Graeme Cornies, James Chapple, and Brian Pickett are the creators of Voodoo Highway. The influential music house delivered some of the most iconic kids music for the past fifteen years from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to Paw Patrol. Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, the talented trio talks about what keeps their interest in children’s music, why playing video games you worked on can screw up boss battles, and what they think about a David Lynch children’s show.
Awards Daily: What was behind your group’s founding in the 2000s?
Brian Pickett: We were working dead end jobs. I was working at a dubbing room in a very big studio where I was copying audio cassettes off of the radio to send to clients to hear things. And a little bit miserable. But I saw these composers renting the big studio, with their sheet music and lots of gear and thought, that is such a cool job. They just sit there and spend the whole day mixing this great track for commercial use. So I called up my good friend James, who was also in a pretty crappy situation. Why don’t we start a music house? These guys are making music for TV commercials, getting paid lots of money and having lots of fun. Looks like the coolest life. So yeah we did.
James Chapple: We were also young enough and inexperienced enough not to know any better. I distinctly remember that Brian and I graduated from the same college course called Music Industry Arts out of London, Ontario, Canada, and our professors there distinctly said, Do not move to Toronto, do not open a music house. Just don’t do it. I remember instantly thinking that is exactly what I need to do. So when Brian called it was actually just a total stroke of luck and just perfect timing and it worked out really well. We worked together for four or five years and realized we needed some help so we called Graeme, who I actually knew as far back as high school. We had played in a band together in grade 12, and I knew he was in town and he was a perfect fit and he has been part of the team ever since.
Also just a funny story: Graeme wanted me to play in his band in high school and I was too nervous because I had never played in a band. So I kept trying to avoid him and he tracked me down and called my house, and it is a good thing he did too because my life would be totally different if I hadn’t played in Graeme’s band.
Brian Pickett: It’s like a stalking with a good ending
Graeme Cornies: I was playing in a bunch of bands and my mom was a harpist making records, so in the summer time I was spending my summer job money on recording time. I had seen James perform just prior to this on this crazy thing called an electone, which is this organ synthesizer essentially. He was playing all sorts of film scores with his hands and feet, with the strings in one hand, brass in the other. It blew my mind. So with a lot of my band members leaving town for the summer I was thinking, who is going to play on this record with me? I just knew he was the guy. So yeah, I had to keep knocking on the door till it opened.
James Chapple: Thank goodness!
AD: What captured your interest in children’s animated shows because that seems to be the majority of what you work on?
Brian Pickett: To answer this there is an amendment to the last question as well. You might notice our name Voodoo Highway is not the name people might choose if they are getting into children’s animation. When we got started, we were in our early twenties so we wanted to write music and do sound design for horror films and David Lynch psychological, mind-bending films. That’s why the name. It is a play on Lost Highway. We would have called ourselves Lost Highway Music, if it was open. But the kids’ music thing was a long path and it coincided with us having kids ourselves. It more of found us, when we were younger we were trying out for everything. A commercial came out. We put our hat in the ring, write a track for that. Then it just happened we got a theme song for a show called Total Drama Island about sixteen years ago. Then we kept winning theme songs for kids’ shows and underscores for kids’ shows. We had never done it before, that was just seven to nine years into our start. Now we love it; we didn’t foresee doing it back then.
James Chapple: There is an interesting connection too. Before we did Total Drama Island we worked on some reality TV shows, one in particular called Rich Bride, Poor Bride that we did for I think seven seasons. Total Drama Island is supposed to be an animated reality show so one thing led right into the next. We felt we were super geared up for that particular score because of our experience in reality TV. So a lot of the way we got into animation was just following the breadcrumbs of our career. .There was another connection too, where we were doing commercials for Spin Master toys long before they had Paw Patrol on the scene. So one thing just lead into the next. Luckily Total Drama Island was a massive hit and that just opened the door for us in animation, to just be invited back to pitch for various things.
Graeme Cornies: I think at the very beginning you do not know what the world is going to want more from you. So you cast a wide net, try hard at everything and see what lands and see what people call you back for. We found a home in kids’ TV somewhat incidentally, trying hard at everything, and that was the thing that took root and made us really really busy.
AD: Something I was curious about when you worked on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, what was it like working in the classic Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood theme? Did you have a lot of input in adapting that?
Brian Pickett: Yeah, there was a lot of flexibility. It started with the theme song, because that was the first thing they asked for us and about twenty other composers. They wanted us to do a take on the theme song.
James Chapple: And the very first strategy song was one of the huge things of that demo as well. The show was based around having some memorable strategy that parents could use with their kids. So that was part of that pitch. But we wanted to speak within Mr. Rogers’ world.
Brian Pickett: They asked for jazzy, but to bring in something more contemporary that would be adaptable for younger kids. Mr. Rogers got pretty jazzy with his chords and they wanted us to simplify it a little bit. More in line with the kid-oriented pop music of today rather than coming from a jazz purist place.
It was a beautiful opportunity to play around in that world. We had a chance to be part of Mr. Rogers’ world, and we got to be part of The Cat and the Hat, and whenever you are being part of some big legacy it just feels like a little bit of a dream. I grew up watching Mr. Rogers so doing the closing song with James we actually had to write, I’ll be back when the day is new.
James Chapple: I had tears that day! I was trying to figure out the words because there is no sheet music for these songs anyways; some of these we had to learn from YouTube just by ear. Also totally a dream come true. I have been playing Mr. Rogers’ theme, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, since I was ten. It was pretty neat to work on something that I learned as a kid and do the new version of it.
AD: One show you have been working on since and still are is Paw Patrol. What has kept your interest in that show?
James Chapple: For me I think it is, it reminds me of sitting cross-legged on the floor watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. That kind of happy escape from reality, where nothing in this cartoon world is going to go too wrong. You are going to have a lot of good-hearted teamwork, and you are going to face some silly bad guy, and we are going to have some laughs and fun along the way. I think part of what keeps an interest in Paw Patrol now is how much the world has expanded. We started with really small problems like helping turtles cross the road and we have now saved the world a few times, foiling some really big plot disasters, so I think that is part of the continued expansion of it. We have themes for each of the different worlds they have uncovered. Whether it’s the dinosaur world or the land of the merpups, which is their version of the lost city of Atlantis. Each of those places has a sound. So every time we do a special or revisit that world we get ourselves back into that headspace of what are the instruments that we have used to characterize this place. That keeps it really interesting, needing to reinvent the show. We have a core template for the instruments of the show and then we have these additional template instruments for being superheroes or what not. So it’s fun! We have written so much music for it now, and to continue writing for it you really need to be doing something new with it.
Graeme Cornies: Another thing that just keeps me really enjoying it–we are on season nine and I am not tired of it… The big reason is, I know people are watching. Over the last 22 years we have worked on shows that nobody has seen. That is fine, they can have fun music, but everytime I sit to work on Paw Patrol I know in my head there are millions of kids that are going to watch this. I like that feeling of trying to bring my A game every single episode. It feels nice to know we are involved in something that people care about and are watching. So that is what keeps me motivated after nine seasons.
James Chapple: The last thing from me is they give us such creative leeway. They do not really tell us what they want where. Most of the time they give us a blank picture and acting and tell us, you know what to do. That type of freedom you have got to earn over such a long period of time. The fact that they express that trust in us, and the first time they are going to look at it is at the premix. I think that shows such faith in the team and our working relationship over such a long time. It’s part of what keeps me motivated to try to keep bringing my A game for that show (for every show really), but especially when you get that creative freedom to go wherever you like.
Brian Pickett: It’s worth noting they were like that from the beginning. It wasn’t something we had to earn season after season. Right from the beginning they said, we like you guys, we just want you to bring what you bring to it. Great people to work with overall.
AD: Your most recent project is Lucas the Spider. What has inspired your music for that, and how did you get involved in that project?
Brian Pickett: It’s actually the same producers as the Total Drama series, which we have been with since the beginning. Lucas the Spider has a huge YouTube cult following of 35 million subscribers. So really kinda taking it over and trying to make it our own really.
James Chapple: One thing I think was kind of a seed idea was Lucas the Spider himself played the harp, this twig-strung-with-fishing-line harp. That was part of the seed idea for the musical score. Okay, that will be part of the template, but what else are we going to marry with this? So, a lot of small sounding kid instruments and instruments that could characterize individual characters. But if you listen to the Lucas score it can sound really big in places but a lot of it sounds very miniature, and I think that miniatures idea grew from Lucas having and playing this really tiny harp. That was one of the first core instruments that we knew was going to be part of the palate.
Graeme Cornies: I remember Brian figured out the sound of this particular show with plucked strings and very particular a kalimba. It was pretty neat because we don’t often get to do this–but he just sent me his Pro Tools session and I loaded up all the same sounds. So right off the bat we were just all on the same page, which is pretty rare. We use a lot of the same libraries for Paw Patrol but this was a neat one because it sounded like one composer right through. It was also a bit of a challenge because we are used to doing some pretty big productions ex-Daniel Tiger, with songs fully produced, or Paw Patrol with orchestral scores, and this was so minimal it was a challenge. Less is more kind of thing. I enjoyed that challenge.
Brian Pickett: Had to resist the urge to add and keep adding. Like maybe one tiny pizzicato violin there is the right move.
AD: One thing that has always interested me is composers who have worked in TV and movies then also go into video games, which you have done. What got you interested in working in that medium as well?
Graeme Cornies: I think one of the things that interests me a lot in video game music is that you can write music like non-linear storytelling. You are really characterizing the environment rather than trying to underpin a conversation or trying to provide the emotional nuance of a conversation as you go. So I think that is a cool challenge. You know, writing in these loops of different potential things that could happen, like all the music that characterizes the environment or you have been spotted by an enemy, then the train jumps the tracks. You have to do something more intense but need to be able to fade into the old track at any point. So it is a different type of musical construction and intention is what is so neat about that. Like I said characterizing environments versus linear conversations, needing to build it differently because of the way it is going to be programmed and integrated into the game.
James Chapple: To echo or build on that, one thing I do not like about working on video games is that when I am playing them my friend Graeme’s vocals come in halfway through a boss battle and it totally throws me off. I actually tried to play through one of the games we did music on and there was a very tricky boss battle where half way through as it ramps up Graeme’s singing would come in on top of this heavy metal track and it threw me off every single time. I knew it was coming, and that’s the problem, the minute I heard his voice I was done.
Brian Pickett: The thing that interests me is that almost everyone producing video games right now has the exact same musical tastes that we had growing up. (all laughing) Like Nine Inch Nails, various heavy metal music and industrial action music. It’s just so much fun, especially when you write a lot of preschool music. It’s nice to get to play on that side for a while.
I would not like permanent residence in the post apocalyptic musical intention. I am glad we are doing both. One helps the other. I do not think I could spend all my time in a broken post apocalypse, so I am always glad to come back to Paw Patrol afterwards.
Brian Pickett: Cleanse the palate.
AD: Do you have any final thoughts or future projects you want to talk about?
Brian Pickett: Some of it is top secret but we are working on Paw Patrol season nine. And we can’t say what it is called but there is a spin off of Paw Patrol that we have been scoring as well, which is super fun. There is also Daniel Tiger season six. What else can we say?
James Chapple: We are wrapping up Bakugan, Total Drama Island, the one that kicked it all off is being rebooted, so we are working on that.
Graeme Cornies: That’s been a neat one because that was our first show fifteen years ago and we are having to rediscover how we wrote music fifteen years ago and reimagining it. And that has been a fascinating exercise.
Brain Pickett: Spoiler alert: it is a lot easier now. But it’s nice to be in an old musical place and do it as you would now.
AD: Actually I thought of one more question. Have you reached out to David Lynch at all?
James Chapple: No, you know what they say, never meet your heroes. [Laughs] Maybe one day.
AD: Maybe he will do a children’s show at some point to change things up.
Brain Pickett: You know what I think, it would be a massive hit. I think it would be such a cool weird children’s show that people would be, like, this is crazy. You have to see this.
Graeme Cornies: I would be all over that