-by Ken Plume
Be it under a rock or deep in a cave upon the highest peak, you must have been living there if the Spongebob Squarepants phenomenon has passed you by. If you’ve been around any child below the age of 15, they can probably tell you exactly who Bikini Bottom’s most famous animated invertebrate is - and, chances are, there are some hip adults that will also clue you in, being fans themselves (I’m looking at you, Fred Hembeck).
As the voice of the krabby patty flipping squarepants enthusiast, Tom Kenny has brought to life a cultural icon the world over… And he’s a nice guy, to boot. In fact, if you’re not aware of the scads of voice work he’s done over the years (including the mayor and narrator of The Powerpuff Girls), then you probably know him from his on-camera work in the legendary Mr. Show with Bob & David (alongside his equally talented wife Jill Talley).
He’s also crafted (with Andy Paley) a toe-tapping album starring Spongebob and friends titled The Best Day Ever - a glorious piece of pop informed by his idols, including the likes of The Beach Boys and The Who (in fact, Brian Wilson is a guest artist on the album).
Also, be sure to take in Nickelodeon’s “Best Day Ever” Marathon this Thursday, November 11th, at 8pm EST.
And now, we pick up our conversation with Mr. Kenny, which took place in the wake of a few slight scheduling snafus…
TOM KENNY: I don’t know what happened… He said 4:30 yesterday, and I said, “Oh that’s great, I’m in between things and perfect and I’ve got his number…” It was just one of those things where, you know, your phone starts ringing and you’re mailing stuff out, and I didn’t even realize I blew it until this morning as I was making my kids’ lunches. I’m like, “God, I hope this Ken Plume guy isn’t going, ‘I bet if I was USA Today he’d call me back!’ ”
KEN PLUME: No, you don’t get this from Billy West.
KENNY: Yeah, right - Billy West calls back. He knows. Stimpy knows how to use the phone.
KEN PLUME: Billy will take you out to dinner. Send flowers, even.
KENNY: Where are you?
KEN PLUME: I’m in North Carolina, on the coast.
KENNY: Oh, nice.
KEN PLUME: Nice except for hurricane season.
KENNY: Yes, exactly. It’s so funny… I’m so ignorant of the whole internet culture and stuff like that. Is this something that you tape for an iPod broadcast?
KEN PLUME: No, this’ll be transcribed.
KENNY: I even call it an iPod broadcast. I’m like a guy who’s 110 years old. “All these newfangled iPod broadcasts…”
KEN PLUME: And compact records…
KENNY: Compact records! Yeah, I’m super old. I’m going out to dinner with Brian Wilson tonight, which should be a very whacky experience. I’ve never really talked to him except the day we spent on the Spongebob album.
KEN PLUME: Let me tell you, the album’s great.
KENNY: Oh, thank you. Music freaks like it. People who pore over liner notes.
KEN PLUME: I’m one of the few people who “got” the in-jokes in the Paul Decca story short film you were involved in.
KENNY: Oh, that’s great! Cool. Yeah, it was really fun. But yeah, I haven’t talked to Brian since… it’s not like he’s a friend of mine. I don’t really know him or anything, except doing this one session with him. But he called me yesterday, and I thought it was somebody pranking me. I just got this message, (Brian Wilson impression) “Tom, it’s Brian Wilson. I want to go out to dinner with you. Tomorrow. 6:45. Vibrato café.” Click. So I’m like, wow, whoever that is does a not bad Brian Wilson.
KEN PLUME: Yeah, “Damn you Billy West and your practical jokes.”
KENNY: Yeah, well, you know - that’s the problem when you’re friends of voiceover people. It could be Jeremy Irons calling me or it could be Jeff Bennett.
KEN PLUME: Someone should actually compile all the voiceover jokes that people have played.
KENNY: Yeah, and voiceover people are sort of on the lookout for them, but you can really… like one of the VO guys does a dead-on Simon Cowell from Idol, and my wife’s sister is an American Idol fanatic, and we had “Simon Cowell” leave a message on her machine, and she went nuts. At what point do I say this is all a cruel prank? Or should I let her go to her grave… it’s not like she’s ever gonna really meet Simon Cowell and compare notes. Maybe I should just let it go.
KEN PLUME: You say that, but there’s gonna be this odd little meeting at a grocery store one day.
KENNY: “Excuse, me, I almost bumped into you, didn’t I? I called you? No I didn’t.”
KEN PLUME: “I never called you, woman.”
KENNY: “I’m not in the habit of leaving messages on total stranger’s machines, especially suburban house fraus such as yourself.”
KEN PLUME: Then you get an awkward phone call from her and it’s all over. That’s how families are torn apart.
KENNY: Exactly. Suddenly it’s like when Ralph told his old friend that he was president of the Gotham Bus Company, and then the guy actually showed up. Suddenly you’re in a Honeymooners plot.
KEN PLUME: It all eventually winds up in a Honeymooners plot anyway, no matter what you do.
KENNY: Exactly. There’s only 38 ways your life can go.
KEN PLUME: Speaking of which, congratulations on the continued longevity of Spongebob.
KENNY: Thanks. Just for that, I’m sending you a gift basket full of 100-year-old champagne.
KEN PLUME: Oh… no need for that. 50-year-old will be fine.
KENNY: Yeah, it’s fun. I think it would be different if it was a live action show or something. I’d probably be maybe tiring of it a little bit, but with animation you do it once a week.
KEN PLUME: It seems that the longer you go, that they’re giving you more and more flexibility…
KENNY: Yeah. You mean within the sessions? The sessions are always kinda fun and loose and everybody’s there. They’re full cast. So you know, they’re kinda fun, freewheeling kind of affairs.
KEN PLUME: And then you do stuff like the album…
KENNY: Yeah, well, that was fun because I love the characters so much and I wanted to write something for them. And, you know, schedule-wise, it would be kinda hard for me to do any kind of regular writing on any kinda basis on the show. Or even, you know, I guess I could write kids chapter books or something, I could maybe pitch some of that idea… they’ll let me write one or two of those. I felt like I knew the characters and really liked the characters and kinda had this proprietary sense about the characters. I think Steve (Hillenburg, creator of Spongebob) has done such a good job of establishing who they are and what they’re about, that they’re fun to write for. There’s already people writing the show and there’s already people writing the chapter books for kids or whatever, and the one area that it seemed hadn’t really been mined was the CD area. There had been a couple of CDs where they just pulled…
KEN PLUME: Stuff from the show…
KENNY: … clips off, little snippets of songs off a show, off of episodes or whatever. But I kinda wanted to do something a little more ambitious, and something that involved original material, not just stuff that was intended for one medium just kinda being slapped onto a different audio-only medium. It seems like none of the songs that were on those other CDs were really ever intended to live as songs, to stand alone as songs that are structured like a song and have the length of a song, and have…
KEN PLUME: A cohesiveness…
KENNY: Good playing… you know, like really good playing. For one thing, there’s no time. Like, when we do music on the show - Eban Schletter, the music guy, is super talented, and I worked on Mr. Show with him too. He did all the music on Mr. Show. He’s scary talented, but just the budget and the fast turnaround of TV animation being what it is, the composer winds up making a backing track, and everything winds up kinda being a synthesizer. Like, all the horns and everything - especially the harder instruments - are usually samples on a keyboard, even though it sounds like a trumpet or whatever. I kinda wanted to do something a little more handmade and a little more handcrafted with the record, so nothing on the record is a fake or a sample. All the horns are real, all the harps are real, the theremin’s real.
KEN PLUME: It definitely shines through on the album. It has a warmth and an energy that unfortunately is too often missing from even a lot of studio albums from well-known bands.
KENNY: Yeah, especially for kids, you know? I’ve got kids, so I listen to a fair amount of kids’ music just driving around in the station wagon or whatever. And yeah, a lot of it seems kinda phoned in or… not all of it, but some of it seems kinda lazy, almost like, “Ah, it’s just a kids’ album. Do we really need to get a real violinist for a kids album? Do we really need to find a theremin player? There’s only like 10 guys who play theremin in the world. Do we really need that?” And I don’t know, maybe it is weird… like, maybe in terms of a business plan it’s not the smartest thing to do, but that really wasn’t what this record was about. It was really just about wanting to do something fun with Spongebob that hadn’t been done before, and Spongebob has been so merchandised that it’s hard to find any product that hasn’t been done with him already. So I really wanted to do this before somebody else got to it, and had the idea, because I knew they wouldn’t have the same obsessive passion that Andy Paley and I did. But yeah, thanks for saying that about the warmth. I think it really does come out. You know what I mean? I think you can hear… even if it’s only kinda subconscious and subliminal, I think… I don’t know, I think on some subatomic level you can tell when it’s a real drum. No matter how good the sample sounds. You can tell when it’s a real guy bashing away behind a set of drums. It just has a sweat to it and an energy to it that even the most convincing sample can’t.
KEN PLUME: Well, the thing that really gets me in modern recordings - there are two things in a recording that tip it off, it’s not so much the drums, but I personally can’t stand electric piano.
KENNY: I’m so with you! I’m so with you on that! I hate going to see a band, especially if it’s roots music like a blues or jazz guy, something that’s organic and rootsy, and as soon as I see an electric piano, I always get a little let down.
KEN PLUME: There’s such a metallic sound to it.
KENNY: I so agree, and conversely when I go to see a show, and I see a real piano on stage, I just get happy. And I know how hard it is to move a real piano around, so it’s like, I applaud the extra effort of anybody who actually goes to the pain in the ass of transporting a real piano around. I’m so with you on the electric piano. I’m so with you.
KEN PLUME: I just hate when someone hides the electric piano in, like, a grand piano case.
KENNY: That’s hilarious! I know!
KEN PLUME: And I’m not gonna name names, but I was just listening to Elton John’s new album…
KENNY: Ah-hah! You mean the red piano’s a synthesizer?
KEN PLUME: His grand pianos are all synthesizers. They’re all Yamahas.
KENNY: He must have a lucrative sponsorship deal. That’s funny, they just take like the shell of a piano and just stick some crappy little…
KEN PLUME: Yeah, stick an electric board in it. And who are you fooling?
KENNY: That is so funny. Well, Elton has a very keen sense of style. I’m sure he realizes that a real piano looks cooler on stage.
KEN PLUME: Yes, otherwise it’s just a lounge act.
KENNY: Yeah, you don’t want to go and see Jerry Lee Lewis and he’s banging on a little electric keyboard. It just bums you out.
KEN PLUME: Kicking out the little two inch wide stand on either side.
KENNY: (laughing) Yeah! So we did that, which is kind of like a hard way to do it, and maybe harder than it needed to be. You know, the same thing with, like - we decided to make an album that works best if you listen to it in order, like an album. Which really is not really a contemporary way that anyone listens to music. Like, I’m gonna start with track one and listen to all 24 tracks. We tried to make it like a jigsaw puzzle, so that even in the random shuffle world the stuff still stands by itself. And even the comedy bits, when they’re leading into a specific song, at least the comedy bit has a joke in it that lets it stand by itself.
KEN PLUME: What I think was great about it, and I had sort of a cheat sheet since I knew what a huge music fan you were as I was listening to the album - albums, as you said, aren’t constructed like that anymore, as a cohesive whole. People are looking for the single or just throwing in, “Oh, these are the cuts I had done in time for release…”
KENNY: Well, and I think that’s just the way people listen to music now. They buy a song for 99 cents here and a song for 99 cents there, and they kinda program their own… it’s almost back to being a singles world, which in some ways I kinda like. Nickelodeon, and especially Steve Hillenburg, were so magnanimous and non-interfering about letting us do this… I pitched him this record and they gave us a budget and they didn’t really bug us. They didn’t really ask for any editorial input, really. It was pretty great. I felt really lucky that here you’re given the keys to this Spongebob car, and it’s like, this really powerful lucrative brand, and even though it’s this huge international trademark or whatever, I feel like they let us make a really idiosyncratic, like oddball album that let us tip our hats to a lot of things that we’re really obsessive about, or really grateful for, or into. Like old school rock ‘n’ roll radio when deejays mattered and the radio personality was kind of the tastemaker instead of just somebody that was following up a chart, a playlist. And albums, cool concept albums like Who Sell Out and Pet Sounds and Tommy and stuff like that. I love those records where you’re kinda listening to them all the way through, and…
KEN PLUME: You actually sit down for an experience with an album…
KENNY: Yeah, and it’s not even like… I mean, a record’s 50 minutes long, I don’t know if anybody… maybe people will go back to it, like a movie. “Oh, here’s the scene I left off at.” But it also works on shuffle too, which we kinda constructed it jigsaw puzzle-wise to be like that. The stuff we wanted to give a nod to was stuff like Smile and Pet Sounds, and especially Who Sell Out, with our fake radio commercials and things like that. The LA Times compared it to the Roger Waters record Radio Chaos, which I had never heard. But I guess it’s about some evil radio station that wants to take over the world. I’m not much of a Pink Floyd guy, but I thought that was a funny connection that the LA Times guy made.
KEN PLUME: When are you doing the Spongey Horror Picture Show?
KENNY: (laughing) That would be awesome. I’d love to. We want to do a Christmas album. Andy and I are already writing songs for a Christmas album that nobody’s told us we could do yet.
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