Meet the Sitkan behind the ‘crappy clarinet playing’ of Squidward Tentacles

A man wearing headphones and speaking into a microphone in a radio studio
Brad Carow is a recent addition to Raven Radio’s talented volunteer pool. His show “Groovin Hard with Brad Carow” airs every Monday from 6:30-8 p.m. (Katherine Rose/KCAW)

Although the show “SpongeBob SquarePants” was carefully directed at a cartoon-loving demographic in the late 1990s, parts of the delightfully offbeat production were happy accidents. Like SpongeBob’s jazzophile neighbor Squidward Tentacles and his somewhat random clarinet performances.

The musical genius of Squidward can be traced back to one person who now lives in Sitka and shares his gifts every week on his own radio program.

Listen to this story:

Brad Carow grew up in Los Angeles — a “valley kid,” born and raised in the San Fernando Valley.

“My father worked in the film industry, he was a sound effects man,” Carow said. “He had a friend who got me a job as the driver for an animation company. And after a month, they liked me and they got me into the editors union, and I was an apprentice sound effects editor.”

He was working on cartoons like Heathcliff. And soon he made the move to Universal Studios, then Warner Brothers.

“It was a magical time being on the lot in the eighties, because the real icons of film were still around,” he said. “And you could see them, you know, meet them.”

He’d see actors like Ernest Borgnine walking around the lot, and Anthony Perkins, who was directing Psycho 3 at the time. One day he helped Jimmy Stewart find his way to Stage 4. And he met a few animation legends in the eighties too, like Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny.

“He was a really, really nice man,” Carow said. “Of course, he was a dirty old man. He had a watch that had a naked lady on it, but he was a cool cat.”

It took about ten years for Carow to go from assistant to associate film editor, then to full fledged film editor.

Eventually he ended up at Nickelodeon Studios. And one day he found himself editing the pilot for a new show about a yellow kitchen sponge that would end up rocking the world of childrens’ television from a pineapple under the sea.

That’s right — SpongeBob SquarePants. Carow was asked by the creator, the late Stephen Hillenburg, to write a song for the show that sounded like the theme to the sixties show The Mod Squad. Carow wrote a piece and recorded it in the studio with trombone and trumpet players recording multiple parts, along with bass, piano and drums — he played all five saxophone parts himself.

“Steve came into the studio, he heard it once. He said, ‘That’s the right one.’ Carow said. “And he wanted it to be the main title for the series,” Carow continued. “But Nickelodeon said, ‘No, no, no, we want something that has lyrics and tells the backstory of the characters.’”

“If they had used that music as the main title theme, I wouldn’t have to work for a living, you know? But that’s okay,” Carow said.

Even though they didn’t pick his theme, Carow went on to write songs for the show, including the Jellyfish Jam. He even wrote the music for the F.U.N. song — you know, the one that drove parents up the wall in the early aughts?

But perhaps his biggest contribution to the SpongeBob universe is a mediocre jazz performance that has now become iconic.

“Steve remembered that I played clarinet, and he said, ‘You play clarinet, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ Well, he said, ‘You know, we have a character on SpongeBob who plays a clarinet. Would you be interested in covering that part? I said, ‘Sure.’ Well, that was about 23 years ago.”

Squidward is a grumpy, jazz loving octopus who lives next door to the child-like SpongeBob and his friend Patrick. Squidward laments their interruptions of his clarinet practice.

“All the clarinet I play, I’m improvising, right? So it’s considered an original composition,” Carow said. “So I am the owner of all that crappy clarinet playing that Squidward does.”

Carow spent 30 years in the film industry. But one day he’d had enough. He decided he wanted to switch careers and become a therapist, something he had a little experience with as a taxi driver in LA.

“People would get in my cab and just spill their guts to me and tell me everything about them because they never see me again,” he said. “And that was when I realized that ‘Hey, I’m a pretty good listener.’ So it was going back to that, that really made me feel like ‘Yeah, I think I could do this.’”

Now he’s worked in the mental health field as a therapist for 10 years. He says that while he’s proud of his decades in the film industry, he wouldn’t go back.

He’s still able to have time for his creative pursuits, like music. He still plays Squidward’s clarinet when the SpongeBob showrunners need it for an episode. He’s in an-up-and-coming local saxophone quartet.

And he has a show on Raven Radio called Groovin’ Hard with Brad Carow. It’s all about something he shares with his clarinet counterpart, Squidward: his love of jazz.

[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

Previous articleCitizen science program uses artificial intelligence to track thousands of humpback whales
Next articleAn ocean first: Underwater drone tracks CO2 in Alaska gulf