Counting down the hours until Netflix ships new episodes of Master of None? Us, too. While you’re waiting, check out our Q&A with Music Supervisor Zach Cowie.
(Ready to talk season 2? That’s over here.)
A huge hit on Tunefind when it premiered last year, fans loved hunting down the under-the-radar tracks Music Supervisor Zach Cowie featured in season 1 of Master of None. From Aphex Twin to Jacques Dutronc to New Edition to Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty, the show‘s soundtrack mixed genres and eras seamlessly.
Thanks to a background with labels and as a DJ – he spins on his own and with friend Elijah Wood as Wooden Wisdom – Cowie has built an epic record collection. He loves exposing people to new sounds, and his gig curating the soundtrack of the show gives him the perfect chance to do just that.
Zach takes us behind the scenes on his collaboration with show creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang to create the sound of Master of None, finding the obscure stuff, and the alchemy of music supervision. And we continue the conversation with Zach later to talk details of season 2.
Hi Zach. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. To kick things off, how did you get into music supervision?
I had a whole other life before this. I worked at record labels for 10 years. I started at Touch and Go in Chicago, then I went to Sub Pop in Seattle, then to Drag City in Chicago. Then I moved to LA to work for Rhino, which is a catalog division of the Warner Music Group, that just does reissues.
I’ve been a DJ and a record collector since I was a kid. Like most people, when I found out that music supervision is a job, I knew I wanted to do it but had no idea how to start. I got lucky. I collect everything, but I think a lot of people recognize me for the old stuff I know about, that spans a lot of genres and time periods.
I got a cold call about the movie Public Enemies, to help them out with archival stuff: the music of the 30s. That was the first time that I stepped into any of this. You learn quite a bit when your first thing is with Michael Mann! You can’t learn it anywhere. There are frustrations that I still deal with even though I’m “established.”
What is your favorite part of the work? What gets you really fired up?
In the world we’re in now, you get the feeling that there isn’t much that hasn’t been done, discovered, tried, learned. The closest thing you get to having something new is combining two things that have never been combined before. That’s what I love about this job.
There are feelings that can be created that I’ve never felt before by putting together just the right sound with the right image. It gets super addicting and weird. It’s like alchemy in a way. I love that when you get it right, it instantly makes all other ideas that you had terrible.
How do you find music for your projects?
I don’t do a lot of streaming or anything like that. I like to go straight to the record store, straight to the label, straight to other collectors, other DJ’s. I feel really lucky that I have a general knowledge of things, but I also have all these experts around me. I’m able to catch some great music before it gets into the world.
That’s something that is really important to us on Master of None is to have our own musical identity. We want the first experience the viewers have with a lot of these songs to be through our show, so it doesn’t come with the baggage that well-known songs come with. I’m obsessed with not using stuff anybody’s used before, so Tunefind is a really good resource for me to check if stuff has already been used.
How did you connect with Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang (co-creators) and get the gig on Master of None?
After Public Enemies, I got another lucky call on a movie called Celeste and Jesse Forever that Rashida Jones wrote with Andy Samberg. I did that, and that is, ultimately, what Aziz saw.
I knew Alan and Aziz just from DJing around LA, but they saw that and they were like, “Oh, whoa! Zach does this stuff!” And another just total luck thing. When they got Master Of None, Alan texted me and was like, “Hey, dude. We got this show. Do you want to do it?” And I was like, “Hell yeah!”
Given that you have such an extensive collection and so much to work with, how do you narrow in on a choice? What’s your process?
That’s where Alan and Aziz come in. Aziz is a total record head. It’s something that is really important to his storytelling process. They’ll give me either an idea or some script pages or in some cases just a scene that they shot and ask, “What’s this make you think of?” I’ll send five ideas. We have a shared playlist that the three of us use and they’ll listen to them, they’ll add their own ideas and refine things from there. We pass our top three picks over to the editors and have them cut it together. We usually wind up having a musical conversation about things. The back and forth is ultimately what gets us to what ends up on the screen.
What were your favorite stand-out moments from Season One?
Since I stopped working at record labels, I’ve been using this new opportunity to turn people onto music that I like. Supervision as the new version of that voice, the enthusiastic person in the record store or at a label, and with a show like this I can get tons of people to hear something I think is great.
A lot of my favorite music moments in the show flow from that. They involve artists that mean so much to me but who haven’t gotten their due. I’m obsessed with this group called The Durutti Column, which is basically just one guy, this guy Vini Reilly. They were on Factory Records who are known for Joy Division, Happy Mondays, New Order, that kind of stuff. I got to put a Durutti Column song that I just loved in the last episode where Aziz is reading from The Bell Jar, an almost ghostly instrumental that’s under the scene.
Another example: I love country music and singer songwriter music from 60’s and 70’s, so the Nashville episode was a real treat for me. I got to focus in on that. I loved putting a J J Cale song, “Magnolia,” over the montage where they’re walking through town.
I was really proud of that episode because I got a lot of response from people in Nashville and Austin, where a lot of this music is from, being like, “Holy shit. They did it right.” That means so much to me to fairly represent that music scene. That was a big deal.
We are obsessed with Arthur Russell, so we used his song called “A Little Lost” in the ninth episode. That was a big deal to us because he was an early touchstone for establishing the sound for the show. I’m pretty sure, there was even a moment where we wanted to call the show A Little Lost.
Thanks so much, Zach, for sharing some background and highlights from season 1.
Continue on to read part 2 of our conversation with Zach, focused on the music featured in season 2 of Master of None.
〉Check out all the songs featured in Master of None on Tunefind
> Read part 2 of our chat with Zach Cowie about season 2 of Master of None
〉Follow Zach on Twitter @turquoisewisdom