Here’s the full interview with musician and Yo Gabba Gabba! cocreator Christian Jacobs, conducted and transcribed by Tim Hare B.M. ’11:
You come from a punk music background; did you have much formal musical training?
Not really, it was mostly DIY, but my parents from early on they encouraged music, they listened to a lot of music around me. The most formal education I would have had is singing in church as a little kid. Going to Sunday school and singing songs, learning how to sing lead melody along with the piano and starting to hear parts and understanding how harmony works, really it was signing kids songs ya know (laughs)? As I got older I just became a huge music fan. There was stuff that was happening on the radio that was really exciting in the late 70’s and early 80’s as New Wave came in and Hip Hop got more and more popular. You had the Punk scene in LA and KROQ was playing the most interesting music. As a kid listening to Top of the Pop and Rock stations it was so different to what KROQ was playing which was Alternative music even though it wasn’t called that back then, it was Punk, Ska, New Wave. KROQ had so much variety and so my education beyond Sunday school just came from listening to the radio stations here in LA and recording music I liked on a tape cassette player. I would call up the radio stations and ask for songs I liked so I could record them. They would play the musical equivalent to throwing stuff at the wall to see what would stick like weird punk and New Wave from the U.K. so I’d call up and go “Play that weird one again!” (laughs). A lot of the bands like Devo, Blondie, Depeche Mode that were really influential to me I was first exposed to listening to the radio in my room. I would steal my Dad’s cassettes so I could tape them and listen to them over and over again. I did take piano lessons and just wasn’t interested like most kids (laughs), but it gave me some basic theory. I was in some choral organizations my Mom made me join. My Mom would say “Well your friends are doing it so you should join them.” “No!” “Well I already signed you up!” I would get mad. I regret not taking advantage of learning more when I was younger, but at an early age I was such a huge music fan. For a 2nd, 3rd grader it was probably a little different, maybe not for us, but I have kids and they aren’t that interested in music, video games maybe (laughs).
How old were you when you started trying to write songs?
Probably 18 or 19. In Junior HS my friends had a band in North Hollywood and they would practice in my garage cause mine was the biggest. They were in my punk/skater crew and they all played instruments. My buddy Tim sang, but I wanted to be the singer so bad! So I’d always be right there ready in case he did show up (laughs), I knew all the songs. I always wanted to be in a punk band super bad, but I was kind of the manager, I was just the kid who let them practice at the house (laughs). That was sort of my informal first attempt at writing songs cause I would make suggestions and those guys would look at me like “Well we are practicing in his garage so I guess we gotta listen to him.” Sometime after that my sister got an electric guitar, a Fender Squire I think, and she never used it so I would pick it up learn how to play chords. The Pixies were the band when they hit in ’88 or ’89 made me say, “I want to be in a band like this.” They were like the Velvet Underground in the sense that they weren’t very popular, but they say, “Everyone who listened to the Velvet Underground started a band” and I think the Pixies were a similar equivalent. What they did at the time was a combination of punk, pop, and noise; it was so perfect. They were weird looking, but they were amazing and they made me want to learn how to play music and be in a band.
Not enough people talk about how the Pixies wrote pop songs that are masked with punk and noise influences.
They’re totally Pop punk songs. Quite verses with crazy loud choruses, they were so good. I think The Pixies influenced popular music in the 90’s more than any other band. If you go back and listen all these bands just ripped off the Pixies, even Nirvana they admitted it. Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters were influenced by them. That sound of the quiet verses and the loud choruses was totally imitated. By 1995 everything on the radio was influenced by The Pixies.
Even the punk stuff that came in the early 2000’s a lot of those bands say they started out playing Pixies songs and Pumpkins songs.
I totally believe it. With my own band the AquaBats! too, if it wasn’t for the Pixies I don’t think I would have really wanted to start a band. This punk band in my garage that was my entry into wanting to start a band, but the Pixies made me think “I can do this.” They were inspirational for sure.
How did you approach writing music for Yo Gabba Gabba?
That’s a great question. Scott Schultz who is the co-creator is a really great long time friend of mine; he and I were in this lo-fi, Shoe gazey band together. We had written songs so we knew the basics of writing together and how a song works. What we wanted to do with Gabba was create something that Sesame Street was really good at which was creating little vignettes for a broader show, which is called a magazine format show. Sesame Street has all these segments it’s not one linear narrative, it’s a lot of thing that seem non-linear, but they are all in a similar tone or theme. So with the song writing at the time Scott and I both had kids and we were both listening to a lot of early 80’s rap music; LA Dream Team, Run DMC, Biz Markie, really early, basic drum machine stuff and we noticed that our kids responded to it. Songs like “When I hear music” by Debbie Deb it was simple rhythmic beats from early Hip Hop and sort of upbeat fast stuff like the Ramones. It was very sing along, chants, and simple rhythmic stuff. So when we created the show we wanted to go back to that simple, primal sound because our kids liked it. This was right before Chip Rock/8 bit rock, but the Zeitgeist was headed that way. What we thought would be great for our song writing was based on keeping everything really basic like early Hip Hop/Punk. We wanted to keep the beats real simple and isolate the melodies so they would be catchy and we wanted the melody to be simple and repetitive. Sometimes the more you’re producing a song the more you’re layering things and that can make the hook less effective because they’re so buried. When you are composing things you potentially are taking a bunch of hooks and blending them all together. So we wanted to eliminate that and make it really simple so it’d fit with a pre-school type show. We also knew we had kids at home who were responding to early dance and hip-hop or punk music. They liked simple pop and punk songs with basic, pop melodies. We wanted to write really repetitive pop songs for Gabba that would hit home a message. I think the first song we wrote was “Try it you’ll like it” which was just about trying to get kids to try new foods (laughs) or try new things. If you listen to that beat it came out really well. Scott and my buddy Steve came up with the beat. Once the show started going we picked our favorite local musicians, guys from the AquaBats!, guys that understood how to compose things especially dancey, simple pop songs.
Take us through your basic workflow while writing on Yo Gabba Gabba?
Yo Gabba Gabba was very unique in the sense that it’s a magazine format, but within that format there are 3 main segments and each one has to have a song. Then we have 2 jingle segments, which would be songs we would write and then farm out to people to make music videos for then there might be another random song a band would come on to play. So that’s 6-7 original songs every show and we want each song to be catchy and poppy. We had about 7 song writers on Gabba and the most fun for me, we always had fun (laughs), but the song writing process we would say “OK here is the theme, here is what we are going to do, GO!” This was about 2 months before production, even before scripts were written we started the song writing process. Sometimes the writers would become the episode. Sometimes they would write instrumentals and we would come up with a melody and make it work. So we would have this mountain of songs that before we even shot anything we would have 50 songs that we could listen to help us find a direction. We had 20 episodes the first season and with 6-7 songs per episode that’s a lot of songs to write (laughs)! It was so fun though cause we would sit in a room and listen everyone’s music and laugh and earmark stuff we thought was really rad. Eventually there more songs where we were trying to make each other laugh than were a good fit for the show, so we had to reign it in a little bit. In the beginning it was really amazing to see how things just magically came together.
It’s fascinating to hear about you guys editing a show to the music because it’s so much more common to write music to the show. Do you think you did it this way because you were a musician?
I think so, but from the beginning Scott and I wanted to make a Music Show because we were reacting to the music on the shows our kids were watching and it was just not really exciting, just a piano and a guitar and it was very boring. Going back to New Wave I thought of how exciting listening KROQ was. You got The Cure, The Ramones, The Alarm, every band was so different, the styles were so different, so why couldn’t bring that mix tape side into a Kid’s show? The songwriters on the show they brought their own style. Ricky’s were very beat heavy, Adam’s were very synth heavy, Aaron’s were like top 40 disco, DJ Lance had all kinds of different styles he would bring to the table, but he had a lot of 70’s Funk elements to his music. So we had all these different styles crashing into each other mixed with Punk, Rock, Ska and the music first and foremost defined the show. So then we’d have a song and then we’d have all the characters come in and we would do the dialogue that lead up to the song like “You shouldn’t bite your friends!” Then they’d sing the song. So we had all the tracks including the dialogue recorded before we would shoot the show. Then we would shoot the show like a music video. We would play the playback live even the dialogue and the characters would be doing the dialogue to the track. That only changed when we would have a guest come on and they would have ear buds and we would leave little gaps in-between the dialogue for their lines to go along with the tracks. Then we would record their lines live. So we are shooting the episode to tracks not just editing it. It made things go really fast, and we could set the pacing from the get go, we knew what we need so it was very efficient. It was probably the most efficient thing I’ve ever really worked on. It got to the point where it was so efficient we were just having parties every day (laughs). We were having 2-hour lunches, we had costume contests, and it was so chill. We had so much fun making that show and because the music came first and we could slot the show in around it quickly.
The way I discovered Yo Gabba Gabba was hearing about it on social media from friends who had kids and they loved the music and the show, do you feel proud you achieved that?
It was born out of that desire. I had a kid and Scott had a kid with one on the way and we were watching all these kid’s shows and thinking, “this is not speaking to us.” There is something weird about our generation that we don’t let our kids run wild the way our parents used to. “Go have fun and be home by dinner.” Even with TV I remember watching so much TV unsupervised as a kid. I would watch Benny Hill and think “I probably shouldn’t be seeing this” but I loved it (laughs). With our generation I think we are like kids in a way a bit less adult. We have a younger sensibility, I watch Sponge Bob with my kids, that’s not unique to parents today to watch a lot of these shows with your kids. We wanted to watch something cooler and that definitely became the design of the show, something that we would want to watch with our kids. We wanted something that had Kraftwerk or Oingo Boingo type songs, but could also bring on Paul Williams and he could sing Rainbow Connection. We brought on Devo and other bands we grew up worshipping and they were down with the cause and more than proud I just feel really lucky about it. At some point Gabba took on this magic that I didn’t know where it was coming from, but it was really special. I kept thinking, “How is this happening? How did we get so lucky?” Everything lined up so perfectly even getting artists Biz Markie and Mark Mothersbaugh, it’s just like it was meant to be. I dropped out of high school, I’m an idiot (laughs) I don’t have any real musical training. We were mainly just big music fans and we didn’t have a lot of experience in making a show, I started out making skateboard videos and music videos for small bands. That stuff doesn’t really count (laughs). I think a show like Gabba needed to happen when it happened and I still think it could and should come back.
What makes you happiest as a songwriter?
I think just coming up with something that people appreciate or like singing. When someone comes up to me at a show and says “We played this song at our wedding” or “This is my kids favorite song.” Being in AquaBats! there were ups and downs, good times and bad times and in Music sometimes you reflect on things in songs and whether it’s intentional or not there are subconscious or subliminal things you write into songs. When people came up to me and said, “I was thinking about suicide, but your music helped me out”, or “I listened to this song you wrote and it changed my outlook on life and make me feel like things would be OK.” Things like that make me happy. For me music and song writing are a part of a lot of things I do along with directing or writing and even though I love it I still feel like an imposter ya know? You have guys like Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh and even the guys I work with, they are great musicians. So I think “Do I even deserve to be here?” So when people tell me that something I wrote affected their life in a positive way I get emotional. When we first took Yo Gabba Gabba overseas on tour we went to Australia. So I am sitting on top of the arena and there was this Maori family from New Zealand. It was the whole family Mom, Dad, Grandparents, kids and they were all singing the Yo Gabba songs, songs I wrote or had a big part in creating and I just started crying. At that point Gabba had become something so big and the family was so happy to be in the room even way up in the arena cause they didn’t have money to sit on the floor and to be a part of that happiness was emotional. I introduced myself and took them back to meet all the characters and it was just so rad. Music can become something so much bigger than you so much more important than the significance of your contribution. To be writing something and think “Well this will work”, but it impacts some one it’s pretty heavy. Maybe some people maybe go into it thinking, “My Music is going to change people’s lives!” (laughs) I never wanted to be pretentious or pretend that anything I was doing was great, but when I can be a part of something that is great I just think “Wow, how did this happen?”
What are your biggest frustrations as an artist? That can be as a director or a musician or writer etc.
I don’t want to sugar coat stuff, I want to be straight up. Sometimes with honesty it can be interpreted in different ways, but speaking frankly I get frustrated at the process for how long things take to get done. I want to get things done really fast and go really quickly and I get impatient. I think the next generation it’ll get even worse (laughs) everyone will be so used to things happening super fast. As I get older the ideas are stacking up, there is so much I want to do, but I am at an age where I have kids, and I have over head and it’s just not that easy to do everything I want to do. I look at the new YouTube generation kids and they have all the time in the world and they’re single and I think; “That’s amazing.” I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, but the hustle for me is getting a little old. Essentially to survive in this business if you are a songwriter or a director or someone that is creative there is a ton of competition and the reason people get picked isn’t because of a merit of technically ability. It’s political, or cosmetic, or opinion, and I get frustrated with that and the hustle. It would be nice to just do Yo Gabba Gabba for the next 20 years or any other projects I have, but it can’t always happen. This is a business and there are ups and downs and I am not frustrated with the ups and downs, but that you always have to be one step ahead. You have to continually hustle your next project and treat each project like it’s the biggest project of your life. You have to constantly be thinking, “ I am going to be done next week, so what’s next?” I’d love to take a year off and go surfing with my kids every day, but you can’t stop because you’ll get left behind. If you stop to smell the roses, you’re gone. To me that’s frustrating. All those anecdotes you hear about how you are only as good as your next project are true, all that stuff is true. Even though Yo Gabba Gabba was fantastic, and changed some things in the kid’s industry, and was probably in my opinion the best pre-school show in the last 20 years, I can’t rest on that. I have to keep hustling for the next thing. I really wanted to just do Yo Gabba Gabba for the rest of my life. It was so awesome, super rewarding artistically and creatively, and bringing families together and I just wanted to retire doing that, but I can’t. I can’t stop I have to keep going and hustling and I can’t take a vacation or rest. That’s just being totally honest and frank about it.
So even with a big show like Yo Gabba Gabba you just have to be full bore to make your next project happen?
People think all the time that I must be a millionaire because of Yo Gabba Gabba and the answer is “No” (laughs). The first look on their face after that is “You’re joking” and the next look is “Well you’re an idiot.”
Like, what did you do wrong?
That’s right. To me that’s frustrating because you get taken advantage of in this business, it just is what it is. People set up a business taking advantage of artists and it is and always will be a part of it. There are people who will always try to find a way to take advantage of you and make money off of you as an artist. Because of that artists just have to keep going and keep hustling and making art for the right reasons. As long as you are doing something you love it makes the hustle easier, but not less strenuous. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, cause I am so thankful, it’s just frustrating that it’s such a big part of the business. As you get older you want to find something that can lock you into the business. Look at Paul Williams as an example. He probably makes a couple million a year off of publishing from all his amazing songs he wrote, but based on publishing laws back then he probably got screwed out of millions and millions of dollars. So, as the president of ASCAP, he is out there fighting for artists because he cares. He’s still out there hustling as his day job trying to make the publishing royalties and rights fair for artists; he isn’t doing it just for fun. He really cares cause he got screwed and that is what keeps him going. I look at him and think, “He should have been able to retire, he shouldn’t need to be out there fighting for this,” but it’s the nature of the business and I don’t think it’ll ever go away. That’s pretty frustrating.
What advice do you have to an aspiring artist?
Don’t give up! Don’t stop, and don’t give up. The first three songs we wrote for Yo Gabba Gabba were “Try it you’ll like it” “Don’t Bite Your Friends” and “Keep Trying, Don’t Give Up.” Don’t bite your friends is good advice too (laughs). Just be who you are and don’t hurt people you care about and are close with. If you want to move out here and make it? Do it. Go for it. If you really want to do it you can’t give up. If you had all the money in the world, what would you do with your day? Whatever that is make that your job. Do something that makes you happy and find a way to survive doing that. I’ve always thought about that I’ve been doing that for 30 years, since Junior High. It’s hard and it’s a lot of work, but keep trying. Don’t try to measure your success off your bank account or being famous. Do it because you love it, not because you want people to ask for your autograph (laughs.) Also don’t be afraid to put yourself in a position where things are tough and you have to figure things out and fight your way out of it and never give up. Be cool and make a lot of friends and don’t be fake. There are enough fake people out here and people will see right through that. Just be real, because all the people who are real will rise up. So my advice is try it you’ll like it, don’t bite your friends, keep trying don’t give up, and be real (laughs).