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Interview: Composer Pat Irwin talks ‘Rocko’s Modern Life’ score, The B-52’s, and more

By May 24, 2023No Comments11 min read
rocko's modern life

First airing in September 1993, Rocko’s Modern Life became a millennial touchstone as the fourth ever Nicktoon to be aired on Nickelodeon. Created by Joe Murray, the series followed Australian wallaby Rocko, and his friends Heffer and Filburt as he navigates everyday life in O-Town and ran for three years in the mid 90s. The music for the show was created by Pat Irwin, a former member of New York no wave bands The Raybeats and 8 Eyed Spy who was the time also the keyboardist of The B-52s. A collection of Irwin’s music for the series was released in April by Republic Records. For In Between Drafts, Irwin talked with us about the creation of the Rocko’s score, his work with the B-52’s and The Raybeats, and much more.

Can you tell me about how the Rocko’s Modern Life score remaster came together?

Pat Irwin: I’ve wanted it to be available for years, and I’ve never really been able to connect with Nickelodeon. So I’m very happy that they’re finally putting it out. Right now it’s just digital, but I hope that in the fall, they’ll release it with additional material with the theme I did with Kate [Pierson] and Fred [Schnieder] from the B-52’s and more score. I have miles of that stuff and I’d love it to get out there.

How did you come to do the Rocko’s Modern Life score? Did they bring you in and then the B-52’s came in to do the theme, or were the B-52’s set to do the theme and they brought you into it?

PI: I brought Kate and Fred into it. I was in the B-52’s for 18 years, but prior to that I was in a band called the Raybeats, and there was an executive at Nickelodeon who was a fan. They were just starting to do animation – Ren & Stimpy, Rugrats. It was still a New York based company. I was playing this show with the Raybeats just down the block from where they were located on 42nd Street, this kind of notorious art show called the Times Square Show. This producer from Nickelodeon brought some people down. As far as I know, a couple days, I was interviewing with them about composing the score for this new animated show that they had in the works.

What was the process for recording the theme with Fred and Kate?

PI: Kate and Fred came in – we were on the road, so we flew in, and we recorded it. They did it in one or two takes. Art, the trombone player, actually plays the didgeridoo at the top of the track. We cut it live. They were ready to go.

How much music did you make for the show?


Did you score the whole segment or did you have pieces that would play during certain beats? 

PI: Kind of naively, I started from scratch every time. I reused musical motifs, but not actual takes. I didn’t do music editing. Consequently, I took on this enormous weight of writing everything for every episode. It was something.

How were the 11 tracks on the digital release selected?

I selected them. Nickelodeon had very little to do with it. I took all the music from “Snowballs” and put it together and made it into one piece, and that’s what you hear on the digital release.

What was the process for remastering the recording? What state were the tapes in and how did you go about resurrecting that music?

PI: The tapes were on DATs, just little two track tapes. When it got mixed into the show, it wasn’t any sophisticated thing where they had stems and different tracks and levels. They just played my DAT and put it in there. It was live. All those tapes had to be digitized. Luckily, I had my copies, because Nickelodeon lost them. I just went ahead and I started to put these tracks together from individual episodes. Hopefully I can do it more. We have enough to do a couple more records. I’d love to that someday.

What was your favorite part of working on the score?

Having a live band. I just looked forward to it; We would set up at 8 in the morning. These were some of the best musicians I’ve ever worked with. Art Baron started playing trombone about four episodes in and he was in the original Duke Ellington Orchestra. The drummer was Kevin Norton, the bass player was David Hofstra, Rob DeBellis on woodwinds, Art Baron, and I played keyboards and guitar. It was just like having a great band. I looked forward to it every week. It was really fun. It was what I thought making records was going to be like.

Do you score the cartoons with the cartoon running while you scored it, or did you score it later after the cartoon was already done?

PI: I scored it to a rough cut. I also would get storyboards. I had the timings. It’s very tightly scored. But we didn’t have the time or the budget to project the cartoon. I had to have it all written into the chart. Everything was in the score.

What were your first impressions of Rocko’s Modern Life as the finished product with your music and the actual show?

PI: I loved it. This was the kind of thing I want to be a part of. I love the way it looks, I love the characters, the drawing, the story, the writing. I got to be in Bugs Bunny. I love old Warner Bros. cartoons.

How often did you work with [creator and showrunner] Joe Murray? Did he have suggestions for cues or was it all up to you?

PI: We worked very closely. He would fax me his notes. He had a specific direction. He would say “Climb the ladder of anxiety,” for instance, and I would know what he meant. What was so wonderful about it was he also gave me an enormous amount of freedom.

Do you have a favorite of the pieces that is in the release?

PI: I love “Snowballs”, the first track. It sounds like Benny Goodman on speed filtered through Iggy Pop. It’s so whacked out. I can’t believe we did it. I don’t know if I can do it again. I love “Flu-In-U-Enza”. That has a trumpet player on it, a guy named Dave Douglas. It kind of goes on in this bit, it sounds crazy, and then all of a sudden it goes into this blues thing. Dave plays like ringing a bell. It surprises me every time. Then there’s a track called “Wallaby of the West”. That’s the one where there’s a banjo on it. The banjo player was a guy named Tony Trischka, and Tony is an innovator. He’s an awesome player. None of us really play that bluegrass and country music, but we did it for Rocko. That’s one of my favorites.

After Rocko’s Modern Life, you did Pepper Ann. How did you get that job? Was that through Rocko’s Modern Life, or did they contact you separately?

PI: It wasn’t through Rocko’s Modern Life, but I wanted a job, so I sent them a tape. The music supervisor for Disney Animation was a woman named Bambi Moé, and I sent her a tape. They were developing a new cartoon called Pepper Ann and they thought I would be right for it.

What was your favorite aspect of working on Pepper Ann, and how did it differ from Rocko’s Modern Life beyond it being more realistic than that show?

PI: I loved it too. It was completely different. First of all, it was done in California, it was Disney, it was by the book. We did project the cartoon when we recorded. I got to work with awesome musicians. It was union. There were copyists and music editors on the job. World class recording studios I’ve dreamed of recording in my whole life. We got to record at Capitol [Studios, beneath their famous tower in Hollywood]. It did for four or five years. We did a musical with an orchestra. I never in a million years would expect those kinds of opportunities and to be honest with you, I have not had them since. It was really correct. Just a wonderful bunch of people. It was great.

How did you become involved with, and a member of, The B-52’s? And what was it like being in the band as they went from a cult alternative band to one of the biggest bands in the world?

PI: I’d known them for years. We were friends before we played. They were making a record, which turned out to be Cosmic Thing. They decided they wanted to put together a band and play, and Kate called me. So I didn’t really audition or anything, I just showed up. Sara Lee [also of Gang of Four] was there on bass. Zachary Alford played drums. We rehearsed and we were only going to play a couple weeks. That first tour ended up being 18 months long. We were working our way through little clubs, we played CBGB’s. We didn’t know whether anybody was going to show up. Then we made this video. We flew back to New York and made the video for “Love Shack” and it went on MTV and it got really big. It was a thrill. 

What was it like taking over keyboards from Kate Pierson?

PI: Playing Kate’s keyboard parts was really a thrill. I love that band. Kate is a really amazing musician. I don’t know how she did it, in the original band, where she would play those parts and the bass part and sing. I had a hard enough time playing the keyboard part. I can’t imagine doing the singing and the bass like she did. She’s a really good musician. Playing “Planet Claire” was a thrill. I love that song. 

You were involved with the New York no wave scene with your bands The Raybeats and 8-Eyed Spy. What was it like being part of that scene?

PI: That was a really exciting, creative time. It was dark, and New York was kind of rough. With Lydia Lunch, we made a record called Queen of Siam. Raybeats made a record in England. The other members of the band were from a band called The Contortions. I loved being in an instrumental band. It was great, it was a really creative time.

With the Raybeats, you did a record with Phillip Glass that didn’t come out until a couple years ago. How did that come together, and what was working with Glass like?

PI: It was fantastic. There aren’t many people on Philip’s level. Very giving and caring and generous with his time. This was in the early ‘80s and he was looking to get in on the energy that was happening in the rock and roll clubs. The classical music scene at that time wasn’t particularly welcoming to him, so he wanted to produce a rock and roll band and he chose us. Unfortunately, our record company rejected it. I think they realized later they made a mistake. I kept running into Philip over the years, and Philip would be like “Hey, whatever happened to those tapes?”. We couldn’t find them for a while. And then, Philip had them in his storage locker, and it was like opening a Christmas present. There was the stuff that we did in the early ‘80s. Philip was the first musician I ever met who could write music out like the way your or I write our names. There is a reason why he composes so much music. He’s just on another level. That was a real lesson for me.

Going back to your television scoring, you’ve also done work for live-action programs like Bored to Death, Nurse Jackie, and Dexter. How different is it to score a live action show than it is to score cartoons like Rocko’s Modern Life and Pepper Ann?

PI: It’s very different. In the cartoons, you’re a little closer to the image. They call it Mickey Mousing when you get really close. You don’t really want to do that in live action. There’s more distance between the music and the image. But in a cartoon you get really close. In Dexter, I was much more part of the storytelling as opposed to Rocko where I’m part of general mayhem and chaos.

Going back to Rocko, you also did the music for Static Cling, the special that aired on Netflix a few years ago. What was it like to go back to that show and revisit that mode that you were in for Rocko?

PI: We got the band back together again. To see everybody and hang out, it was a ball.

What is the future of Rocko’s Modern Life score releases, if there is one?

PI: I really hope we get to have a physical release in the fall with additional music, with the theme and hopefully, more tracks. I’ve got miles of this stuff. I love it. It’s crazy. I want to hear more of it. I had a hard time cutting it down. I love hearing a live band. This is not your normal everyday soundtrack stuff. It just sounds like mayhem.

What do you hope those who listen to this score release take away from hearing this separate from the show for the first time?

PI: It would be great if it made them want to see it. If it pulls anyone into the show, I would love it.

Pat Irwin’s score soundtrack of Joe Murray’s Rocko’s Modern Life is available to stream now on Spotify.

Ryan Gibbs

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