“Wait, did we even talk about Cuphead?”, Ego Plum asks as we’re bringing our chat to a close. Over the course of our conversation, we went into so many different areas and on so many unexpected tangents that he could be forgiven for not recalling that yes, we did indeed cover Cuphead, as well as much, much more.

I’d arranged to speak to Ego Plum in order to discuss his work in composing the soundtrack for The Cuphead Show, the recently released Netflix adaptation of the critical – and commercial – smash hit video game, Cuphead. Just as the game seeks to emulate and pay homage to the animated shorts of the 1930s and 1940s – with particular inspiration taken from the ‘rubber hose’ style of animation seen in cartoons produced by Fleischer Studios and Disney – so too does The Cuphead Show immerse itself in the tropes and stylistic touches of those classic cartoons (even down to the use of faux film-grain on the image).

That extends to the soundtrack – with Kristofer Maddigan providing in-game musical accompaniment to the animated action and Plum taking over for the Netflix show – with the style paying tribute to the big band instrumentals and usage of jazzy, vocal-led tracks (think songs such as Cab Calloway’s masterpiece Minnie the Moocher) to really drive home the feel that this game (and show) is a real relic from a bygone, very specific era. 

The game’s soundtrack was so well received that it reached the top of the Billboard Jazz Albums Chart in 2019 – and was the very first video game soundtrack to do so. It’s clear, then, that the music is an integral, essential part of what makes Cuphead work so well.

I note that it must have been daunting for Plum to follow such an acclaimed collection of music that’s so closely identified with the game. He tells me, “it’s easy to feel this sort of pressure of, ‘Wow, how do we live up to what Kris has done’? Then I realise I’m not supposed to. I’m supposed to create music for the stories that are unique to the Cuphead show.” 

It’s a good point and it’s also worth stressing that Maddigan’s score doesn’t have to be the ‘be all and end all’ of Cuphead, despite its reputation and reception. “It’s not that essential that I stay true to 1930s jazz, to Duke Ellington or Callaway again, it’s important for me to be a little bit irreverent and have fun with the music – make it do different things,” Plum reveals.

In terms of making music malleable – elastic even – in service of the chaotic onscreen action, that’s something that’ll be familiar to fans of old cartoons, which Plum notes as something that inspired him in those classic shorts: “That’s something I learned from [Disney/Warner Bros composer/musical director] Carl Stalling, who essentially was using a giant orchestra to remix the music of the time – whether it be opera, Raymond Scott or Duke Ellington. He would treat music like rubber – essentially making it speed up, slow down, you know, twist into a Latin flavour that then comes back into who-knows-what! It was amazing what he could do with music.”

Those Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies and Silly Symphonies had a big impact on Plum as a child – and, as it probably was for many of us who grew up at a certain time in the 20th Century – gave him his first experience of a phenomenal range of pretty highbrow, culturally significant musical genres and pieces. About those cartoons, Plum says that watching them gave him his “first exposure to opera, classical music, and, most importantly, Raymond Scott.” 

Scott’s name comes up a number of times over the course of our conversation, but it’s one that may be unfamiliar to many people these days. Plum elaborates on Scott’s importance: “Raymond Scott was a composer from the 30s; he had the Raymond Scott Quintet and made this amazing sort of quirky jazz, that really stood out in that decade – and it still stands out today, for being just so unusual and avant garde.” Plum informs me that the aforementioned Carl Stalling realised that Scott’s work “has to be a part of the landscape of Looney Tunes – so Raymond Scott music ended up being behind hundreds of episodes of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and so on. That had a tremendous influence on me.”

It wasn’t just cartoons that had a huge impact on the young Plum’s musical interests though. As he reveals, “I have older brothers that – thankfully – had great taste in music as well. It turned me on to punk rock, new wave and these things that kind of blew my mind at that young age. They took me to see a band called The Residents – a San Francisco avant garde art collective and art rock band. I was 13 or 14 when I saw them and it kind of blew the lid off my head. I realised, ‘wow, music and art do completely wild things!’”.

Further enlightenment came from a perhaps unusual, unexpected source and began Plum’s journey on the path to creating music himself, as he explains: “When I was a little bit older, I started watching Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, which was absolutely brilliant. Paul Reubens [aka Pee-Wee Herman] had the great sense to hire these avant garde artists to do music for the show. So without me even knowing it, I was hearing Danny Elfman, Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo and even The Residents as the soundtrack to this kids show on Saturday mornings. I quickly realise that the music that I was hearing as incidental or background music was infinitely more interesting than anything I was hearing on the radio or MTV.” It brought Plum to the realisation that, “background music or score music can be more subversive, interesting – and wild,” he thought to himself at the time: “I could do really fun, crazy things. I want to be in this world. I want to be a part of this. So that’s how the journey began.”

The journey to becoming a composer wasn’t a short or easy one, however. As Plum relates, “I spent all my 20s working a day job that I wasn’t that happy with, in a cubicle. I was pursuing music at that time: making CDs, sending them out, trying to find work. It was difficult.” Plum’s family had other ideas for his future, despite his musical ambitions, it seems. “My parents owned a small dry cleaners and their hope for me was like ‘one day you could take over this business, it’ll be all yours’. I would work there in the summer when I was in school, and I’d be thinking ‘oh boy, I don’t know if I want to do this’.” The siren call of music kept on drawing Plum away, however; the family business, he says, was “not my destiny. I have another path. And frankly, the idea of becoming a musician or composer a rock star, it’s like one in a million. My parents loved me and supported me, but that seemed ridiculous. Like, ‘yeah, nice job. Take care of yourself. Pay your bills.’” 

I do make sure to let him know that it’d be fascinating to see what a dry cleaners owned and operated by Ego Plum would look like though; we laugh, but it does actually spark a memory that seems incredibly relevant: “I remember watching my dad using this big presser thing; the steamer would go like ‘psst-chk-chk’ and repeat this motion over and over – it is kind of like Powerhouse by Raymond Scott!”

I wondered if Plum had played Cuphead prior to getting the job as the composer for the show. “I did! My friend called me and said ‘have you heard of this game Cuphead?’ That’s how I ended up playing the game for the first time. I was completely blown away. I mean, it was so beautiful – I couldn’t believe I was in an old Fleischer cartoon!”

Ego Plum (image credit: EgoPlum.com)

Plum doesn’t consider himself a gamer, as such, however – more due to being so busy, than a lack of interest in games – he confesses that he bought a Switch during the pandemic, but only has a few titles installed (of course, one of these is Cuphead!). His interest in animation did pique his interest in some very memorable, somewhat iconic titles back in the 80s though. “As a young guy, I loved the arcade and I remember back then seeing Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace – essentially, they were just cutscenes: you hit the joystick to the left and then you wait, then you get the next cutscene. It fascinated me – I thought that was the future [of gaming]!” 

Was any of Kristofer Maddigan’s Cuphead game music referenced within The Cuphead Show’s soundtrack? Plum tells me it was, though it wasn’t as straightforward as you may expect – as he explains, “there are a few moments where we go back to some themes from the game. So in this first season, there’s maybe two or three instances where we hear a couple of themes, almost like an easter egg – I guess the same way Carl Stalling would do it, where he would come in and reference a piece of history, then come out of it. I wasn’t trying to recreate Kris’s music. I would sort of do my own version of it, let it morph into something else and then come back into it. Maybe some of the notes would be different; I’d have fun playing with it – that’s where the irreverence comes in!”

It’s important to Plum that he maintains a certain level of fun in his work, an ethos which absolutely comes across in his musical output – and which also comes from another perhaps unlikely source, as he reveals, “I’m not precious with music. That’s not to say that I don’t put a lot of care into what I do. It’s just that I’ve learned to have a sense of humour about it. I learned watching the Beatles – who wrote some of the most beautiful music in the world – when you see John and Paul just having a laugh and having so much fun, being silly. Some of this music has changed the world – but they’re just ridiculous, silly guys at the same time.”

The pandemic had quite an effect on The Cuphead Show’s production, meaning that it was mostly created by different team members working from their homes; the same was true of the music. Though Plum is used to creating music from his own home, on a project of this nature the pandemic caused a necessary change in plans. “I originally had this vision of being in a studio with live players, with a single microphone hanging in the centre of the room – even taking black and white photos to create this old timey world. Then everything got flipped on its head. I started recording remotely with different people from different parts of the country, in some cases, people from around the world. I had to take separate elements and mix them to create this illusion of a jazz band. And that made it very difficult, but we managed and I learned a lot,” Ego says, though he also admits that he didn’t want this revelation to spoil the magic, “I was almost reluctant to even reveal this because we have to create the illusion – but the illusion is on the screen!” He’s absolutely right; listening to The Cuphead Show’s phenomenal soundtrack, you’d never know that this wasn’t a big band, complete with vocalists, all recording together in the same studio.

It must be such a relief to have finished working on The Cuphead Show – and to have the series out there as a complete piece of work, being experienced and enjoyed by Netflix’s viewers. Not just for Plum himself, but for everyone involved – especially due to the working arrangements that the pandemic forced upon the production. It definitely seems that way, as Ego notes, “we’re all really proud of the show. We had a little get together with some of the crew and some people were near tears, just so proud of what we did on this and how hard everyone worked. It’s been a really long, intense journey.”

Plum continues: “It’s been three or four years of me sitting here, quietly doing this work and I’m bursting at the seams; overjoyed with how good it’s come out, everyone’s really proud of what we’ve done here so it’s exciting for me to just talk, share – get the word out about it.”

Despite clear talent and a successful composing career, which has seen him compose for shows such as SpongeBob SquarePants, its spin-off The Patrick Star Show and even Jellystone, a show filled with Hanna Barbera characters that remain iconic decades after they first appeared, Plum remains humble about the opportunities he’s been presented with – and he’s refreshingly candid about the self-doubt and anxieties he has, which I found incredibly relatable. “I have to be honest: I am not a trained musician. I never had any formal musical education. From the moment I was able to get my first [music] job, I felt like I had to hold on for dear life to this opportunity. This door opened – I’m gonna wedge my foot and I’m going to place boulders and rocks and never let this door close again. I feel like that every day.”

Plum’s insight into his approach to creating music is one that can be applied to almost anything, in my opinion – and is incredibly inspirational; perhaps more than he realises. “I’ve never studied jazz in the formal way – I just listened to it. I just enjoy it the way any ‘non-music’ person would – and I think that’s the real way to listen to music. I don’t intellectualise it. I’m not academic about anything musical – it’s all emotional. It’s about how it makes me feel – and how I’m going to try to make you feel. That’s where it begins and ends.”

The Cuphead Show Season 1 is now available to stream on Netflix. Many thanks to Ego Plum for his time, and for Andrew Krop and Kyrié Hood of White Bear PR for their assistance in arranging the interview.

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