Strike up the Band

B-Sides catches up with The Simpson's Alf Clausen and Hanson: Testify!

Oct 3, 2007 at 4:00 am
After eighteen seasons as music composer and arranger for The Simpsons, Alf Clausen knows a thing or two about what makes America's most recognizable television family tick. Clausen started scoring for television shows such as Moonlighting and ALF (he's quick to point out there's "no relation") in the 1980s and brought his love of jazz and theatrical music to The Simpsons in 1990. A new collection of music from the show, The Simpsons: Testify, was recently released — and the album continues to demonstrate how important the music is to making characters on The Simpsons come to life.

B-Sides: How did you come to start working on The Simpsons?

Alf Clausen: A friend of mine called and said that his nephew was a producer on a television series and they were looking to change composers. I went in for an interview and Matt Groening was there. We chatted about it for a while and I asked Matt how he envisioned the scoring for the show, and he said, "Well, we look upon our show as not a cartoon but a drama where the characters are drawn." That was a very classic comment of his, and it really turned my head.... "Treehouse of Horror" was my first episode.

It's not surprising that you would be skeptical coming into something like that when you're used to composing for a serious drama. When you think of cartoon music you don't generally think of the kind of music that is used in The Simpsons.

Yeah, that's exactly right. And it was a conscious effort to make it different as well. Matt told me that he didn't want it scored like a Disney cartoon or a Warner Brothers cartoon. He really wanted the underscore to reflect the emotions of the characters, which were going to be like real-life emotions, so he suggested that I follow that focus at all times.

On Testify there are some high-profile celebrity guests. Do they collaborate with you on those songs?

Oftentimes the writers will decide what they want a particular artist to do, and they will write a parody lyric to one of their existing songs, send the lyric to the artist and let the artist produce their own vocal tracks. In other cases, we actually connect with the artists. I had a couple of instances that were just really fulfilling to me. I did a recording session with the late Tito Puente and his orchestra for the "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" episode and also wrote a song and recorded U2 and Bono singing the song "The Garbage Man."

Have you ever had complication with artists who take themselves a little too seriously or are afraid of the way they might be portrayed?

We on the staff say that people either "get" The Simpsons or they don't. For the most part people get it, but there are some instances where there has been a little ambivalence in the beginning. Tony Bennett was hired to sing "Capital City" on the show and apparently when he was first approached he had no interest in performing on The Simpsons because he thought it was this lame, youth-oriented cartoon. His son Danny Bennett, his manager, had to convince him to get involved and convince him that the show was the best new thing coming. He was one of the first artists of that stature to work with the show.

It's sometimes hard to believe how long the show has been going strong.

I'm writing the score this week to "Treehouse of Horror XVIII," so that's how far it's come. — Shae Moseley

Brothers in Arms
Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson have splinters and sores on their feet. But it's not because they've developed a cutting fetish or because they've freed Hanson from the big, bad pop machine and reinvented themselves as barefoot, hippy twirlers. Touring behind The Walk, its second independent release after leaving Island/Def Jam earlier this decade, Tulsa's greatest rock band has been doing one-mile shoeless walks before shows, raising awareness for poverty and AIDS in Africa — and earning a little publicity for itself in the process. B-Sides neglected to counsel against shortcuts through Delmar Boulevard's Church's Chicken parking lot, but we did get the skinny on the tour, the charity and the new album from the youngest Hanson, 21-year-old Zac, all the same.

B-Sides: How did you get involved with AIDS issues in Africa?

Zac Hanson: It all started in Tulsa. We had some friends who were donating some software to hospitals, and as we talked to them, it sparked a different interest. As we did more research, we found that Tulsa has the third-highest [amount] per capita AIDS cases in the U.S. We had this realization that we needed to be guys from middle America talking about this issue. Not guys from California or New York. The people who make the difference in the end, it's the middle of the country, the heartland.

There's a long tradition of rock stars going to Third World countries, especially Africa. Sometimes it feels more about them than about the issue, the people.

Unfortunately, the only way to deal with that is through time. It's like with us as a band. People used to ask, "Oh, so what will you be doing in ten years?" No, we will be doing music in ten years. You can't prove that by saying it. You prove it by doing it. A year from now, we're not going to move on to some other issue.

How did you develop the sound for the new album?

We've jokingly said we write happy/sad songs. But our love of pop hooks put that in background. But on this record, we said, "Let's put these messages in the forefront, write with less metaphor." When people hear it the first time, they get that catchy thing. We grew up listening to pop and early rock & roll. "Don't bore us, get to the chorus." That's the way we want to write songs. And choosing to record live, the three of us together.

Was that new for you?

We did it sparingly before. That's just not the norm today. Overdubbing has become the standard. Producers don't even want to record live because it can take more time. That's also why we chose Danny Kortchmar. Our benchmarks were the same. Danny knows how to help you find that great arrangement and play together live. He's made so many records that way.

Do you really bring your wives and kids with you on the tour bus?

Last time I checked they were sleeping, right now.

How do you resist driving around singing Partridge Family songs?

You should come on the bus for five minutes. It's not at all like that.

You're all trying to kill each other?

I hate the Spin and Rolling Stone perception of rock & roll. It's from people who have no background in what rock & roll really is. For them, it's drugs, alcohol, sex — and then music. But when you watch rockumentaries about Bob Dylan or Leon Russell or the Rolling Stones, you see their kids and wives. It's just their lives. That's not the Partridge Family. That's the history of rock & roll. I wake up two or three times a night and hear a baby scream. But whatever. — Roy Kasten