HBO’s Vinyl is set in the heart of the music industry during a period of history where the sound was changing. It is populated by record guys who are also fans. It is executive produced by Martin Scorsese, who also directed the pilot, a renowned expert on both rock and roll. The characters musical knowledge is formed in large part by Randall Poster and Meghan Currier.
Randall Poster has been the music supervisor on more than 100 feature motion pictures, including the seventies glam rock film Velvet Goldmine, Tower Heist, Fantastic Mr. Fox, School of Rock and the Bob Dylan biographical fantasia I’m Not There. He’s worked with directors Wes Anderson Todd Phillips and Sam Mendes on classic films that relied on music like Boyhood and SubUrbia. For TV he worked on the miniseries Mildred Pierce, and the series Lost. Before Vinyl, Poster worked with Scorsese on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and the films Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Aviator.
Poster spoke exclusively with Den of Geek about some deep cuts that he helped carve into our cinematic memories and his thoughts on what people wanted to hear Elvis Presley play in concert.
I’ve looked at your credits and you’ve worked on some classic musical onscreen moments. Let me first ask, when you were a teenager, did you make a lot of mix tapes?
Yeah I certainly did.
What would be on your first mix tape?
Oh god, so many things, whether it was songs of the moment or buried treasures, depending on who the audience was. Whether it was friends or a girl I was trying to impress. It was a real variety of things.
How is that similar to presenting music to a director?
In terms of whether you want to put together a point of view or make musical connections, I think that’s the way one song leads you to another or one song triggers a response that you either want to extend or counterpoint.
I interviewed Ato Essandoh. Could you tell me about learning that he could play guitar and how you merged him with Ty Taylor?
With Ato, he’s such a strong such a strong character and Lester Grimes was somebody who had to make an immediate impact on us. I think, as far as landing on the sound, we went around with Martin Scorsese just trying to get at the roots of Richie Finestra and land on that musical correspondence between Richie’s character and Lester Grimes.
Really, the trigger was Ike Turner. We went deep into the Ike Turner discography and found “The World Is Yours.” As far as the challenge of finding a voice that we felt would be a voice missed once it was destroyed, we landed on Ty Taylor.
As far as the guitar playing, we had some great players in our session and it was just a real treat and benefit that Ato knew his way around a guitar. We felt we could really sell it. That’s the mechanics of it.
You worked with Sonic Youth’s guitarist Lee Ranaldo, and the Strokes singer Julian Casablancas to recreate the period sound. What did they bring to the set?
Lee and I have worked together over the years. She was very central to the work I did on Todd Haynes’ I’m not There. Going way back, the first movie I ever did with Richard Linklater was called SubUrbia and Sonic Youth actually did the score for that film. That’s where I really got to know Lee. Then we worked with members of Sonic Youth when we were making I’m not There.
Julian is a real aficionado of the Velvets and Lou Reed. I’d worked with Julian before. You want to get players who can respond to the inspiration and, really, a lot of the inspiration, in terms of capturing the sounds, was Julian. I think when we did the first two songs, “Run, Run, Run,” the Velvets’ 1966 sound, it was a bit more straightforward in terms of what the sound was in terms at that moment. We got a little more creative when we did “White Light, White Heat” from 1973. The sound that we put forward is a bit more of a fantasy Lou in ’73 than it was a reality Lou in ’73. It harkens back to the Velvet Sound, rather than the Lou Reed rock band that was really emerging in 73.
And the cassette demo tapes?
The Nasty Bits, Jack Ruby stuff, yes. One of the things we wanted to do was not jump the pre-punk moment in time. So we were looking for bands that were sort of the root of what would become punk rock and thankfully, this new Jack Ruby compilation had come out and caught my attention. Both Lee and Don Fleming, who was a pivotal part of it, we kind of got excited about Jack Ruby and Scorsese and Terence Winter really responded to them.
What was really punk rock about them was that they weren’t finding the classic rock and roll tropes. A lot of their lyrics were kind of mundane and that, we felt, was the punk rock of it. Then Steve Shelley played drums on those original sessions and we knocked it out.
You plumbed a lot of musical history.
One of the songs was a Four Seasons song “Beggar’s Parade.”
How do you split the work between yourself and Meghan Currier?
Meghan and I have been working together for five or six years. Really, we do pretty much everything in tandem. Meghan took a lot of the load in terms of casting. We had to find a lot of players for on camera with different looks and different skills. She really took a lead in doing that. That was an aspect of the show that was a bit overwhelming.
Who throws in suggestions for songs? Do you get emails late at night from Mick Jagger?
It’s a healthy dialog between all the major creatives, the writers. We solicit a lot of ideas. I always seek out experts. Don and Lee are great resources. Stewart Lerman, who actually engineers and produces all the new recordings with us, he is always pivotal in helping us find the sound.
You’re working with Martin Scorsese again on this. You’ve worked with him on Boardwalk Empire and Hugo, Wolf of Wall Street, a lot, I’m looking at a whole list here. He’s known for his expertise on so many artistic topics. How was he at suggesting sounds?
Marty is sort of the sun in our creative constellation, in terms of his insight into how to use music. He and I have a very good shorthand. You can rest assured, when Marty’s involved, that songs will be used well. That he doesn’t approach the musical element with any kind of timidity. Oftentimes during editing, Marty would say “make the music louder.” I’ll speak for myself, the way Marty has used music and songs has certainly been a real catalyst in the evolution of my cinematic point of view.
I want to break from Vinyl for a second because there’s a question that’s been burning in me. I love Brian Jonestown Massacre.
It’s funny. If you would have told me that we would have had Brian Jonestown Massacre do the theme song for Boardwalk Empire, I would have been as surprised any anybody. But what we wanted to do was make sure that the show was clearly not a period relic. At its core was a certain spirit that was very neatly reflected by Brian Jonestown Massacre.
What was it about those two chords in that song that told you this would define the series?
It’s kind of kinetic. You just kind of feel it. Sometimes you can overthink it, but you know you’ve found it when you feel it.
Have you ever gotten any feedback from artists after you’ve used their music?
Yeah, generally, it’s one of those things where no news is good news to a certain degree. I’ll speak particularly to this most recent episode. I don’t think Trey Songs had any sense of how pivotal that musical moment was going to be, so we heard from Trey from his people that he was just blown away by it.
After a movie or show is done, has an artist ever reacted by saying you’ve changed a meaning of a song to even them?
I think mostly you hear from people you know in the audience or musicos who really think “you’ve twisted my perspective on that song.”
Going back to Boardwalk Empire for a second, you said you were steeped in the music of the twenties for that. What surprised you about the music that was being made during prohibition?
How hip it was. And also the fact that, say you’ve learned a certain standard, say from the forties or fifties, really came out of the twenties. I was really impressed with so much of the songwriting and the word play and the complexity of it, the great arrangements. 1920, jazz is just beginning and the music, say that was coming out of New Orleans, was really the punk rock of its day. Just tremendous spirit, vitality and complexity.
Do you play any instruments?
Not really. Not that I would ever really pony to.
You wrote a screenplay for the film A Matter of Degrees. I know that Stephen King, when he writes, will put on mood music, usually heavy metal. Did you play music while you were writing it?
That film was very steeped in music. There was a soundtrack. It came right at the moment when College Radio was becoming alternative music. So it was really a rich moment in rock and roll and we were really addicted to it.
When you were doing Boyhood, what is it about Coldplay and Bob Dylan that made them signposts for musical maturity?
I’ve done a bunch of movie now with Richard Linklater and this was a movie that, more than almost any movie I’ve ever worked on, where Rick really engaged all the principal people involved in the film in putting these songs together. The calculus became how do you best insinuate the passage of time and be very specific to every nuance of time.
I recently saw Kill Your Darlings, did you have to approach that differently because of the dramatic way the Beats disrupted the flow of music?
I think that, if you look at the Beats, music was another means for transcendence. I think that’s the musical lesson, for me, of the Beats. What do they call it, sublimation? I think that implies the embrace of the sublime and certainly we all find comfort in the sublime musical moment.
Do you have to get into a different head to create such different soundscapes for shows or movies as disparate as Mozart in the Jungle or Spring Breakers?
Yes. You have to kind of go under water with the music. The nice thing is you have these great directors and collaborators to play with and to engage with on a musical forefront of a project.
You were working with Lenny Kaye, I have Nuggets, tell me how helpful that might have been.
A major, major, major inspiration. Nuggets was a major inspiration on me for decades. I worked with Lenny, we did a track with Patti for Boardwalk Empire.
Of course, when we were making Vinyl, I spent time with Lenny probing him about doo wop and getting a sense of those records. Nuggets was a total inspiration for us. It was always my goal in making some of the records we made for the show, was to create our own Nuggets. “Strychnine” was a nugget. Hopefully, people will think that Charli XCX’s version of “No Fun” is a nugget. Some of the under-known things we put forward, there’s the Del-Tinos or Mickey Finn, are nuggets.And John Doe is somebody I’ve been working with since- John Doe is actually in my first movie A Matter of Degrees. We’ve been working together for 25 years and he’s just still the great rock and roll hero.
What vibe did DJ Kool Herc bring to the show?
Again, 1973, the world of music, they’re just on the verge of so many things. They’re on the verge of punk rock. They were on the verge of disco. The first insinuation of what would become hip hop is happening in the Bronx by virtue of Herc’s revolution of using two turntables and extending the beat and galvanizing the community around the turntable.
On Vinyl, actors are portraying musicians like Bowie, Lou Reed, Karen Carpenter, Otis Redding and Alice Cooper. What’s the musical quotient in casting?
The principal casting, Alice Cooper had a real role in the show, so the casting team take that on. In terms of say, Otis Redding or Karen Carpenter, it’s really trying to find somebody who has the look or the gleam in their eye and again, who we feel can sell the song through.
Having steeped yourself in almost every musical period for your works, what is your favorite decade of music?
You know? That’s an interesting question. It changes. We just finished episode 10 yesterday and so at the moment I’m longing for the twenties and the thirties at the moment. I’m very interested in the music of the fifties at the moment. That’s where I’m going to channel my amateur energy, at digging deeper into the fifties.
Zak obviously has a set list in his head for what he wants to hear. Do you have a set list for the perfect show that would have put the sound on his head?
I certainly have my favorites. It’s funny. David Johansen, who we spent a lot of time with while making the show, he made a point one day when we were on set that everybody has their favorite Elvis, like everybody has their favorite Jesus. Some people like the Jesus from the last supper, some people like Jesus in the manger. Some people think, after Elvis returned from the army, that he was never the same and there are some people who love the Hollywood Elvis and people who love the Hawaii Elvis or the Comeback Elvis.
All I can say is, when we were doing it, that guy Shawn Klush, there were moments when you’d catch glance out of the corner of your eye that would make you jump because he kind of hit it. There was that song, “If I can dream,” that ended the comeback special. That was the one I kept hitting that week.
You sent us playlists, a Primer to Elvis playlist, a playlist inspired by what Ray Romano’s character Zak Yankovich would listen to. Explain how you chose them and what they say emotionally and historically?
With Elvis, I think he got it right, trying to understand people’s musical connections with Elvis. Like Elvis’ favorite singers, at a certain point, were Bing Crosby and Dean Martin. Reminding people about an artist like Lloyd Hamilton or Junior Parker, grounding Elvis in both place and spirit.
The Zak one, in terms of doing these character playlists, some of it is born out of stories to tell from the show. Some of it is extending the musical connections and bringing forward certain artists people don’t know, Jody Huston or Boots Randolph or all the sounds of the characters’ moments in time, from where we’re watching the show and before.
Randall Poster’s curated “Primer to Elvis” playlist can be heard here:
The playlist inspired by what Ray Romano’s character Zak Yankovich would listen to can be heard here: