PopGurls Interview: Veronica Mars’ Rob Thomas

September 27, 2005 No Comments »

Rob Thomas has been able to do the things that some of us only dream of, and if you stop to think about it too much, you might be really jealous. He’s been in several bands with their own tours, has published five YA books and created two of the most original and memorable television series of the past ten years: Veronica Mars and Cupid. Even his website is a thing to be reckoned with – he posts unproduced and pilot scripts, scripts and pictures from his short films (see the supercute pre-Lost Ian Somerhalder in a baseball T-shirt), mp3s from his bands and more. You can spend several hours laughing to yourself (be sure not to miss the “Career Highlights” breakdown) and then come back because you’ve barely cracked the surface.

With the release of the Veronica Mars soundtrack and the second season of the show about to kick off, Rob talks to PopGurls about his musical selections and gives a few hints of what’s to come for our favorite girl detective.

“We Used to Be Friends” is one of those theme songs that makes a fan stop, no matter where they are and think of Veronica Mars. It’s a little jarring, a little haunting but once you’ve heard it, you crave hearing it again. When you first heard the song, what was your reaction – did you know immediately that it was perfect or were there a few contenders?

There were a few contenders. At one point, I had them on a set list on my computer — I was thinking about it for a few months and kept winnowing down the list, I’d eliminate a song every few days until it was just the Dandy Warhols there.

The tough thing about the theme song is that you get thirty seconds of it. One of the experiments that we did was have the music editor do a cutting of “We Used to Be Friends” -– a line of the verse, goes into the bridge and then the chorus -– and when I heard that thirty second cutting, I knew it was perfect.

Since the track list of the soundtrack was released, online fans are going crazy trying to figure out the meaning of songs that didn’t appear in season one. Are there any hints you can give about why there are so many mystery songs?

There’s just four songs that we picked from season one –- two that I was really interested in: the Something Happens song (“Momentary Thing”) and the Cotton Mather song (“Lily Dreams On”) were from moments in the show that really stood out for people. “Lily Dreams On” was the final music cue of the season when Lilly says goodbye and ["Momentary Thing"] was when Logan and Veronica kiss for the first time. Both of those songs are sort of rarities –- they’re both out of print in America. The thing about any collection or soundtrack is that you’re getting songs that have already been released. Like if we had put “Mr. Brightside” on the soundtrack, you get it 18 different places, it doesn’t seem as special as [the songs] the fans are all trying to search out, they’re trying to find these songs. And I feel like -– “here they are! The songs that you couldn’t find, that you loved –- here we are, giving them to you.”

After that, aside from the songs that were actually on the show last year, Warner Brothers and Nettwerk Records sent me just a ton of music that’s coming out now that won’t have already been played into the ground. So largely, I’m anticipating what songs that we’ll want to put in the show. There are certain ones that are no-brainers like the Spoon song, “You Turn my Camera On,” I can use that in 10 different Veronica Mars episodes, any thing when she’s doing surveillance and following people around. And in fact, we used it in [episode] three. The Delays song, (“Long Time Coming”) will come out in episode one this year and that I was already writing into the show when we were putting together the soundtrack so that was a really easy call.

It wasn’t that I was looking at specific lyrics and trying to give clues through the songs, it was that I wanted them to sound like our show and I wanted to have supreme confidence that I would find a good placement for them in the upcoming year. One of the things that I do know is that Veronica will have a bit more of a lovelife this year on the show – there’s a little bit more romance in some of those tracks.

But not the same schmaltzy Dawson’s Creek romantic songs, no Edwin McCain?

Hopefully not. There’s certainly a couple of songs that will be ballads on there, but hopefully not heartwarming, folky soft ballads.

How long did it take you to go through all the music and decide?

Probably about six weeks. I was handed in the neighborhood of 500 songs that are coming out now or about to come out and [I] put them all in iTunes. I have the big music submission set list and if I hear something I really like I move it into the smaller grouping. And a smaller grouping until it’s a survivor.

It’s a bit odd because I’m a 40-year-old guy and certainly I’m picking all songs that I like, but if I were doing the Rob Thomas soundtrack there’d be more Wilco in it — there’d be a different feel. And I think I say this on the album liner notes, I taught high school journalism for five years and there’s nothing more revealing into a teen girl’s psyche than doing a high school yearbook. It’s just hours and hours of teen girls playing music and gabbing. Even though it was 1990 when I was teaching and the girls were listening to The Cure and stuff, I do feel like I have a very highly established teen girl aesthetic.

Is a song ever just a song on Veronica Mars, or does each one have specific meaning embedded in the lyrics?

[For the soundtrack,] I did not pick each song for a specific meaning, I asked myself the more general question does this lend itself to an opportunity, can I imagine a storyline that will fit for? But because we don’t have the season mapped out, I don’t know individual moments. They just have to sound like the show and be a song that I like, that I know I won’t, at the end of the year, be stuck with this one red herring song that I can’t find any [place for].

How about in the first season — were they picked for a specific meaning?

Oh yeah. The song “Lily Dreams On” was a song – clearly, with the title – a natural for the show. It’s like you’re playing cards and you have that one great card in your hand and you don’t want to blow it, you want to hold it. I knew I wanted to use that song and there were plenty of times that I could use a Lilly song in the show and I kept holding onto it and finally in that last moment of the year, it was the perfect moment. I was so glad that I hadn’t blown it on some cheap usage earlier.

That Something Happens song (“Momentary Thing”) -– we tried 15 songs in that slot. I was really worried about that moment because I wanted something that was both sexy and uncomfortable. There are very few songs that do that. Usually that moment of passion, it’s all about the passion and there’s no reservation in it. It’s just “let’s go for it.” The fantastic thing about that song is that it’s that passionate moment filled with question marks. “We’re doing something great, but I don’t know if it’s right!” sort of moment. And that really kind of hit that for me.

If you had to give all the main characters a theme song, what would it be?

I would be hard-pressed to come up with my five desert records. It would kill me to think of what all of theirs would be. To answer that would take me two days of pulling my hair out.

I don’t want to cause you bodily harm! We’re not about that at PopGurls.

Well, you know, when I think about Veronica Mars and the vibe I want to get from the show, I didn’t want it to be mass pop-culture. I didn’t want Hoobastank doing the theme song, I wanted it to be a little edgy and new, but still have a pop sensibility and accessibility. I kept thinking that if this was my teen years, the perfect band would be Psychedelic Furs -– a haunting, new wave-y, interesting, not for everyone but not totally inaccessible sound. The Dandy Warhols really kind of brought that to me. I joked with the band manager that the band and the show had a lot in common — we’re not an art house show and they’re not an art house band, but at the same time we’re not totally commercial either. We’re trying to be a little further out there than mainstream art.

Do you listen to music when you write?

I do -– when I write, I listen to music very loud actually. In fact, I try to get to the office at 5:30 and my quality writing hours are from 5:30 until about 10.

In the morning?

Yeah. It’s the time when I’m alone in the office so I crank it up pretty good. I know I’m sounding like an ad for iTunes — but I’ll make a setlist for songs that I’m considering for the show, for that episode. An episode that we’re doing right now, I guess it’s episode four, it has a jealousy theme to it and it’s the first time that I’ve done anything quite like this, but every song we play in the episode [has the word “jealous" in the title]. We use Stereophonics doing the song “Jealousy,” Liz Phair doing the song “Jealousy” — I think even an Otis Redding song in there. Oh, and Tegan and Sara’ “So Jealous.” It’s the first time that I did a lyrical unity, usually it’s a sound unity or a mood unity but this particular episode I decided, let’s have every song be dead-on about jealousy.

What is your favourite song to dance to?

This is going to be a pretty standard answer and I swear I’m a straight man. I hated the song in high school when it came out, but it grew on me
– “Groove is in the Heart,” Deee-Lite.

If you were putting together a soundtrack of your life, what song would be on it for your first crush? First kiss? The exact moment you figured out what you were going to do with your life?

Bread’s “Everything I Own” for first crush. Are you familiar with that song?

I don’t think I am.

You have to grab that song. I love it. Bread was a mid-70s acoustic rock band. Track that song down, track down Bread’s greatest hits.

First kiss? Freshman year. Suddenly I’m thinking of J. Geils Band.

“Centerfold”?

(laughs) That might have been playing, but no. I know, Earth, Wind and Fire — “Fantasy.” It was played at every high school slow dance in the 70s.

And when my life began to make sense? That would be about two weeks ago. (laughs). I am stumped. If I wasn’t a music person, I could give you that [so easily].

Would it be easier to pick an entire album?

Zooropa. A U2 album that not many people cared for but it was the album that I bought the day that I drove to California from Texas. It was in constant rotation that year.

If you could sneak a song from one of your bands into a Veronica Mars episode, which would it be and what kind of scene?

I would probably put [the Black Irish song] “Suzanne” in there, it’s probably our best song. I think it’s there on my website if you want to hear it.

Moving off of the very difficult music questions — do you feel more comfortable working with a smaller cast such as in Cupid or with an ensemble like in Veronica Mars?

I don’t know if that’s necessarily more comfortable, but it’s easier [to work with a smaller cast]. You don’t want to ignore cast members — it’s like trying to juggle with three balls rather than six balls. In that way it’s easier with three, but that’s not indicative of what experience I’ve enjoyed the most.

One of the best things that Veronica Mars does is give an honest portrayal of friendship, something not really seen since the early years of Buffy and the Scooby Gang. How does the friendship aspect of the show make the mystery aspect easier and harder?

The friendship part and all the personal life stuff — we’d all have a lot more fun if we were just writing that. Mystery is hard for us. At the end of the day, when it came down to if I was going to hire writers who specialized in great dialogue and vivid characterizations or was I going to hire people who specialized in intricate plotting? I kind of hired a whole staff of character writers. So writing the character stuff seems to come easy for all of us, breaking detective stories is really difficult.

And honestly, the reason that Veronica Mars is a detective is because I thought I could get a teenage female detective show on the air. I can’t just get a teen soap on the air — particularly a couple of years ago, it was on a downward slope of these sorts of shows selling. I wanted to do a show like Freaks and Geeks and then Freaks and Geeks was canceled, and then I started thinking that I could marry a franchise to a teen show. I’m really interested in having all this character stuff — nice, personal moments — I’m glad I’m doing a detective show, it’s just really hard.

Do you find that plotting the second season’s arc is more difficult than unraveling Lilly’s murder?

Um, no. They were both really hard. (laughs) [The murder] of Lilly Kane is easier only because it’s behind us. If I were to say that it was easier last year I would be forgetting all those hours of us banging our heads against tables trying to make everything land right.

Did your plotting for the first season stay the same, or did you have a different killer in mind and change things?

No, that stayed the same all year. What happened the day Lilly Kane was killed was something that I had in my head before they ever ordered the series. Now the little details of how we got there were things that we worked out each week. But I knew that Aaron Echolls was the killer and what happened that day. Basically, what you saw on the final episode when Veronica recreates what happens was what I knew going in — it was sort of working backwards and out to figure out how do we get there and how do we drop clues.

For many fans, a show is defined by its romantic relationships. How would you convince fans that the outcome of the Logan/Veronica/Duncan triangle isn’t the heart of the show?

It may be for some people. I mean, I’m interested in it. It’s funny because I’ve had a lot of negative reaction to the phrase “love triangle,” I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails saying, “Oh, you’re going to be Dawson’s Creek and play this triangle out.” I think it’s all about execution. Some people do [love triangles] well and some people do it badly, and I hope we’ll be one of the shows that does it well. It’s never going to be the sort of teen show where there’s a bunch of hand-wringing, “I can’t decide which one to pick!” It’s going to feed off of awkward situations and subtext and hopefully be interesting to the fans.

Describe the following using only one word each:

Veronica — tough.
Wallace — loyal.
Duncan — pure.
Logan — Is fucked up two words for Logan? (laughs) A mess.

The reason Weevil and Mac and the like help Veronica is because she knows what it’s like to be them. By going back into the 09er fold, she’s alienating the people she befriended in her fall from grace. What are your plans to work around that?

It will be a struggle for Veronica all year. In episode one of the new season, one of non-09ers says to her, “You’re one of them now.” Weevil asks her [if she enjoyed her year of living dangerously], and shouldn’t she be running for Homecoming Queen.

Class division plays a major part in the arc this season and Veronica finds herself in an uncomfortable position — it will difficult for her to find her identity.

Veronica is often compared to Buffy — cute, small, tough, fights injustice. What image do you have of her?

Recently, female heroines have literally been kick-ass. Buffy kicked ass, Jennifer Garner kicks ass. Veronica is somebody who will outwit you. She’s mentally tough — I don’t put her in a lot of fistfights. Veronica is the thinking girl’s role model.

Do you think there’s any chance that Logan will have one iota of happiness in season two?

I think he had iotas in season one and there will definitely be moments of happiness in season two. I like Logan when he’s tortured — he becomes more interesting to me. Jason [Dohring] -– he’s a real star. I think we’ve found the new Edward Norton.

You regularly visit message boards to see what people are saying about the show. How does that affect your mindset when you all sit down to do the episodes?

I enjoy feedback — I want to know what’s working and what’s not. There are some comments that I take seriously and some that I don’t. When someone is disappointed because they think we didn’t execute something smoothly — that I don’t take very well. [I'm not so concerned] when the complaints are less about execution and more about what they want to the show.

I think you’d have very boring television if you took a fan poll for every decision you made. If you took an audience poll for Moonlighting, fans would want Dave and Maddie to get together in the first episode. There’s such a thing as delayed gratification — you have to keep that in mind [when writing] and remember what’s good for the audience.

We have some friends who still want to burn ABC in effigy for canceling Cupid. Why do you think the show couldn’t get a foothold?

I’d like to think that we were ahead of our time, but I think that moving us from Saturday to Sunday [would have helped the ratings]. It was a show geared towards single people in their 30s and it was on Saturdays at 10pm.

Did Jeremy Piven improvise or stray from the script much?

Jeremy and I had battles about that. He would improvise a lot and we’d include a lot [into the final show]. Jeremy would have 12 improvised lines and I used nine, he’d be angry about other three.

If someone came to you now and said you could do the show again, would you? What would you change?

Absolutely, I’d do it right now. And I’d change very little. I think I’m a better writer now — I’m proud of the show, but I understand TV structure better and could create a tighter show, a better plotted one. And I love the three actors (Jeremy Piven, Paula Marshall and Jeffrey D. Sams). Jeremy is at the top of his game right now — he’s so good in Entourage.

What has writing for young adults taught you about working in television?

I wrote Rats Saw God when I was 28 and, with the sex, drugs and language in it, I was writing it for an audience of my peers. It was about an 18 year old, but from a 28 year old point of view. [When it was sold], it was marketed as YA, which surprised me.

This is a real easy lesson – don’t write for teens. Aim high and write to please yourself.

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2005-09-27

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