Higher And Higher: Inside The Brilliant Mind Behind The Music Of ‘Wet Hot American Summer’

The Wet Hot American Summer franchise, both the film and its corresponding First Day of Camp series, is a comedic tour de force due largely in part to its incredible cast (Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper, etc.) and the talent behind its script (David Wain, Michael Showalter). But there’s another character at play that keeps the whole thing — each and every scene — together in more ways than one… the music.

From the “Wet Hot American Summer” theme song, to “Higher and Higher” – the original song that soundtracks a montage in the movie and whose creation is a major plot point in the series, to even the shortest 30-second background arrangement, each musical piece is straight out of the mind of Craig Wedren, a veteran songwriter/composer who’s scored such films as Role Models and School of Rock, as well as TV shows like Reno 911!, Hung, and Stella. After watching the movie and bingeing the prequel on Netflix, we picked Wedren’s brain and dug up some fascinating tidbits, including who is favorite characters are, how one of Paul Rudd’s songs was partially inspired by Tom Waits, and why years of karaoke with the cast has paid off. He also imagines Wet Hot set in the year 2100, and let’s just say there are a lot of saggy tits. Read on below.

Fourteen years later and Wet Hot American Summer lives again! Did you ever think you’d see a comeback? Was that even in the realm of possibility back in 2001?

In 2001, we thought we were making something super special, only to be sorely disappointed when virtually nobody came to see Wet Hot in theaters; and many of those who did see it, didn’t like it. But slowly, surely, Wet Hot found its audience, and its popularity continued to grow on a grassroots level, which was a thrilling and strange thing to witness. Over the years, there had been talk of a sequel, a prequel, and other various revisitations. I think most of us had a ‘believe it when we see it’ attitude, which is often the case with movies and TV shows, because they’re so tough to get made, and even the most bulletproof-seeming projects can go away in a heartbeat.

When it finally happened with Netflix, it happened very fast; it was like, “Okay, people. We’re back IN!”

So, the answer to your question is “Yes,” then “No,” then “Yes!”

Much like the film itself, the music you composed for First Day of Camp sounds so embedded in its time period. Was the songwriting process easier this time around? Or, perhaps harder, because so many years had passed between projects?

The writing came fairly naturally for both the movie and the series, but the sheer volume of music that needed to be created for the show was unprecedented for me.

My amazing team – which I call “Pink Ape” – and I created something like 30 or 40 original songs for the series, plus four hours worth of score in multiple genres, in addition to using and developing music from the original movie, which Theodore Shapiro and I created in 2001. It was an extraordinary sonic jigsaw, and I couldn’t have done it alone. Jefferson Friedman and Matt Novack helped with the score, and I enlisted lots of friends to co-write new stuff, including all of the artists from the original movie.

Also, it should be noted that when Teddy (Shapiro) and I originally wrote the Wet Hot music 15 years ago, the seemingly endless ’80s revival hadn’t yet begun, so some of the genres I wanted to touch upon then – synth-pop and hardcore, for instance – were tougher sells; and because the movie is considerably shorter than the series, there were only so many places for songs.

Now, though, in 2015, basically every aspect of ’80s pop culture has been reconsidered and integrated into 21st century fare, so my goal was to really expand the palate Teddy and I started in 2001 to include some things we might have missed, or not had time to cover originally.

It was also important to me that the songs in the series – including the “Electro City” musical – stand on they’re own as awesome pieces of music, so that they might enjoy a life outside of the show.

What were you listening to in order to sort of mentally prepare to jump back into the ‘80s again? If you had to describe the headspace you have to channel or the overall vibe of your compositions in two words (can’t use “wet” or “hot,” though!), what would they be?

The two words I would use to describe the required headspace for making Wet Hot music would be “Fourteen” and “Yearning.”

Mind you, most of us involved were in our teens when that music was first hitting – Pretenders, The Cars, Blondie, Pat Benatar, Black Flag – so it’s deeply embedded in our DNA.

David Wain and I have been besties since we were about 4 years old (although David says 2 years old), and we went to Jewish summer camp together in the ’80s, in Maine. So, the material you see – and hear – onscreen is really our primordial goo, shot through the sensibility we’ve all developed working together over the years.

I know that Showalter had his own, parallel experience, and you can probably apply that to a lot of the other cast members, as well.

What was your favorite moment to score in the TV series, and why do you think it stands out so much?

I liked scoring Ben and McKinley in the series because theirs is the most real relationship – it feels grounded in reality, and is the least “jokey” of all of the characters that hook up or fall in love. There’s a real tenderness there, and you can feel the butterflies of being young, discovering yourself, and falling in love. I decided to score them largely using synths (as opposed to the acoustic instruments used for Kevin and Amy, for example), which have that dreamy, blissed-out, fizzy-in-your-stomach quality, and which were still fairly progressive in the early ’80s; using synths also gave just the teeeensiest nod to ’80s gay/club culture.

My other favorite scene to score was the one where Susie (Amy Poehler) gives Andy (Paul Rudd) the motivational speech/whipping of a lifetime after he threatens to quit the show. This was a blast because – as with acting – the more genuinely dramatic and straight you play the music, the funnier and more ridiculous the joke.

We often like to take the jokes pretty far, so the accompanying music can get ridiculously deep, as in this case.

How much of the music was made with a particular character in mind? Do you spend time with the actors as a means of inspiration? Take us through the steps of coming up with the perfect score for a scene.

During the [picture-]editing process, David, Showalter, my team and I will sit down for what is called a “spotting” session and go through each scene to discuss what dramatic beats we want to hit, what action or emotions need musical support, and what [Wain and Showalter] feel is at the heart of a given scene. For instance, with The Falcon and Gene/Jonas, there was a discussion that we should go with straight action TV score, a la 24.

Then, back at Pink Ape HQ, we’ll try out various sounds, themes, and directions based on notes from the spotting session. With Wet Hot, this process happened very quickly and naturally, partly because we didn’t have time to over-think or second-guess our choices; and partly because we knew the world so well, having established it 15 years ago with the movie, and living with it ever since.

Then, we’ll post a rough demo of the music for a given scene, with picture, for David and Show to see. They’ll give us notes, and then there’s sometimes a round or two of revisions. In the case of the series, the revisions were usually pretty minimal/cosmetic, because – again – we’ve been living with the world for so long.

Have there been any instances in which the actors themselves have offered some creative input in terms of what an arrangement should sound like or mood it should convey?

A lot of us have been working together for a long time, and it’s very much an ensemble effort, so suggestions and input are always welcome, and happen regularly. In the case of the series, what comes to mind is “Champagne Eyes,” Andy’s audition song.

Before we shot the series, Showalter gave me the note to write something like “The Piano Has Been Drinking” by Tom Waits, which is a fairly early song of his (before he fully came into his super-froggy-deep-throat style) that meanders in a way where the lyrics sound like they might’ve been written on Absinthe. Showalter wanted it to feel like, Is Andy making this up on the spot? Is this terrible? Or is Andy kind of a secret burgeoning amazing poet?! So, I wrote the song, then we shot it with me playing guitar backstage and Paul singing for the camera.

Paul’s got a great voice, and is encyclopedic about music, so I totally trust his musical instincts. He took what I wrote and, without changing the lyrics, really made it Andy’s, mumbling some of the words, drawing out some of the others. And, at a certain point, either he – or maybe it was David or Showalter – threw out the idea of having a silly, sh*tty drum break where he beats on the body of his guitar arrhythmically right before the dramatic ending of the song. So, while what you hear isn’t dramatically different from the demo I originally sent Paul, the on-the-spot collaboration and improvisation are what make it feel like Andy, and Wet Hot. This is the case for a lot of what we do musically, when something’s being performed on-camera.

David Wain is a very musical guy. He and I grew up playing and recording music in his basement. He’s a drummer and piano player. So, he always has lots of musical ideas, and we have a rare, amazing shorthand when it comes to discussing music for projects we work on together. Also, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Paul Rudd and I have clocked some serious (and seriously blurry) karaoke hours over the years, so I’m well aware of their sick pipes, which makes it fun and easy when we get to do “real” music together.

Pop music has really been channeling the ‘80s lately. What do you think of this particular resurgence? Have you ever considered just putting out an entire album of ‘80s-inspired songs just to see if it takes off? I seriously think you could do it.

The ’80s revival seems to be without end, and has now lasted longer than the decade itself. I think the reason for this may be that it was the last moment that progressive white music was popular, and it was the dawn of hip-hop and synth-based pop music.

Literally every ingredient that we have today converged during this era, when rock, pop, punk, funk, disco, hip-hop, and soul all collided and began to smush together. Then, things got very conservative and compartmentalized again in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s. But the internet broke those chains, and now we’re enjoying (or in some cases, hating) the fruits of those seeds that were planted back then, which seemed to go dormant, but were actually just growing and spreading below ground.

Everything I do has some ’80s in it because, like I said, it’s in my DNA. It’s the foundation, the mother dough from my most sponge-y, formative years; so there’s really no exorcising it. For Wet Hot, I consciously set out to create songs that could plausibly exist both then and now, so that many of the songs from the series could be folded, bent, and prodded into a dozen shapes by as many different artists, and still resonate.

As of now, there is no soundtrack, but who knows – in the future, it might make a great contemporary ’80s album. Fingers crossed.

Maybe, one day, the entire WHAS gang will time travel to the future to year 2100. Would you still be on board to score it? If so, what do you think it’d sound and look like?

Oh, I’ll be on board, but maybe I’ll hire my (great?) grandchildren to do the grudge-work. An absurdist dynasty!

It will probably look – and sound – exactly the same, but everybody’s saggy tits, cataracts and general deaf/deadness will make it even funnier, more ridiculous, and oddly emotional.