INTERVIEW: Jim Lang Talks Hey Arnold! and Funky Jazz

I spoke with music composer Jim Lang recently who is known for his work on Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! series, and its film adaptations, most recently Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie in late 2017.

It was such a pleasure to dig deep into Lang’s inspiration for becoming a musical composer and his journey into the world of scoring for animation and horror movies. His love and passion for scoring music runs deep in his heart and our conversation was an absolute reflection of that. Check out the interview below as we dive into his world of funky jazz.

In preparation for my interview with you, I learned you are a self-taught musician. How did you go about making that happen?
I was a really terrible piano student in my young life. I had a hard time reading music because my eyes didn’t team well. I always had a good ear, though. I could usually get my music teachers to play something a couple times and play it back for them. When I got older and started playing in bands, I would be the guy who would figure out the chords and how the arrangement worked.

For a brief period of time, my dad found a great jazz teacher for me. During my time with him, he would tell me, “I’m going to play some stuff, when you hear something you like, you can stop me and I’ll tell you what I’m playing.” It was a really great experience for me and taught me how harmony works. When computers came along and MIDI happened, you could hook up a synthesizer to computer and look at the computer to see what you played. It was really a revelation that became a phenomenal tool for me.

Was piano the first instrument you learned to play?
Yes, it was my key instrument that I always played, especially with the synthesizer. I also played organ when I was touring, but in my composing work I used the synthesizer.

What musical influences did you have growing up? How about now after being successful?
So many people! A big, early influence was George Gershwin, hearing “Rhapsody Blue” was a sort of seminal experience for me. I fell completely head over heels in love with it. In later years, there was a lot of movie music I loved. The To Kill A Mockingbird score was a big influence on me and I loved the movie when I saw it. In jazz, my dad loved Oscar Peterson and I listened to a lot of Peterson growing up. Also, John Williams is an amazing musician at every level, and has an amazing body of work, especially some of his lesser known scores such as Catch Me If You Can.

What are some styles/sounds you’ve always enjoyed? And what are some you’ve never had the chance to work in?
A lot of what I do comes from rhythm and blues, because that’s what I was playing when I was starting. The Hey Arnold score was harmonically adventurous but there is a lot of soul music in the score which is one of my very most favorite things. I love synthesizers, and I have spent a ton of time twisting knobs and I enjoy making music that way.

I love getting to work with the orchestra. The projects I have done don’t typically involve orchestra. The Jungle Movie we did a day with the orchestra and it was such an amazing experience with 40-50 people in the room, all making music together. When they play the first cue, it always takes my breath away. If I could do that every day for the rest of my life, I’d be delighted.

What was your inspiration for the Hey Arnold theme song?
One thing Craig Bartlett and I had talked about when we were getting started was what do we want to do musically and what do we want the influence to be. At the time there was a DJ in LA, he was playing a lot of acid jazz and it was something we had both listened to and thought it’d be a cool flavor for the urban voice of the environment. There was also an electronic triangle sample that we got from new jack swing. There was a song I had written a long time ago when I was first working in the studio in Boston and I had written something that I thought would be the jingle for Dunkin’ Donuts. I had that melody in my head for years and those two things came together to make the Hey Arnold theme song.

How was it returning to the world of Hey Arnold after 13 years?
It was really delightful to go back and revisit that vibe. As it turned out, the way The Jungle Movie is laid out you spend 20 minutes in Hillwood and then you’re in Central America. The score is basically an adventure movie. So, I didn’t get to spend a lot of time in the jazzy, funky, urban world. It was a bit of disappointment to me, although I loved the script. But you know, when I think of Hey Arnold! the urban feel is the core musical vibe I think of.

What is your favorite memory on working on Hey Arnold? And what was the most difficult challenge you faced?
Most of my favorite memories have to do with working with the cast. Everyone that worked on that show was really terrific. It was a great opportunity to see how talented the kids were. Sometimes they would put something in the show that I didn’t know anything about and I wasn’t able to prescore it. In the episode, “Runaway Float” there is a parade with a marching band and one of the floats gets away and I didn’t know anything about that until the video showed up. I had to create a sound of a marching band and then destroy it to mimic the sound of a band getting run over by a float. Moments like that are really challenging.

So you’ve done children’s programming, but you have also dabbled in horror movies, specifically in the early 90’s with John Carpenter. How was it similar to animation?
The similarity between the two is that in both genres the music is closely tied to the image. In horror and animation really a lot of times you’re right with the action in the scenes. Whether its a creaking door or a character getting hit on the head with a fry pan, accenting the moment is very similar in both genres.

What has been your favorite project over the years?
(Laughs) Oh boy, It’s like asking who your favorite child is. Certainly, Hey Arnold. Being able to do five seasons with a talented crew and cast and a devoted following, you’re not always lucky enough to get an opportunity like that. It is such a gift that people remember the series and music fondly. I get a lot of messages about people studying music who said Hey Arnold was their intro to jazz music. Hey Arnold has a place right in the center of my heart.

Do you have any projects coming up?
We are working on developing a pitch. Craig Bartlett has a pitch that he hasn’t gone out with yet but it is an idea called Mix Berry Jam. This will be an animated series about four kids who have a band and they’re traveling around the country learning about the roots music of America. It will be a very music intensive show but it is an exciting idea!

Message to your fans?
How grateful I am for all the messages I get from people. It’s really heartwarming so thanks and keep listening!

More information on Jim Lang and his upcoming projects can be found at at his website. Be sure to check it out here.

Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.