044 - Zach Cowie

Music in film and television can be incredibly impactful. Whether the viewer fully realises or not, the choice of music, or absence of, drastically alters our perception of a scene or a moment on screen. One of the finest exponents of music on screen in recent years is Netflix's Master of None, a series about a second generation Indian immigrant exploring adulthood as a millennial in New York City. The shows creators Alan Yang and comedian Aziz Ansari (who also plays the lead character Dev) place music at the very centre of their stories. Creating a dynamic, fun and broad soundtrack which takes on a life of it's own, constantly steering the viewer to an emotional peek. It's a scattergun approach often switching between genres and moods, an approach akin to that of a DJ, picking tracks to fit the mood and to help guide an audience. It was little surprise therefore to learn that the music supervisor on the show is none other than Zach Cowie, a wonderful and eclectic DJ based in LA, and happily, our latest Métron collaborator.

Zach has dedicated almost the entirety of his adult life to music, working at a number of independent record labels and touring with affiliated bands. During this time he developed a passion for collecting records, and as his collection grew, DJing was an obvious step to take. In a chance encounter with actor Elijah Wood one drunken evening in Los Angeles, Cowie found a musical soul mate who shared his passion for digging. The duo now play together around the world as Wooden Wisdom, and Cowie books plenty of solo shows as well as spinning tunes on his monthly NTS show.

I've long been keen to get Zach involved with Métron, such is his wonderfully eclectic taste. When I finally got in touch it just so happened that they had recently wrapped up the second season of Master of None - for which he was once again called upon to help curate the music. I was a huge fan of the music from season 1 and with the second instalment partly set in Modena, (where real life Aziz actually moved to, learning how to make Pasta and speak Italian, just as his character Dev planned to) I was intrigued to hear how this change of scenery would play out in the musical selections.  Zach revealed that picking music for the show is a case of trial and error, and some lengthy debate. Plenty of ideas never make the screen but there's a ton of music that almost worked and these are the pieces which form his Métron Mixtape, simply titled 'More Thoughts on Master of None Season 2'.

Having now seen the full series it's very easy to place these tracks throughout the tone of the project. It's a show that is full of life, positive energy set beside plenty of moments of introspection and melancholy as it's protagonist deals with the complexity of choice in adulthood, relationships, work and finding happiness. Yet, despite this struggle Aziz's on screen character is a romantic, an eternal optimist and a positive person always looking to draw a smile, and that's exactly what this mix does. The kind of thing you want to listen to on holiday, making pasta or riding through the Italian countryside on a Vespa.

You can catch more of Zach's musical mind by checking out his wonderful monthly radio slot here. You can watch both series of Master of None on Netflix immediately.

I got a chance to speak to Zach about working on the new season and how he met Elijah Wood. Check out what he had to say below.

(Artwork by Katie Rose Johnston)

You’ve worked a number of music supervisor roles before, on movies and, of course, more recently for  ‘Master of None’. How much of the selection process comes down to you and how much is it a collaborative effort with show creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang?

Master of None is by far the heaviest music collaboration I’ve been a part of in terms of creator’s input. As you could imagine by HOW MUCH music we use in the show, Aziz is a total music nerd and it’s very important to his style of storytelling.

We all worked together very closely for season 1 but it got even crazier for season 2. In many instances, they’d let me know the episode theme before scripts were even finished and we’d start exchanging songs that came to our minds based on those themes via a shared playlist (which has like, 1000 songs in it now!). I’d get updated scripts as they evolved and many times I’d see things from our shared playlists baked into the scripts themselves.

However, there are many scenes you can’t really work on until you have something to see-- the Storm King montage in “Amarsi Un Po” is a good example of that, there was no way I could work on that one until I saw the landscapes and the colors.

A lot of the things from this season were my ideas, but I can never take full credit because everything had TONS of refinement through Alan & Aziz’s direction…AND there are definitely a handful of things that were straight-up Aziz’s ideas too, including the ever-present Mina songs that pepper the whole season!

It’s incredible how much music can affect the emotional effectiveness of a scene and I’m fascinated by the idea that you probably tried many other tracks for various scenes, and how this inevitably alters how the scene plays. How do you approach selecting music for a particular scene or episode and is there quite a bit of trial and error?
As mentioned above, sometimes you can build a scene around the music and sometimes you have to build the music around a scene. When it’s the latter, it’s indeed a ton of trail and error. I’m always careful not to be see/say (when the lyrics are saying the same thing as the action you’re seeing), so I really am basing most of my decisions off the song’s feeling. After many years of obsessive music research, songs just pop into my head when I see stuff. I start there, with those intuitive ideas, and then I scan all the lyrics to make sure there’s nothing that contradicts where the story is trying to go.

When music and visuals are combined correctly you can create a weird, hazy, elevated magic that ONLY works when it’s perfect. My favorite part of the job is locking in that moment which instantly makes all your previous ideas seem terrible!!

I loved the first season soundtrack, it really showcased a wide range of influences and styles, with legends like Aphex and Eno set alongside more obscure finds like Zhou Xuan in the ‘Parents’ episode. For the record that track in particular really affected me and opened up a whole avenue of discovery, so thanks. Did you have to find new tracks for the series or was it easy to draw on what you already knew?

I’m so glad you were into it!

I’ve always been very curious as a listener. When I find something I like, I immediately start to research what came before and after it. With enough time of listening this way, the curiosity breaks down any concept of ‘genre’. You start to realize that there are only two types of music, good and bad…so it doesn’t matter when it’s from, where it’s from, or what ‘section’ it’s filed in at the record store. That said, the library of records I’ve accumulated after 20 years of heavy digging can pretty much handle whatever gets thrown at me and I’m lucky enough to be in a community of insane, often specialized, record collectors who I can call upon when I need extra help in specific styles.

How did the new season being partly set in Italy influence the music - should we expect to hear plenty of Opera?

Italy was a blast-- Aziz really did move to Modena and learned how to make pasta while he was formulating season 2! For the first of our Italian episodes (aka the black & white one), we used only 60’s Italian film score music, most of which was by Ennio Morricone. It was Aziz’s idea to use all the Italo disco for our second Italian episode and I was so stoked to get some of our favorites from that sound in there!

We carry the Italian thread thru the season and pick the sound up again a bit in 209 and 210 with more Mina songs and the namesake of 209 “Amarsi Un Po” by Lucio Battisti. “Amarsi…" was one of the first Italian tracks I sent Aziz when he was like “I think we’re going to shoot in Italy…”. I was over the moon when I saw the version of the script in which he titled the episode after the song! I’m also VERY honoured by the fact that we were granted the FIRST EVER license to use Lucio’s music outside of Italy, all of which I owe to the persistence of my co-supervisor Kerri Drootin who finally figured out a way to clear it!

You have a collaborative DJ project with Elijah Wood called Wooden Wisdom, how did you and Elijah become friends and musical collaborators? That project appears to be dormant, are you guys planning to play together again soon?
Elijah is one of my best friends, we met about 7 years ago through our mutual friends Kate & Laura Mulleavy who have a fashion line called RODARTE that I work on runway music for. After one of their shows, I was dj’ing an afterparty that Elijah was at and he came up to me and was like- ‘dude, we love the same weird shit’! I apparently invited him to join me in DJ’ing that night, him on his ipod and me with my records- I say apparently cuz I was waaaaasted and barely remember it! (For the record I’m just over 6 years sober now- ha!) Soon after that party through a crazy coincidence we were basically booked to DJ the same party, so we decided to just do it together we’ve been doing it that way whenever we can ever since! It’s been a bit slower lately due to his acting schedule, but the project is still very much alive. We spent most of November DJ’ing around Europe and we’ll try to get some more things together for the fall once he’s done shooting the new season of Dirk Gently.

What else is in the pipeline for 2017?
I worked on a few movies that will be out at some point during 2017, The Little Hours and State Like Sleep, and it looks like I’ll be starting another in a few weeks that should keep summer pretty busy.

I still produce the occasional reissue for Light In The Attic records and we’ve just announced a Japanese City Pop/AOR & Boogie comp that will hopefully be done by the end of the year. I co-compiled that one with my good friends Andy Cabic of the band Vetiver and Frosty of Dublab fame and we’re all really stoked on it! http://blog.lightintheattic.net/introducing-our-japan-archival-series/

We’ll be doing a Rodarte runway show in Paris early July that’s shaping up to be pretty mindblowing (as it always is when working with those girls!), and there’s a super-secret project Elijah and I have been formulating for a while with another friend of ours that’s in motion and will hopefully show up sooner than later!

Beyond all that, a handful of DJ dates here in LA with my other DJ partners Daniel T and Panama Jack (https://www.instagram.com/heatwavelosangeles/ ) and TONS of record digging!

We always ask our contributors for some suggestions of records, old and new, that they might of slept on?

The best way for me to answer that question is to direct you to my monthly NTS radio show, it’s all archived here: http://www.nts.live/shows/zach-cowie

Jan Hammer Group - Don't You Know [45 / Emperor]
Makers - Dont' Challenge Me [Personal Space / Chocolate Industries]
Womack & Womack - MPB (Missin' Persons Bureau
Malcolm Mclaren - Madam Butterfly [12'' / Island]
Tullio De Piscopo - Stop Bajon [45 / Bagaria]
Shirley Ross - If You Leave Me Now [12'' / Tanga]
Ann Steel - My Time [45 / WEA Records]
Fox The Fox - Precious Little Diamond (remix) [12'' / Epic]
Gigi Masin - Ship Beetel [The Microcosm - Light in the Attic]

Words & interview by Jack Hardwicke. Special thanks to Katie Rose Johnston for her beautiful illustrations of Dev & Arnold in the Italian countryside.

Words & interview by Jack Hardwicke. 
Métron Records 2018. Hampshire, UK.