Part 2 of our interview with Grammy Award-nominated music supervisor Gary Calamar. Head here to check out Part 1 or continue reading for Part 2:
Can you tell us more about working on True Blood?
Well as I said earlier Alan Ball took me aside and said this is a show about vampires so let’s just have some fun with it. The Jace Everett song worked as a great template and the fact that it took place in Louisiana was a big factor in the music that we picked. There’s such great music that came out of that region over the years, people like Slim Harpo, Allen Toussaint, there’s some great music out of Louisana as well as other areas in the South, so I had a rich pool of music to choose from. A lot of that blues music is about the devil and it’s dark and kind of funny as well so it was a great experience finding music for that show.
How creative do you have to be with budgets?
It’s kind of like a puzzle. HBO takes music very seriously and gave us a healthy budget for both True Blood and Six Feet Under, more so than any other show that I’ve worked on, but it is like a puzzle. If we’re going to use a Led Zeppelin song then we’re going to have to cut back in other areas. So we used a lot of local and indie artists to help fill in some of the gaps. If we’re going to use a $100,000 Led Zeppelin song we’re going to have to use a $2,000 song from a local artist – so it does get creative but that’s fun.
Led Zeppelin are very particular – they ask for a lot of money for their songs. It’s interesting because most of the time when we’re looking for songs I’ll reach out to an artist and get a quote and at the end of the day we’ll decide what we’re gonna use. If you go to Led Zeppelin and they give you a quote that’s within your budget then you have to use it, so before we go to them we have to know that we’re going to put it in there. And we had some other great choices for that final scene in True Blood but the producers loved the Led Zeppelin track and that’s what we ended up going with.
You co-wrote a song for True Blood that Iggy Pop recorded, how did that come about?
Each episode of the show is named after one of the songs that are in the show. We had a new writer at the time and she came up with the title of the episode “Let’s Boot and Rally” and she had a song idea, but the song that she picked didn’t really work in the show it just was the wrong vibe. So I said we can either find another title for the show or we can have someone write a new song called “Let’s Boot and Rally”. I have always been a songwriter, although I never really called myself that until recently, and so me and my buddy James Combs went to work on a song called “Let’s Boot and Rally” and we were very happy with what we came up with.
In the meantime Iggy Pop had reached out to me as a fan of the show and just said if anything ever comes up I’d be happy to write or perform a song for you, so we sent him the track and he said sure let’s do it. We recorded the backing track here in Los Angeles and Iggy recorded his vocals in Spain as he was on tour at the time. We had a nice conversation or two over the phone and he loved the track and really encouraged me to keep on writing and he did an amazing job. And then we got Bethany Cosentino from Best Coast to make it into a duet and yeah, it was one of the highlights of my life having Iggy Pop record one of my songs. Since then I’ve been doing more writing and more recording and having a great time with that.
Your EP “You Are What You Listen To” was recently released on Atlantic Records
Yeah, well like I said I’ve always dabbled in songwriting and had done some recordings over the years. I was having a meeting with my colleague Kevin Weaver at Atlantic Records and played him some of the stuff just casually, I wasn’t really pitching it to him, and he said we should put this out and I hung onto that and I wouldn’t let go! (laughs). So he came through and he gave me a little budget to re-record some of these demos and he put it out and I got some very nice press and radio play and I’m currently working on a little follow up to it right now.
Have you scored any syncs yet?
Actually Liza Richardson put one of my songs on her new show Hand of God. It was actually a song called “Minimum Day” that I wrote that I recorded later but an artist named The Bones of JR Jones had recorded it and had pitched it to Liza and she didn’t even realise and she put it in the show and I said hey that’s my song! So hopefully I can get a big Apple ad at some point..
What are the key variables involved in marrying a song with a scene?
It sort of depends as it’s a very subjective thing. A lot of times I will pick a song that I think works perfectly in a scene and the producers will shoot it down, and vice versa. So it’s hard to say specifically what works and what doesn’t, it’s a case by case thing 0 different shows have different sensibilities. When I worked on Weeds they really liked the lyrics to punctuate what was happening in the scene, whereas on Six Feet Under they wanted the music to be almost a texture in the background. So I don’t really know the exact formula – it’s a case by case thing.
We had a song in Weeds where the main character ended up sleeping with an FDA agent and we used a song by Jenny Owen Youngs called “What The Fuck Was I Thinking?”, which was obviously right on the nose but that was the senbility of the show and it was a very humerous moment. In Six Feet Under that would be completely wrong to have the lyrics work like that. In general I think you don’t want to have the lyrics completely spell out what’s happening on the screen because it would be kind of silly. I think you want to go for the more subtle approach and give a little emotional feeling and background to what’s happening in the scene, but again it’s always a case by case basis. We just worked on a small independent movie called Is That A Gun in Your Pocket? and their sensibility was to have songs that were pretty much on the nose so maybe for comedy it works better that way.
How important is the end title track?
Again it depends on the show but on True Blood it was a huge part of the show, a lot of people really looked forward to that final scene and it worked in different ways – sometimes it could be ironic, sometimes it could be leading on to what’s going to happen in the next episode or reflecting back to what happened. A lot of times True Blood would end on some dramatic horror type scene and sometimes a song could be sort of like a sigh of relief after a big dramatic scene. So for True Blood it was a major challenge and a lot of fun to find the perfect song for the end credits. I picked a lot of them, the producers and the writers were obviously also very involved, so the whole thing was a big collaboration. I can’t take credit for all of them!
What does a typical working week look like for you?
I don’t know if this is a week necessarily but the process usually starts when I get the script and read through it. Right now I’m working on a show called The Man in the High Castlewhich is a new show for Amazon Prime – it’s a very cool show originally written by the sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick who wrote the stories that became Total Recall and some other big science fiction shows.
So initially I’ll get the script and read through it and make little notes of where music might be, then I sit down with the producers and the composer and we have what we call a spotting session where we go through the entire show and pick where songs are going to go, where score is going to go, and if it is going to be a song what type of song we’re looking for, and then I go back to my office and try and come up with some ideas. Usually I’ll pitch maybe 3-5 ideas for each scene, and the producers will either give me the thumbs up and say, “Gary you’re brilliant” or they’ll say, “Gary – back to the drawing board!”
After we pick a song or two for each scene it’s about reaching out to the record label and the publisher and negotiating a deal and trying to get songs that work within the budget, and that’s kind of the way that the system goes. When I’m picking or pitching the music I just go through my library and brainstorm what will work. This particular show is unique for me and probably the most ambitious project I’ve worked on. It takes place in 1962 and the story is about if the United States lost World War II and the Japanese and Germans are running the country. It’s an imaginary world where there’s no Rock ‘n’ Roll, there’s no Elvis Presley, and so I’m looking for Japanese and German pop music from the ‘50s which is challenging. If you get Amazon the pilot is up there now and I think later in the year around thanksgiving the rest of the show will be done. It’s very cool and dark. Somehow I end up working on all these somewhat dark shows – this is probably the darkest.
Are you open to receiving music from artists?
I’m open to music that’s obviously appropriate to the show. Again for this particular show there’s not really new artists or new songs that are gonna work, although I do have a couple of producers that are working on songs that would sound like they came from that period with Japanese vocalists and lyrics. On True Blood we got a ton of submissions and definitely found a few things through that process, so I’m open to it but I urge people to do their homework and to send music to music supervisors that are appropriate to their projects.
Do you have any best practices for people wanting to get in touch?
It’s tough – it’s really tough. We have a two person operation and we get so much music that it’s impossible to listen to everything. If someone sent me a folder full of Japanese music from the ’50s I would be listening to every track because that’s what I’m working on right now. But I would just say do your homework, pitch appropriate music and definitely be persistent but understand that we are just overloaded. I feel for the artists, especially now that I’m a bit of an artist myself, but it’s such a moving target finding music for these shows – there’s a handful of slots and 500 songs being pitched to me for these slots and it’s hard to get to everything.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
So the big project right now is Man in the High Castle on Amazon. We’re also working on a documentary right now about the person who was the character in the film Midnight Expresswhich came out in the ’70s, and it’s about the aftermath of the film and its effect on Turkey and the Turkish people, so that’s an interesting project. We have a movie that’s coming out this year called Tumbledown which is a really cool project starring Jason Sudekis and Rebecca Hall about an Elliott Smith or Jeff Buckley type character – a folk singer that died young and somewhat mysteriously. This artist Damien Jurado wrote a bunch of new songs for us for that project, we also have the show Wayward Pines on the air right now and yeah, we’re just hustling for more work – we’ll hopefully get another long running TV show lke True Blood or Dexter. It’s kind of a freelance gig – we had a great run when House and Dexter and True Blood were happening and then all those shows came to an end and we’re now trying to rebuild our slate.
Artists you’re particularly excited about at the moment?
I’m a big fan of Courtney Barnett and she’s doing really well. There’s a great new band from LA called The Bad Years which I like a lot. This band Cheerleader, Dawes is another band from LA that I like. There’s a cool new collaboration with Franz Ferdinand and the band Sparks called FFS which I like a lot, Girlpool, Holly Miranda, there’s great stuff coming out all the time and I’m always hungry for new music.
What’s the best cover you’ve heard in the past year?
Warpaint do a great cover of Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” which I lov. I do love covers – one of my favourite uses of music in True Blood was the Watson Twins covering The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”. I don’t know how other people took it but it was kind of an early scene with Sookie and Bill and I loved the fact that it combined both of their worlds – The Cure being a gothic kind of thing and the acoustic version of “Just Like Heaven” I thought really showed Sookie’s character. That’s all I can think of at the moment but I do love covers and different people’s takes on music.
What’s the most memorable placement you’ve worked on?
We had a lot of great music moments in Six Feet Under and True Blood but I would have to go back to the Sia track – it was such an amazing scene that Alan wrote and put together and the editor did an amazing job of cutting it together. So Sia’s “Breathe Me” would have to be my favourite.
If you weren’t a music supervisor what would you be?
My whole life has been based around music and being a fan. My wife says if I didn’t meet her I would be the manager of the record store here in town. Ideally I would love to be a songwriter, I don’t know how successful I would be but that would be my dream, and to have a song that people know and makes them happy in some way. Either that or the night manager at Amoeba Records. I was there a couple of days ago and they had an in-store release party for The Wrecking Crew DVD and they asked me to DJ. I love that store and beign in that atmosphere and meeting members of The Wrecking Crew was quite a thrill. I feel very fortunate to be working at KCRW and on these great shows and to work with people that I like, so I would always be doing something in the music business and again working in a record store – I could think of worse things.
You can find out more about Gary and his music at the following links:
We’d like to say a huge thanks to Gary for such an interesting and informative interview! Don’t forget you can also listen to it in full on our SynchStories podcast.