How 'Master of None' Music Supervisor Zach Cowie Went From DJ & 'Label Dude' to Picking Perfect Tunes for Aziz Ansari Netflix Series

Courtesy of Netflix
Master of None

"When I came up, you had to learn from other people and books ... but the way it's all just available now, it kind of blows my mind how wrong people get it."

Master of None music supervisor Zach Cowie approaches his job much the way his résumé suggests he might: like a studious music fan eager to share his knowledge.

At 36, the Chicago native began working in record stores as a teenager, then spent 12 years in various departments at indie labels Touch and Go Records, Sub Pop and Drag City, before moving to Los Angeles for a stint at Warner Music Group's specialty catalog division Rhino Entertainment. Nowadays, when he's not setting music to TV, film and commercials, or DJing all-vinyl sets with Elijah Wood as Wooden Wisdom, he's producing reissues with Light in the Attic Records. Suffice to say, he knows his stuff.

"I feel really in debt to a lot of the old people who taught me stuff when I was young, and I feel like I need to carry that tradition on," Cowie tells Billboard from his downtown Los Angeles loft listening room lined with vinyl and organized around a seriously impressive hi-fi system. "When I came up, you kind of had to learn from other people and books, and all that is very linear. You learn about something, then you learn about what came after that and what came before it and you start to build this picture. But the way it's all just available now, it kind of blows my mind how wrong people get it."

For example, Cowie notes how press and the Internet alike have managed to wrongly identify songs he's placed in the Aziz Ansari series' second season, which was released last month on Netflix: His use of Larry Heard's "Mystery of Love" was picked out as Kanye West's "Fade," which samples the Chicago house track; Bohannon's "Take the Country to N.Y. City" will actually show up as Digable Planets' "Pacifics (NY Is Red Hot)" on Shazam; and Soft Cell's "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" was mistaken as a new-wave cover of David Grey's version, which just so happened to be released 16 years later.

"I'm probably being pretty extreme with it, but it's almost kind of dangerous. It's misinformation and it will eventually just make everybody go backwards, instead of going forwards," says Cowie, adding, "I don't know. I think about this stuff too much."

But, of course, thinking too much about this stuff is basically the music supervisor's job description. Billboard spoke with Cowie about his work on Master of None, how music informed the show's narrative even before the season was written and why adventurous music fans ought to take notes while watching it -- or even while reading this interview, for that matter. These are edited excerpts from the conversation. 

Since you've had the benefit of people educating you in music, does that feel like part of your job, knowing that Master of None is going to have a wide audience? 

Yeah, that is really important to me. Of course, the number one thing is serving the scene, supporting these stories, and in that everything needs to connect pretty quick. You can't expect people to watch these things two or three times, so there's got to be an instant connection. But whenever I have the opportunity, I try to load that with as much subtext as I can, which will hopefully teach people things if they choose to look. It made me really happy to correct that Kanye thing because if somebody just Googles "Larry Heard 'Mister Fingers,'" they're going to find the history of Chicago house music. It's something that I do try to take advantage of the fact that we do have a big audience for the show, just try to stretch people a little bit. 

Through the season, there are episodes that feel like they almost don't have any music at all, while others are just packed with songs. How is that decided?

Me, Alan [Yang, co-creator] and Aziz collaborate really heavily on this show. A lot of times, even before scripts are written, we'll start exchanging music based on the themes when they identify them. So we have shared folders of music between the three of us and we just start loading them with things that pop into our heads based on the themes. And then we start also riffing off each other and they'll be listening and writing and some stuff just gets baked into the script from there. 

And then the other side of it is when we watch these rough cuts, these assemblies, we all watch together and kind of identify the places that need music, if we haven't thought of anything already. And some things just play better dry. I'm a John Cage freak, so I'm a big appreciator of silence as another way to kind of just break things up a little bit, like if it's 100 songs in a row, you run the risk of people losing track of the story. So it's delicate and we all talk about it like every day, all day.

The music on the first episode "The Thief," like the episode itself, is all a tribute to Italian cinema, right? Is this a genre you were familiar with? How did you select those songs?

Almost every single song in that episode is repurposed Italian film score. And a significant amount is [Ennio] Morricone, like late '60s to the very early '70s, kind of his more psych-beat mod-era versus the spaghetti stuff that Tarantino flips a lot. And then we actually used a big chunk of the Bicycle Thieves score, which is what the whole episode is a play off of. In the very beginning, there's a stack of DVDs by his bed -- that's every film we directly reference in the whole season. It's kind of fun to cite the sources.

Are there more episodes I probably didn't pick up on that are overtly referencing other works like that?

Yeah, there's a bunch. The whole them dancing and then kissing between the glass, I think that's from L'Avventura. It shows up quite a bit. And then the second episode, I think it was Aziz's idea, when we were thinking, "What's the full-color version of our Italian sound?" And I think it was him where he was just like, "Disco, Italo disco, it's perfect, let's go." And I love that stuff, so does he, so that was really fun to mess with. And then we keep peppering in Italian stuff throughout the season to keep the storyline going, and then it gets a lot heavier in episodes 9 and 10.

Using the phrase "nerd" here very liberally, but obviously to do your job you have to be a bit of a music nerd. Do you also have to be a film nerd?

It doesn't hurt. I'm a huge film nerd. This all goes back to history -- many of the greatest things we'll ever see or hear have already happened and it's a tool that will help you if you know that stuff. It also keeps you from possibly being redundant too. I'm a big believer that to achieve new now is just to combine two things that haven't been combined before, and the more things you can reference, the quicker you can get to those places. So I have my own little bible of just some of my favorite music in movie things and I reference it a lot, just to make sure I'm honoring that stuff but also doing something different. 

I also do the job differently from most people. So I don't know... Sometimes not knowing anything gets you to really cool places too.

You mentioned how the music is baked into the show. Are episodes written around the music then?

Yeah, a big thing in that regard is the ninth episode, which is named after a Lucio Battisti song ["Amarsi Un Po"], which is one of the first pieces of Italian music that I sent Aziz when he said, "I think we're gonna do some stuff in Italy." It's just a song I've always liked. It's cool. We got really lucky with this. I sort of feel like it's my guiding light in the whole season because even before he had the Francesca storyline, he was listening to this song a lot, and when he learned to speak good enough Italian he knew what the song meant, which is "to love a bit." And it's totally the story of the two of them. So just one day this script that was untitled for a while showed up with the title of "Amarsi Un Po" and he wrote the song in as the closer. And Aziz is crazy about music, so it's just what goes off in his head when he's thinking how something looks.

But this is a big deal for me too because his music has never been licensed outside of Italy. And he was huge there, he was one of the biggest stars in the '60s, '70s and '80s while he was alive, and then his estate blocked everything. So my co-supervisor on the show, whose name is Kerri Drootin, she pursued this for months and we got the first license ever of his music. 

So I was going to ask whether securing rights to some of the more obscure music has been difficult... 

It's way harder than getting big songs. I'm not even joking, there's a lot of cases where we have to convince people that they own something, like, "No, this catalog was sold in '80, you guys own it..." Make them pull all these contracts, be like, "Oh right, we do own this." But Kerri's the best, she's like our detective, and I wouldn't be able to do this without her, because the amount of work that it takes to get this stuff that nobody's heard of is significant.

So what made licensing the Battisti song so difficult? 

It was really hard for us to get a direct contact to his widow. That's what took so long. And weirdly enough, some of the people who helped us the most were from other record labels in Italy, who had no stake in this, they just knew how important it was for us to get his music in this thing. So we had all sorts of people helping us, it was kind of amazing. And we got the call that it cleared like three days before we had to mix the episode. So we had an alternate ready to go but none of us loved it. That was my happiest moment of the whole season was getting that call because I was training myself to get over it. 

Have any of the artists that you've put into the show reached out to you?

Yeah, one of my favorites was Lynn Goldsmith. Do you know the Will Powers record? That record is sort of a weird project by a very, very famous photographer named Lynn Goldsmith, who took like tons of Springsteen covers, Police covers, so this is just like a one-off thing she did with the Compass Point rhythm section, like Wally Badarou, Sly & Robbie... And this got called out specifically in Rolling Stone, and she saw it and wrote us a little thank you and I thought that was so rad. That's the other thing I love with this job, is in many cases: She owns this music, so we just like, boom, pay her. I'm from Chicago, so Chicago house is a big deal to me, so to give money directly to Larry Heard or Frankie Knuckles' estate, that's a big deal to me. Again, it's not the number one thing in the decision because it has to be the right song, but it makes me so happy when I can lace people out.

How much do you pull from personal experience when you're placing music to a scene? 

I think a lot of music people deal with their own emotions through the music that they listen to. I've been doing that forever. And really when I start to see the stuff onscreen, I do jog my memory for similar situations that I've been in and what did I play then? And it's cool to work that way because sometimes the ideas don't make a ton of sense, like lyrically they don't line up, but they end up just working. And I rarely work on stuff based on looking up lyrics. I'm always kind of searching for what would I play if I felt like this? And that's kind of where I start getting the ideas from, and then I have to go through it all to make sure the lyrics aren't contradicting what we're trying to do. But, yeah, there's some stuff, especially on season 1, that I just took directly from my life. And Aziz too. Almost everything that's on the show happened to him or happened to somebody who wrote on there.

It feels like a lot of music supervisors' jobs is in research, like if there's a theme or style they need to dive into that and it directs their work, but you seem to be kind of an encyclopedia of music... 

That's kind of the fun thing about it, is because I had such a different life before this as a DJ, as a record collector, as a record label dude, that without ever knowing how useful it would be, I built up this crazy library. And I also have the community I come from of DJs. I'm so lucky that whenever somebody finds something that they think is great, they'll tell me about it. So a lot of the research stuff isn't as intense for me anymore, and when it has to be, I can go straight to a collector that specializes in it, which I do all the time. ... I feel so lucky about that because I think a lot of supervisors are looking for the gems all day. I'm like, "Dude, I've got gems forever. I've got more gems than jobs, dude."