Interview Rewind: "Hey Arnold" Composer Jim Lang

Another Interview Rewind! I mentioned in my IR post about Craig Bartlett that I’d also interviewed Hey Arnold! composer Jim Lang. I thought it’d be cool to republish both this and the Bartlett interviews to celebrate the release of Hey Arnold!: The Complete Series on DVD from Shout! Factory.

If you’re a fan of Hey Arnold!, then you probably love the music as much as you love Arnold, Gerald, Helga and the rest of the denizens of Arnold’s Seattle-esque neighborhood. Way back when Moniqueblog.net was still in its infancy (around 2010), I was able to write to Lang via email and ask him some questions about his creative process, his favorite moments from the show, and his past life working with some of the music world’s most prolific artists.

What do you think about every season of Hey Arnold! now available on DVD? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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I think it’s safe to say that practically every kid growing up in the 1990s watched “Hey Arnold” on Nickelodeon. During-and after-its run on Nick, it has been hailed as a success in storytelling and still has fans who (im)patiently await its return. I had a chance to converse with Jim Lang, the composer for the show.

Moniqueblog-When did you first realize you wanted to have a career in music?

Jim Lang-I started playing in bands in Junior High School.  But I started doing theater then too, and pursued both throughout High School. When it came time to go to college, I went to Northwestern University to study theater. I left Northwestern to take a job with the Chicago Free Street Theater, and while I was in that company I became music director. From that point on I did more and more music, and eventually moved to Los Angeles.

MB-In doing research for the interview, I read on your website that you once played with musical greats like Todd Rundgren, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, and The Pointer Sisters. What was it like to work with these musicians?

JL-I have been really fortunate to play alongside some extraordinary folks. It has become a commonplace to say that one is “blessed” by these associations, but really that is the way it feels to me. Making music with others yields these extraordinary moments of deep connection to something larger- a groove, an audience, one other person, the whole universe- And those moments stick with me and nourish me constantly. I also have to say that for every memorable moment in big venues with the famous artists I have worked with there have been a multitude of times with not-so-famous folk in not-so-glamorous joints that were every bit as cool and memorable.

MB-A large chunk of my childhood consisted of watching Nickelodeon and Saturday morning cartoons, so much of your music from Lloyd in Space, Hey Arnold, and Hey Arnold-The Movie has had a large impact on me on as kid growing up in the ’90s. Have you had many fans write to you or tell you stories similar to mine? If so, how does that make you feel?

JL-A few years ago as the Hey Arnold! generation began to percolate through the internet and the url for my website went up on a few of the HeyA fansites, I began to get quite a lot of correspondence from fans of the show. It is wonderful to hear that people think of the world of the show as a welcoming and familiar place, and that the music touched them. That is what I hope for when I write for picture, but it isn’t often that I get the kind of direct feedback from people that I have from Hey Arnold. And I am really touched by the fact that not a few of the people I hear from are studying music themselves and cite the score from the show as an early influence. That is wonderful.

MB-What was the main idea behind the music you created for Lloyd in Space? How was the music for this show different than the music created for Hey Arnold ?

JL-The creators of the show, Paul Germain and Joe Ansolebehere, had gotten some music ideas from Disney, among which was an album called The Moog Cookbook- a bunch of pop tunes done entirely on retro synthesizers. We all thought this was a cool jumping-off place, and I did as much over-the-top synthesizer knob twisting as I could in every episode. It is perfect cartoon instrumentation- bendy and stretchy and kinetic.

MB-What was the inspiration behind the theme song for “Hey Arnold”?

JL-I actually wrote the melody in the late 70s. I always though it would make a great Dunkin Donuts commercial, but I was too chicken to play it for my friend Donnie Rosenberg, whose father started Dunkin Donuts in Boston. Years later when the executives at Nick began groaning out loud when Craig and I sang them our original idea (which eventually got used as a promo: “Arnold! You crazy cat!”) I knew I had to come up with a catchy alternative, and that melody just popped back into my head. Recycling.

MB-Many characters on the show had their own theme music, like Helga, for instance. How did you come up with her theme?

JL-I tried to get inside Helga’s head when she was having those private ecstatic moments where she allowed her self to just let her overwhelming love for Arnold flow. In every story that featured Helga there was what we came to call a “Helga Moment” where she would do that. And Frannie (Francesca Smith who played Helga) had such a perfect way of doing it, so syrupy and with a beautiful little shuddering sigh at the end… the violin was the perfect voice and the music pretty much wrote itself. And of course, every time we did the bit she would get interrupted unceremoniously, usually by some off screen mouth breathing from Brainy.

MB-Which character’s theme was the most fun to make and why? By the same token, which character’s theme was the hardest to make and why?

JL-They were all fun to make because, like the Helga theme, they grew out of scenes in the show that featured the character.  There were a few strong themes, notably for Arnold and Helga and Grandpa, but there were also themes for the city and certain emotions that recur a lot through the course of the show. One piece that was wicked hard was the marching band music in “Runaway Float” where the marching band gets run down by Big Bob’s float. I just about had a heart attack when I read that script. We didn’t exactly have a budget to hire a marching band, let alone crush and replace all their instruments!  I can’t remember exactly how I faked the sounds of the instruments getting crushed, but I do remember I made the cue play faster and more out of tune as the float bore down on the band and they marched faster and faster and finally fled in terror.

MB-The “Hey Arnold Christmas Special” was pretty memorable to me, both in terms of the story and the music. What was the inspiration behind the music created for the special?

JL-The actor who played Mr Hyunh on the show is Vietnamese, and the story of his journey from Vietnam to the US has a great deal in common with the story in the script. So starting right there the special had big emotional resonance for everyone who worked on the show. Add to that a really terrific script and great performances from all the actors and you have a really powerful piece.  With all of those elements are working together, the music practically wrote itself. It was really a joy to write that score and the Christmas special is right near the top of my list of favorite episodes. Another note:  the wonderful wood flute performances of Mai’s [Mr. Hyunh’s daughter] theme were by a superb musician, Jon Clarke, who was well loved by every composer who ever wrote for him because he played with such tremendous emotion and made the notes on the page come alive so beautifully. He has since passed away and is sorely missed.

MB-What were some of the best and worst parts about working on the music for “Hey Arnold-The Movie”?

JL-The hardest part of that whole project for everyone on the crew was trying to make something that was written and animated to be shown on television look and sound like it was always intended for theatrical release. I can’t remember how far along we were in production on The Neighborhood.  My recollection is that the voices and animation were already mostly done when Nick and Paramount decided that they would release it as a feature-length movie. Animation is a complicated process and there are a number of technical and story decisions made all along the way that fall one way or the other  depending on what the final product is going to be. We all had our hands full trying to bring the production values up to something that looked like a movie.

For my part I used the same music I had written for the story in its TV incarnation, but I decided to pay to record about 20 minutes of music with a real orchestra instead of just using the synthesizer orchestra we used for the weekly episodes. It ate my entire paycheck for the whole project to pay for the musicians. Boy did it sound good, though!

MB-As you probably already know, Craig Bartlett wanted to create another “Hey Arnold” movie- now known to everyone online as “The Jungle Movie”-where Arnold goes to Central America in search of his parents. He also wanted to create a spin-off featuring Helga and her family called “The Patakis”. Both of these ideas were never greenlit by Nickelodeon. How did you feel when “The Jungle Movie” and the spin-off “The Patakis” weren’t greenlit?

JL-We were all disappointed- the prospect of continuing to collaborate with the great crew Craig had assembled for Hey Arnold! was a really cheery one, and the initial drawings and storyboards for the jungle movie looked fantastic. “The Patakis” also looked very funny, although there was far less development time put into that concept than the jungle movie. But the thought of following Helga and her family into Helga’s goth future still makes me laugh.

MB-If Bartlett’s “Hey Arnold” Jungle Movie came to fruition, in what direction would you take the movie’s score? Also, in what direction would you take the music for, “The Patakis”?

JL-Big adventure for the Jungle Movie. You can get the idea if you listen to the score for “The Journal,” although I was never happy with the way much of that score turned out. And The Patakis? I think some kind of heavy metal shredder music for Helga- married to updated versions of Big Bob’s Beepers theme and Helga’s mother’s Leave-it-to-Beaver sitcom score.

MB-What can your fans expect from you now? In other words, what projects are you currently working on?

JL-I’ve been away from TV since Lloyd wrapped, getting back to my live action composing- doing some Independent films. Although I did do three animated DVD features (“Unstable Fables”) for Henson/Weinsteins. I hope to get another chance to work with Craig in the future.  Meanwhile I’m doing more studio work and playing with some fun bands including a great LA soul-jazz collective called Build An Ark.  Our album “Love” is just out. Also made a really fun album of elctro-acoustic music with my good friend Patrick Gleeson call “Jazz Criminal” If you’re interested that is available from CD baby.  You can check it out on MySpace Music too.

MB-Any final thoughts?

JL-Just this: HUGE THANKS and shout outs to all of the Hey Arnold fans for all the great emails and love.  It’s a good feeling to know that the show lives on in your hearts.  It is certainly one of my favorite projects, ever! ▪

You can visit Jim Lang’s website at knobworld.com.

Photo credit: Nickelodeon 

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