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The Man Behind the Music of HBO’s “True Blood,” Gary Calamar, Part 1

The Man Behind the Music of HBO’s “True Blood,” Gary Calamar, Part 1 (photo)

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HBO’s “True Blood” is great TV for many reasons, not least of which is it’s music, and the dangerous, swampy vibe it often amplifies. Much of the music compliments the show’s main location, and music supervisor Gary Calamar even employs local musicians from Louisiana like Allen Toussaint and C.C. Adcock to lend the show an authentic regional sound. When not working on the soundtrack for “True Blood,” Calamar, who also was behind the music of “Six Feet Under,” music supes for other shows like “Men of a Certain Age,” and “House M.D.” He’s also a working DJ who has had a nighttime show on KCRW for something like 13 years, spinning pop, roots rock, blues, and soul. As you can imagine, he gets a lot of soundtrack ideas for his day job, during his night job. He’s a busy man, but he found the time to get down with me recently about the impossibility of using Led Zeppelin in TV, the cultural importance of the record store, and of course, the music of “True Blood.”

What is the sound of Bon Temps?

It’s got a few different sounds. I mean, it’s got the sound of Merlotte’s, which is a little bit more, upbeat bar music, rockabilly, southern Rock. And then in the first season we had some music for Sookie playing at her house, which was like the Watson Twins covering The Cure and stuff like that. But, yeah, all of it has sort of a dark undercurrent to it like a lot of New Orleans blues seems to have. Those classics Slim Harpo, Willie Dixon, and Howlin’ Wolf. Those are what really kind of speak to me as the sound of Bon Temps.

I heard [series creator] Alan Ball say a rule of his was to “Never use opera music” in a vampire show, one of the things he decided early on along with not giving them cheesy contact lenses…

I don’t remember Alan actually saying that to me. But I think his goal was to have a non-traditional kind of sound to the show. And not use, you know, sort of overly dramatic types of music that have been used in vampire series in the past, or movies in the past.

Which is made clear right away with the theme, Jace Everett’s “Bad Things.” It sets the tone brilliantly for the show.

Yeah, we got lucky with that. Alan actually found that.

[“True Blood” Opening credits, featuring Jace Everett’s “Bad Things.”]

I heard it was first just a placeholder – how did you decide on keeping it?

It was just a placeholder. Yeah, you know, Alan’s method of writing is when he’s on his computer he’ll write for a while and then he’ll take an iTunes break. 100 dollars later he’ll come back and finish up the script [laughter]. But apparently that song, “Bad Things” by Jace Everett, was like the single of the week on iTunes. We all liked it but we all kind of thought that we would eventually find the one. But the more we placed other songs against it we realized that it actually was the one. It was perfect and it had just that right combination of menace, romance, sexiness, and humor to it.

So Alan Ball’s pretty hands on then?

He is pretty hands on! He’s definitely very smart about music and has great taste. Yeah, he’s absolutely hands on in pretty much all aspects. Every meeting that I’m at, he’s always there. And he is always very opinionated. You know, he’s open to everybody’s ideas but, he knows what he likes and he knows what will work for the show.

Each of the episodes are named after a song that’s used in the episode, aren’t they?

Yep, that’s true. Which sometimes, as a music supervisor, can be… some extra work for me.

How maddening is it to make that work all the time?

Yeah, it’s difficult, especially if we’re thinking about a budget. You know, maybe initially they’ll name it after a song which for some reason is too expensive for us or we can’t license it for whatever reason. A few time we have gone back and changed a title of an episode just because the song didn’t work out as originally planned. But I think it’s a nice little feature, makes [my] job a little more fun and interesting.

So it’s the writers initially, who throw these title song ideas out, and they’re like “Alright Gary, make this work for us?”

The writers, yeah.

And then, you may end up changing it?

In the first season we didn’t go back and change titles, we just found a way to make it work. This season, we have changed the title a few times as we got down to the wire and realized the song title that the writer originally had was not working for whatever reason. But, yeah, the writers are very involved with the music choices. Oft times they will write a particular song into the script. Or they will have a song in mind when they choose the title of the episode. They obviously have some great insight into the vibe and the energy that’s going on in that particular episode. Having said that, sometimes the songs that they pick initially make it and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we’ll see the song up against the picture and we’ll realize it looks good on paper but, it’s just not quite working. [laughs] That’s when I come in and provide alts for them.

What’s one of those episodes where it wasn’t working?

There was one song that was written in the show called, “Hitting the Floor,” I forget exactly who the artist was. We had our spotting session, which was where we all sit down, Alan Ball, myself, the writers, the editor, and we talk about the music — what we like and don’t like. And “Hitting The Floor” was not working, even though there was a scene in that episode where, very strategically, a head, a chopped-off head hits the floor. [laughter] But the song was not working. Well, I actually knew of a great song by P.J. Harvey called “Hitting the Ground.” So, we changed the title [from “Floor” to “Ground”], and it still worked thematically.


P. J. Harvey & Gordon Gano – “Hitting the Ground”

Stay tuned to IFC News for rest of the interview with Gary Calamar — Read Part 2 here!

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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