Saturday, October 13, 2018

Meet Matt Mahaffey: The Nashville Music Genius Behind the Music of 'Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'

The Nashville Tennessean has unveiled a Turtley Awesome interview with Matt Mahaffey, the multi-instrumentalist, multi-platinum record producer, Emmy Award and Annie Award nominated composer who produced the musical score for Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Nickelodeon's brand-new 2D-animated series which reimagines the iconic characters of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a fresh new way! Check out the fantastic interview below, and make sure to catch Matt's work on Rise of the TMNT, only on Nick!

Nickelodeon’s Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Pictured (clockwise): Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and April O’Neil.

Matt Mahaffey: the Nashville music genius behind the new 'Ninja Turtles'

It’s tough to know where to start when you’re introducing Matt Mahaffey, a Nashville musician with at least four surprising claims to fame.

Matt Mahaffey spends time Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, at his new Beastside Tracks studio in East Nashville. Mahaffey toured with Beck, created the jingle and is now making music for the new "Ninja Turtles" series "Rise of the TMNT." Photo credit: Courtney Pedroza/The Tennessean

We’ll start with the latest: The Tennessee native has written the new theme song for the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

The bombastic tune (with lyrics by Leticia Wolf) opens up the new Nickelodeon TV series “Rise of the TMNT.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Mahaffey is responsible for all the music for the show — each of its 100-plus episodes requires around 11 minutes of intricate scoring. He spends a week on each episode, working day and night out of his new Beastside Tracks studio in East Nashville.

“I've fallen asleep at my desk many times, but this is like all cylinders,” he says. “You've got to go from some, like, Katy Perry pop into some Romanian death metal into some John Williams-y 'Star Wars' score into a chase scene, and you just have to have all of those instruments at the ready.”

And his job with the Turtles might not even be the most unusual gig Mahaffey’s ever had over the last two decades.

Remember that twangy three-second jingle for That was Mahaffey’s creation — in fact, it was his first TV ad job.

Remember how the movie “Shrek” opens with Smash Mouth’s “All-Star”? Mahaffey actually wrote an original song for that scene, but at the eleventh hour, it was moved to the end credits instead.

Now, really think back to the mid-‘90s. Remember when Murfreesboro, not Nashville, was briefly considered one of the hippest music towns in the country? That fuse was lit by his band, Self. The genre-hopping alt-rock group was light-years ahead of its time, and it scored some radio and MTV play with its 1995 debut.

Still, a few years after that release, Mahaffey decided he preferred the recording studio over the road (though he did make an exception to see the world as part of Beck’s band in the mid-2000s).

'The only dude that would show up'

For the last 10 years, most of his work has been for children’s television and advertisements. It’s a life he says he couldn’t have imagined when he first set off on his own, enrolling in the recording industry program at Middle Tennessee State University.

“I just wanted to write songs, make beats and be an artist,” he says. “Because that's all you know. I didn't know what a film composer was. I didn't know how to do commercials or where that music came from. I was like everyone else.”

Matt Mahaffey is responsible for all the music for the Nickelodeon show "Rise of the TMNT" — each of its 100-plus episodes requires around 11 minutes of intricate scoring. He spends a week on each episode, working day and night out of his new Beastside Tracks studio in East Nashville. Photo credit: Courtney Pedroza/The Tennessean.

That started to change when Self was signed to Dreamworks Records, the music division of the massive entertainment company founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. As Dreamworks started work on its first movies, it looked to its recording artists to provide songs for them. Mahaffey was one of several artists who’d be regularly invited to see rough cuts of future blockbusters.

"Oftentimes, I would be the only dude that would show up,” he says. “I’d just be like, 'I'm there, man!' The first one I ever did was ‘Shrek.’ I got the only original song in ‘Shrek.’ From there, it snowballed into lots of little things.”

Self put out only one album on Dreamworks (1999’s “Breakfast With Girls”) before it lost its deal. But by then, Mahaffey was working regularly with the company’s animation department, making music for “Shrek” animated shorts and amusement park rides. Soon, he was meeting with Nickelodeon and Disney, and scored full-time gigs as composer for several kids’ shows: “Ni Hao, Kai-lan,” “Henry Hugglemonster” and “Sanjay and Craig.”

“I’ve moved from preschool (programming) all the way up to ‘Turtles,’ which is like scoring a film but with about 100 percent more music in it. It means the world to me. Because I definitely moved up that ladder step by step as hard as I could.”

'It's absolutely mental'

When Mahaffey tells people what he does for a living, he says there’s a common response.

“They say, ‘I didn't even realize cartoons had music in them.' And I always say, 'Well, then you should try watching one without it.' Because it's a totally different experience. It just doesn't work without the music. And you really have to try to step up your game these days. You have to write 11 minutes of music a week. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it's daunting.”

He’s discussing this in the Beastside control room, where he has his latest “Turtles” assignment up on his computer. In this scene, the four heroes are trapped in a sort of samurai fortress, with spiked-covered walls closing in on them.

Matt Mahaffey looks over his work at his recording studio Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in East Nashville. Mahaffey toured with Beck, created the jingle and is now making music for the new "Ninja Turtles" series. Photo credit: Courtney Pedroza/The Tennessean

Mahaffey presses “play” on the scene with the music track removed. Even with the vibrant art and snappy dialogue, something feels very off, and incomplete.

He turns the music up and plays the scene again. Suddenly, the stakes are raised. In the span of 60 seconds, Mahaffey’s work veers from traditional Japanese music to explosive action movie fare, sappy sitcom piano and “Superfly” funk. The turtles’ frantic emotions are heightened, and their punchlines land.

Almost all of these sounds come straight from Mahaffey’s computer with an arsenal of software and samples that can reproduce any instrument you can imagine. That includes a computerized choir that sounds hauntingly real: It's used to sing words like “pizza” for dramatic effect.

This attention to detail hasn't gone unnoticed by the show's creative forces. "Rise of the TMNT" co-Executive Producer Andy Suriano says having Mahaffey onboard “lifts the show above that of any children’s program."

"Matt shares our point of view that we never want to speak down to kids," Suriano says. "And the sophisticated yet playful way Matt lays down his tracks elevates and perfectly executes that mission. Matt brings a kinetic, frenetic fun energy that isn’t too far a departure than his work in Self, which is exactly all we’d hope it to be. It’s such a perfect marriage between sound and screen.”

Mahaffey would love to use all his tricks on a feature film one day but argues that animated television is actually the tougher gig.

“I've done so many cartoons that live action would be a breeze. Like, give me a romantic comedy. I could have that to you by Thursday," he says with a laugh. "It's an exaggeration, but that's what it feels like. The amount of music that goes into these things is absolutely mental. I do it every week, and it's already been picked up for a second season, and it just started airing. That's 54 episodes a season, so I have a hundred of these things to do. ... You start seeing through time, you know what I mean?”

He’s also focused on getting Beastside — which he co-owns with Cal Ecker — fully up and running. The studio is now open to outside artists to book recording sessions, and the building also houses the rest of Mahaffey’s composition team: Marcus Meston, Keiffer Infantino and Leticia Wolf. Collectively, they’re handling music for six shows, including the E! Network’s “Total Divas” and “Total Bellas.” Mahaffey estimates that’s “easily an hour of original music a week.”

“It's absolutely mental work, and I love it. It's really challenging. It's fun and it's fresh.”

More Nick: 'Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Global Roll Out Premiere Dates | Nickelodeon!
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