Ego Plum on the music behind The Cuphead Show! “I gravitate towards surrealism & absurdity”

When it comes to The Cartoon Composer – aka Ego Plum – the weirder the cartoon, the better. Just as well, as for a musician with credits including zany projects set in the Spongebob Squarepants universe, The Cuphead Show! might just be the most off-the-wall yet…

Set in the 1930s-style world of the Inkwell Isles, Netflix’s The Cuphead Show! follows the misadventures of Cuphead and Mugman, a pair of cup brothers (stay with us now) that are hunted by the Devil, who seeks Cuphead’s soul – believing it to be rightfully his after Cuphead lost a soul-harvesting game. So far, so weird…

“I gravitate towards surrealism and absurdity,” smiles Plum from his home studio in Silver Lake, L.A. “I specifically seek out projects that are completely off the wall, and they in turn, find me.”

Born and raised in East Los Angeles by immigrant parents, Plum rushed home from school to watch Looney Tunes reruns, immersed in the worlds of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and later, the more gross-out Ren & Stimpy. The worlds were absurd; the music for a young Plum, mesmerising.

“I was making cartoon music before I ever worked on cartoons,” he shares. “In my teens and early 20s I put out a CD of instrumental music for non-existent cartoons. That's how I essentially got my first job in animation, because I was just wired for that. I was meant to do this. It's really weird,” he shrugs.

I specifically seek out projects that are completely off the wall, and they in turn, find me.

Plum was finally able to put his music to a cartoon that did exist in 2008 with his unabashedly original score for Amy Winfrey’s series Making Fiends, going on to score SpongeBob Squarepants’ prequel/spinoff show, Kamp Koral: SpongeBob's Under Years and The Patrick Star Show, and later, Disney’s Star Vs. The Forces Of Evil and Nickelodeon’s Welcome To The Wayne and Harvey Beaks. All this, and with no formal training.

“I describe what I do as punk-jazz because, frankly, I don't have any proper musical training in jazz, or anything really! My music education is just enjoying music and listening to it, so I have my own version of what jazz is: it's unschooled, unlearned, a bit more raw – even in the way I write or record,” he points out. “I welcome mistakes and accidents.”

As well as absorbing the styles of Raymond Scott’s ‘descriptive jazz’ and Looney Tunes’ musical director Carl Stalling, Plum’s more fluid interpretation of jazz weaves in the chaotic styles of punk rock.

“I admire people that don't know how to play as well,” he clarifies, dead serious. 

“A lot of the groups that I admired were guys that picked up an instrument the week before and formed bands. One of my personal favourite albums is the first EP by the Buzzcocks. There's an innocence and a naivete to their playing. They don't know the right way to play these instruments yet, but there is a brilliance in what they're writing. The ideas and the emotions are all there, but the ability is not there, and it's wonderful.

“When I hear the original recordings I did when I was 16 or 17, I wish I could recreate that sound, but it's hard because I've already learned too much,” he explains. 

“I have recordings of me struggling to play guitar and I wish I could play like that again, but I can't. I'll never be able to again. I love mistakes! I love urgency. A lot of jazz guys are phenomenal players, but I love the ability to not play as well as a trait in my music, which sounds kind of insane. But it does make sense to me.”

I love the ability to not play as well as a trait in my music, which sounds kind of insane. But it does make sense to me.

Plum’s distinctive approach to writing music goes hand in black and white glove with The Cuphead Show!, which revives rubber hose style animation made popular in the 1920s and 30s. Google it and you’ll likely recognise the vaguely unsettling style of animation from some long forgotten vintage cartoon you watched as a kid. 

Rubber hose characters defy the laws of physics (more than your typical cartoon, anyway): characters with lifeless blacked-out eyes clad in white gloves stretch their spaghetti limbs, body parts suddenly double as instruments, or inexplicably morph into another character entirely. They might remove a limb, use the moon as a rope swing – a door could swallow a person. With rubber hose, the pencil’s the limit, and the elastic nature of the animation in turn informs the music.

Plum’s unorthodox version of jazz stems from influences including the cartoon jazz of Raymond Scott, French electro pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey, Looney Tunes musical director Carl Stalling, Romani-Belgian jazz guitarist and composer Django Reinhardt, American jazz singer Cab Calloway, even the scene-stealing Oogie Boogie from Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, as well as a tip of the hat to Cuphead video game composer Kristofer Maddigan.

“Animation gives you this freedom that you don't get in any other kind of medium, I believe,” Plum considers when looking back on his collective influences for The Cuphead Show! 

“It relies heavily on surrealism. It's all over the place, and it really fits my short attention span. I'm good in short spurts of 22 seconds of some sort of nonsense!”

I like things to be a little off. I like hitting the wrong notes at the right time.

Music is everything when it comes to this style of animation; rather than copying what Kristofer Madigan had done in the game with his score, Plum decided to dip into the same pools of inspiration as the game’s composer: the 1930s.

“Raymond Scott was a huge influence for me, maybe more so than Kristofer,” he shares. 

“Raymond Scott was doing weird, quirky, cartoon jazz that ended up being placed in a lot of the Looney Tunes later on by musical director Carl Stalling. Raymond Scott did not write cartoon music,” he stresses, “he was just writing it for his band to perform. But it was so odd and so unusual, it was perfect for cartoons and ended up being placed in cartoons to this day.”

Cuphead the video game was released in 2017, and is noted for its animation and lively jazz soundtrack by Maddigan.

“I had seen the game maybe a year before I was asked to work on it, and I thought it was gorgeous,” Plum says with genuine enthusiasm. 

“I had never seen anything like that: a game that essentially looks like you're playing a 1930s Max Fleischer cartoon – down to the grain – it's like a moving 1930s cartoon. 

"The music was amazing, so when the opportunity came up, it was daunting and a bit frightening because the bar was so high with the music. I had that question of ‘What do we do? Do we do something similar to this? Do I copy the music that Kristofer Madigan did? Do I do my own style? How do we give ourselves an identity while still staying true to what Cuphead is?

“I thought it was important for me to try to create my own identity within the Cuphead universe,” he says. 

“The TV series lives in parallel to the game, it doesn't have to be exactly like it. I went to the same well of influence as Kristofer did, and tried to create my own thing that felt very similar, like we could have existed at the same time in the ‘30s writing music together. 

"But that being said, I also did include several easter eggs for fans of the game where you can hear little bits of Kristofer’s music in the cartoon. That was a lot of fun to do, because he's a really fantastic composer, and the fans are rabid. They notice everything!”

I was making cartoon music before I ever worked on cartoons.

Just like the elastic cup-headed characters in the cartoon, Plum wanted to also push the limits of what his instruments could do:

On one hand, we were using very traditional instrumentation that you would use in the ‘30s, but at the same time, I was trying to do very different things with it. I found a great group called Moon Hooch and they stick traffic cones at the end of their saxophone, and it creates this weird lower tone – bordering on the sound of dubstep music, but out of saxophones.”

He gives another example where he took a trumpet player and had him dip the bell of his trumpet in a bucket of water and play: “So it's kind of gurgling as he's playing,” he laughs. 

“So I would hit these different ideas to make the music a little more unusual, a little bit more surreal – a little bit more animated, in a sense. My musical choices are also a bit unusual. I like things to be a little off. I like hitting the wrong notes at the right time, or vice versa. That goes back to surrealism and absurdity. 

"I love being able to work in animation because I can do these silly and unusual things with music. And especially in the case of The Cuphead Show! where the rubber hose style is so surreal – everything defies logic. There's room to be extra experimental with the music, while still being true to this 1930s jazz sensibility.”

Due to the nature of animation shows, The Cuphead Show! songs don’t need to be more than a minute long, as numbers are usually interrupted or abruptly fly into another scene or scenario. 

Recently, however, Plum has been finishing numerous songs featured in the show, stretching them out into full length songs – (you can listen to the extended version of showstopper Roll The Dice on Spotify now).

I have my own version of what jazz is: it's unschooled, unlearned, a bit more raw. I love mistakes!

“The thing about writing songs for animation is, the storytelling is what informs everything,” he explains. 

“It's not like, ‘Here's a three minute song, let's make sure that three minute song fits in here.’ It doesn't work like that. It's, ‘We have to tell a story, we have to move quickly.’ That usually means that songs can only be about 45 or 30 seconds, or maybe a minute and 15 seconds if we're lucky. This is perfect within the context of a programme like Cuphead, but it's not so good if you're trying to put out a release.”

When Netflix wanted to release an album of songs featured in the show, Plum saw an opportunity to finish what he’d started:

“I said, ‘Well, that's great, but give me the chance to finish these songs. I'd love for the audience and the fans to hear what I envisioned as the full versions of these pieces of music.’ For example, in the pilot episode, the devil is singing a song, introducing himself, and in the middle his assistant interrupts him and the song abruptly ends. So now if you go on Spotify and listen to The Cuphead Show! soundtrack, you hear the full version of The Devil’s Song that no one's ever heard before.”

Plum shares that he is currently working on more full length versions of songs that feature in the show.

“There's literally hours of music that haven't been released yet,” he nods. “All the instrumental stuff, the crazy chase music, the kooky jazz that I wrote, the orchestral stuff, the incidental background music – all this stuff I'm currently trying to clean up and work on to hopefully release in the future.”

When work sees him pulled away from his home studio, Plum works on the road, and thanks to his Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 portable interface, is ready to record anywhere, should inspiration strike.

“The beauty of the Scarlett unit is that it's something that I could take with me if I'm in a hotel or if I'm working remotely somewhere,” he says. 

“It's in my bag, and the quality is great. Technology has advanced so much to the point where this little unit that you can fit in your backpack can record world-class broadcasting-quality stuff. 

"I could do vocals, I could do guitar parts, record musicians, and people will be hearing it around the world – they wouldn't know that it's recorded through a tiny little box that you can hold in your hands. 

"I'm not a very technical person, but I trust my ears and having this Focusrite unit and taking it with me has been very useful. There's always times where I have to be working remotely, and for that it's good to have that little red box with me.”

I could record musicians & people will be hearing it around the world – they wouldn't know that it's recorded through a tiny little box.

Plum wouldn’t be The Cartoon Composer if he didn’t have another obscure animation project in the works. He can’t talk about it yet, but his next project will be an animated feature that will see him bringing his unique musical perspective to the superhero universe, and after that, a cryptic project involving a theme park.

“I won't say if it's Marvel or DC, but I'm going to be working on a project in that world,” he says carefully. 

“Another thing I'm doing is something that relates to a theme park. That's really unusual, but also perfect for my sensibility. It's strange, fun pieces of music, and this is something I absolutely embrace. If all I get to do is cartoons, and strange ones, I'll be satisfied for the rest of my life. 

"I don't need anything else. It's a wonderful world to be in. I've always identified with absurdity and surrealists – I gravitate towards it,” he smiles.

Image credits:

The Cup Head Show!: Courtesy of Netflix

Ego Plum: Alien Club