He’s best known as the charming frontman of Fall Out Boy — but long before he embarked on the path to pop punk stardom, Patrick Stump spent days and nights poring over his mom’s old textbooks, memorizing the names of long-extinct mammals and aquatic life. “All my favorite superheroes were scientists,” Stump tells Rolling Stone.
This made it all the more fitting that Stump was approached to score the YouTube documentary series, Let Science Speak. As the Trump administration rolls back protections on the environment, censors federal employees and slashes funds for research, the six-part series tackles America’s “War on Science” by profiling an array of scientists in various fields of study. Released on the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria — and its devastating impact on the people of Puerto Rico — Let Science Speak premieres September 20th at the Tribeca TV Festival and will be available for instant watch on YouTube.
“Historically, many scientists have been uncomfortable or unwilling to speak outside of the ivory tower,” says Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Professor and Director of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Georgia. “Let Science Speak is so important because it shows that there are scientists like myself willing to engage and fill the information gap. If scientists do not do this, people skilled in misinformation or agenda-laden ideologies are happy to fill that gap for policymakers, stakeholders, and the public. I choose to speak.”
Stump’s original score aptly conveys the alarming state of a country divided and a planet in distress. “To get to see who a scientist really is, and does, and looks like is an important thing,” says Stump. “Right now we’re in a culture full of “us versus them” talk. Watching this doc, you realize… that scientists are us.”
Stump spoke to Rolling Stone about his own love for science, his burgeoning career as a composer and how scoring films has impacted Fall Out Boy’s ever-evolving sound.
You’ve said that you always wanted to be a scientist. What kind of science most piqued your interest?
I suppose natural history is my favorite — prehistoric life. My mom had this book, it was one of her textbooks from college. It had dinosaurs and stuff, but it also covered that whole era of the megafauna — you know, the giant sloth, the Chalicotherium, and the Indrocotherium. I remember being obsessed with that, because those were the ones you didn’t hear about [in school]. I became very very curious. Some kids get curious about baseball stats, and music is obviously my main squeeze, but I was one of those kids who spent a lot of time reading up on the long extinct mammals, and aquatic life too. There’s so much fascinating stuff in the ocean.
Dinosaurs are such a staple of first grade education: You go through all of the dinosaurs, and then you stop before you hit mammalian life. But I think it’s a really political thing, especially in the United States, because then you have to answer questions of evolution, and that’s where everything gets hairy… literally and otherwise.
Hey, it does! I guess I never really thought about it as a schooling thing, because I was just so enamored by it as a kid, that I was studying it on my own. It was just so fascinating to me that there was ever like … an eight-foot beaver. It’s funny looking at these animals, and thinking of it almost like technology. Like I remember when my dad had this car phone that they gave him ’cause his business … and it was a whole backpack! And now they’ve gotten tiny, and they can do everything. Kinda like that, when the earth started out, animals had to be just gigantic. I can go on way too long about this stuff, it’s one of my nerd-isms or whatever.
Did you ever consider a career in science, before you became a full-time rock star?
I mean, the band started when I was 17, so I didn’t really have enough time to think about what I would’ve gone to school for, or what my day job would’ve been. But I could daydream! You know, all my favorite superheroes, all my action figures were always “The Science Guy.” It would be Donatello, or Egon, or Bruce Banner. That was the thing that I loved about Peter Parker: yeah he was a photographer, and he was a smart ass, but he was also a nerd. When the band took off, somehow, it was like getting struck by lightning. And here I am!
And so how did you get involved in Let Science Speak?
It’s one of those things that just came my way. They were putting together a trailer for it, and I cut a score just for the trailer. I guess they were happy with what I did, and then it became, “Hey, you want to do the whole series?” And, so that was really cool for me. I wanted to be involved in this, because the biggest focus is on the personal stories of the scientists. I consider myself very nerdy, but I didn’t realize that I still have this image in my head of somebody in a lab coat playing with beakers or something. But to get to see who a scientist really is, and does, and looks like, and where they are? I think that’s an important thing, because right now we’re in a culture full of “us versus them” talk. When you realize that scientists are us.
The film seems to tackle several controversial issues being tackled by scientists now — climate change, pollution, the anti-vaccination movement. How did you personally realize the effects of anti-science attitudes in this country?
Look, as a public we’ve known about climate change since the Seventies, and that predates me. So there’s been climate change denial my whole life. I don’t remember a time where there weren’t people arguing about it! But you know, the big one has been vaccines. [Being vaccinated] was totally an accepted, reasonable thing, and then one day, a switch just flipped. Then all of a sudden, it was a very reasonable discussion to have with somebody. “Oh, I’m just not gonna vaccinate.” Now there’s this whole question of [whether to trust] science. The same science that makes your car run. It’s the same science that gives you insulin if you have diabetes. I mean, [scientific research] has a direct impact on our life expectancy and our infant mortality rates — all these things that look like progress. But you know, science is a tool that was also used to refine our fossil fuels and make a problem [like climate change] in the first place.
Science is not a value-neutral tool, and under the influence of political and corporate interests, it has only become more polarizing. The hardest part is cutting through the fog, which seems to be what this series does by humanizing scientists.
Yeah. When did that happen? [Laughs] Everyone’s free to believe whatever [they] want; I mean that’s what’s great about living in this country. But all science is, is looking at things; and when we see a pattern, that’s something that we have observed and learned from. There is a cause and effect.
The part that people find really difficult is the observing and learning. Will we have to worry about kids getting polio or smallpox again?
It’s pretty brutal! But I also think of that Bane line: “Victory has defeated you!” We got so good with vaccines that I think people forgot what those diseases are actually like. So I think on some level I’m marginally optimistic because once someone’s kid gets sick, they’re gonna figure it out and go, “Now I get it.” Once it happens to you? “Oh, well why isn’t there a cure for this? Oh, there is? Why didn’t someone tell me?!”
Was there anything in the series in particular that struck you or that you learned for the first time?
Well, there’s a vignette with Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, and one of the things that kinda struck me is she’s incredibly religious. She’s a scientist because she feels like she knows god better that way. In her perspective, she gets to experience his creation. That was fascinating and really resonated with me. Also, what was really fun to score was the segment with Dr. Dawn Wright. She’s just so enthusiastic about the ocean that it was hard not to smile while [I was] working on it.
How did you get your start scoring films?
It’s probably been about three years now that I’ve been more or less full time scoring for something. But they take so long to come out that it seems new. I’ve done three feature films, I’ve gotten to do that bit in Pacific Rim. I just did [Let Science Speak] and I’m currently working on another short series. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid, but I didn’t know that it was a thing that was available to me in any way. I didn’t go to school; I wasn’t classically trained. I was just some punk rock kid. But I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of writing symphonic music, so it’s something that I put out there from the moment we got signed. I was like “Hey, you know, if anyone wants me to score their movie…” and it just never happened for years. No one ever took me seriously.
The band is such a funny thing — you end up doing so many weird side things. Like I’ve done some voiceover work for cartoons. I was doing voice work on this new movie called Gnome Alone, and the producer came in and said, “Hey, I hear you want to score?” And I’m like, “Yes, I do,” and she goes, “Would you want to score this movie?” And it was a total fluke. I don’t know what she was thinking but she just gave me a full budget and I did a full orchestra and everyone seemed to like it. So from there it’s kind of just cascaded into all these other projects. Most of my free time is scoring now and I love it. It’s such a different thing than being in this big loud rock band. Musically, [Let Science Speak] is very subdued — and it’s oh so weird for me, such a not Patrick thing to do —but that was what they wanted and so that was a big challenge for me to be understated.
Has scoring films directly impacted Fall Out Boy’s increasingly big sound?
It might have! I’m not sure I’m cognizant of it. For example, I am not a string player at all, but because of the way that we’ve just willed things into existence punk rock style, sometimes in the studio you can make anything work, right? So now having done so much work on film scores, periodically I’ll be like “Ah, I want a violin that sounds really crusty right here…I’ll just play it, whatever.” Now that kind of becomes part of my palette for Fall Out Boy. I didn’t realize this before, but Pete writes the lyrics, and I write the music — so I’ve always kind of been scoring his thoughts. So it’s really not that different, it’s just fascinating to me how different that can make me sound too because it’s somebody else’s idea, channeled through me.
It’s Pete Wentz’s life, you’re just scoring it.
Yeah, for the past 17 years.
Fall Out Boy is currently on its Mania tour. You just played Wrigley Field, which is a super important landmark to Chicagoans. How did that feel?
It was really weird playing some of those songs at Wrigley! When the band started I was 17 and didn’t go to college. It was kind of my semester off as it were, and the band lived in a little apartment in Roscoe Village, which is really close to Wrigleyville. So we would walk past Wrigley and I remember distinctly writing “Grand Theft Autumn (Where Is Your Boy).” That song was this huge turning point for us — where all of a sudden, you know, labels started taking us seriously. Pete and I had written the song, or parts of it, then went for a jog around Wrigley and discussed the lyrics. We wrote the song there and then… fast-forward 15 years or something, and we’re playing it there.
And Wrigley is out of the scope of imagination, you know what I mean? They don’t even really do shows there, but Billy Joel plays there, Paul McCartney will play there. They open it up for crazy big artists. Like my end-all, be-all goal for the band was to play the Metro! So playing across the street at Wrigley, that’s pretty crazy.
That’s a beautiful way to come full circle.
It really is. I wish I had planned it that way. My friends tease me a lot about being kind of “gee whiz” about the whole fan thing, ’cause I don’t really see myself as a big rock star. But I had this moment onstage at Wrigley like, “Ah man, I guess I kind of have to believe it now, huh?” I mean this is kind of it. This is what I do!