There are a good chunk of spooky cartoons spinning through my brain around Halloween, but one that stands out in particular is 1978’s The Devil and Daniel Mouse. Who doesn’t love a good, Satanic story this time of year, right?
Released in 1978 through Canadian studio Nelvana, The Devil and Daniel Mouse is a creeper that centres on a floundering rodent folk duo who get fired from their house band gig after a club owner deems that people these days only want to “rock 'n' roll, and disco dance.” Rough! When the pair get separated that night, the singer, Jan, stumbles into a Faustian bargain that sees her quickly skyrocketing to fame after literally “selling her soul for some rock ‘n’ roll.”
Part of why this children’s horror sticks out is its soundtrack, which is a mix of humbled folk ("Look Where the Music Can Take You"), bump-and-grind funk ("I've Got a Song to Sing"), and soaring ‘70s arena rock. Singing as Daniel Mouse is the iconic John Sebastian, who also wrote all the music for the special.
While John penned plenty of paisley classics in the ‘60s with the Lovin’ Spoonful (“Summer in the City,” “Daydream,” “Do You Believe in Magic”), The Devil and Daniel Mouse marked a prolific run at Nelvana that bled into tunes for Easter Fever, Romie-0 and Julie-8, Strawberry Shortcake, and perhaps his most well-known kids show theme, the “Care Bears Countdown.”
All in all, The Devil and Daniel Mouse is a gorgeously cel-animated special with fun-and-frightening character designs – from the awe-shucks look of the acoustic-totin’, overalls-sportin’ Daniel Mouse, to Funky Jan’s disco suits and Kiss-like concert makeup, to the inspired choice of making Beelzebub a sleazy ‘70s record executive with a slick combover and wide-lapeled suit. While much of it is exquisitely cutesy, there are also some truly nightmarish moments (the finale finds the Devil’s head ghoulishly rotating 360 degrees and transforming itself into a ball of fiery snakes).
With it being Halloween and all, Gut Feeling spoke with John to get into his spooky beginnings at Nelvana, the special being misinterpreted as anti-rock ‘n roll, and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed
John Sebastian. Photo by Jim Shea
How did you get involved with the people at Nelvana?
John Sebastian: My first call came from [Nelvana co-founder] Michael Hirsch. They’ve got kind of a Mutt and Jeff thing going, Michael and Clive [Smith, director and Nelvana co-founder]. Michael is very straight; I believe he said, “We’re animators in Canada, here, and we’re looking for some music...and you’re perfect!” So, I said OK!
That certainly starts things off positively…
Absolutely. And I must say, I’ve always been a fan not only of cartoons, but of cartoon music. Some of that Warner Bros. stuff that was so wild and orchestrated, just down to the bottom. Pretty wonderful!
You’re the singing voice of Daniel Mouse in the special, but there’s another actor, Jim Henshaw, that handled the speaking role. Since you’d also narrated the story for its soundtrack release, had it ever come up in conversation about you possibly taking on the full role of Daniel?
I don’t think so. For one thing, Nelvana did have to access to really good actors. They could draft up a character and have the right [voice] quite fast.
Did they show you the design of Daniel Mouse before you wrote the music?
I had the delight of working closely with Clive Smith. One thing was, Clive was a real musician, so we had a dialogue together quite fast. I had an idea of what they were looking for as we began to develop the character.
I also have to say that Valerie Carter did a fantastic job of acting in her singing [as Jan]. For example, at the very beginning of the special, the two mice are singing in a club and they’re bombing. I said, “Val, we really have to bomb for 25 seconds, here,” and she was so good. [ed. John starts singing with a nervous tremble] “LoOoOoOk where the music can take you….” So good!
Daniel is this small in stature, but big-of-heart mouse. Were there any characteristics of his that you tried to throw into the vocals, in particular?
Well, that is the job: to try and speak through the character. So, I was trying — if you want to use the verb — to animate this mouse in such a way that he’d be convincing both as a folk singer and as a guy who’s sort of making a transition [i.e. potentially losing his musical partner to the rock world…and the Devil!]
I got a nasty letter from one guy, though, saying, “You hate hard rock! You’re putting down hard rock [with this special]!" But it’s like…this is a cartoon. [laughs]
As you mentioned, up front there’s that folkier, two-piece version of “Look Where the Music Can Take You,” and later on there’s the full-band performance as part of the courtroom finale. Were these songs written bespoke for The Devil and Daniel Mouse, or had you been hanging onto these ideas for some time?
No, these were custom-built for the mice.
I also had access to Reggie Knighton and his band, which was a wonderful kind of punky, poppy unit that actually includes [guitarist Brian Ray,] the guy that now works with Paul McCartney. So, we had a real rock band. We were able to jump around— I guess in retrospect some of it is poppier, and some of it is rockier.
“I’ve Got a Song to Sing” is this hard-edged funk piece; the acapella intro to the big Funky Jan and the Animal Kingdom’s concert scene almost has a Led Zeppelin “Black Dog” feel, with that vigorous vocal performance. What else can you say about working with the Reggie Knighton Band, and exploring those tangents? And you wrote all of that, right?
Yes. It’s so funny, because they’re all three lines [long]. You’re thinking, “Oh, it’s a whole song?” No, it’s not! It’s only those three lines; don’t make me write more! [laughs] It was comical.
So, none of those were fleshed-out?
That’s correct. We knew we needed something [quick] like “Sometimes I is, and sometimes I ain’t/Sweet love, honey, gonna make me faint.” That’s all!
That’s really great, but I would love to hear what that full song could be.
That’s the point! That’s the goal, there.
Was there a different vibe to working with Clive — as both an animation director and a musician — as opposed to with a more general music producer?
There were little things. When you were seeing the mice play guitar, they only have three fingers and a thumb. I said we could have them play the chords, though, because you don’t really need more than three fingers and a thumb! That was part of what Clive accomplished [as an animation director]. If you look at those characters, they’re actually playing the chords!
The soundtrack lists that the music was recorded at a pair of studios: Wally Heider Studios in Los Angeles, and Eastern Sound in Toronto. Were you working out of both locations?
Yes. It was just a matter of whether I was in Los Angeles or not. I’d be there [at Wally Heider], and I think that there were some occasions where we could get the band together, or could get Valerie in. And in Toronto we did actually bring everybody up to do the sessions.
Are you a gear person at all?
I pretty much know what I played over the years. I try not to be creepy about it, but I do have favourite guitars.
There’s a mini-documentary around the making of The Devil and Daniel Mouse that you can find on YouTube, and in it you’re seen playing this acoustic in the studio booth. Do you recall which acoustic that was, and was it the guitar you’d played at Woodstock?
No, it wasn’t the Woodstock guitar. I only had that for the afternoon. I had to give that back to Timmy Hardin, who I had borrowed it from to do the set. Remember, I didn’t show up with a guitar or anything. I borrowed a Harmony Sovereign, one of the great, inexpensive guitars in this world.
What I might’ve been playing [for The Devil and Daniel Mouse] was a Heritage model Gibson — really unpopular, and not at all expensive, but it’s a great guitar. I still have it. It’s on [the Lovin' Spoonful's] “Darling Be Home Soon,” and a couple other things.
You mentioned working with Valerie Carter on this special — she’s credited on the soundtrack as Laurel Runn, though. Do you know the story behind the pseudonym?
I certainly do, and it’s one of the strangest things. I tried to discourage her, and I think her manager – who was also my manager at the time – had tried to discourage her, too. In fact, the name [Laurel Runn] came from the secretary at our manager’s office at the time, but slightly altered.
She was afraid that she would get pigeonholed as a children’s vocalist. You know, it’s kind of a stretch. I know that there were guys like Valdy — people who specialized in that — so I guess I can understand how she might’ve had a moment’s hesitation.
On the other side of that, The Devil and Daniel Mouse was the start of your years-long partnership with Nelvana. How did you end up keeping this relationship with Nelvana?
For one thing, Clive and I really got along well. And Michael and I got along well, too. That was really key to it. And they kept coming up with these goofy ideas [that] I couldn’t resist! That was an aspect of it. I wasn’t going to turn any of this stuff down.
It was also at a time where I wasn’t that wildly popular, so it was a nice thing for me to be able to do that kind of work. Also, cartoon work permits you to not be yourself. I could be a hard rock guy; I could be a scary devil; or I could be a junk monster like in Romie-0 and Julie-8, the robot romance that I did with Rory Block.
Of all your Nelvana pieces, I’m going to say the most iconic, omnipresent song of them is probably the “Care Bears Countdown”
I think it’s between that and “Nobody Cares Like a Bear.”
Did you ever play these songs in your live sets?
"Nobody Cares Like a Bear" is something I will throw in, if I feel like I need some silly stuff.
What’s your favourite guitar to play these days?
I’ve been playing a Heritage Eagle since about ’92, that’s my primary instrument. Also, Joe Veillette’s baritone is a very useful tool for me. It’s a guitar-like creature that’s down a fourth; it’s an interesting tuning. It's useful for a one-guitar/one-guy act, because sometimes I’m trying to convey something bigger than “Look Where the Music Can Take You.”
Do you watch The Devil and Daniel Mouse once Halloween comes around?
I think I probably saw it most recently about three years ago.
Are you a Halloween person?
I certainly enjoyed makeup as a kid, but it’s kind of calmed down lately. [Laughs] But, yes, I was a Halloween guy.