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The Man Behind the Music of HBO’s “True Blood,” Gary Calamar, Part 2

The Man Behind the Music of HBO’s “True Blood,” Gary Calamar, Part 2  (photo)

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Part 2 of a conversation with music supervisor Gary Calamar. Part 1 can be found here.

Creatively speaking, where do you draw from other than the script itself, do you have a wall of records you talk to or how do you generate your ideas?

Yes. Sometimes I actually do that. My last resort, I just stand next to the wall of music and just sort of close my eyes and hope for a miracle. But, yeah after I read the script and we see a rough cut, different scenes just kind of reach out and kind of call out for different types of music. You know, a fight going on at Merlotte’s or if there’s some sort of party at Lafayette’s or whatever it happens to be. I have that idea of what the overall sound of “True Blood” is so I… find the right songs. Then I’ll play them for Alan Ball and he’ll kind of make the final decision of what he thinks works. And then the next step for me is actually clearing them, and getting the license and negotiating the deal and all that.

Right, the glamorous part?

Yeah, it’s not that bad but I guess you could say it’s less glamorous, but definitely a huge part of the job.

I suppose your other job, DJ’ing at KCRW must help with your approach to finding the right songs.

Yeah, I’ve been at the station for a good, not quite 15 years yet, but probably 13 years or so. I’m always listening for new music to play on the show. The big difference between the radio show and the TV work is that I don’t have to work by committee on the radio show. I’m the DJ, I can play what I want and suffer or get praised by that. With a TV show it’s much more of a collaboration and the song that I might think is perfect may get shot down and vice versa. But yeah KCRW is an amazing thing for me to have been doing all this time. On “Six Feet Under” there was a song that got a lot of attention by Sia called “Breathe Me,” the final song on the final episode. That was actually a song that I had been playing on KCRW for a good 6 months before we used it in “Six Feet Under.”

Is your process with “True Blood” any different from what it was with say, “Weeds” or “Six Feet Under?”

It’s pretty similar to “Six Feet Under.” There’s some different players involved. I had a partner at the time who did great work, but it’s sometimes easier to work without a partner. Each show kinda has it’s own little rhythm, and different producers like to work different ways. Ultimately, it’s the same thing but, different shows have different budgets, [some] take music a little bit more seriously. [“True Blood”], it’s a music intensive show.

Composer Nathan Barr writes the original score, do you two put your heads together a lot or is it left to Alan Ball to put the pieces together that you both pitch depending on whether a scene is scored or soundtracked?

It’s definitely more between him and Alan, but we are at the meetings together, the spotting sessions. That’s when we sit down and we decide will there be a score here, or will we use a song here? If it’s a song that leads into score, we have make sure we’re both aware of what’s going on so his score will be in the same key. We’re in the formative stages of the show when we’re in the same room talking, but basically when it gets down to business, he’s doing his thing and I’m doing my thing.

Do you have different distinct themes in your head for the characters?

Yeah, each character definitely has their own taste and their own type of music that might be playing along with their theme. It depends on what’s going on in the scene, but Jason’s taste is much different than Sookie’s and Sams’ taste is much different than Lafayette’s.

I understand you have a nice budget, but it’s not unlimited. Is there someone you’ve thought of using that just wasn’t worth it in the end given the limitations?

Yeah, usually when I see the rough cut there’s like temp music in the show. Music that the editor put in until we find the right stuff. And I believe it was this season — and it’s come up in the past where someone will temp in a Led Zeppelin song that works absolutely perfectly. But they’re just way too expensive and you know, don’t really do television unless you want to pay them an exorbitant amount of money. No TV show could really afford to have Led Zeppelin [Mutual sighs]. Then it’s my job to find something that’s even better for a fraction of the price.

It must be painful.

Yep it is [laughter] and especially, like I say, with producers that may not really think about the music budget or the think about the music supervisors job will just say, “Oh yeah let’s get ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in there!”

I know that there was Stone’s cover used, and I thought it was pretty awesome, but it prompts me to wonder if the original wasn’t because of budget?

I think you’re referring to, “Play With Fire.”

[Cobra Verde – “Play With Fire” from “True Blood”]

Yeah, that’s the one.

That cover is much different than the original. It’s much spookier, and much more twisted. There was a fire theme in that particular episode, but the Stones’ version, which is obviously a great version, to me, wouldn’t have worked as well. And, the cover is, you know, half the price, practically. But, in this particular case, it was more just the mood and vibe of this particular cover that moved me into pitching it and everybody agreed.

It is way spookier [than the original]. Is there a band you would love to get that you haven’t tapped yet in “True Blood?”

Let’s see. Who would I tap? Well, we’ve just used this artist Karen Elson, who’s great. She’s a new favorite artist of mine that we used in, in this season. Hmm,The Avett Brothers, I like a lot. I’d like to use them in “True Blood.”

I hear you have a love for record stores?

I have a book out now, have you heard?

Yeah, “Record Store Days: From Vinyl to Digital and Back Again,” it piqued my interest because I’m kind of an analog guy. I’m sure technology helps you amazingly in your job but, I get the sense that you’re nostalgic for the analog age. Are you a part of what seems to be a backlash [against digital?]

I definitely love record stores. And worked in many over the years. Having said that, it’s not necessarily that I love vinyl per se. I mean I’m happy to use CDs and MP3s, to me it’s the music that’s top priority. I do have a good collection of vinyl, but I rarely actually pull it out. I’m not one of those guys who thinks the vinyl sounds better or anything like that. So no I disagree with uh, your theory there. [laughter] But I do certainly miss more record stores and greatly appreciate the ones that are still hanging around — where you can just thumb through the bins whether they be CD or vinyl, and hear music over the in store speaker and see the people enjoying the music — just that community of a record store, that’s what I love.

I believe a record store is a crucial part in a healthy community. I had one that I used to stop in every day just to see what was new just hang out. Is there a place like that for you now?

That’s the thing, people like you and me would stop in a store every single day, you know, as how you’re walking by, may as well see what’s new. Got any new posters? Got any new releases? What’s that song they’re playing!? Whenever I go to a new city, whether visiting or vacationing, I would always make that a point to get to the record store early on, just to get my bearings and see what was going on around town. There’s the big granddaddy, Amoeba, which is here in Hollywood, which is an amazing supermarket of music of all types and it’s like going into an amusement park. But there’s Freak Beat around here in San Fernando Valley which is great. And Fingerprints in Long Beach. There are some stores that are hanging on and doing an amazing job.

Do you think we will have lost something as a society, if we completely lose the record store?

I don’t think it’s going to change our lives, you know, in the big picture, but I think it’s just a nice oasis in one’s day to go visit a record store and hear some new music. I think that very enjoyable activity will be, sadly, lost.

What’s your favorite musical experience so far with all these shows? Is there something you just nailed and it was just bliss for you?

I would say, well, there’s definitely a lot of great musical moments. Hmm. If I was gonna pick one right now, I would say the theme song for “Men of a Certain Age,” I’m very pleased with because it just captures these guys. Ray Romano and his two buddies are in their fifties, and you know, dealing with issues that men of that certain age have. Since it’s on every show I’m reminded of it all the time, and I’m very happy with the way it turned out. [The Beach Boys] “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” just seemed to really nail it.

[The Beach Boys – “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” theme from “Men of a Certain Age.”]

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