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‘Master of None’ music supervisor Zach Cowie talks Season 2 soundtrack & more in BV interview

Master of None, the Emmy-winning Netflix series created by star Aziz Ansari and writing partner Alan Yang, was one of the TV surprises of 2015. Not just in the tone of the show, which was a lot more complex and thoughtful than most viewers and Aziz fans were perhaps expecting at the time, but also in its use of music. The show dug deep and wide with its musical references, pulling pop and jazz from all over the world, in addition to the music many associated with Ansari at the time (hip hop, indie rock).

Season 2, which debuted today (5/12), picks up right where Season 1 left off: with Aziz’s character, Dev, in Modena, Italy to learn pasta-making after breaking up with Rachel (Noel Wells). Ansari and Yang are much more ambitious this time around though, taking the show into uncharted stylistic, emotional and storytelling territory. The are episode-length homages to Italian cinema, a look at people we take for granted in NYC, and an episode set at Thanksgiving that is maybe the best thing the show has done in its 20 episode life. (Plus, lots more food porn, and there’s an episode that is set almost entirely at Four Horsemen, the Williamsburg restaurant owned by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem.) Almost all of it works, almost, making for a genuinely terrific 10 episodes of television.

Likewise, the music follows suit. We talked with the series’ music supervisor Zach Cowie about the challenges and joys of Master of None‘s second season, working with Ansari, how a one-episode featured actor helped secure rights to a hard-to-find song, DJing with Elijah Wood (as Wooden Wisdom), and more.

Zach also talks about the official Master of None Season 2 soundtrack which is out today digitally and will be out on vinyl later this summer via Mondo. That’s the vinyl artwork above, and you can check out the tracklist below. You can also listen to a Spotify playlist that Pitchfork put together featuring some (but nowhere near all) of the songs from Season 2, below.

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BV: So were there any new challenges for season two?

Zach Cowie: Yeah. Just the whole Italy thing. It’s harder than it sounds. Kind of navigating the licensing of these tracks from Italy was a huge, huge undertaking. I’m really lucky ’cause I have a co-supervisor on the show named Kerri Drootin. She is responsible for a lot of the heavy lifting, in terms of just sorting out ownership for a lot of this stuff.

I see.

Yeah, yeah, so, it’s a many layered puzzle to figure this job out. First, you gotta see the scene, read the scene, think of stuff that’ll work for it. Then, figure out how to clear it. Some of that, for the Italian things we used, was especially difficult. Like, to the point of the namesake of the ninth episode, “Amarsi Un Po'”, that was like a six month licensing journey. The guy who sings that song, Lucio Battisti, is one of the most well-known pop singers in Italy of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, but his music has never been licensed anywhere outside of Italy. In the end of this battle, we were given the first-ever U.S. license of a Lucio song.

Oh, wow.

Yeah, which is pretty huge. It’s kind of apparent in the second season that it is a love letter to Italy, and that’s sort of the icing on that cake. To be the first people who brought that music out of Italy and in front of other people.

Right. That song, in particular, is obviously important…it’s the title track of the episode. 

I should actually write this down in front of me, but the loose translation of that, I think, is “to love a bit.” “To love a little.” Which, just out of coincidence, summarized this relationship, or the whole second season. But, it was really just a song that I loved. I was standing next to Aziz really early on when he was like, “I think we’re gonna shoot in Italy,” and I was like, “Let’s use this.”

I like that you used a lot of Ennio Morricone, especially in that first episode, and a lot of his more loungey stuff that Americans might not really know as much about. He’s done so much more than spaghetti westerns.

I’m glad you picked that up. That’s the whole plan with the first episode. There’s a deep homage to Italian cinema, so we do almost the entire soundtrack in repurposed Morricone scores. You’re totally right, we used ’68, ’69 as sort of the main era we pulled from. I think even some of my deeper record collecting fans won’t recognize that closing song is Morricone. It just sounds so bonkers.

I think it’s the first main piece music used in the first episode, “Alla Luce Del Giorno“… that was always one of my favorites from that first Mondo Morricone compilation from the ’90s. It’s almost like a weird pop song.

Totally. That was like me all last year. Researching all the eras. He’s so prolific, it’s mind-blowing. I went through, like, 40 scores in that key little area, just to pull out those six or seven song lists. Psychos like me kind of live for that. It’s a bit of a niche job.

I figured that there’d be a lot of Italian music in this season because I knew that some of it would be in Italy, but there turned out to be way more than I thought, and in a cool way.

Thank you. I’m really extra happy about the Italo Disco stuff, too, which is most of the second episode. That was Aziz’s idea. He was like, “What’s the full color version of what we did in the first one, musically?” We were like, “Italo.” I think almost everything in the second episode is just pure Italo Disco.

I know Aziz is a big music fan. How much is him bringing stuff to you, and how much is you bringing stuff to him?

He’s deep into music, and it’s a big part of the show’s storytelling. We start talking about music before scripts are even written, in a lot of cases. It’s kind of like one of the early idea pools that gets going. So, Alan and Aziz will be like, “Hey dude. We’re gonna do one on religion.” So, we all share a playlist, and we just start loading it down with music, and the guys will be writing. They’ll be adding their own ideas, too. The ideas in that playlist just start kind of showing up in scripts, or if nothing’s hitting the spot, they’ll direct me toward some more specific things. But we start right at the beginning. It happened a bit in season one, but in season two, it’s, like, insane. We were sharing hundreds and hundreds of songs before they ever even completed scripts. It is very much a collaboration. Some stuff goes straight from his head to the screen, some stuff goes straight from mine to his, but so much of it is an exchange between the two.

One of the most memorable scenes in season two, which is also a big music moment, is a long, sad, single shot of Aziz riding in an Uber that is set to Soft Cell’s “Wave Hello, Say Goodbye.”

Oh, yeah. I love that so much. That was a tricky one to get everyone on board for. Aziz was set on it. He wanted that long shot at the end. There was a bit of dispute in the editing, and it ended up making it. That song was 100% his idea. I had something totally different. But that’s the beauty of this job, though. Once you see the right thing, you abandon any other idea you had. That was one that we didn’t really talk about, conceptually. We just had to see it. We had to put the song to the scene, and he came up with that. It was like, instant winner.

Even when you know something like that, you, as the music supervisor, still have to come up with a whole bunch of alternates, just in case there’s like a problem on the licensing end, right?

Some of the stuff I work on, that’s definitely the way it goes. For this show, we sort of just ride our favorite idea until we give up. So, the game of alternates comes in when we’re running out of time and still haven’t cleared something, or if we get flat out denial, which happens every once in a while. The real beauty of working in the streaming world is all of our episodes post at once. The alternate thing happens a lot more when you’re working on something that is on every week, you’re working week-to-week, and you’re constantly having to meet these deadlines. For us, in that three, four months of post, we have that entire time to work and clear anything from the whole season. We don’t have to play it so hard in the Netflix realm and I’m really grateful for that

So how long ago did everything wrap?

That’s a good question. I think it was the end of February, maybe? End of February, early March? I don’t know about you, but time makes no sense to me anymore, ever since social media took over. The only thing that I remember was, a few years ago, was a couple concerts I saw. Everything else feels like it could be a day ago, or a hundred years ago.

I get that. Do you have any favorite of your own musical moments from the show that come to mind?

Oh man, there’s a lot in season two. Like I said, I was so happy about all the Italian stuff with Lucio Battisti. This was kind of one of my favorite moments just as a supervisor, ’cause it was such an important early connection for Aziz and I, like with what to do in Italy. Then, we just got so hooked on it. Then the drama of, maybe not getting it, started to get a little ugly. Like you were asking, we did have to do the alternate thing on that, because that song didn’t clear til days before we had to mix it. Alternates are tough, ’cause you never love ’em. You like ’em.

Right.

Yeah, so that was just such an amazing moment when Kerri called and was like, “We got this.” There’s a lot in this season. I mean, getting to have John Legend sing something in that dinner party scene was pretty incredible.

Oh yeah. How did that come about?

I think him and Aziz are friends, and I he just asked, and John did it. We came up with a bunch of ideas of songs for him to sing, and ended up choosing [Michael Jackson’s] “Can’t Help It.” Sadly, I wasn’t able to go ’cause I was in L.A., and the whole rest of this show was in New York. So, I have to wake up really early for the whole season. (Laughs) Everybody who was there still talks about this day as just being like magic. He went in and did that live, and just hit it on the first run. Even all our sound mixers were like, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this.”

It’s a very loose, intimate scene.

To see a guy who has the charisma that can fill a stadium in a little apartment, it really rocked everyone. I love what that scene does in the season, ’cause that’s a real turning point in the Francesca relationship. I couldn’t have asked for more. I love working on the show. I think it’s a real gift to me to work for people who put such an importance on my job. It really pushes me to love every queue we put in here. It’s kind of hard for me to pick a favorite, ’cause as I’m working on it, or as we’re all working on it, each one feels just as important as the other.

One of the things that really struck me about watching the first season was, I knew Aziz was a hip-hop fan, I knew he liked indie rock. And yet, the very first music you hear in the very first episode, was Jacques Dutronc. That sort of set a different tone than I was expecting.

I’m glad you said that, ’cause that’s something that we’ve all spoken about fairly strategically. To kind of give the show its own, just like everybody on the show, the way the show looks, the way it’s written, and the way it sounds, we try and give our show a real identity. We want people to be like, “Well that’s like Master of None’s music.” To do that, we were really careful about, sort of, a rule book of what goes and what can’t go. Something that was really important to all of us is to use this stuff that adds a permanence, you know? That doesn’t mean just old music. It means, kind of, things that aren’t worn out in the world already but, are good enough to be worn out. They just may have missed a time. We do use tons of new stuff, which a lot of people tend to gloss over, but that’s fine. We’re trying to have people’s first moments with a lot of this music be through our show. The music and the show then become connected. There’s a real danger if you start to use whatever Pitchfork is saying is Best New Music that’s gonna, undeniably, be in other shows and a couple commercials.

You want your own musical moments. 

Right. Opening up the spectrum, that was a real, almost a hip-hop approach. Like, a crate-digger approach. If Jay Dilla went into a record store, he didn’t just buy from the Soul and Jazz section to make beats with. He goes through the whole store. So, that’s something I was really conscious of, was to try and drop genre, drop time period, and just really focus on the right feeling for the right theme.

Obviously, in a world of Shazam today, you can easily find out what music is being used on shows now, whereas five years ago or whatever, you might never know unless you already knew the song. There’s one song that I really liked in the show, that was un-Shazamable to me, which was a song the cab driver was listening to in the “New York I Love You” episode.

Well, first off, un-Shazamable is the greatest compliment in the world to a guy like me. Even me, I DJ a lot, and I still DJ just with vinyl. I love pitching stuff up a little, or pitching it down a little, to make sure nobody Shazams it.

Sneaky!

‘Cause it does what we’re about to do. It kind of opens up a conversation. That’s why I do these jobs. To turn people on to music, talk about music. It’s so boring now that people can do it with a button. That track, it’s a really great story. It’s an artist named Canco Hamisi who is from Burundi, and that’s where the lead actor in that episode is from. It’s actually something that he suggested, and we found it on YouTube, and he ended up helping us clear it with the Burundian government.

That’s a cool story and lucky for you the way it worked out.

That was one of the real adventures, and it was all him. He figured out how to do it. We had to go through a pretty intense restoration process for the track, because no masters existed. Our sound editor actually restored the YouTube clip, and that’s what we use in the episode. There’s a great YouTube video of this guy doing the song live. It was so important. I loved that episode. We all do. It was really important to us to represent everyone so evenly, so having a track from Burundi just sealed the deal on that one.

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It’s a surprising episode, the structure of it, where it goes.  I pulled out Shazam for it just ’cause I thought it was a cool song, and then to not find it, I was a little vexed, but was also impressed. Glad I asked!

It will be Shazamable as people read this, ’cause when the soundtrack comes out, that song is on it. So it’ll be in whatever magic database all that stuff is pulled from.

So let’s talk just a little about the soundtrack, which is going to be an actual, physical record, right?

Yeah, we’re putting out an official soundtrack this time. It comes out digitally on Friday, and also the pre-orders for the vinyl will be up, but that won’t ship until the summer. The guys at Mondo are doing it. They’re like our favorite soundtrack label. Jay Shaw, who’s Mondo’s art director, does all of our titles on the show. He did Aziz’s book cover, all that.

That makes sense, now that you say it. What else is on your plate now that Season 2 is out in the world?

I’ve got a bunch of stuff. I still produce reissue records for a few labels, so I’m kind of shifting gears to work on the compilation for Light in the Attic on Japanese music from the mid-’70s to mid-’80s.

Oh, that sounds interesting. What kind of Japanese music?

It took on a term called City Pop much later than when it happened. It’s sort of like, it’s sort of this boogie, AOR kind of like, just in the beginning of New Age and Electro Sound that was coming out of Japan. Me and my friend Andy, from the band called Vetiver, and my friend, Frosty, who’s one of the founders of dublab, we had compiled a double LP of, sort of like a crash course into that scene. We’ve been working on it for years, but it’s finally almost done. We’re in the fine-tuning stages now.

That sounds great.

I think it’s gonna be a real killer. Light in the Attic’s gonna do a bunch of Japanese archival stuff in the next year. This is, I think, gonna be the second in the series.

Rad. When you say AOR, like soft rock? I always think of that song song, “Cherries Are Made For Eating,” from that movie, Hausu.

No. There’s not a lot of soundtrack stuff on it. It’s a very, I don’t even … Are you familiar with the Yellow Magic Orchestra? The lazy way to describe them would be like, Japanese Kraftwerk. This group of musicians all played on each other’s stuff, all produced on other people’s records. It was a very small, little scene. If you haven’t dug into it, it’s possible that most people won’t know a single one of these artists. When they’re taken out of YMO, and things like that. But, that’s our job, you know? We dig deep so you don’t have to.

What about DJing? Do you have any gigs as Woods of Wisdom, the thing you do with Elijah Wood?

Well, we still do as much as we can together. He’s one of my best friends, and we DJ together as a way to travel and search for records together. We were all around Europe in November. Then, I got too busy finishing the show. Now, he’s in Canada shooting season 2 of Dirk Gently, so we’re not gonna do anything till fall. So I’ve got to learn how to DJ again, how to do it by myself. I’ve got a few warehouse parties in L.A. over the next couple months. It’s a whole different thing when you don’t have somebody up there with you. To be honest, it’s a lot more fun with a partner. Kind of just standing there, digging through a record bag, in front of people. Not the best look when you’re by yourself.

You can find Zach on Twitter.
Watch Master of None seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix.

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Master of None Season 2 (A Netflix Original Series Soundtrack) tracklist:
Side A
1. Piú Di Te – Mina (2:53)
2. Dolce Vita – Ryan Paris (3:56)
3. Okay Okay – Pino D’angio (4:22)

Side B
4. Bite the Apple – Rainbow Team (4:48)
5. I Must Be in a Good Place Now – Bobby Charles (4:08)
6. I Need Somebody to Love Tonight – Sylvester (6:51)

Side C
7. Say Hello, Wave Goodbye – Soft Cell (5:25)
8. Umugabo Wukuri – Canco Hamisi (6:50)

Side D
9. Adventures in Success – Will Powers (3:44)
10. You’re a Song (That I Can’t Sing) – Franki Valli & The Four Seasons (3:12)
11. I Can’t Let It Happen to You – The Walker Brothers (3:12)
12. Se Piangi, Se Ridi – Mina (2:34)

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