We Talk Sync, Story and Other Stuff With Veteran Music Supervisor Gary Calamar

As music supervisor for such influential series as Six Feet Under, House, Dexter, Entourage and True Blood, among many others, Gary Calamar has not only showcased and adventurous and eclectic musical sensibility but stretched the possibilities of the song cue. The Grammy-nominated music specialist’s latest project, the dystopian The Man in the High Castle, offers an intriguing new set of thematic challenges. Meanwhile, Calamar continues to make great radio as host of his own KCRW show (and even finds time to make his own music). Though talking to us probably had him searching desperately for some exit music.

You’re responsible for finding the song that became one of my favorite records, “Breathe Me” by Sia. I know it’s been a long time coming but it definitely dovetails into the primary moment for a music supervisor: What is your greatest challenge in terms of approaching a new show and finding the right music? What is your process to find that perfect song?
It’s all a collaboration. The showrunners, the writers, the directors—they all have their input, and each show is different with a different sensibility. When I worked on Weeds they liked to have songs that were humorous and lyrically funny, whereas on Six Feet Under, you definitely didn’t want to do that, you just wanted to have music that you almost didn’t really notice – its there as a texture in a way. True Blood took place in Louisiana so that helped guide the music we eventually used. I just brainstorm with my collaborators and we come up with a sound.

Your past projects are a who’s who of all the great musical shows: True Blood, Weeds, Entourage, House, and now you have a new Amazon program you’re working on, The Man In The High Castle. Let’s talk about that.
It’s an amazing show. They just put up a whole season on Amazon and it’s been an amazing show and challenge for me. The basic story is an alternate history, a history where the United States lost World War II and the Germans and the Japanese are running the country. It’s the world of pre-Rock & Roll—there’s no Elvis Presley in this world, there’s no Rock & Roll, so I had to explore some new avenues and learn more about Japanese pop music, German pop music, and go back to some pre-rock music in this imaginary world. It’s been a fascinating ride for me.

In this imaginary world, what are the most interesting choices you were able to make?
One particular song, which was a hit here in America in 1960, was “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto. And that was an easy one in that it was a hit here in America. We used that in one of the early episodes and that’s what we were looking for - some Japanese pop that would work as both a song that would play in this imaginary world and also be true to its Japanese roots. We ended up recording a few songs for the show. We recorded a version of Skeeter Davis’s “The End Of The World” in Japanese and it turned out very nicely. The theme song for the show is “Edelweiss” and we have a Japanese singer singing that and then we also use some classic American music – some Billie Holiday , some Ella Fitzgerald, and went back to some German classical music as well. It’s been a mixed bag but every song that we pick has to be scrutinized by everybody like, “Was this playing in this world? Would this have been written in this world?” It’s a real process to get a song in this show.

Is this one of the most challenging projects you’ve had because it’s not a construct that actually exists, you’re projecting?
Yeah, exactly. It’s been probably one of the biggest challenges that I’ve had but it’s been a fascinating journey. You know, when I worked on Dexter I learned about Cuban music and some more Latin music because the show took place in Miami but this takes place in an imaginary world and anything can go but there are certain rules of what this alternate history is all about.

Is that a perk of being a music supervisor? That you get to learn a new world of music with each assignment that you get?
Yeah, it’s a perk, and again, it’s a challenge. For instance, on Six Feet Under, a lot of the music we used on that show was in my comfort zone—a KCRW sound, a sophisticated pop sound - so that is nice and makes things a little bit easier. But it’s nice to have a challenge as well. I would absolutely say that this has been the biggest challenge of my music supervision career and one of the most rewarding as well. To work with the people that I’m working with - you know it’s a Ridley Scott production and he’s done some amazing things with the show – as well as the show’s creator Frank Spotnitz, and the composer, Dominic Lewis, has been amazing. It’s just been a great ride all around.

You mentioned the “KCRW sound” and you have a long history with them. I love that radio station—what’s your role there?
I’m on every Sunday evening from 6-8pm. I have several jobs that I’ve done over the years, starting out as an intern in the the music library. It’s great that I get to direct the show and pick the music that I want to play and not have a bunch of producers and directors breathing down my neck and adding their two cents when my two cents is perfect!I love working at KCRW. It’s a great station and I’ve been there for almost 15 years now. I love it.

What’s a current show you really think is spectacularly done in terms of music supervision?
I really like that show Halt and Catch Fire on AMC. It’s actually about the early days of the computer world - it’s almost like a Steve Jobs type story, except it’s not about Steve Jobs - I think it takes place in the ‘80s and my ex-partner Thomas Golubić works on that show and they use some amazing music.

What’s your dream collaboration? If you could have your pick, what would be the ultimate show? You’ve worked with Alan Ball, so how does it get better?
Working with Alan has been amazing because he’s smart and he loves to use a lot of music and it’s nice when you’re working on a show for HBO because they take the music seriously and give you an ample budget to license the songs. I’d love to work with someone like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson and people like that. Guys, If you’re listening out there, I’m available.

photo credit: Lisa Margolis

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