 1990.
So, he called you, and did you immediately say yes?
I immediately said no.
It’s a very, very interesting story. He had his secretary call my agent and had me come in for an interview. I went in and he said, “Do you have any interest in doing an animated series?” And I said, “No.” He said, “Really, why?” I said, “Basically I’ve been concentrating on dramas. I consider myself to be a drama scorer, and that’s what I want to do with my life.” He said, “Well, we look upon our show as being a drama where the characters are drawn. We’d like it scored that way, because you do that.” So, I thought about it for a while, and I said, “Yeah, I think I can do that.”
So they gave me my first episode, which was “Treehouse of Horror I”. I scored that for them, and we had a lot of music. I thought, Boy, they’re going to throw me out of here when I tell them how many players I need. I talked to Matt about it, and he said, “Whatever you want, you can have. Let’s just see how it goes.” So, they put out a call for about 45 musicians. It was really a pretty hefty number for television. But it went well, they liked what I wrote, and they kept me.
What was the reason that you felt you needed to work with so many musicians? Was it that you were hooked on the concept of it being dramatic? Or did you just feel out the music and give it what it needs.
I think it was more the latter. I was used to working with a large orchestra, and I thought they were telling me they wanted what I gave everybody else, and that’s what it took. It took 45 players. And everybody was happy about it. So then of course we start to score the series and I couldn’t have 45 players, but they gave me 35 every week, which is pretty good.
How does working with a big ensemble affect your composition?
Well, I look at the orchestra as another actor, another player. I think everybody else really feels that as well. They always tell me that there’s another player involved with the orchestra, and it adds a lot to the story line and color.
What do you feel is the correlation between the characters, the humor, and how that’s conveyed through music? Can a joke even work on its own, or do you feel that music is an integral part of that?
A long time ago a musician friend of mine gave me a saying that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “You can’t vaudeville vaudeville.” Basically what it means is that you can’t score something funny with something funny, with funny music. It doesn’t work. My take has been, every time we have something dramatic to score, that’s the way I score it. I don’t score it like Looney Tunes or anything like that. Matt told me that too. “We want to be different. We want to do something that people are not going to expect. They’re expecting Looney Tunes and Disney, and we’re not going to go there. We want to be our own voice.”
But then what is it like writing for a show that covers so many genres and time periods? There have been a lot of episodes that hit upon very specific cultural moments or even into the past, episodes set in the ’60s, the ’70s. And you have to write that music for something that has so many different narrative touch points. How is that for you?
I think that’s one of the reasons they’ve kept me all these years. They were looking for somebody who could score all those different types of music in small clip-form. That’s what’s been fun for me. I think that anyone else who would have been hired for this job and stayed for this long would have gone to the nuthouse.
[Laughs.] From one nutter to another, you sound semi-nutty to me. Is that just because it’s you have to be constantly creative?
I have to do a lot of reference work. They want my cue to reflect the moment. Most composers don’t have a very broad stylistic palette, I think that’s the best way I could put it. They like that I can go into the files in my brain and come back with the style that they’re asking for very easily.
You have to balance that nostalgia with originality and make it your own. If you get stuck and you’re busy searching through your brain-files, what do you do to push around the process?
Your observation is very good about that, because it does happen. But fortunately not very often. If it does happen, I just step away from the cue for a while, and work on another one. We have an average of 35 cues in one episode, so, there’s a lot on my plate, and if one shows up that I get really stuck with, I try not to stay there very long. I go on to take a walk in the park to clear my head.
That’s interesting. How are songs actually born? Are you given the script and then told to create the cue around that? Or are you given some sort of animation that you can visually attach your music to?
It’s the visual animation that I get. I get a copy of the episode for the week. I like working that way too, because I get to see what the public sees. That makes it a lot easier for me. I have been very careful that I don’t duplicate myself. One of our intentions on the show is to keep it fresh so that the public doesn’t feel like we’re cheating them. Once in awhile I’ll have a situation where I’m really tired and I know what I want, and I’m going to pull a cue from three years ago, and I say to myself, “Yeah, I could use that, and nobody’s ever going to know…” Well, now I find that every time I do that, one of the episodes that has that same cue in it pops up in syndication, and there’s somebody watching the show in syndication saying, “What a lazy bum, man! He’s using the same music over and over, what’s the matter with that guy?
Do you feel like you have a relationship with the various characters at this point? They are kind of like your family! Do you have a favorite character at all?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve lived with them for a long time now. I like Comic Book Guy! But there are so many characters doing so many things, it’s hard to just grab one.
Is there a specific song that sticks out?
“We Do (The Stonecutter’s Song)”
Oh, I love that one! Did it come out very quickly? That song was nominated for an Emmy as well.
It came out very quickly. Most of them come out pretty quickly because I don’t have any extra time. They have to come out pretty quickly. [Laughs.] Yeah. I’m trying to remember. I’ve got two Emmys. One for “I’m Checkin’ In” and the other one where Homer wants the house of ill repute torn down, and Bart is working there and wants to keep it….
“We Put the Spring in Springfield”! But even just in terms of Emmy nominations, you have received more than pretty much any other musician, which is quite insane.
Thirty is the number.
When the cast has to sing certain songs, do you help them in that process realize their potential?
Once in awhile I’ve had the opportunity to do that. What happens more often than not is that my music editor, Chris Ledesma, will take over the chore of conducting the vocal sessions to record the cast singing the songs, because we can’t be in two places at the same time. I’m very lucky to have somebody who understands music and who understands conducting.
You only have, as you said earlier, a few seconds to make a huge musical statement, and there’s obviously huge challenges in that. But you’ve also been a part of The Simpsons albums and worked with Jackson Browne, David Byrne, and The B-52s. Are there any artists that you’ve gotten to work with on these albums that you found very inspirational?
Tito Puente! It was great, so much fun. Tito came into the studio with his whole band. When I recorded U2, they just stayed in as a group of singers, as they are. We got a chance to hang out a bit, and that was really fun too. Boy, you can’t believe how many people were in the recording studio. Oh my!
That’s a beautiful memory. For the film adaptation of the show, were you asked to score that?
Uhh… They didn’t ask. That’s their business, but it was weird. I found out for the first time on a message board that I wasn’t going to be scoring the movie. I’ve been in that situation before. This was a little bit more big-time, if I can say that. I was kind of frustrated and curious as to why after all of those years, making all of those songs and scoring all of those episodes that they wanted to call someone else. Weird. But the important thing is to move on to the next, to the next, to the next, and we’ll see what’s going to happen. Try not to take it all too seriously. I haven’t even seen it to be honest, I had no reason to go.
You’ve dedicated your life to something that is going to be in our lives forever, whether they stop making The Simpsons or not.
Yeah, it’s pretty remarkable. The opportunity was certainly never expected and I just keep going and going. Of course, you know, my wife says, “When are you going to retire?” And I said, “I don’t know!” Because it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, I’ve said what I’m going to say musically and I don’t have to do any more. But on the other hand, I want to kind of ride this stage into the sunset, as they say, and try to see if I can finish the series.
Everybody jokes about that. There’s an episode of The Simpsons where the kids are riding in the back seat, with Marge and Homer driving, and somebody says something, and Lisa goes, you know, “Could this be the end of this series… of events?” It’s really funny, isn’t it? I will say my wife has been a miracle-worker to keep me going, to keep me alive. I give her a lot of credit.
That’s really heartfelt and beautiful to hear. What are your goals for the upcoming season?
Just surviving? [Laughs] What about having fun Alf?
[Laughs] Sometimes it feels that way, I hate to tell you! There’s so much to do in a short period of time, and the producers need it when they need it, and we just have to do what we do and hope it comes out the way they want. I’ve been pretty lucky so far.