Gary Calamar hails from the Bronx, NY, and grew up a constant presence in local record stores. When he moved to LA in the early 80s, he got himself behind the counter, managing stores and nourishing the flourishing culture of the record store. In April 2010, he released the book “Record Store Days,” inspired by both his life and tastes as a consumer and connoisseur of vinyl.
Calamar is of course much more than a consumer and author. A KCRW volunteer and DJ since the mid ‘90s, Gary hosts a Sunday night show (9p-12m) on the station that not only showcases emerging music, but looks deeply into the roots of Rock, Country, Jazz, Blues, and Soul.
In 1998, Calamar got his break into the world of music supervision, placing music with Marq Roswell for the movie, Slums of Beverly Hills and in 1999, again with Roswell, for Varsity Blues; this latter soundtrack earned him a gold record. His work with partner Thomas Golubic on Six Feet Under (HBO) became strongly influential, making a case for placing indie music in television. Gary went on to found Go Music with Alyson Vidoli. He currently places music on True Blood (HBO), House (Fox), and Dexter (Showtime), and was recently nominated for a Grammy for the True Blood II Soundtrack.
In all aspects of the music business, Gary Calamar’s focus is broad and considerate; he remains abreast of all new movements and grounded in the history that makes them compelling, meaningful, and fun.
R&G: Can you tell me how you got your start on Six Feet Under?
Gary: I had been dabbling in the music supervision world. I had done a couple of projects – Varsity Blues and Slums of Beverly Hills – with Marq Roswell. Then Thomas [Golubic] and I became friends. We met at KCRW and decided to team up on projects and become a partnership. Thomas had actually heard about this new show – Six Feet Under – through, I think, an assistant editor friend of his. We went after it. We met with them. They seemed to have met with many people, but I think they liked that we were sort of up-and-coming and they liked our KCRW connection. Thank goodness: We got the gig. We met with Alan Ball and Alan Poole and got the job.
R&G: What’s your day-to-day job entail? Can you take me through the music selection process? Use True Blood as an example.
Gary: Well, we get the scripts early on. We just started a few scripts for the new season: Season 4. True Blood is kind of unique in that each episode is named after one of the songs in the show; generally when we get a script, the writer has already titled the episode after a song that he or she wants to see in the show and that ties into the theme of the script. The song may or may not end up in the final show. Sometimes it will and sometimes we’ll find out the song just doesn’t work or for various reasons it won’t make it into the final cut. There have been times when we’ve had to change the title of the episode because of this fun little thing that we do with the titles. We read the script, take some notes, and then really get down to the nitty gritty when we see a rough cut of the show. They’ll send a rough cut to my office and I’ll look at it and again take some notes or make mental notes. Then we go in for a spotting session, where I will sit and watch the show with Alan Ball, the creator, and usually the writer of the episode, the music editor, the editor, and various producers. The composer, Nathan Barr, is there. We go through the show scene by scene and decide what we’re going to do musically: whether it’s going to be scored, which Nathan will take care of, or whether it’ll be a song, and I pick the song. What’s the vibe that Alan is looking for? I’ll weigh in and give my opinion. Everyone will throw in their two cents and then I go back to my office and start putting ideas together. I’ll creatively have an idea of what I think is hopefully going to work and I’ll sit down with the picture, showing the picture on the screen, trying different songs, and I’ll try to narrow it down to three to five songs or so, and then I’ll work with the music editor to cut them into the scenes. Then we’ll go back and show them to Alan and he’ll make the final decision.
R&G: There is a theme of violence and of course blood in several of the shows you supervise. Have you become an expert in this genre?
Gary: [Laughs] Yeah, I guess. I certainly know a lot more about it than I did. It’s not that I have a special love for blood and vampires and things like that. I kind of take whatever interesting project comes my way. I’ve definitely learned more about the music from the South and Louisiana for True Blood, and at the same time, for Dexter, I’ve learned a lot about music from Cuba. We use a lot of Cuban music in the show and Cuban-sounding music. Whatever show I’m working on definitely opens up a new door of research for me. That’s always a fun ride.
R&G: What’s your best advice for someone who’s trying to get into the business as a music supervisor without previous experience?
Gary: I would say it’s extremely competitive these days, so it’s not an easy road. I’ve found with music supervision – and pretty much with any position that is very competitive – that the best path is if you’re able to work for free as an intern, working with someone who’s experienced and spending some time with this person. I did it. When I first started, I worked with Marq Roswell, with whom, again, I ended up co-supervising a couple of projects. Music supervisors get a fair amount of glory from time to time, but we’re not overpaid certainly – especially compared to composers and most people in the business. I would say we don’t get paid enough to have a full staff or something like that. If somebody wants to get into my world – even that’s hard – get in by working for free. I have a lot of people offering. Because I work at KCRW, I’m used to having volunteers, but it’s not even easy to work for free for me. I have 2 or 3 people that help me out. They come in during the week and do filing and creative work when need be and just get a chance to learn the business. I’m sure that they will move on to bigger and better things. I would say that being in a position to work for free is a good thing and I would recommend that to anyone trying to get into the business.
R&G: What’s the best way for an independent artist to get on your radar?
Gary: That’s also very tough. Again, I don’t have a great answer for that, but just put out great music. To get onto one of my TV shows, do music that’s appropriate for one of my shows. True Blood has a certain sound to it; Dexter has a certain sound to it; Men of a Certain Age does. So it’s certainly good to do your homework to see what kind of music I use on these projects and to pitch music to me that is appropriate. For the radio show, just get out there and do great music and go on tour and get some press and try to build a buzz and a story about you and it will eventually get to me. I’d like to say that I listen to everything that comes in, but it’s just impossible for me to do that, so sometimes I’ll hear of a band three different places in one week. I start to think, “Oh, I’m starting to hear more about this band. It sounds like they’d be worth checking out.” I’ll go ahead and check it out. I get so bombarded with material that it’s impossible for me to listen to everything.
R&G: Where do you see the music supervision business going in the next five to ten years?
Gary: I think it’s going to continue to thrive. Productions, movies, video games, films, commercials are all seeing that music is a very important element to their productions, and I think they’re going to continue to need music supervisors. We actually just started a guild of music supervisors that we’re trying to unite to some degree just to have a more unified voice and to try to get health care and different benefits for the music supervisors. That’s something that’s happening right now as we speak. As I said, it’s a very competitive field; it’s kind of flooded with music supervisors and there are only so many productions to go around. I think the ones that do a good job and are successful will continue to work. I think there will be a good amount of work in the coming years. Again, if the music business goes wherever it’s going to end up, this is certainly a good area for record labels and artists to make some money, outside of touring and things like that, but obviously record sales are not moving in a good direction these days.
R&G: Having worked in both radio and television, you have a unique perspective on the industry. You’ve watched technologies such as file sharing and TiVo disrupt and change the industries. How do you think these evolutions have affected the way people consume music?
Gary: I think the business model is certainly changing; record labels have to change their philosophy a little bit, but I think there’s still a lot of great music coming out and people have a lot easier access to it. I embrace the new technology and it certainly has made my job a lot easier. I can sit at my desk and listen to music on my computer and go through iTunes and various libraries to find the music that I’m looking for. I don’t have to necessarily run out to a store to try and track things down. So I think that as far as the music and the listening experience, the industry is in a good place. Again, the business model is suffering. I’m a big record store fan and worked at a lot of record stores, so it’s sad to see many of the great record stores close up. Still, I think there remains a place for good record stores as well. Stores like Amoeba and Freakbeat in Studio City and Fingerprints in Long Beach are all doing great jobs and I think will continue to do well. You just have to rethink everything a little bit.
R&G: You wrote a book called “Record Store Days.” Can you discuss how that came about?
Gary: I grew up loving record stores and I was the kind of kid that would stop in the same record store every day if I was walking past it, just to see what was new and go through the bins and read the liner notes and see the different posters on the wall. I loved the music and the stores brought me one step closer to the artists. Eventually, I got to work in record stores and manage record stores. I managed the big Rhino record store in Westwood here in LA, I worked at a great chain called Licorice Pizza, and I worked in a small chain called Moby Disc. I just loved the experience of being in a record store and the community of it: people going through the bins, all listening to the same music. It’s a much more social way of discovering new music and buying new music. Again, as we see, times are changing and stores are closing, I thought this institution should be documented, and had this idea to do a book about record stores and kind of shopped the idea around. I hooked up with another writer, this guy Phil Gallo, who’s an experienced music journalist, which I am not. We put the book together and we’re very proud of it.
R&G: What’s your favorite sync of all time on shows you’ve worked on?
Gary: Well, I think Thomas [Golubic] mentioned this in your interview with him. Our highlight is the Sia song ["Breathe Me"] in the end of Six Feet Under in the final episode. It was such an amazing episode. It was the grand finale of this great show. Sia was virtually unknown at the time, so it was nice that we had something really fresh that people hadn’t heard yet. Now everybody knows that song. They hear it and immediately start to tear up because that scene was such an amazing scene. I would say that that is definitely the highlight, the most well received thing that I’ve been involved in.
R&G: How about for True Blood – your favorite sync so far?
Gary: The Watson Twins doing a stripped-down cover of the Cure’s song, “Just Like Heaven.” I loved it because it was an early scene with the characters Bill and Sookie. They were taking a bath together and they were getting very cozy. We played a Cure song, which to me sort of represents Goth and Goth music and vampire-type looks. I may be overthinking it, but to me, using this Southern down-home version of a Goth song matched the two characters. It worked very nicely for the scene.
R&G: What are some of your favorite bands that you’re listening to these days?
Gary with Those Darlins
Gary: I’m a big fan of the Submarines. Some of the hits from last year I like a lot: Band of Horses, Those Darlins, Black Keys, a band from New York called the Ropes, which I like a lot. We used this woman Cary Ann Hearst in the show.
R&G: “Hell’s Bells?”
R&G: I love that song.
R&G: What’s your favorite soundtrack of all time?
Gary: Not counting my True Blood Volume II, which is up for a Grammy? That’s a good question. I would say probably something like Pulp Fiction or something like that. I think Quentin Tarantino has done an amazing job of picking songs for his movies. There are so many great soundtracks, but that one pops into my mind.
To purchase a copy of “Record Store Days: From Vinyl to Digital and Back Again” (click here).