The John Williams of Nickelodeon: Mick Cooke talks about composing for kids

Zack & QuackZodiak Kids

December 11, 2013

Mick Cooke is a busy composer for screen and stage, but he's best known as a longtime member of the Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian — with whom he recently parted ways, amicably. I spoke with Cooke about his past and present projects, including his music for the Nickelodeon series Zack and Quack.

Over time, you've become more interested in composing and arranging. How did that part of your career evolve?

Yeah, I've got a lot more into composing. I started composing for TV a few years ago and my day job now is to compose for children's television.

The great thing about Belle & Sebastian is that it's always been a band where if you were interested in a certain part of the process, you could try it. [Front man] Stuart [Murdoch] used to do all the arrangements back in the day, and then when I got quite interested in doing them, he said, "Well, just work away and have a go at the arrangements."

It's fantastic to get that sort of experience. Belle & Sebastian has been a whole learning experience. To get a chance to work with producer Trevor Horn — it was actually making the Trevor Horn record, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, that we really kind of went for it in terms of the arranging side of things. And he really encouraged us to do that, which is great as well.

And he's very much into orchestration is Trevor Horn, so he was encouraging us to use as much of that as we could! I kind of think we went a bit overboard, but to get the opportunity to actually just have a go, it really expanded on that record. We had a bigger orchestra.

Belle & Sebastian was great fun and a really great learning experience. We started small and built up to bigger things.

You now compose for children's television, and you've even put out a children's album. Did becoming a father inspire your interest in children's music?

It's funny, actually, because making children's music started quite a long while before I had children. It was really quite accidental: Belle & Sebastian were asked to contribute a song to an American children's album, and in the end, for various reasons, we ended up not doing that. But by that point, I had written a song for it, and then basically, we decided to do our own compilation album, which is called Colours Are Brighter; that was in 2006. We got lots of different bands together, bands we had met and knew, so Franz Ferdinand and Snow Patrol and the Kooks played on that, to name a few. We released the album for the charity Save the Children.

That kind of started things for me, in terms of making children's music. I found that I just really enjoyed it! I felt quite good at doing it. Off the back of writing that one song, "The Monkeys Are Breaking Out of the Zoo," I wrote a whole album of another 11 or 12 songs based at the zoo. That came out in 2011, Down At The Zoo.

Through those projects, I ended up falling into children's television, and quite happily. I'm now working on a 52-episode series called Zack and Quack for Nickelodeon, and it's great fun. The great thing about this series in particular is that the music is so varied on it. It kind of allows you to be sort of John Williams one week and you're sort of Hans Zimmer the next!

It's all with a kind of preschool slant, but most composers don't really get the chance to have such a varied music base on something they're working on. One week it's in space, the next week it's ninjas. It's a fantastic series just because it's so varied and cool. I think people will like it.

52 episodes is an ambitious project for a production team.

It's one episode per week. They're ten-minute episodes, which you score in a week. It's certainly very challenging. But like I say, the fact that every episode is so different, I'll certainly cut my composer teeth on it. Virtually every possible scenario will have been covered by the end of these 52 episodes, I think!

How did you find your way specifically to Zack and Quack?

I kind of got in on it through the back door in a way, because the director and creator of this series is a guy called Gili Dolev. I scored his short film, The Happy Duckling, in 2008. He's an Israeli guy who was working in Dundee at the time, and I just happened to meet him through a friend. And he asked me to score his film, and his film was amazing, just really visually stunning. It was kind of a 3D origami popup world, done with CGI, about a boy and his duck. And now this series Zack and Quack has been based loosely upon his short film. And Gili really wants to work with me again, which is great.

The challenge is the whole thing is basically done by Skype. Gili is in Israel, I'm in Glasgow and the production team are in London and it's for Nickelodeon in L.A., so one of the directors is based in L.A. The whole thing is scattered across the globe, so you're writing music and sending it off and then Skype-ing people to discuss how it's been going. It's cool, you're part of a team but you're also working on your own as well.

And that will air on Nickelodeon in the U.S.?

Yeah, it's coming out next year, actually. I'm not sure what the release schedule is like, but it will be sometime next year.

Beyond children's television, you've also composed for musical theater, an original work called Cannibal Women of Mars. Tell me about that.

That is kind of the polar opposite of the children's music stuff! That just came about because I'd been to see Avenue Q in London a few years ago, and it just struck me that there aren't many things like that. I just decided with a couple of friends, "Why don't we have a go at writing a musical?"

It's kind of like Avenue Q in tone, kind of adult comedy. It's just a really daft premise: It's the future, 100 years from now, and sex has been banned on planet Earth because of overpopulation. Our two heroes decide to go to Mars where they've been told there's a surplus of women and there's no men, so they've been told they can go and get lucky on Mars, but they're actually being sent there to be eaten! That's the premise, and it kind of goes off from there. We started with the idea of just producing a fun night out, and I think that's what we ended up with.