‘City on Fire’ music supervisor Jonathan Leahy talks the AppleTV+ show’s early-’00s soundtrack
Currently airing on Apple TV+, City on Fire is the new TV series adaptation of Garth Risk Hallberg's acclaimed 2015 novel of the same name. While the book was set in the NYC of the late-'70s, when the city almost went bankrupt, the show, which was adapted by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (The O.C., Gossip Girl), sets things in the post-9/11 early-'00s, with the vibrant Meet Me in the Bathroom music scene as a backdrop. Here's the synopsis: "A college student is shot in Central Park on July 4, 2003. The investigation connects a series of mysterious citywide fires, the downtown music scene, and a wealthy uptown real estate family fraying under the strain of the many secrets they keep."
Obviously music is a huge part of the series -- costar Chase Sui Wonders publishes a music zine and there is a fictional band, Ex Post Facto, who may be at the center of the mystery. There are a few Ex Post Facto songs on the series' official soundtrack, which also includes songs by current groups Muzz (featuring Interpol's Paul Banks and The Walkmen's Matt Barrick), Slow Pulp and Been Stellar. You can listen to the official soundtrack below.
The show is also full of period-specific music, both from bands at the time and songs from the original post-punk scene you might've heard at Plant Bar or Tiswas, from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, TV on the Radio, Ambulance LTD, The Walkmen, Jonathan Fire Eater, The Rapture, The White Stripes, Cat Power, Spiritualized, Bush Tetras, ESG, The Libertines, Radiohead, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Sigur Ros, and more. With the early-'00s having a moment again, City on Fire feels very zeitgeisty.
We talked with City on Fire music supervisor Jonathan Leahy about working on the show, creating a believable fictional band with original songs, and more. He picked 10 songs from the show, including needle drops and a few of Ex Post Facto's songs, and told us more about why they're in the series. You can read that below.
City on Fire debuts new episodes every Friday on AppleTV+. You can watch the first episode without a subscription, and you can watch the series trailer below.
CITY ON FIRE MUSIC SUPERVISOR JONATHAN LEAHY TALKS 10 SONGS FROM THE SERIES
“City On Fire” – Ex Post Facto
This is an original song written for the show by Zach Ellis of the Brooklyn band Dead Tooth. It’s the title track and it’s the anthem we have to hang our band’s cult status on; we knew going into the project that this song had to be great, and Zach delivered. His original demo was raw but already had the magic in it, when the chorus hits there’s no doubt that this is the song. Jason Hill produced two full-band versions for the show—the Ex Post Facto album version (with Nico Tortorella singing lead) and the live version that Ex Nihilo performs at Don Hill’s, sung by Max Milner. We hear this song four times in the first episode, so this is the hill where our fake band plants its flag. The song has to dodge a lot of bullets— it can’t sound like The Strokes, it can’t sound like Interpol, it can’t sound like Liars, or the Rapture… but somehow it has to feel like it belongs to an earlier version of that scene. Zach walked into the Dead Tooth rehearsal space one day and walked out with this demo, we just did our best to not fuck it up.
“We’ve Been Had” – The Walkmen
I’ve loved this band for 20+ years and this song above all others, I’m so happy we got to use it in the show. I’ve been trying to find a home for it for ages, and the spot where it finally landed in episode 101 is just perfect. The mood is hypnotic, romantic, nostalgic, and conjures 2002 New York City in such a cool and dreamy way—there’s just nothing else quite like it. When we first watched the scene with this song in it, it transformed the moment completely, it just fit naturally with what our actors had already achieved in front of the camera. And what a way for Sam and Charlie to fall in love… or something more complicated than love.
“Maybe Not” – Cat Power
For me, few voices are as emotionally potent as Chan Marshall’s. You Are Free is a devastating, beautiful album, and this track in particular just has a stranglehold on me. The fragile, intimate moment between Sam and Charlie in the basement called for a very long use of a song, and it’s tough to find the perfect track in terms of mood, tempo and style… while also avoiding lyrics that get too literal. I’d rather err on the side of mystery and abstraction when it comes to lyrics, and “Maybe Not” was the perfect way for us to give voice to our characters’ passion, confusion, and heartbreak.
“Fight ‘em Off” – Ex Post Facto
This is another original song credited to our fictional band Ex Post Facto, written and produced by Brooklyn-based producer Abe Seiferth. When Abe sent me the original demo I was knocked out, I was in tears by the end of the track because he had captured Billy’s great regret—his failure to protect his sister when she needed him the most. I don’t know what Abe had in mind, I don’t know if I’m completely misreading the story here, I just know how it made me feel, and continues to make me feel to this day. Again, our only job here was to not mess up what Abe had already built. Nico was determined to crush the vocal performances and they worked their ass off to get it right—the final recording is Abe’s original demo with Nico’s vocals, and it’s incredible. This is another original song that we really leaned on—we hear it three times in the series, and it becomes the soundtrack of Sam’s coma dream. The way we use it helps to underline exactly why Sam means so much to Billy—she is his chance at redemption.
“Black Tongue” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
I love an underdog, and I love that when we see archival footage of Yeah Yeah Yeahs in episode 103 they’re playing this song, instead of “Maps” or “Y Control” or something that the audience might expect. For me it captures the excitement of musical discovery that Sam is experiencing as she watches the band on stage. It’s powerful and sexy and even after all these years it still feels deliriously dangerous and completely unique.
“I Might Be Wrong” – Radiohead
What can I even say about this song, it’s weapons-grade Radiohead. Using this track feels like cheating, you could put it over any scene and it would be brilliant. For all the well-deserved adoration the band receives, I don’t think enough is said about Amnesiac. Listen to it back-to-back with your other favorites from 2001 and you realize it still sounds decades ahead of them. We use “I Might Be Wrong” twice in episode 104, for two very different moments, and it works great both times (see above.)
“The Knife” – Ex Post Facto
This original song came to us from Sloan Rivers, which is Rebecca Ryskalczyk (Bethlehem Steel) and Jessica Boudreaux (Summer Cannibals). I love this track, it’s such an emotional gut-punch; you can feel it coming from a mile away, and when the band finally crashes in it’s just heaven. Rebecca and Jessica’s demo was fantastic, but my concern was “how the hell is Nico going to hit those high notes at the end?” Again, massive credit to Nico here—those cathartic screams are ultimately the climax of the Ex Post Facto record. This song and “Fight ‘em Off” really came to define what makes Ex Post Facto unique—they’re not just another cool, aloof NYC post-punk band, they’re spiked with earnest emotion and drama.
“The Last Beat Of My Heart” – Siouxsie & The Banshees
Such an incredible song from an iconic artist who as I type this just headlined a festival with Iggy Pop. Along with The Walkmen reunion it feels like we’re catching people at just the right time with this soundtrack. I might be wrong (oof) about this, but I don’t recall any other prominent use of this song in film or TV, which is wild because this recording is crying out for it. It isn’t from the 00s, nor from the 70s our characters romanticize… it’s a timeless recording from an enduring artist. Within our story, it’s a song from Regan and Keith’s teenage years, and I love the way it plays their most intimate moment toward the end of the season. Might be my favorite use of licensed music in the show.
“Lord Can You Hear Me” – Muzz
Matt Barrick (Jonathan Fire*Eater, The Walkmen) Paul Banks (Interpol) and Josh Kaufman have a project called Muzz which I really love, and I used their song “Patchouli” in another project a couple of years ago. Matt and I connected when I cleared a Jonathan Fire*Eater track for episode 101, so when we got to the finale and the time came to pull out all the stops, I thought of Muzz. I knew I wanted to use this Spacemen 3 song, so I asked Matt if the band might be up for recording a cover. After hearing Jonathan Fire*Eater, The Walkmen, and Interpol earlier in the series, to have a brand new recording from these guys felt like the perfect way to close the circle. We have nothing but love and respect for the original, so Muzz preserved the simple, direct grandeur of a beautiful composition. And to hear Paul Bank’s voice on this track is a gift.
“Untitled #4 – Njósnavélin” – Sigur Rós
As a music supervisor, the entire Sigur Rós catalog for me lives behind a sheet of protective glass. Break only in case of emergency. For listeners of a certain age, there is no coming back from this song—once you start playing it, you’re going to need some time to put yourself back together. My point is, we didn’t go there lightly. Rewind all of your cynicism, take off your armor of snark, just lie down and let this song destroy you.
“City on Fire” Original Soundtrack:
01 - “City On fire” (Ex Post Facto)
02 - “Brass Tactics” (Ex Post Facto)
03 - “Fight em’ Off” (Ex Post Facto)
04 - “Dime” (Ex Post Facto)
05 - “The Knife” (Ex Post Facto)
06 - “City On Fire (Live At Don Hill’s)” (Ex Post Nihilo)
07 - “Brass Tactics (Live At Don Hill’s)” (Ex Post Nihilo)
08 - “Dime (Demo)” (Slow Pulp)
09 - “Lord Can You Hear Me” (Muzz - Spacemen 3 cover)
10 - “Behind the Eyes (Live At Don Hill’s)” (Ex Post Nihilo)
11 - “Body in the Grass / Main Title” (Jason Hill)
12 - “Around the Park” (Jason Hill)
13 - “Young Animals” (Jason Hill)
14 - “Under the City Lights” (Jason Hill)
15 - “In the Faces of Shadows” (Jason Hill)
16 - “What If That’s Not What I Want” (Jason Hill)
17 - “Love in a Needle” (Jason Hill)