“Six Feet Under” Music Supervisors Thomas Golubić and Gary Calamar on the Show’s 20th Anniversary | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Friday, January 21st, 2022  

“Six Feet Under” Music Supervisors Thomas Golubić and Gary Calamar on the Show’s 20th Anniversary

A Classic Series That Needs Resurrection

Dec 24, 2021 Photography by Cheryl Himmelstein Web Exclusive
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There is such a wealth of content on television, both landed and streaming, that it’s unlikely viewers would take a deep dive into the annals of HBO to find the network’s early series. Sex in the City is getting some shine with its shaky reboot, And Just Like That… and The Sopranos is getting another look with the prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark. An HBO series that is almost never talked about, which is truly a shame, is the evergreen Six Feet Under.

The five-season, 63-episode series marked its 20th anniversary this past June. The ensemble show revolves around a family-run funeral home and a complex collection of characters who are perfectly cast. An unusual premise at the time, or any time, if it had smartphones and dating apps, Six Feet Under would be as current today as it was in the first few years of the millennium.

Like all the other elements of the series, the music choices retain their freshness and set standards that are still in place in music supervision today. Six Feet Under’s music supervisors, Thomas Golubić and Gary Calamar are two of the most respected and accomplished members of the profession. The Emmy and Grammy-nominated Golubić has Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and The Walking Dead among many other credits to his name. Also Grammy-nominated, Calamar has True Blood, Weeds, Dexter, and Entourage on his resumé.

The sometimes KCRW DJs were keen to take a long walk down memory lane to revisit Six Feet Under, one of their earliest projects, their first as co-music supervisors, and also the first television series for either of them.

Lily Moayeri (Under the Radar): How did you get involved with Six Feet Under?

Thomas Golubić: I worked on a feature film called Shadow Hours where two Israeli guys, one was the director and one was the producer, were fighting each other throughout the entire movie, one firing the other half the time. The clearances were a nightmare. We had to redo everything. I had the most horrible experience. The assistant editor who was working on Shadow Hours watched me keep my cool when they fired the director and were bringing new editors in and redoing the whole movie. She found out about this pilot at HBO, and asked if I wanted to try to meet on it. I reached out to Lori Jo Nemhauser, who was the producer. They opened up a meeting and it made more sense for Gary and I to do it together. I’m really glad that we did it that way because it took advantage of each of our individual skills in a key way. And because it was really fresh for both of us, we had each other to go through it.

What put you over the competition?

Golubić: The pilot was so well-written and so strong, but they couldn’t afford a lot of the music they had put in there. One of the key things was reaching out to an attorney who had been representing Peggy Lee and making her music available as a replacement to Ella Fitzgerald, which they couldn’t afford. Having that and some other interesting music on an early mixtape was enough for them to say, “Let’s give these guys a shot.”

What was the story with the mixtape?

Golubić: It was a bit of an audition. The fact that we were able to get Peggy Lee as an iconic jazz vocalist to replace Ella affordably; also the aesthetic values of the show tied in with what Gary and I were both listening to. Being at KCRW, and spending several years diving into those stacks, we listened to a ton of music. It’s fair to say we probably knew a broader collection of music than most of the supervisors out there, just because we had so much access and because we spent so much time prepping for shows. Some of the choices we made had a certain level of seeing ahead and hearing things that were early and being able to be a little bit ahead of the curve, which made the show feel much more contemporary. We’re also really into character and what speaks to somebody’s soul. That’s a key part of storytelling and music supervision that maybe some of our colleagues at the time were a little bit less into, and a little bit more about what’s popular.

Had you seen the pilot or read the script at the time of meeting with the producers?

Gary Calamar: We got hired prior to seeing the show. They liked the fact that we weren’t all that experienced and didn’t come in with a lot of preconceived ideas. They liked the fact that we were both working on KCRW and had that sensibility. We leaned towards the different parameters of KCRW’s eclectic sound for the different characters. It was great that they were an L.A.-based contemporary family and it was really fun for us to try and figure out how we could paint each of them with an individual personality.

Golubić: Over the years, the best professional experiences I’ve had have frequently been on projects where everybody was a little green, and nobody had a preconceived notion of the right way of doing it. You just work with what you have and make sure that the engagement of the creative conversation is really clear.

What did you learn about the musical tone of the show from reading the pilot’s script?

Golubić: I don’t know if there was anything in the script, but there were a series of different clues that made us realize there was going to be a lot of music in this show. We were just getting out of The Sopranos time period. The Sopranos was still on the air and Six Feet Under was almost the first show that benefited from that as a show that used source music as a storytelling device and moved away from the crutch of score telling the audience how to feel all the time. We had a very inspired moment to be able to contribute to it with an aesthetic that was not about New York mobsters but was about a family in Los Angeles that had different age groups and different personalities. That was a real gift for us.

Did the series producers [who were also the writers, directors, and creators], Alan Ball and Alan Poul give you direction as to the musical tone they were going for?

Calamar: They got a sense of our sensibility from the initial meetings, and we all learned as we went along. It was kind of new. Alan Poul was pretty experienced, but Alan Ball was new to TV. We were certainly brand new. It’s not that unusual for the first season of any show to take a little time to find your footing and the tone. We started pitching music for different themes and different characters and they would say yea or nay, and we would just learn. By the third or fourth episode we had a good idea of what we were doing.

Golubić: One thing that you don’t see happen too often now is we would do both music spotting of episodes, and music preview of episodes. That was really helpful because it meant that when we were presenting options to the Alans, Lori Jo was also in the room and a few other folks, usually an editor as well, we would get feedback in those sessions, which was really helpful. It gives you a sense of what people are responding to, and why they’re responding that way. Both of the Alans are excellent filmmakers, so they’re very good in articulating why something works. They’re also both directors and in many ways, music supervisors are not dissimilar to actors. We are interpreting a script and trying to find five approaches that are valid to that particular scene. As an actor, when you get feedback from a director, it really helps you hone in on who that character is and where they want to lean on that character. For us, we got a lot of great feedback on those sessions. It was an enjoyable social experience and we were learning together which I think is a really special thing.

Calamar: We were incredibly hands-on, not only with the Alans in the playback, but we would sit with the music editor, Bruno Roussel, and make cuts and say, “Let’s put the verse after the chorus,” and, “Let’s call that one line.” That doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t think the music editors would put up with it. We were young and eager and wanted to do everything.

Considering it was somewhat unchartered territory, did it help that there were two of you?

Golubić: The fact that Gary and I did it together and we were friends, having this shared experience, was a huge part of the joy of it. I can’t speak for how well Gary would have done solo on the project, but I don’t think I would have done nearly as well if I had done it myself. I’m really thankful that we did it together. We learned a lot together and we really leaned on each other’s strengths, which was a great part of it.

Calamar: Absolutely. Our musical tastes, Thomas leaned a little bit more towards the electronic and I might have been more into the rock or pop, but they overlapped. I just looked over the list of some of the songs we used, and there were definitely some from Thomas’ playlist that I would have never picked on my own and I’m sure vice versa.

Golubić: Definitely. There are so many ideas in there I would have never thought of and they’re divine. I would be excited for a crazy idea Gary has where he almost apologized to me for and it turned out to be the one that made sense. Or I might be the one saying, “Dude that’s a terrible idea, let’s not present it, we’re going to look like complete amateurs,” and that’s the one that gets selected.

Where were some of the places you were looking for music?

Golubić: Music was coming from everywhere. The discipline of listening to everything, and getting a sense of the qualities it has came from KCRW. It’s not easy to listen to an enormous amount of music and create a judgment about what power it potentially has. For us, because we’re vessels of character and story, it’s important to be able to get a sense of who that character is. When something sounds right, we think, “Oh my God, that’s Claire right now, or, that might be Claire in a little while. She’s not here yet, but I have a sense that she may land here.” That’s partly because we fall in love with those characters and we fall in love with the actors’ interpretation of those characters. That ability to throw the dart ahead of time and know where it’s going to land is really helpful. We landed on that often enough that the show had a lot of resonance.

There was a big cross-section of music from a variety of eras.

Calamar: A lot of the electronic/art gallery music that Thomas brought in was a KCRW thing. But we played a lot of rock: Dandy Warhols, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Then we had Joni Mitchell, Caruso. We had artists like Cher and seemingly funny things like “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy.” It was just all over the place.

Golubić: We had funerals, so we would do a lot of classical music. We had Latin music. We had lots of opportunities. We had a biker episode where we had classic rock. It was such a vehicle for variety.

What were some standouts for you?

Calamar: There were so many highlights. Death Cab for Cutie’s “Transatlanticism” when the kids are high and they’re singing along to the song was one of my favorite scenes.

Golubić: Claire and her friend getting high to Air. We ended up getting an Arcade Fire song in the final season, “Neighborhoods” from their debut, which was a really exciting thing to have. We put “Neighborhoods” in a fight scene between Nate and Brenda, and then we reached out to them and they actually wrote a song for us, which we placed in a short sequence where Claire was on the bus, as part of the soundtrack album build.

Calamar: There was a great scene with Nathaniel and Nate. They were in some alternate universe with clocks and we had Irma Thomas’ “Time is on My Side.”

Golubić: The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter” and Nate diving into the ocean. That was another beautiful one.

Calamar: “I Just Want to Celebrate Another Day of Life” when Claire was dreaming about Nate after he had passed away. It was a beautiful show to work on. We had all these great scenes, which doesn’t always happen with every show. You don’t always have the opportunity to paint a picture with music on scenes. We each brought our strengths to it and working with the Alans and everybody, it was a magical experience.

There are quite a few scenes where the song choice is right on the nose with the narrative.

Golubić: We had fun with some of those death scenes where we were able to put in some humorous, witty choices. “Kick in the Head” when the guy jumps in the swimming pool. Gloria Gaynor when the woman was having a divorce party and then conk. There was Sixpence None the Richer, “There She Goes,” when a woman was committing suicide. Sometimes the producers or showrunner will want to go with something like that, a little twisted humor, on the nose, or on the side of the nose. Then sometimes they just want a song that’s in the background, that is a feeling or a texture.

The iconic final scene of the series finale, with Sia’s “Breathe Me” had everyone in tears and talking about it the next day. How did you come to that choice?

Calamar: That’s a tip of the hat to the amazing writing and scene. A lot of people don’t remember, but we used Sia’s “Breathe Me” as a promo for Season Five. We brought it back. We didn’t intend it that way, but it was a nice little bookend to the fifth season. The editor, Michael Ruscio, did an amazing job of cutting to that great picture.

Golubić: Our music editor Bruno was working with an unmastered instrumental and a mastered vocal and found a way to extend over two minutes in the song to make that work in a sequence that was far longer than the original song was. We were doing a lot of stuff that we’re not great at: futuristic art design and prosthetics and making the characters look really old. A lot of that in the early drafts did not look great. It wasn’t what the show does well. Everybody involved was a really good craftsperson and there was a ton of work that went into that. The emotion carries it through. There aren’t many people that have seen that sequence, and have the emotional experience of five seasons of that family that are not emotionally moved by it. That song was a magic part of that.

Were there songs you felt were perfect for a cue that didn’t end up panning out?

Calamar: In the “Driving Mr. Moss Back” episode where they were driving a corpse back to Seattle, I had two songs that I fell in love with and I thought worked 1,000%. One was The Shins’ “New Slang” when they drove up to the house. The Shins are from that part of the country and it just seemed to fit perfectly lyrically as well. That was a year before Zach Braff had [Garden State] and got a lot of credit for discovering them. Also, for the end credit we had Son Volt’s “Windfall.” I remember we had a little friction with the producers because we loved it and they ended up putting in the song by another fine band, Joe 90. I remember we had a discussion with the Alans and of course, you can’t win a discussion like that. That’s two in one episode that I thought were perfect and got dismissed.

What were some of the challenges?

Golubić: We had a proper budget for the show, but it didn’t feel that way when we were doing it. I always felt like we were just barely able to get everything in. That’s part of the difficulty of the job is you have to be very cognizant of the business side of it. Also, there’s a lot of really obscure music which we loved, but it would be frequently almost impossible to find the rights holders, let alone be able to get the clearances done. We had to deliver stuff that was absolutely 100% clearable, and all the paperwork had to be buttoned up. There couldn’t be a weed dealer who owned 5% of the song that they couldn’t track down. You literally had to have everything figured out, signed off for and covered. A lot of ideas died on the vine simply because people didn’t have their business together or they were not willing to negotiate, or they were leaving us in situations where we just had to move on because the budget wasn’t there, or they wouldn’t respond fast enough. That still applies now. It’s still a business where efficiency and clarity and professionalism is really important because we can’t take risks of songs going into mixes that are not cleared.

What were some positives to music supervision at that time?

Calamar: These days, because we believe we have so many options, it’s harder to navigate time management. Back then, it was a little bit clearer what your options were. Also, all the shows have music supervisors now and they use a lot of music, so it’s a little harder to find that one track that nobody’s heard, especially something new, because everybody’s on top of everything and you may have seen it in some cable show. Back then there were music-heavy TV shows, but we were able to find some songs that weren’t overexploited yet. Now, it’s a little more difficult to do that.

The series is genuinely evergreen, which is a testament to the everyone involved, but thinking back to when it was being pitched, a show about a family-run funeral home, it’s surprising it was greenlighted.

Calamar: One of the things that was really brilliant about the concept is death is something we all avoid and family is something we are all part of. In a sense, having that structure of something that everybody has an abstract fear of, that there’s an entire industry that exists with the sheer purpose of financially exploiting people who are in the midst of grief, is a really interesting premise. It builds tension right into the story. Then you add the beauty of all the individual characters, which I think is one of the best things about Alan Ball’s writing. He’s so good at drawing very clear characters that have internal conflicts, and how they operate with each other, that, to me…it’s one of those great ideas that isn’t just the concept, it’s the combination of the concept and the characters.

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