Last weekend, Ansari tweeted out a 77-song Spotify playlist of tracks from the show, after fans flooded the Internet with questions about the song choices. It’s a killer mixtape: Jacques Dutronc, Brian Eno, the Equatics, Aphex Twin, Mac Demarco, Suzanne Kraft, Toto, Ananda Shankar, Julee Cruise, X-Ray Spex, Sparks, Johnny Cash, and John Carpenter’s Halloween theme all figure in.
Music supervisor Zach Cowie—a DJ who formerly worked at music labels like Sub Pop and Drag City—was responsible for crafting the soundtrack alongside Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang. The three met in L.A. and bonded over music, so when Ansari and Yang needed someone to to score the show, they hit up Cowie.
We spoke to him about making a soundtrack that felt real, musical discovery, and embracing the Netflix model.
What were some of your first conversations about what you wanted the soundtrack to be?
They started sending me scripts right when I agreed to check it out, and along with the scripts they sent some general inspiration, a lot of it being ‘70s American independent films like Hal Ashby stuff and [Robert] Altman stuff and Woody Allen’s New York movies. And I’m a huge film nerd so they were speaking my language. And something that I think is true of all those things is that they’re so of the moment but also very timeless, and that was my main inspiration for all the music. To get things that work for now but may also hold up in X amount of years. So I kind of tried to stay away from new cool kid stuff and go with something that just has a bit more permanence to it. And we had a bunch of touchstones musically, the biggest two of which were Arthur Russell and Serge Gainsbourg. So those were very early building blocks, and got prominent placement in the show as well.
What is it about those two artists, besides the fact that they’re timeless? Was it more the emotional resonance?
What I think is so special about both those people is that they created their own worlds, but within their worlds, there was a lot of flexibility. It was always distinctly them. And I think that’s super special, people that just carve something out. I think that was something we were all thinking about when making this show, to make our own little zone. For Arthur Russell, that’s the most New York thing in the world to me. He’s just one of my all-time favorites. Every once in a while you stop yourself and you’re like, “Oh my god, I’m talking about Arthur Russell for work.”
There’s never been a better time to research music.
So you were working off of scripts, or did you have actual visual scenes to go by?
They sent me scripts first and me, Alan, and Aziz started to just share a folder on our computers and we’d just be throwing music in there, not even based off scripts, just stuff we wanted each other to hear, as we’re kind of refining the sound. And then when we were able to get dailies and rough cuts, then we just went crazy. Aziz, he played a huge role in this. We really were just going one-for-one [on the songs], and we’d go through hundreds of songs per episode to try and fine-tune exactly what we were looking for.
Was it the idea early on to not have a theme song and have a different song open each episode?
That was definitely Alan and Aziz, and I think it’s brilliant. It’s just such a great way to capitalize on the Netflix formula, which is that most people will watch many in one sitting, so you kind of don’t need a theme song. I love the title cards. This guy Jay Shaw did them, who’s one of my favorite illustrators. He’s… one of the creative directors for [Austin design company] Mondo. …It’s just taking advantage of the freedom of the Netflix format. You also don’t have to have 30-minute episodes. Some of them are long and some are short. It’s really an amazing space to work in.
Was there also a goal to turn people on to new music and make them discover something?
Definitely. Well, that’s my goal with everything I do—to encourage people to take it a step further. My whole life is music and I’m very happy about the places it’s taken me to, and I think it’s all due to that research. I’m always looking for what’s next, what came before. I like to encourage people with the work that I do to spend some time and find your favorite stuff, rather than take what’s being put in front of you. There’s never been a better time to research music; it’s so easy now. I used to have to drive around America looking through crates in the ‘90s, you know?
“I kind of imagine that I’m the DJ in that scene, and I put some Suzanne Kraft and Todd Terje.”
Was a lot of the music on the soundtrack already in your collection?
Oh yeah. I have like… I don’t want to be that guy, but I kind of have to be. I’ve worked in the music business since I was a teenager… and I’m always researching, and at this point I’m going around the world to research. I take a lot of pride in having found most of the good music I can find. I’m not really into genres, which allows me to kind of look everywhere. I’m a record collector too, so when I’m working on stuff, it’s with records. I have terabytes of digital music that I don’t care [about]. …If I can’t hold it, I don’t think it’s real.
That Spotify playlist is just a really good background mix. Did you approach it like a mixtape, or like something you would play if you were deejaying a space?
Definitely. Aziz, I feel like he was even a DJ a while ago. But he’s a super music dude, so it’s really important to all of us. Beyond the title cards and the montages, those are all spaces in that show that I’m really familiar with, because I DJ all over New York. …So if you’re in Baby’s All Right, like, I know what to play there. So I kind of imagine that I’m the DJ in that scene, and I put some Suzanne Kraft and Todd Terje; I go to that place and it’s the music that’s on in there. … So we tried to make it as real to that New York as we could.
Can you tell me about the episode “Ladies and Gentlemen,” and the opening scene with the Halloween theme?
That’s Aziz’s idea. I was joking in another interview that that idea is so good I should just start taking credit for it. He was just looking at the scene [in which a woman walks home alone at night to the Halloween score, and Aziz and his male friend walk home to “Don’t Worry Be Happy”] and just thinking of the ultimate musical juxtaposition for the two points of view, and he was like, “Halloween theme and ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy,’” and I dread getting messages like that sometimes, because it’s not the easiest thing to clear. And it was Mo [Shafeek] who runs Mondo that saved our ass… We were having the hardest time figuring out who owned that music, and on like a last-ditch idea, my friend reminded me that Mondo did the vinyl for Halloween, so I called Mondo and Mo put us in touch with the actual dudes who own the Halloween music, and we got it licensed in an afternoon. We all loved it so much that it got really scary to think about what else could be that funny if we couldn’t get the license.
Photo by K.C. Bailey/Netflix