Born in Akron, Ohio in 1950, Mark Mothersbaugh, the man best known for scoring films and television shows and for being the co-founder, lead singer and keyboardist of the rock band Devo, only had artistic ambitions when he attended Kent State University in 1968 and his eventual career path to Hollywood was largely unplanned.
He never took music classes in Kent. He was interested in playing the keyboard but he was a self taught musician, only finding the idea of being in a band appealing when he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Mothersbaugh met Devo co-founders Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis at Kent State, and the three men were unfortunately students during the Kent State Shootings of 1970 which famously led to the deaths of four unarmed students attending a peace rally in opposition to the Vietnam War, marking the first time in U.S. history a student had been killed in an anti-war gathering. One of the people killed by the Ohio National Guardsmen was Casale’s friend Jeffrey Miller and the tragedy, as well as the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon and other unpopular elements of American life in the early seventies, led Casale, Lewis and Mothersbaugh to adopt the name “Devo” for their new found rock band as an abbreviation for “de-evolution” which was how they saw American society progressing at the time.
Devo was founded in 1973 and was known for mixing humor, sci-fi, social satire and surrealism into their aesthetic which was aided by their costumes and synthetic instrumentation. Which made them ripe for the music video era popularized by MTV, a network which gave them heavy air play especially when the band entered superstardom with their 1980 top 20 single “Whip It.”
Mothersbaugh’s introduction to the world of Hollywood first came when Devo was asked to star in Neil Young’s oddball 1982 comedy Human Highway along with Young, Dean Stockwell (who co-directed), Russ Tamblyn and Dennis Hopper. Devo was not initially signed on to score the film with Neil Young but they were asked to contribute. The film got a poor critical reception and was too confusing for audiences at the time (Rotten Tomatoes describes it as The Wizard of Oz on acid) but most people who watch it today are less harsh. Its surreal pre-Tim Burton aesthetic is something to behold.
But the real project that changed Mothersbaugh’s life was Pee-wee’s Playhouse. While Mothersbaugh was on hiatus from Devo in the late eighties, Paul Reubens asked him to compose music for his new show. Mothersbaugh took on the challenge and had his first experience working solo professionally. Under the pressure of a TV schedule no less, although he called the experience of composing for Pee-wee’s Playhouse exciting and this was the seed of his career scoring for film and television regularly.
After collaborating with his Devo bandmates on the music for Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise (1987) and Slaughterhouse Rock (1988), Mark Mothersbaugh founded his own music production company Mutato Muzika (“Mutato” being a portmanteau of the words “mutant” and “potato” which was a nod to the Spuds aka Devo’s fanbase) in 1989 and kicked off a solo career after gaining confidence from his work on Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986-90). He would return to Devo in 1996 and eventually make scoring and rock music both huge parts of his life.
Mothersbaugh is best known by many for his scoring work on the Klasky-Csupo series Rugrats (1991-2006), which sounded appropriately child-like as if babies were scoring the show themselves on a Fisher-Price keyboard (Mothersbaugh also had the honor of having the design of Rugrats character Chuckie Finster based on him).
Mothersbaugh’s other television work includes the theme song for the animated series Super Mario World (1991), Beakman’s World (1992-98), the Disney Channel series Adventures in Wonderland (1992-95), Klasky-Csupo’s Santo Bugito (1995) (where he was credited as Mark “Mothersbug”), the theme song for Rocket Power (1999-2004), Clifford the Big Red Dog (2000-03), All Grown Up! (2003-08), the first season of Big Love (2006), the theme song for the Syfy series Eureka (2006-12), Regular Show (2010-17), House of Lies (2012-16), The Last Man on Earth (2015-18), Summer Camp Island (2018-present), Disenchantment (2018-present), What We Do in the Shadows (2019-20), Close Enough (2020-present) and the Rugrats reboot which was just released on Paramount+.
As for movie scores, he has composed for all three Rugrats movies, he has collaborated frequently with Wes Anderson composing the films Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), and he also collaborates a lot with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller composing the scores for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), 21 Jump Street (2012), 22 Jump Street (2014) and The Lego Movie (2014). He also composed for Hotel Transylvania (2012) and its sequels, Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021).
Mothersbaugh also began scoring video games in the nineties with his first game being the hugely popular Crash Bandicoot (1996) for PlayStation followed by various other Crash Bandicoot games for PlayStation which included the sequel Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Again (1997), Crash Bandicoot: Warped (1998) and Crash Team Racing (1999) as well as Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (2001), Jak II (2003) and Jak 3 (2004) all for PlayStation 2 and The Sims 2 (2004), Steven Spielberg’s Wii puzzle game Boom Blox (2008) and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (2021) for PlayStation 5.
Amidst his busy scoring work, Mothersbaugh has made sure not to let anyone forget that he is also an artist. His art has been displayed in over 150 galleries since the nineties when his workload really expanded. He even portrayed an artist when he had his own drawing segment on the Nick Jr. series Yo Gabba Gabba! teaching kids how to draw simplistic pictures (which came to life via animation upon completion). But his own surreal artwork was way more creative. A common theme throughout the man’s entire career which is something of a surreal experience itself.