By Will Harris
"The Simpsons" has just begun its 18th season, and the credit for the majority of the show's music over these many years belongs predominantly to Alf Clausen. It's Clausen who's been responsible for adapting the famous Danny Elfman theme song into countless different styles for the closing credits, and he's also been the man behind the lion's share of the series' original songs. Bullz-Eye spoke to Alf in conjunction with the release of the third collection of "Simpsons" music -- The Simpsons Testify: A Whole Lot More Original Music from the Television Series -- and we were able to ask him how this great gig first came about, what some of his favorite moments have been during the course of his time on the show, and the one question that we'd been chomping at the bit to get answered: how he felt about Hans Zimmer getting the gig to score "The Simpsons Movie." (Sorry, scandalmongers: his answer was extremely diplomatic.)
Bullz-Eye: Hey, Alf, how're you doing?
Alf Clausen: Fine. How are you today?
BE: I'm doing great. It's a pleasure to speak with you; I've been a longtime fan of the show and, certainly, your work on the show.
AC: Thank you.
BE: How did you first get approached to score "The Simpsons"?
AC: It was kind of a fluke. I had been working as a composer on the "Moonlighting" series for four years and the "Alf" series, on NBC, for four years, and both of those series ended. I was unemployed for awhile, and I was describing my plight to a friend of mine, and he said, "If I hear of anything, I will call you." So, a couple of weeks later, he called me and said he had had dinner with his nephew the night before and his nephew was a producer on a television series, and, hey, were looking to change composers. So my friend suggested me, and the guy said, "Oh, yeah: Alf! Why didn't I think of him? Do you have his number?" My friend said he was going to be calling me tomorrow. So the phone rang the next day, and his nephew said, "I'm a producer on a television series, we're looking to change composers, and we were wondering if you would come in for an interview." I said, "Well, what's the series?" And he said, "'The Simpsons.' Have you heard of it?" I said, "I've heard of it." He said, "Have you ever seen it?" And I said, "Nope, never seen it." He said, "Well, why don't you come on in and talk to us and we'll go from there." So I went in for the interview, and I had never done animation. I had no interest in doing animation; I wanted to be a drama composer. And Matt Groening said his favorite comment to me: "We don't look upon this as being a cartoon but a drama where the characters are drawn, and we would like it scored that way. Can you do that?" And I went, "Bingo, I can do that. I have technology to do that." So they gave me my first episode, which was "Treehouse of Horror #1," and I passed the audition, and they kept me.
BE: It's funny that you say your preference is drama, because looking at your resume on Wikipedia, anyway, it looks like predominantly everything you have done, for the most part anyway, has been comedy!
AC: (Laughs) Yeah, go figure. I'm going to have to talk to them and get it updated.
BE: Yeah, because in fact, I think they cite "Mr. Mom", "Naked Gun", "Splash", "Weird Science"...
AC: Oh, yeah, I know. That's funny.
BE: Have you worked in drama? They show "The Beastmaster," but I think that really it's the only drama they note.
AC: Well, "Moonlighting" was a drama, and I did 63 of the 65 episodes of that show, and it was a great experience.
BE: And I guess you got your first success at blending humor with the music there.
AC: Right. Exactly.
BE: What was your favorite episode of "Moonlighting" to score?
AC: The black and white episode. To me, it was a piece of classic television which doesn't get much better than that.
BE: Did you enjoy the Shakespearian episode also?
AC: Oh yeah, that was a ball. It was great where we have Bruce wondering through the crowd, and he's looking at this band of lute and cimbalom and something else, and they were playing "Close To You," and he says, " I loveth a band that playeth the oldies."
BE: Prior to doing the soundtrack work, you'd also worked with Buddy Rich, Ray Charles. How did you first get into music in the first place? Was it a family background?
AC: Well, I had an interest in music from a very early age. I was a singer first and sang in a really good high school choir. I started playing French horn in the seventh grade and played French horn all the way through my high school career and then when I went to college I continued to play French horn. I had to stop singing in the choir because choir and the band met at the same time. So I continued instrumental music and then also learned how to play bass and I became a professional bass player as well. So I worked as a playing musician for several years but arranging and composing was really my first love and that's really what I wanted to do. So I eventually went to the Berkley College of Music and got a diploma in arranging and composition and came out here and just started knocking around, doing arrangements for Vegas singers and jingles and started working in TV variety, doing arranging for singers. One thing led to another and I eventually became the music director of the "Donny and Marie" show and the "Mary Tyler Moore" variety series on CBS and then started doing orchestrations in film for other composers and went through the training ground of that and eventually ended up on "Moonlighting".
BE: Was there a moment that you considered to be your big break in the industry?
AC: Oh I don't think there was one moment, but there have been several. I think the big break of getting the music director job on the "Donny and Marie" show was fabulous, as well as the "Mary Tyler Moore Variety Show". Getting "Moonlighting" was an amazing experience and "The Simpsons" has been wonderful.
BE: Like you don't have plenty to choose from, but what is your favorite bit on "The Simpsons" that you have worked on? I mean, there are so many great musical themed episodes. You don't have to narrow it down to just one.
AC: My favorite bit, as it were...with all of the stuff that has gone on through the years, it is one that has stuck with me and is just such a wry comment...is the payoff line that Homer says when Apu is sitting up on the roof after having sung "Who Needs the Quickie Mart." He finally sings "I do," as he's sitting up on the roof, and Homer says, "Hey, he's not happy at all. He lied to us through song. I hate when people do that!"
BE: (Laughs) I always say that line out loud when I watch the episode.
AC: I love that line. It's one of the classics.
BE: What would say was your biggest challenge, as far as the projects go? Like, my editor, the first two that he thought of were "Streetcar!" and the "Evita" tribute, but I didn't know if there was one that was more challenging for you.
AC: No, I don't think so. I think they all come with their equal amounts of challenge. I think probably the biggest challenge for me is simply turning the material out in a very short period of time. For instance, in one of the Halloween episodes, I had 57 cues to write and a week's turnaround. That's a challenge. You look in the dictionary beside the word "challenge" and you'll see "57 cues in a week." So I think, probably more than creatively being disturbed by the challenge, I kind of like to rise to it and find it interesting. But it's the physical turnaround time that is daunting.
BE: How specific or generic are the requests that you get from the writers and producers? I mean, is it like, "Do a 'Dragnet'-style theme version," or...
AC: Yeah, sometimes it's as specific as that...or as generic as that, however you look at it. Sometimes it can be very, very specific. They can say, "We've temped this scene with the music from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' by John Williams, and we want you to re-record it with your orchestra, so go out and find the scores and adapt it to your orchestra. So we have to do that. I have to have my music prep department go out searching to see if we can find the original score and then have it re-orchestrated. Other times it's a very generic, open kind of request just simply based on emotion, saying, "Homer is very, very angry in this scene and we would like the music to convey that." More often than not it's the emotional directive that I get.
BE: Are there any particular guest voices that you have enjoyed working with? I know Kelsey Grammer has a musical background.
AC: Kelsey is great. He is just an amazing singer, oh, my goodness. My fondest memories probably are a section I did with the late Tito Puente and his orchestra, doing "Senor Burns," and also doing "The Garbage Man" with Bono and U2.
BE: I definitely remember that one. I remember being horrified when I got the original CD version of that and it didn't have their original vocal track on it!
AC: Yeah, I know. You couldn't get them.
BE: I figured. Is there any unheralded bit that you have done that you particularly loved that didn't get a whole lot of play or a whole lot of spotlight?
AC: Um, well, I'll tell you, after 17 seasons it's hard to dig that out. That is a very interesting question. No, I don't think so. I think, for the most part, that the musical numbers have been given their due on the show. My current show runner, Al Jean, is very respectful of the musical numbers and allows them to play out the way they are intended to play out.
BE: I've definitely gotten the feel that they are very pro music on the show. I mean always have been from the get go. In fact I would say the music episodes are often some of the highlights. Do you still find it just as challenging, or even more challenging, now that it's been on so long?
AC: It's more challenging now that it has been on so long because I want to make sure I don't repeat myself, number one...and as the saying goes, I ain't getting any younger. So, once again, the scheduling issue is always a daunting task and quite a challenge just to stay up for it. Every week is its own little surprise.
BE: I know "Family Guy" also has a lot of music themed episodes. In fact, they did that entire Vegas album with, I guess, Walter Murphy doing the conducting on that. Would you be up for doing something like that? I mean, I know they did The Yellow Album all those years ago.
AC: Well, you know it's interesting because The Yellow Album and Simpsons Sing the Blues really didn't have anything to do with the show. I think they had one number a piece. I think Simpsons Sing the Blues had "Do the Bartman", which was actually used in the show after the album was released, and then The Yellow Album had one of my songs on it, the Camp Krusty theme song, and that was the only song from the show that got on The Yellow Album. As apparent as they were to the public, they weren't really representative of the music form the show.
BE: Now, do you ever get to throw in any lyrics to the songs or are those left up to the writers exclusively?
AC: They are pretty much left up to the writers. Occasionally I'll have a discussion with the guy who wrote the script and say, you know, this phrase here doesn't really have the same rhyme scheme as this phrase down here. Can you come up with three more syllables to make it match? And they're very happy to do that.
BE: Have you ever actually thrown in any lines yourself?
AC: Once in a great while, but not very often. Not very often. That is really the writers' domain.
BE: I know you've got your own album coming out, the Jazz Orchestra album.
AC: Yeah, it's already out actually. You can find it on my website, http://www.alfclausen.com.
BE: How long had that been in the making?
AC: Um...30 years! (Laughs) It has been a big dream of mine. I kept waiting for an angel to come along and help me finance it and one day I woke up and looked in the mirror and I had wings. So I ended up financing it myself and we recorded back in, I think it was 2003. I had been accumulating all of the arrangements for several years, with the idea of doing that and it finally came to fruition. I assembled a crack L.A. jazz band and they just are amazing so I am very, very proud of that album.
BE: Did you expect that "The Simpsons" music would be so successful as to warrant three collections of it thus far?
AC: I don't think anybody really knew in the beginning and it just kind of evolved and the more the producers learned about what I could do for them, the more they opened the show up and enabled us to do longer and longer numbers. That has been somewhat cut down now through the years, because of the fact that the show is actually shorter than it was when we started doing it because of increased commercial time.
BE: Well, I'll try to keep you on track, but I do have one more question, and I'll just ask it straight out: how did you feel about Hans Zimmer being asked to score the film and you not? Or were you asked and you passed the buck?
AC: Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug.
BE: Fair enough.
AC: That's all I'll say about that.
BE: That's as good as any quote. Well, it's been a pleasure talking to you. I'll keep you on track. I know it's hell trying to stay on schedule.
AC: Thank you. I appreciate you looking after me. (Laughs)