Interview: Phineas and Ferb Composer Danny Jacob Sits Down to Talk with DisZine
He began playing guitar when he was 13 and was making money, playing gigs in and around L.A., by the time he was 16. It’s a great start to the story about the man who would give the musical backbone to Disney’s two most precocious heroes, Phineas and Ferb.
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting with Danny Jacob, composer and the man behind the music on Disney’s hit animated series – a show that kids and the parents that love them can actually enjoy together. Owing to the clever writing, the over the top antics of Phineas, Ferb, their neurotic teenage sister, Candace, and the show’s under-achieving villain, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, the series has found a following with everyone from 2 to 62 (and counting.) Danny graciously peeled back the veil and let us have a peek into the genius that sets this show apart. Let’s launch right into the interview, with my questions, followed by Danny’s warm answers.
DZ: You began playing at age 13, and were a professional musician by age 16. How did you go from playing guitar to other instruments, and from touring and working as a session musician to composing for film and television?
DJ: It was a long journey, as far as really becoming a composer, but once I chose the guitar (or it chose me, depending on how you want to look at it), it was a no-brainer. I was good, and played in bands, and really, it was like I had no choice. Once I started to make a living, my goals became more defined. I wasn’t thinking at 18 about it, I was just excited to play with good musicians.
DZ: It sounds as though your journey as a musician…you just knew you wanted to play, and you built a living around this thing you wanted to do. That’s inspiring.
DJ: Yeah. My goals when I was playing lots of bars on the LA music scene were to build on it. Playing in bars, I set a goal to tour with stars, and I achieved that. As far as composing goes, I almost feel like it came to me in the same way the guitar did: I didn’t search for it. But a series of events occurred, and opportunities came my way, even before Disney, but especially Disney, in a way that really, it chose me.
DZ: It’s an interesting transition, from LA musician to Disney. How did you get your start with Disney, and later, with Phineas and Ferb?
DJ: I was always really good at tearing apart songs, and I loved hit records – making them, playing on them, producing them. I’d pull apart songs to see what the different instruments were doing, and at one point, people started hiring me to do their demos. I started by producing and I had some success there. My wife, who is my business partner, was running the music department at DreamWorks during this time, from its inception up until the time that she voluntarily quit to focus on being a mom and my partner. But during those DreamWorks years, she worked a lot with Hans Zimmer, who did the films. Hans knew who I was as a guitar player, and Harry Gregson-Williams and he would hire me to player guitar on Shrek, and they’d give me songs to arrange and produce, like the opening to El Dorado, the song, “I Can See Clearly Now” on the ANTZ film, I produced. That gave me a window into how they worked. I became like a sponge. They were gracious and let me see how they did things.
Regarding Disney, I literally got a call from Jay Stutler, who is now VP of Music for TV Animation at Disney. I count him as a mentor and friend. At the time, he had just gotten a job with Disney (not VP) and gave me opportunities, looked out for me. And I never let him down. That started with songs. My first home run was the theme song for Lilo and Stitch, and then The Emperor’s New School, and probably 200 other songs. Suddenly, it felt like I could do this. When Phineas and Ferb came along, Jay pitched me for the show. Dan (Povenmire) and Swampy (Marsh, the show’s creators) gave me demos for “Gitchy Gitchy Goo” and “Perry the Platypus”, and I did the productions that you’ve heard, and that got me the gig! That was the easy part. The harder part was, “Oh my God! I’ve gotta do 22 minutes of music every week.” All the classical music, all the underscore. But I just stayed up late, and I worked real hard and it all seemed to work out.
DZ: You’re a Dream Team! You collaborate with the series’ creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh to bring the songs that they write to life. In the early days, the guys would leave you clips on your answering machine for you to flesh out. Tell us a little about that process.
DJ: In the old days, before anyone knew the show would be a hit, they’d do a long work day, and sing a song in my phone machine, and just sound like a bunch of drunk sailors! Not that they were. But they’d be out of tune…and I’d listen and keep listening, and realize that these were pretty great songs. I’d just take it and turn it into a huge production. And after I lost a couple of songs, they learned about the world of MP3s! And now we’re a little more professional.
DZ: Well, thank God you didn’t lose anymore songs!
DJ: Actually, we have a running gag. They’ll say that, and I’ll say, believe me, be thankful I lost that one (laughs.) But we’re into 300-400 songs now, and I used to be a little envious. I mean, I was the song guy. I wrote and co-wrote so many songs. But once I saw how much work it took to deliver 22 minutes for music, and my love for producing and arranging, and playing instruments and singing, which is all time-consuming, I was relieved that the quality of songs would be so good, that I could concentrate on arranging and producing them, singing, and doing all the underscore.
DZ: To get ready for our talk today, I actually went back and watched a couple of my favorite episodes, like Monster From the Id. That song is hilarious! And really rockin’. I’m assuming you have a hand in steering the style of the song?
DJ: Yeah, that’s a great episode. Well, credit where credit is due: a lot of times, I’ll come up with the sound tempo, but I think they probably said that they wanted it to be more of a metal sound. They’d point me in the right direction. They have GREAT taste in music, which is just another bonus! Dan has been in bands his whole life and has written songs long before this, and Swampy’s grandfather was famous big band leader Les Brown, and he has very particular taste in music. They are a wealth of ideas for me. They usually have a general idea of what they want, which is great.
DZ: A hallmark of Phineas and Ferb is that every episode has an original song. Which comes first: song or episode?
DJ: We always start with a song from my end. I get a song many months before the episode is ready to score. They’ll be storyboarding the episode, and they’ll write a song. I’ll get that first. And what makes the show so powerful, is so often in animation, songs are afterthoughts. In our case, the song is completely produced and arranged like a music video first, and then they’ll animate to the song. So if there are music instruments, they’ll make a big deal about it a lot of the times. Then months later, I’ll get the episode, months after I produced the song, and I’ll be like “Oh, cool! There’s that song! Look how they animated to it!” Then we’ll spot the episode together, and they’ll tell me what they’re seeing, different sections. Obviously, there’s a formula now – with Perry getting his mission from Monogram, and Candace coming in…it gets easier. I’ll know – okay, it’s time for Candace or Doof. It’s challenging, but great, and has really helped to expand my musical palette.
DZ: You don’t think of a “kid’s” show doing all that. But it’s clear that you’ve got to know a lot to do what you do.
DJ: Well, you’ve gotta have a work ethic, you have to have good instincts and know how to meet a deadline. Sometimes a person doesn’t know how good they can do until they’re under pressure. I’m that kind of person. It can be scary, too. My biggest fear is being mediocre.
DZ: Who is your favorite character to score? Why? What are some of the ways you distinguish them and bring them to life?
DJ: At this point, they’re all real to me, and I love them all. Candace is the Wicked Witch, and I’m paying some homage to the Wizard of Oz. Phineas and Ferb seem to be working off of two themes: ska rock like the main title, and quirky queue (Phineas and Ferb’s work song.) That song has been used in 50 or more episodes. It’s just taken off. Doof is more Hans Zimmer, Eastern European classical. Low bassoons, and always manages, no matter how brilliant he is, to screw it up. ”Gitchy Gitchy Goo” is a favorite. I love that song, I’m very close to it. It’s the one that got me the job.
DZ: Did you set out to engage kids and adults alike, or has that just been a by-product of the cool music and clever writing?
DJ: No, we didn’t, but that’s the best compliment that I can get! To hear that from you, and I’ve heard it before, it makes me really happy. The cool and magical thing is they [Dan and Swampy] want the music to be great, and I get to do what I love with rock and funk, the music that I really love playing. I didn’t have to be anything I didn’t want to be. They didn’t want old style or wacky. They wanted, essentially, what I wanted. Now, I do have to be versatile, and you have to do whatever they wanted me to do – slide guitar, country, whatever. The difference with Phineas and Ferb is that it actually allow me to do the styles I love the most.
DZ: You’ve done some singing on the show. Tell us a little about that.
DJ: I always loved huge background vocals and I got pretty good at arranging them. When the show came along, I started singing a lot of the songs myself. I hire singers too for the big vocals, but the “wall of sound” – that’s me. I don’t consider myself a top notch singer, but I’ve found my voice. It’s kind of a happy fluke.
DZ: What has been your biggest challenge to date working on Phineas and Ferb?
DJ: I would say is to stay fresh and original, and to keep reinventing myself. The challenge at first was to not suck, and to not be fired. (Laughs.) Now the challenge is, “Okay. We’re going into Season 4. We’ve already done 100 episodes and we’re working on another 35. What can I do to stay fresh and not just rehash the old stuff?” That’s my biggest challenge.
DZ: Outside of Phineas and Ferb, you are involved in the Endowment for Teenage Drama Workshop. Is that a cause that’s near and dear to your heart?
DJ: I have to give my wife and son credit. My son, Aaron, is 17 now – and by the way, he’s sung on a number of songs, like “Dance, Baby!” and “Drusselstein Driving Test Waltz,” where he sounds like a crazy German. But that’s beside the point. My son is an actor in musical theater, and he’s getting really good roles, and it’s brought me into a world that I’m learning so much about, and I love it! Now, Teenage Drama Workshop has been around for 50 years and it’s a summer program for improvisation drama and they put on plays. And my wife was in it when she was a teenager, and it’s a wing of Cal State Northridge that was in jeopardy of being shut down because of budget cuts. My wife [Marylata Jacob] created this endowment. She gets the credit. She did all the legwork and has done all the work to keep it afloat, and people have been matching our fund. It’s not without its problems, but it’s up and running. And we know we’ll have a great program this summer.
DZ: What a great legacy! Such valuable work. I’m thankful that you’ve taken an interest in this fantastic program.
DJ: I find that watching what it’s done for Aaron…whether you go on to be an actor or not…I wish I had had that training. To learn how to improvise, and to think on your feet and be creative…that gives you skill sets that can reach into lots of different areas and disciplines.
DZ: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to share with our readers?
DJ: The biggest is our upcoming fourth season. I’m also doing some arranging and production on a new Disney show, Sophia the First, which is gonna be huge. The little girls are going to love her. They have a great song writer, and I’m just producing the songs, especially the ones that they hope to make into records. Keep an eye out for it. It’s going to be great.
DZ: What is it like to be part of Disney history, alongside greats like Walt Disney himself, and composers like the Sherman Brothers? With the success of this show, I really think it’s going to transcend trendiness and be a Disney classic. How do you feel, being mentioned in the same breath as other Disney greats?
DJ: As a guitar player, I played at Disneyland on Tomorrowland Terrace, for a year. So I feel like I am part of Disney history. But to play on a show like you describe, one that transcends the flavor of the month, it’s just humbling, and I’m grateful. Because Disney is so massive and it does so many different things, to have something that stands the test of time, it does kinda feel like it was meant to be.
Many thanks to Danny Jacob for spending an hour with DisZine and answering all of my fan girl questions! To learn more about Danny Jacob, visit his website or Facebook page. Catch Phineas and Ferb on the Disney Channel and Disney XD.