Click & Clack add oompahBrave Combo provides musical nuts and bolts for animated TV series
02:56 PM CDT on Monday, July 7, 2008
Howard K. Grossman said he “flipped out” over the first Brave Combo song he heard. It was the Denton polka band’s version of “William Tell Overture,” and Grossman heard it while sitting in a room with a production team. The group included Doug Berman, the producer of the syndicated National Public Radio program, Car Talk, starring brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi.
With a slew of award-winning animators listening, Berman pressed play and asked Grossman to imagine a cartoon character’s hands on a cartoon steering wheel.
Grossman spoke from his office in Connecticut, the headquarters of Car Talk TV, a company launched expressly to put the best dialogue from the radio show into the animated series, reworked so that each episode is developed into a story about Tom, Ray and their fateful radio and garage staff.
What started eight years ago would bring Grossman to Denton to work with Brave Combo, and to start an audio studio network that allows the band to compose, record and send music to the producers of a series that promises to be funny and maybe even a little groundbreaking.
Grossman said he came to the studio ready to swap ideas about music, but Berman was already on a trail.
“We had some ideas about music, but Doug said: ‘We have somebody we like. Would you mind taking a listen?’ That’s what our relationship is like, and they are usually right, by the way,” said Grossman, who agreed that the Denton band should provide the soundtrack to a brand-new animated PBS series, Click & Clack’s As The Wrench Turns . “Doug actually put his hands out like he was putting them on a steering wheel, and it went from there.”
Brave Combo, a local band with two Grammy Awards, became the music-makers for a cartoon series based on the best of the Click & Clack syndicated radio show. The show is aired on National Public Radio stations at 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays and noon on Sundays. The debut of the 10-episode television series will be July 9, but will premier on KERA-TV (Channel 13) at 6 p.m. July 13.
“Last night, I was talking to some fans [after opening in Albuquerque for Blood, Sweat & Tears] and I said ‘if we get picked up for a second season ...’ Boy, that’s the first time that’s ever come out of my mouth,” said Carl Finch, founder and front man of Brave Combo.
The polka band has seen its music bought for television shows and movies long before this, Finch said, and the group even had music in an Academy Award-winning documentary. This is the first time the local musicians have written music that could earn an Emmy Award, the highest honor given to television producers and performers each year.
Finch said the band started working with the crack team that was assembled by Grossman a year ago. They reworked their interpretation of “William Tell Overture” so that it would fit a 30-second to one-minute segment. The band also provided the sound effects and all the music for the show.
“We scored, I’d say, probably about 150 pieces of music for the show,” said Finch, who is credited as the music producer, composer and arranger for all 10 episodes. Brave Combo earned performing credits for every episode. “It was everything from sound effects to other songs; musical cues up to fully blown songs with fairly complex orchestration.”
The band had to convert its Denton workspace so they could get a scene of the show from director Tom Sito, score the scene as directed and then send the music back to the director. Finch said each scene took about three weeks to complete. The band began the project last October and plugged away while handling a busy tour schedule and working on their upcoming album.
“I like working on a deadline,” Finch said. “The ideas pile up on me as the deadline approaches. If they had wanted me to do all this work in a week for each scene, I’d still probably have done it.”
This isn’t the first time the band has been linked with a cartoon. Several seasons ago, Brave Combo was drawn into an episode of the blockbuster Fox series The Simpsons, where they performed their music during an Oktoberfest scene.
Grossman said Brave Combo immediately understood that the cartoon needed fun, sophisticated sounds and music.
“There is no part of the show that is less important than any other part of the show,” Grossman said. “The music is an important part of the show. Our director of each show, Tom Sito, spent a lot of time with Carl mapping out all the ideas for each scene of the show. I wouldn’t say it’s music-driven, but the music is a big part of the show.”
Finch has been adamant that Brave Combo is no novelty act. The band makes serious music, applying traditional European, Latin and other folk forms to new music that seeks neither to imitate nor to mock. When the band interprets Christmas carols and the like as cha-chas, salsas or polkas, the intent is never to joke. Sure, the band has taken aim at religious music, but Finch insists the musicians consider their source songs respectable and worthy.
For As The Wrench Turns, Finch got the green light to dabble in the novel side of music.
“That’s a fine line,” he said. “We were able to lean way, way more toward the novelty side, because everything has to be really colorful. The whole side with the music has to match the visual, so Brave Combo had to lean way more into the novelty realm to make the music work. That said, if you listen to the music on the site [www.brave.com/bo], I fully believe the music can stand on its own. I wanted for myself to play music so that I could listen to it on a CD while I was driving around and that didn’t need to be with a cartoon.”
Finch said he always let the jokes be more important than the music when the show sets one up.
“A paint can falling on somebody’s head, that’s a funny cartoon deal,” he said.
Grossman said he’s pleased with the amount of work Finch and the band have put into the product.
“In the episode ‘Boston Black-Out,’ Carl did this amazing thing, it’s almost a sci-fi sound. These guys pulled music from places the rest of us never even knew about. And Jeffrey Barnes [the Brave Combo wind player], that guy made instruments out of jars and stuff. It’s just amazing and exactly what we were looking for.”
Finch said he has known the brothers, Tom and Ray, for years. Brave Combo has played at a costume event for the brothers, and Finch is a fan of the radio show.
“You know what I think it is? The laugh. Their laugh can crack me up. If something one of them says doesn’t strike me as being particularly funny, but the other laughs at him, I’m cracking up,” Finch said.
Grossman said he thinks people love Car Talk because the brothers are trustworthy.
“I think they give people an opportunity to laugh at themselves,” he said. “Even though they’ll put somebody down and knock them down, at the end, they knock themselves most. That’s the balance. And 50 percent of their radio audience is female. Women find them very trusting; men find them very trusting. They backup everything on their Web site, too. They are the same guys in the coffee shop as they are on the radio. Their persona is a real persona.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHERE TO WATCH
What: Click & Clack’s As The Wrench Turns
When: 6 p.m. Sunday, July 13, on PBS, KERA-TV (Channel 13)
THE MAKING OF AN ANIMATED SERIES
Howard K. Grossman, the creator and executive director of Click & Clack’s As The Wrench Turns, started working on the prime time animated series in February 2001. Grossman was an ardent fan of the National Public Radio show. He was such a fan that he took CDs of “The Best of Car Talk” to Europe, where he was consulting on an animation project.
“It hit me, ‘Hey, this is a cartoon!’” Grossman said. “It was like a light bulb went on over my head, like in a cartoon in a thought bubble. I thought it could work.”
Grossman didn’t know the radio show was popular all over the country. In fact, he thought it was a local show only, “even though they take calls from all over the country.”
Grossman approached the Magliozzi brothers in a blind e-mail. As a producer, he was prepared for rejection. But he got an e-mail back from Car Talk producer Doug Berman. The brothers wanted to know more.
Four years later, PBS picked up the show for development. An award-winning production and artistic team — with ties to Steven Spielberg among others — worked to create a cartoon about two brothers who have a radio show and a garage, just as the Magliozzis have in real life.
To watch episodes, visit www.pbs.org/wrenchturns.
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