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In advance of Adult Swim Festival, 'Rick & Morty' composer Ryan Elder ponders future episodes and reveals 'Rick Dance' origin story

In advance of Adult Swim Festival, 'Rick & Morty' composer Ryan Elder ponders future episodes and reveals 'Rick Dance' origin story
TV and film composer Ryan Elder joins the characters from "Rick and Morty" in this double-exposure portrait taken at his studio. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Ryan Elder, the guy who makes the music for Adult Swim’s hit animated show “Rick & Morty,” works out of a rent-controlled, anonymous apartment near a CVS.

He’s scored much of the series’ three seasons in a modest room close to Culver City that holds his music gear and his bed. He keeps his name off the lobby mailbox, mostly because the series inspires cultish online devotion.

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This is what success looks like to the man who helped bring to life such ridiculous “Rick & Morty” jams as “The Flu-Hatin’ Rap,” “The Small Intestine Song” and the simple, glorious workout that accompanies “The Rick Dance.”

Despite appearances, Elder’s not being held captive, nor is he a shut-in. But he is on stand-by, awaiting to begin work on the eagerly awaited fourth season of “Rick & Morty” — and having no idea when that might be.

It’s been a cool few weeks for a TV and film composer who has been working the Hollywood scoring scene for the past 15 years. He’s celebrating the recent release on Sub Pop Records of music from “Rick & Morty,” which includes his incidental compositions and songs he co-wrote with series creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland. Earlier this year Adult Swim committed to a jaw-dropping 70 new episodes.

More pressingly, Elder’s been preparing for the first-ever live performance of music from the show, which will occur Sunday with a 37-piece orchestra as part of the first Adult Swim Festival in downtown Los Angeles.

“I sort of call it ‘Rick and Morty's’ version of ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ ” he says of the event, describing it as a “variety show with people coming on and offstage joining in. I'll be there for most of it, kind of being ...” Elder trails off, then says, “… well, who’d want to be Garrison Keillor now?"

The orchestra will perform the live score to a “Rick & Morty” episode as it shows on an overhead screen. Elder has been sworn to secrecy about which one.

For those not in the know, the universe in “Rick & Morty” is a few acid trips south of Lake Wobegon. The show, which revels in scientific riddles and philosophical quandaries, doesn’t actually reside in a universe at all, but within a sci-fi “multi-verse” inspired in part by “Back to the Future.”

Starring a drug-gobbling, adventure-loving mad scientist grandfather and his ever-baffled grandson, Harmon and Roiland’s series exists in a freak-filled, hallucinatory realm where space and time are liquid and Rick, Morty and their family access an infinite number existential realities via a swirling portal.

Elder and Roiland met Harmon as both were participating in Channel 101, a monthly L.A. short film festival that Harmon founded. Elder, who at the time had been composing commercial music for various companies while trying to crack the scoring business, worked on the TV series adaptation of “Barbershop” and wrote the catchy opening theme for the kids show “Wizards of Waverly Place.” He also contributed music to the Harmon documentary “Harmontown.”

When Harmon ended his work on the NBC hit “Community,” he teamed with Roiland to create “Rick & Morty.” An expansion of characters Roiland had birthed for a short film, the show landed on Adult Swim, and five years later, it’s an animated sensation.

TV and film composer Ryan Elder plays his bass in the studio.
TV and film composer Ryan Elder plays his bass in the studio. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In scoring the mind-bending action, Elder said that the goal was to aim for the epic, one captured in the majestic opening theme and akin to major motion picture music. He says it is a “larger-than-life” orchestration “but also has this real sense of sci-fi adventure, where [the theme] is leading somewhere. It's exciting. It's driving towards a goal.

“The ‘Rick & Morty’ music is the sound of a very big orchestra — we're talking a 40 to 80 pieces.”

Gesturing to his keyboard and musical instruments, Elder says, “Luckily, technology is such these days where I can create a large orchestra sound without having to use an actual large orchestra.”

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Elder describes the early conversations about defining the sound as, “Let’s do this really outrageous thing as seriously as we can, because then, the comedy will read as much more heightened. It’ll be funnier because the music is taking itself so seriously.”

Harmon, said Elder, likes “using music as the straight man.”

Granted, it’s hard to maintain seriousness when an addled Rick, hopped up on magic dust, breaks out into “The Rick Dance,” his meme-worthy maneuver featuring a cheesy big-beat synth track.

The inspiration? The character Urkel from the show “Family Matters,” who, Elder says, “does this really insane dance” that’s so square it’s funky. “We knew we wanted it to be like this retro ‘90s hip-hop, almost cheesy in its presentation, with a hook sung by some female backup singers.”

Elder doesn’t know whether Rick will do the dance in upcoming episodes, which Harmon and Roiland are currently writing. Nor does he know when the new season will air.

”Literally, I know nothing,” Elder says. Pressed about when he usually joins the process, he said that it normally occurs after a rough animated outline is finished and much of the dialogue recorded. He hasn’t scheduled anything on the new episodes. Has Elder been told to block out any specific months?

He hasn’t, and adds that normally it takes between three and six months from the time he starts scoring an episode to when it airs. That’s another way of saying, don’t expect a new “Rick & Morty” season in 2018.

Until then, the many fanatics will have time to revisit the first three seasons to look for Easter eggs, recite dialogue and sing along to gems such as the scatological ditty “Fathers and Daughters.” Elder’s proudest moment so far? “Goodbye Moonman,” which is sung in the series by “Flight of the Conchords” costar Jermaine Clement.

A David Bowie fan, Elder says that the chance to mimic the late musician was an opportunity he couldn’t resist. But he fancies it for another reason, as well: “I just love that it's like this super serious song about genocide of all carbon-based life, but it's sung by a fart. So amazing.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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Adult Swim Festival

When: Oct. 6-7

Where: Row DTLA, 777 Alameda St.

Cost: Single day passes $85, weekend passes $255, preview night (Oct. 5) $49.

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