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POKEMON Composer John Loeffler
The Man Who's Gotta Write 'Em All.
By Steve Fritz
September 09, 2000
John Loeffler virtually runs into the reception area of Paradise Music for this interview, apologizing profusely for being a tad late. Apparently, Loeffler is running into production snags on the upcoming POKEMON LIVE production slated to debut at New York City's Radio City Music Hall this September. To compound matters, he has to catch a flight to Los Angeles this afternoon to handle other elements of the hit animated series. Still, even though Loeffler looks as if he has had one too many cups of coffee this morning, one cannot help getting the impression that, at his core, he is an intelligent, courteous but exceedingly busy man.
How busy? In the last two years the Pokemon franchise has released four soundtrack CD's, two based on the TV show and the others based on the two movies. Loeffler has his name on virtually all of those songs, either as composer, performer, producer or a combination thereof.
'Between all the albums, we've probably written 40-50 songs in the last 18 month for the movies, TV show, and now the live version,' Loeffler opines as we walk into his large yet comfortable office in the back of the Paradise facility. 'We score about 2-3 commercials a week, too.'
Loeffler is of the new breed of animation music composers. Unlike the great names of the past (such as Looney Tunes' Carl Stallings and Raymond Scott or MGM's Bill Bradley), Loeffler's background is a mixture of pop songs and TV commercials. Other such composers who have made similar such leaps into television and film composing include the likes of Danny Elfman, Mark Snow, and the former members of Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerry Casale.
'What I find interesting in the case of Mark and Gerry's background, is while they were in the band Devo, but they also did their share of commercials,' says Loeffler. 'All these people did a lot of underscoring for television over the last decade.' Loeffler's background is similar. He actually had solo recording contracts with MCA and the Japan-based Alfa Records. It would probably be interesting to see if one could dig up those dusty old LP's from the early 1980s.
Television producers now want music scores to include songs, which can enliven the animated image. If you look at most television animation, it tends to be flat, because it doesn't have the benefits or the budget of a feature film. 'So for a composer, animation is turning out to be a wonderful thing because it needs music all the time,' says Loeffler. 'The animation needs as much help as it can get, and the music supplies lots of it. Animation is also the only thing that's keeping the movie musical alive these days.'
Yet even by animation standards, the POKEMON series is highly unusual. Not since the late 1960's-early 1970's with such shows as JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS, BANANA SPLITS and ARCHIE has such a strong emphasis on pop songs. When the series first came to the U.S. three years back, it not only contained the opening theme; it also ended with a piece called 'PokeRAP.' By the second season, it stepped up with even more songs, now in their own section called 'Pikachu's Juke Box.'
This has meant a lot of work for Loeffler. Then again, his background shows he's a man who probably can handle it. He's worked for twenty years writing primarily for TV commercials and television shows, doing music for KATE & ALLIE, the main theme for ANOTHER WORLD (which won him a Grammy) and WORKING IT OUT, which starred Jane Curtain. Loeffler also wrote all the music for the 1988 Olympics in Atlanta.
In the process of doing all this, Loeffler developed a relationship with a client named Norman Grossfeld. Loeffler recalls, 'He called me one day to say he joined this marketing and licensing company called 4 Kids Entertainment and had gotten the license to a hit television show from Japan. It was POKEMON.'
Grossfeld's call was a major case of serendipity for Loeffler, who had his own successful organization, Rave Music. 'Originally, they were going to literally translate the show exactly the way it's aired in Japan,' Loeffler recalls, 'but Norman is very creative in his own right. He thought he could do better. He felt that if they changed the music, the textures of the sound effects and worked on the story a bit it would work better in the U.S.
'I am a songwriter, and Norman knew that. Rave also has about six or seven other songwriter-musicians on staff. He came to us because he knew we were very capable of coming up with a lot of songs and delivering them on time. He decided to take advantage of that.'
From there, Grossfeld, Loeffler and company took a road less traveled in creating the music for POKEMON. 'One of the things you might have noticed about POKEMON is the mouths of the characters don't really move that much,' Loeffler notes. 'That actually gives people like us a lot of liberties. I'm personally not as restricted when composing music to insure it fits within the confines of the characters' mouth movements.
'When a cartoon show gets new music, you'll notice the opening theme usually doesn't have vocals or lyrics, and it relies heavily on just a few other themes. Overall, there's never more than one song per show because there usually just isn't enough in the budget for any more. The budgets are very limited. In our case, we already had the musicians here. We already had a studio here. I didn't care if I was getting paid to utilize them. I did care that I was getting paid to write another song. So in the first season we were able to do two songs, the opening theme and 'PokeRAP.' We were also able to lace the first season with bits of other songs. Then it was decided we would feature the other songs at the end of the shows in the second season. That became Pickachu's Juke Box.'
As the show grew in popularity, demand for the music on CD also grew. Thus, the first Pokemon CD, 2.B.A MASTER (Koch Records) was issued last year. Of the twelve songs on the CD, Loeffler has composing credits on eleven and sings background on a number of them. He even does the lead singing chores on 'You Can Do It (If You Really Try,' the CD's closer.
When POKEMON: THE MOVIE (1999) came out, it produced two CD's. The first, the ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SCORE (Koch) contains nothing but music from Loeffler and his team. The second, issued through Atlantic, is one of those records containing music 'inspired' by the movie. The second record contains the likes of Christine Aguilera, Brittany Spears and N Sync as well as more music written by Loeffler.
'I didn't have much to do with that,' Loeffler admits regarding the Atlantic recording. 'The records that are on Koch, I had everything to do with. Those artists showed up on the Atlantic Records albums. My primary responsibility was to deliver songs of mine that these artists would want to perform. I would imagine from those artists' point of view, this was just another soundtrack they would appear on. They just did what was appropriate for the movie.
'I had more control on the second movie soundtrack album. The music on there was specifically tailor-made to the artists, which included the B-52's, Donna Summers, O-Town and others. For instance, on the first movie we started working on it two months before it was dubbed into English. We were handed a tape and a script so we could get a handle of what was going on. The reason was we actually had to have most of the music finished before the dubbing actually took place. That led to some interesting situations.'
One of the incidents revolved around a band that is another part of the entire Paradise organization. 'In the first movie, we were pushing to do a song by Blessed Union,' says Loeffler. 'It was designed for a particular key sequence. Now the thing is, when you are scoring a scene you don't have the liberty to tell the film editor what to do. Usually, the visuals are edited and then the score is laid down. The song 'Brother My Brother' is a good example of it. I wrote it based on what I saw in the Japanese version of the picture. Then we had to rewrite it a bit to reflect what was going on in the American version of the movie. So I got a call from the directors asking if I could cut and add various bits to the song. So it ended up where there's a weird four-bar section between the main song and the reprise. That was due to the directors.'
Loeffler's experience in advertising has paid off handsomely when it comes to composing music for the series. 'I'd been moving song parts all my life,' says Loeffler. 'I learned how to take songs and move them around, take bars out, put unusual ones in to get attention and the like. There's all kinds of tricks. Norman tries to get the dubbing done as quickly as possible because that makes the job easier for us. It's easier to compose when you know what's going on.'
As for the future, Loeffler is busy trying to land a few more TV-scoring contracts while writing like a banshee for POKEMON LIVE. 'That's what's exciting about working on this POKEMON LIVE show that will debut at Radio City Music Hall September 21. There's 17 songs in it. It's pretty much wall-to-wall dancing and singing. Half of it is based on songs from Pickachu's Juke Box, and half of it is new.
'I just came back from a review. So John Siegler, who's my partner on most of the songs from the first album, and Norman Grossfeld, who's not only the producer of the show but wrote a number of the lyrics, we are basically trying to finish it all up.'
No doubt run so Loeffler can run on to the next Pokemon project, whatever that may be.