Without question, The Disney Channel’s “Phineas and Ferb” is one of the most popular cartoons airing today. Winning an Emmy in 2010, the show was recently nominated for the tenth time, due to its creative combination of storytelling and music. As the show gears up for its major season two-part cliffhanger, entitled ‘Where’s Perry,’ we scored some time with composer and music producer Danny Jacob to discuss this animated phenomenon.
How does one go from being a concert guitarist to composing music for a cartoon series? [Prior to composing, Jacob toured as a guitar player for such noteworthy entertainers as Bette Midler, George Michael, LeAnn Rimes, and Cher.]
I always loved producing songs and writing songs. Even when I was a guitar player, which I still am, I would always take apart pop and rock songs and listen to the vocals and the melodies and how it was all put together. That was always going on while I was playing, and it became a transition where more and more people were hiring me to do their demos. And then Disney started calling me; I didn’t even advertise for it! I had worked for DreamWorks first, where I produced a song for “Antz” (‘I Can See Clearly Now’ for Hans Zimmer). He and I worked on the opening to “The Road To El Dorado,” and from there, Disney started calling me. I soon realized that this was going to be my new career.
I think the thing that has confused me about the music for “Phineas and Ferb” is that there are so many names associated with the music for the show. How do you fit into that packed kitchen?
“Phineas and Ferb” is a really song-driven show. 90% of the songs are written by Dan [Povenmire, co-creator], “Swampy” [Jeff Marsh, co-creator], and people like Martin [Olson] and Aliki [Theofilopolous Grafft], and other people involved in the show, like storyboard artists. So, they will give me their demos, which usually consist of guitar and a vocal. When we originally started the show, back in the old days, they’d be around at 9:00 writing a song, and then they would sing it onto my phone machine, and over the weekend I would turn it into this huge production.
Since music is so integral to the show, have you ever found challenges with marrying music to a particular scene?
There are times when Dan and “Swampy” will have a really strong vision, and I try to help them realize that vision. They will temp a scene with the theme from “Jaws,” which I think is one of the best film scores out there. And I’ll go, “thanks a lot, guys,” and I will try to reach for the stars and do my own take on John Williams. And then they will say, “You know what, we thought it was ‘Jaws’, but now we think it’s something different.” So I’ll have to go back and start over. But I would say that about 90% of the time, we are so in sync that whatever I come with works. And with that 10%, we just work at it a little more until an idea works.
Did Candace’s Wicked Witch of the West-styled theme originate from a temp track?
I believe when they pitched the show, they actually used that “Wizard of Oz” theme whenever Candace was riding her bicycle and trying to bust the boys. So, like everything else, I just did my take on that theme.
When you do the longer episodes, like the two-parters and the movie, it seems like you venture deeper than the surface charm of a kids cartoon and explore some heavier emotions. For example, a song like ‘Come Home Perry’ makes even me choke up a bit.
Aww, well I’m glad to hear you say that. I’m sure Dan and “Swampy” would appreciate that as much as I do. But yeah, definitely, the longer episodes, like “Summer Belongs To You” are ones we’re most proud of. And in this upcoming episode, “Where’s Perry,” they are out in Africa and lose track of Perry. And the boys and Perry have such a strong connection, that we try to play that up musically in situations where the boys are missing Perry, Perry is missing the boys, or when Perry can’t save the day, because he knows that if they find out he’s a secret agent, he’ll get relocated to a trailer park family. [Laughs] So he has to keep a low profile. But we try to play the emotions very cinematically and very seriously, and we play the jokes as hysterically as we can.
Since the show is on several times a day throughout the week, has it ever occurred to you that you may be largely responsible for exposing this generation of children to more differing kinds of music than if they listened to the radio?
If that is true, then I would humbly say thanks. There are so many composers that I look up to, and I know that it is just a cartoon, but the more I’m with it, the more I get the impression that it is much, much more than a flash-in-the-pan cartoon. I think we can safely say that it’s going to be around for a long time. That means a lot to me, and I am proud of the music that’s on it. I think we don’t play down to the kids; I think we actually play up to them with good songs, and I really think that it is educating them.
You mentioned that “Where’s Perry” contains an African setting. Did you research and incorporate some of the cultural musical elements of Africa into the episode?
Absolutely, we always study the music, as any diligent composer would. We really get into that world with the djembe drums. And there’s a song in there called ‘Savannah,’ which we had sung by an amazing singer, Carmen Carter, and it is sort of an homage to “The Lion King.” We definitely go into that musical palette.
The episode “The Doonkelberry Imperative” was recently nominated for an Emmy. Do you recall any special memories of that one?
Yeah, I’m very proud of that episode, and I’m very happy to hear that it’s been nominated! What I really liked about that episode was that we really got to explore the country that Dr. Doofenshmirtz hails from, which is Drusselstein; he has to go back to Drusselstein to renew his driver’s license. And then a war breaks out among the two sects of villagers, because of the direction the goats (and rabbits that preceded them) are walking to power the electricity to the village. As funny as it sounds, I treated it like very serious business, like something out of “The Lord of the Rings,” so I got to think really big and really cinematic, with Eastern European flavors. And if I may add a little plug, my son, Aaron Jacob sings in the song on that episode, ‘Drusselstein Driving Test Waltz.’
Do you ever get funny looks from people when you try to explain the show to them?
[Laughs] I was just listening to myself say all that, and I was like, “Man, I must sound like an idiot. Goats and rabbits are powering electricity to a fictional European country!” Yes, but one of the things I think makes “Phineas and Ferb” so successful…have you ever seen the show “Fringe”? It’s one of my favorite shows out there. It’s almost the same thing as when you try to explain “Fringe”.
The premise is so complex that I don’t even try to think about it; I just go there and enjoy the ride. Perry the Platypus IS James Bond. I don’t even think of him as a mindless little pet anymore. Candace is a psychotic but sweet young woman. And Phineas and Ferb are a couple of can-do couple of brothers that just never say “no” and can do anything. That’s it! Either you get it or you don’t. [Laughs]
“Where’s Perry?, Part 1” premieres Thursday, July 26 at 9pm on The Disney Channel.
“Phineas and Ferb: Songs from the Hit Disney TV Series” is available now at iTunes and Amazon.
“Phineas and Ferb: Across the 1st and 2nd Dimensions” is available now at iTunes and Amazon.
“Phineas and Ferb: Holiday Favorites” is available now at iTunes, Amazon, and Amazon Digital.