When we watch a TV show or a movie, we sometimes don't realize how much of an impact the music has on each scene. Music supervisor Zach Cowie can be accredited for working on movies like Public Enemies
and Celeste & Jesse Forever,
as well as both seasons of Aziz Ansari's hit TV show, Master of None.
After fully consuming the latter when Season 2 was released on Netflix on May 12th (I may have binge-watched all 10 episodes on that same day), I immediately took note of just how smart the music selection was. For example, at the end of "The Dinner Party" episode when we watch Dev take a sorely long Uber ride home, the use of Soft Cell's "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" makes the scene nearly iconic. Luckily, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Cowie himself to pick his brain about the every day tasks of a music supervisor, creating a show for the streaming generation, and his favorite - as well as most challenging - scenes to work on.
ALEX SPRUCH: Could you go over the process for choosing the music in Master of None?
ZACH COWIE: Every music supervision job is different, it varies case by case how involved the supervisor will be. In this show, I'm very involved, it's a thorough collaboration between Alan, Aziz, and I. They lean on music in the show for the story telling so I get brought in many cases, even before they finish scripts. They'll give me themes and outlines and I'll start loading music into this shared playlist that we all have. And they start adding things and we start riffing off each other. And they're listening while they write, and a lot of stuff from my little playlist shows up in the scripts. But there is a significant amount we don't add until post. Sometimes they can build scenes around a song and other cases it's vice versa. Just the color, scale... Things like that determine the song until it's shot.
AS: I think I saw you mention the DJ scene with Arnold the music was signed off beforehand.
ZC: Yeah, totally, we pre-cleared all that in advance. Everybody on set that day was totally sick of that song. Listening to it for like 12 hours.
AS: You've already kind of mentioned it before, there's a variety of emotions and themes explored in the show. Was having to put music to these different ideas more of a challenge or did you find it liberating?
ZC: I prefer that, I really do. This is my favorite thing I've ever worked on, just because the sheer range of it. I deal with a lot of my own emotions with music [laughs], so doing that as a teenager has made me feel comfortable with that range. It's satisfying having to find the right thing for whatever they throw at me. It's like a weird puzzle and I kind of go nuts trying to figure it out. I love it.
AS: That's awesome, I expected it to be a challenge with such a range.
ZC: Yeah, that's why I love the show so much. Those guys are so good, they set such a bar and I've enjoyed working under that kind of pressure, where everything else is going so well so you feel this responsibility to push yourself. I think those kinds of experiences, no matter how difficult they are, they make everything after it a little better. And I'm so grateful to this show for letting me work on my chops.
AS: Have you learned anything from this process?
ZC: Doing season 2 is a very different experience than the first one. The first one, we're all working on this thing for like a year together, it's all we're doing, it's all we think about, it's all we talk about, and then you've got to put it in front of the world. The first season was very strange to kind of be like, "oh shit, I wonder if anyone is going to like this?"
AS: There are no expectations.
ZC: No expectations. Then for the second season, we wanted people to like it but we also wanted to push it. To push something is really -- it's risky. Because it can either connect, or it can bomb [laughs]. So, something I took away from this experience is to pay attention to your instincts. The people you're working with and what their instincts are saying -- it gives you the strength to push for the thing that might be polarizing. The confirmation we got with this season, I think I'm going to lean on that for a while [laughs]. Just go with your gut.
AS: Yeah, it's been overwhelmingly positive. I think I've seen nothing negative.
ZC: We found like 3 people on Twitter who don't like it. That's it.
AS: That must be an amazing feeling though. Even in the first season your work was called out for being excellent.
ZC: Yeah, it's great. I mean, a lot of my peers could totally do this. The thing that was special about this show is that nobody stopped us. Alan and Aziz are the show runners, so they are the final decision. There are a lot of things we would've got pushback if it wasn't such a perfect scenario.
AS: Really? Any examples of that?
ZC: The binge lifestyle is so new, so you can play with it. I love what they did for "New York, I Love You," they're like "we want an episode with barely any of our main characters." For Amarsi Un Po, this one should be an hour. I love that. As I said before, in a less perfect scenario, there would have been some notes about those things.
I come from the music business, that's where I was for 10-12 years before I became a supervisor. I left for a number of reasons, one of the biggest reasons was that nothing felt new. I felt like we were just doing the same things over and over again. To get into a situation where I can work on this scale and feel like everything is fresh was like a dream for me.
AS: In regards to pushing the boundaries with video streaming, do you think there's any room for that with music streaming?
ZC: I think there are no rules. At all. That's what's sort of frustrating, nothing seems that new. Even though people can do whatever the fuck they want now. I think it's a weird phenomenon. I mean, there are people that are pushing things but I just want it to get crazier, man.
AS: I think we're stuck with the Spotify future for the time being.
ZC: That's something I've been fascinated by. The kind of feedback we've been getting on this show. I'm feeling the response from the Spotify generation and it's so strange to me. Like when everything is available the music shows up with no context, no history. And I'm just fascinated. For example, we used this song called "The Edge" in season 1 by this guy David McCallum, produced by David Axelrod. We used it to close the last episode of the first season and that's something Dre samples on his album The Next Episode
. I was just blown away by how many people say we ripped off Dre [laughs].
AS: They had no idea.
ZC: Yeah, and that keeps happening with this one too. There's a Soft Cell song we use in the fifth episode at the end. Apparently, David Gray has covered it. People have been saying "there's such a crazy David Gray cover in this episode." It's weird to me man, I'm kind of amazed by it. I just came from such a different way of researching music, I'm a record digger.
And that research is very linear. And I love having the internet to buy records on, but back when I was learning, these things got put in my hands by other people who were telling me other stories about them.
AS: Were there any scenes that were particularly difficult to put a song to? Or conversely, did you see the script and were like "oh, right away I have a couple of ideas for this"?
ZC: One of my favorite scenes I have ever worked on is the end of fifth episode in the second season with the Soft Cell song. That long shot in the Uber, I loved it so much, and that was all Aziz's idea. So, that was the easiest one for me to work on. He saw the scene, suggested the song and like right when we put em' together I was like "this is insane, we got to use this." So, that was the easiest one I had to do.
One of the hardest ones was the Storm King sculpture garden, that's in the ninth episode, where he's on that date with the crazy wide shots in the New York park. That one was tough because we had such a different idea in the script. Then when we started to see it we were like "oh shit, this is not the mood" and that was one I definitely had to try the most stuff on to figure out something that I liked.
AS: Were there any bands or songs you wanted to include but couldn't?
ZC: The stuff that was most difficult was a lot of the Italian Disco songs in the second episode. That's just based on so many of those catalogues have been sold so many times that it was hard to trace ownership for a lot of it. But it wasn't so challenging to replace it, that sound was so huge in Italy in the late 70s, early 80s, and there's ton of records that me and Aziz both love from that. So, it was more just frustrating than impossible. We would get into one, then the publisher would be like "the band members haven't spoken to each other in thirty years and they're not going to."
AS: Any advice for someone who wants to become a music supervisor?
ZC: The best places to start working or interning, would be a publisher. Or, in what they call the "think division" of record labels, to get your head around the back-end of it. Because that is a lot of jobs. And then just researching music. The way I like to think of it is, the more stuff you're familiar with, the deeper your vocabulary is for when you try to tell the story. And that's the best thing about the era we live in, you can spend every living hour learning about this stuff. That's what I suggest to everyone. And I also ended up getting really lucky with all this and just kind of fell into it from the record business. A big part of that had to do with being a DJ for so long and developing a reputation for knowing the weirder or the deeper stuff. That's why Alan and Aziz knew me, just from DJing around L.A. I'm a big record collector, always making different mixtapes for different magazines, so it's kind of a perfect storm of all that. If I had to go back and do it, I would’ve liked to have spent some time working at a publisher. That when you're overseeing the paperwork of these transactions, you get such a better idea of this job.
I've been doing this for five years now and I'm learning something every day. There's no real place to learn it.
AS: And to end this on a stupid note but one of personal interest to me: was the show title at all inspired by the Beach House song of the same name?
ZC: It sort of comes from Jack of all trades, master of none, that old phrase. I don't know if it’s a coincidence, but Aziz loves Beach House, so we'll have to ask him!