TV: “Master of None” Music Supervisor Zach Cowie Loves Italo Disco

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As a TV critic, I’m often a sucker for strong music cues. For the first time ever, the Emmys have opened up a new category for Music Supervision for a series, and there a some very strong contenders. Perhaps the strongest of these contenders is coming from Netflix. There are few shows that use music more expertly than “Master of None,” and I got the opportunity to talk about the music of season 2 with the series’ Music Supervisor Zach Cowie. Zach is also a DJ (DJ Turquoise) and an encyclopedic knowledge about obscure sounds. Zach and I discussed research as a music supervisor, collaboration with Aziz Ansari and the writer’s room, and his “vacation band” Wooden Wisdom with Elijah Wood.

A: First thing I’ve got to say is that I watch three shows with my Spotify open the entire time. “Master of None” is one of those three shows because of how diverse your music choices are.

Z: Oh thanks for that!

A: So for this season you had some new loacations you had to visit. How early did you know you were going to incorporate Italian music into the show?

Z: That was one of the first things that Aziz (Ansari) told me when the permission had been granted for Season 2 by Netflix. He told me like right off the bat. He was like “Dude! We’re going to Italy!” He actually like went there and lived there for months, learning to speak the language and learning to make pasta, and him and I started to exchange Italian music before they even wrote any of the scripts. So that was a real touchstone right at the beginning that was the sound of our version of Italy.

A: I was going to ask, do you apply your music to the scripts, or do you and Aziz pass back and forth?

Z: Well it is kind of both ways. There are things we start working on when scenes are established. There are tons of scenes that we can’t put music too until we’ve seen them. So it’s really just half and half.

A: How collaborative is it working with Aziz and Alan (Yang)? I know they both love music as well. 

Z: It’s super collaborative. Much to my girlfriend’s dismay, I probably talk to them more than I talk to her during the entire year it takes to make one of these seasons. We talk 3 or 4 times a day, every day. Those guys are such music freaks. The music really does have a way of bringing everyone to the same headspace pretty quickly. So they use it a lot for the writer’s room, for the actors, getting things across for the stories, helping the stories develop. As they’re writing, soundtracks are popping into their heads. So we start exchanging right away and talk about them a lot.

A: Working with Netflix, how difficult is it to license songs? Or do you get any pushback to maybe use a song that costs less?

Z: Netflix is the dream employer. They really are very hands off and put a lot of faith in the creators. Alan and Aziz are also the showrunners for this, so a lot of the decisions end with them. It’s one of the best scenarios I’ve ever had in my life, where we just kind of do what we want. I think their hands off approach is proven to work for a show like this one. We go out there on every front and do something different and new. For it to be so well received, that tells me that they’re really smart about who they put their faith in.

Clearing songs is a whole other side of this business. I’m lucky enough to have a co-supervisor, in Kerri Drootin on this show, and she handles the majority of the clearance licensing. We got really lucky on this season in particular because not very many of our choices got shot down. Having a well-received first season makes the clearances on the second season that much smoother. We don’t have to like pitch the show anymore. We can just be like “it’s ‘Master or None’ again.”

A: How many pieces did you use in each episode on average?

Z: That’s tough to say. On our show, we do have composers, and they’re great and criminally underused. We only have original composition like 4 or 5 times in the season. We really just do everything with source music. In some episodes we push it to 20 queues, some it’s still just 5 or 6, which is typical for a normal show that uses composers way more. We got somewhere over a hundred for the whole season.

A: When you guys were filming the scene where Eric (Wareheim) was DJing, did you let him DJ himself, or did you give him a playlist to go into?

Z: Yeah, we picked all that stuff, Aziz and I. It’s kind of a cool little moment. One, its kind of a nod to my past as a club DJ. More importantly, it gives us a chance to shine some light on some inspirations for us for the New York sound of “Master of None,” which is very informed by some legendary New York DJs from the ’70s and ’80s. Like Larry Lavan and David Mancuso. A lot of the stuff you hear in that scene are things that were typically heard at their parties or clubs like Paradise Garage, Loft, or The Gallary. Whenever given the opportunity, I like to leave little context clues for anybody that is inspired enough to research the music. We did pre-clear that, so everyone is actually dancing to that music, and Eric is pretending to play that.

A: I just slowly added most of the music from this season onto a playlist for the year, and still did not know any of that, so that is really cool. 

Z: Yeah, just as an example, we use this song “Mystery of Love” by Mr. Fingers, which is a guy named Larry Heard, a mid-’80s, Chicago producer, who is credited with some of the first House 12″s. Like when House was like a totally different thing than what we think of now. A lot of people know that track because it got sampled on Kanye West‘s “Fade,” so I just kind of love hiding things like that. There was a lot of people who just thought we used “Fade” from Kanye, and I was like, “No, Kanye used this.” It’s a fun little game to play with people.

A: Yeah, I think a lot of people know Kanye and Aziz have a preexisting relationship, so I bet you that’s part of the reason that they jump to that. What was your single favorite piece to use this season?

Z: My favorite this season, and it’s one of my favorites from any project I’ve been associated with, it’s the end of the fifth epsiode (“The Diner Party“) with the Soft Cell song and the long shot in the cab.

A: You’re talking about “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” right?

Z: Yeah that’s the one. And that was 100% Aziz’s idea too. I can’t even take partial credit for it. Well I guess I can take credit for not fighting it. The second I saw it synced up to that shot, I felt everything I wanted to feel, and I still revisit that episode because I keep watching how that scene plays. I’ll keep watching the whole thing so I can see that end again. That to me is a 10 out of 10 for what you can do with this job.

A: I think that shot, in particular, is one of the more iconic ones of the season already. So I have to ask, why Vengaboys “Vengabus?”

Z: That was in the script! A lot of the funnier stuff, dare I call them comedy cues, the writer’s room comes up with them. They’re in the script before they even get to me. That one was one of our writers named Cord (Jefferson).   It worked so perfectly too because it was an international hit so everyone knows how funny that was. It just goes to show that something I really love about the show is that some of the stuff that is the hardest hitting emotionally and the funniest is all based on real stories. It’s such a blast to get these scripts and then I start to ask “that really happened right?” And Aziz is like “Yup.” Whenever the music makes you laugh, that’s them. Except for some things in the first season.

A: Speaking of last season, how much fun was it to completely change genre and sound when they went to “Nashville?” 

Z: I loved that. I’ve worked in a lot of different aspects of the music business for almost 20 years at this point. The thing that I’ve done consistently though all that is collect records. So there’s not a ton of stuff that I haven’t explored at this point. So I love opportunities to go to a different place and sound. It lets me go to like a whole section of research that I’ve done at some point. The same case goes for Italy in this one, like I love Italian music, and I was so happy to get the call which would let me use some of this information that’s just stored up in my brain.

A: Well it’s interesting that you bring up the research aspect of it. How do you research as a music supervisor for the show? How do you collect it?

Z: Well the other life I had unknowingly prepared me for this one. I spent so long working at record labels and DJing and touring. I spent so long digging for records like all day around the world, so the heavy lifting of the research is kind of in a good place right now for me. But I do have to go in a brush up on specialty stuff. I feel so lucky that I come from a community of other DJs and collectors so that I can just kind of call an expert. Like I love Italo Disco. We use it almost exclusively in Italy this season, and I knew exactly who to text to get some more ideas. Every style of music has an expert at this point, and I feel very lucky to be connected with them.

A: So how many records do you own? Just out of curiosity? I assume a lot.

Z: Yeah, my house has about 10,000, but I’ve been through a lot more than that. I try to keep it pretty tight. I don’t like to keep a lot of stuff that doesn’t have an instant importance to me. You walk the fine line as a collector of being a hoarder and a collector. So I try to make sure it is all there for a reason. I’m always actively buying, trading, selling, to kind of refine what I keep.

A: I know what you mean. I just moved. 

Z: That’s the worst right?

A: Yeah, my wife was like, we need fewer movies. I don’t know how to buy fewer movies. So the Thanksgiving episode, you have some ’90s throwback music in there. How did you assemble that playlist?

Z: That one was tricky. The ultimate goal with music on a show like this is to move the story forward. To keep people connected and keep momentum with the story we’re trying to tell. The “Thanksgiving” episode, the real parameter musically was just kind of the ’90s and throwback. There’s not a lot of lyrical substance of the songs we picked that apply to the story. We just needed the sound of that era, which really opened up the options in that episode versus other episodes where we get specific with what we’re trying to say with the music.

On that one, we had too many ideas because we’re all ’90s kids on the show. We were all just kind of throwing in our own stuff. That opening title could have been anything from that era, but I love Shabazz Palaces, which is Ish (Butler) from Digable Planets new group.

A: I was going to say, I loved the choice of “Rebirth of Slick.”

Z: Thanks! My new obsession with Shabazz Palaces had made me pull out my Digable Planets records again, and I am shocked how fresh they still sound. It’s just been something that’s been on my mind lately that we all liked. That’s kind of how the sound of that episode came together. It’s the sound of the era, but also had a really cool freshness to it.

A: You were talking earlier about how you have to mix in the original compositions. How do you talk to them to get the sound you need for the episode?

Z: Well those are the guys that are criminally underused. They’re so talented and I feel guilty about how little we use them just because of how much we lean on source on this show, but we guide them with source. We’ll put together a playlist of things we like the feel of, and have them sort of interpret that. One of their bigger moments this season was the nightmare scene in the 9th episode. That insane industrial power noise freak out. That came together from 5 or 6 songs we were thinking about, and they stuck them in a blender and that came out.

A: So last couple questions. First, Wooden Wisdom. How did that happen?

Z: That is an excuse for one of my best friends and I to travel and buy records. I met Elijah (Wood) several years ago over some mutual friends and we bonded over a pretty weird eclectic music taste. Through total coincidence, we were both booked to play the same party soon after we met. We decided we should just do it together rather than two sets, and we’ve been doing it together ever since.

The people who threw that party threw some other ones and sent us on some international trips. It’s really just a way for us to go out and find records and share them with people. Kind of a vacation band if you will. For instance, we’re both obsessed with Turkish music, late-’60s, and early-’70s. We’ll get a gig to DJ in Turkey, but we’re really there to dig through records for 3 or 4 days, meet collectors and learn. We do it as much as our schedules allow us, which unfortunately isn’t a lot nowadays. He’s on “Dirk Gently” which is like 4 months of shooting, and my supervision stuff has gotten a bit heavier.

A: So since you obviously know way more about music than I could ever learn, what are you listening to right now that people should be listening to?

Z: There’s a reissue label that I just love called Music From Memory. They are based out of Amsterdam, and a lot of stuff they are pulling from is like ’80s private pressed weirdo records that never got their proper due when they were released. Probably because they were so ahead of their time. Those guys are kind of tracking down these artists and telling their stories. There’s a lot of labels that do that, but I think they’re the best. We actually used something from their label in the last episode of season 2. There’s a lot of these in the season, we call them sad walks.

A: Yeah there are a few of those. Just a couple. 

Z: Yeah there are a lot of sad walks. But we used a piece from this composer called Gigi Mason that is a guy I know about from Music From Memory. He’s an amazing ambient synth dude that’s still active now but spent most of his life making music nobody heard. There’s a lot of stuff I like about this job, but that’s my favorite. To put this music in front of people and most importantly pay the artist directly.

So I highly recommend anything from Music From Memory. I mentioned Shabazz Palaces earlier, he is one of my favorite “new” producers or rappers. My favorite producer in the world right now is Burial, by far. The new Burial 10″ is insane, it came out like a month ago. I’m always looking at old stuff, but those are sort of the newer things that are high on my list right now.

A: Okay, well thank you so much for your time, you did an amazing job this season. 

Z: Thank you so much.

“Master of None” Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.

You can find Zach Cowie on Twitter @TurquoiseWisdom and found some of his original work on Soundcloud here.