Industry Profile: Gary Calamar
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Gary Calamar
With Los Angeles being the epicenter of the international film industry, the influence of Gary Calamar, the host of KCRW's popular Sunday night 9pm – midnight staple “The Open Road,” extends far beyond the station’s basement home at Santa Monica College.
Like many of his station colleagues at KCRW, the 52-year-old music expert regularly fields calls from film and TV producers and directors seeking music for their projects.
He was named Outstanding Music Supervisor at the Hollywood Music Awards in 2008.
As head of Go Music, Calamar is the music supervisor for HBO’s steamy new redneck vampire drama "True Blood” as well as for HBO’s “Dexter,” and Fox’s “House.”
"True Blood,” based on Charlaine Harris’ "Southern Vampire" book series, and set around a Louisiana roadhouse, follows the adventures of vampires who, with advances in the manufacture of synthetic blood, no longer have to bite necks to survive.
The series’ soundtrack is swampy, bluesy and downright spooky—like listening to the jukebox at Mulate’s Cajun restaurant in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana at midnight.
The series producer Alan Ball is a music fan who made music a powerful part of the mix in his former HBO series, "Six Feet Under." He certainly has done the same with "True Blood.” In fact, each episode is named after a song featured in that episode.
The 14-track "True Blood” soundtrack, released May 19th by Elektra/Atlantic, features tracks by Jace Everett, C.C. Adcock, Lucinda Williams, Lee Dorsey, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, the Watson Twins, Slim Harpo and John Doe with Kathleen Edwards.
Calamar's past credits include HBO's “Six Feet Under” and “Entourage;” NBC's “Las Vegas” and “Boomtown;” Showtime’s “Weeds;” and CBS’ summer series “Swingtown.”
He has also provided music supervision for the films “Slums of Beverly Hills” (1998), “Varsity Blues” (1999), “Panic” (2000) “The Last Word” (2008)
It was Calamar who picked Sia's "Breathe Me" to close the final show of “Six Feet Under" in 2005. The soundtrack, which was in album-only form on iTunes, posted an 860% sales boost the week after airing, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Calamar grew up in Yonkers, New York. As a teenager, he kept a transistor radio tucked under his pillow. He was a fan of WNEW-FM with its powerhouse lineup of DJ's that included Scott Muni, Alison “The Nightbird” Steele, Dave Herman, Vin Scelsa, and Pete Fornatale. He was listening the night John Lennon stopped by to guest-DJ along with Dennis Elsas
Calamar came to Los Angeles in 1978. At different times, he managed several Licorice Pizza Record outlets as well as working as a manager at Moby Disc and Rhino Records. Additionally, he also managed the Balancing Act that recorded for IRS Records.
In 1994, Calamar started at KCRW as a volunteer in the music library, three hours a week, opening mail and filing CDs. He had been advised he shouldn't take the volunteer job with any hopes of getting on the air. At the same time, however, he also began taking broadcasting classes at Santa Monica College
He soon was given the opportunity to host “The Red Eye” on Saturday nights/Sunday mornings from 1-5 AM. Eventually, he moved to a time slot where he could get more sleep on weekends. “The Open Road” currently airs Sunday nights from 9-Midnight.
In 1998, Calamar met veteran music supervisor G. Marq Roswell and the two supervised the music for two films, “Varsity Blues” and “Slums Of Beverly Hills.” Calamar then went on to supervise the music for the critically acclaimed film “Panic” in 1999.
In 2001 Calamar and fellow KCRW DJ Thomas Golubic formed SuperMusicVision that supplied the music for the HBO original series “Six Feet Under” as well the music for the 2004 heist film “After The Sunset.”
In addition to having Hollywood's ear, Calamar has gained a worldwide listenership through KCRW.com which offers a live stream, all-music and all-news channels and a customizable player. Through the years on his show, Calamar has hosted live performances and interviews with a wide range of creative figures, from Brian Wilson and Elmer Bernstein to Wilco and the Flaming Lips.
With former Variety associate editor Phil Gallo, Calamar is currently working on a book about American record stores to be published in April, 2010.
Calamar’s hilltop home has a garage with sliding shelves three- deep to handle the music in his library.
How big is your music collection?
I couldn’t give you a number. I’ve got shelves that roll behind shelves. I work out of my house. I converted the garage into an office.
Can you find everything you need quickly?
Pretty much. Some times when I can’t find something I will end up buying it on iTunes when I know it is in the room somewhere. For the most part, we keep (the library) pretty organized. Today, I was listening to something and I found something else I had been looking for weeks. It all comes out eventually. I have a colleague (Alyson Vidoli) who works with me on all of my projects (as music coordinator).
How much music gets sent to you?
A lot. It’s like Christmas every day. The mail man brings music every day. It is good but, unfortunately, I can’t listen to everything that comes in. It is virtually impossible. But I do get a lot of great music coming in. When I was a kid shopping (for records) in Yonkers, one of my big goals was to find a gig where I got free records.
How do you separate music for your show against music for films? Do you look at things on a project by project basis? Or does music float around in your head and you find a home for it at some point?
I would say that mostly (music) floats around in my head. Sometimes I will say this will work for “True Blood” or for “House” or whatever it happens to be. At the same time, if I like the track personally it will also work on my radio show. “Dexter” leans more on Latin sounds and there are things that I would probably put aside for it. Not to say that I don’t play Latin music on my show. Everything is kind of multi-purposed in my collection.
Do you brainstorm music for TV or films or do you watch clips?
All of those ways. Sometimes certain things will just jump out at me while I’m watching (the footage) or reading the script. Then sometimes I will be having trouble and I’ll walk to the collection—I still have a ton of CDs—and I’ll go through it.
How many TV shows are you providing music for?
We are doing music for “True Blood,” “House” and “Dexter.” They are all running right now. Two shows coming later this year are (the ensemble series) “The Beautiful Life,” a new show (for CW Television Network) produced by Ashton Kutcher (based on the script by former model Adam Giaudrone). It’s about a middle American guy who comes to the big city, and becomes a model. Then we have a new Ray Romano show called “Men of a Certain Age” (set to premiere on TNT channel in January, 2010). It deals with (three) slightly older guys who went to high school together and are now dealing with life.
Its great having (the late Louisiana bluesman) Slim Harpo on the “True Blood” soundtrack album.
(Sings) “Stra-n-ge Lov-e.” And that Lee Dorsey track (“Give It Up”) is amazing. I love the John Doe song (“The Golden State” with Kathleen Edwards). The Dr. John track is so great. John Martyn wrote that song, “I Don’t Wanna Know About Evil.” We also have that great CC Adock song (“Bleed 2 Feed”). I love that song. He wrote it for the show.
I am so happy with that soundtrack. I love all of the songs on there, and they work so well on the show. I think we kept the true red blood flowing through it, but it does mix it up.
There’s a mix of newer and older music. And some familiar songs like Lucinda Williams’ haunting “Lake Charles.”
Exactly. The Lucinda song is about Louisiana. So it works. I played with all kinds of different possibilities (for the series). To be honest, that is one thing good about not having a partner. I can kind of make the final call. It is nice when you are working on your own not to compromise (your choices) for your partner. Of course, (the series’ producer) Alan Ball is always a partner in the end.
What elements came into play in selecting tracks for the CD of “True Blood?”
There are certain songs that we used that might have been on other albums. But we tried to make this as special as possible and to reflect the vibe of the show as much as possible. There are certain big scenes that we wanted to have on the soundtrack and some big end title songs. I was really trying to create the same atmosphere that you get when you are watching the show. A Louisiana atmosphere, a little spooky, a little sexy.
Your music supervision career began in 1998 with the crime series “Three” on The WB Television Network?
Yeah, “Three” was the first project that I worked on. It is a show that most people never heard of. It didn’t run that long. It was like a “Mod Squad” and “Mission Impossible” type of thing. I just put the word out that I was looking for work and the show came up. That was my first. I was learning as I was going along. I had a lot to learn. I was also starting to work with G. Marq Roswell at that point with “Slums of Beverley Hills” and “Varsity Blues.”
On your own, you did music supervision for “Panic” that starred William Macy. It was about a hit man that goes into psychotherapy.
Exactly. “Panic” came up (in 2000) and I decided to do that one on my own. Partnerships are good but some times they wear out their welcome. “Panic” is a great movie. It didn’t get out there very far. But (Chicago Sun-Times critic) Roger Ebert loved it and it got some great reviews. It came out around the same time as “The Sopranos” and it had a similar premise with the hit man and therapist so the film got overlooked.
Then “Six Feet Under” came up and you worked on it with fellow KCRW DJ Thomas Golubic. How did that happen?
Thomas had known an assistant editor working on the show. Thomas and I had met at KCRW. He was volunteering there. By that time I had a full time job in the library in addition to being on their air. Thomas and I just hit it off, both musically and creatively. He was trying to get into (the music supervision) business as well. He had heard about “Six Feet Under.” We got a meeting and we got lucky. They picked us. We did it for five years. The whole run of the show.
Was “Six Feet Under” your “university education” in music supervision? The fact that you oversaw a series for so long and, having two soundtrack albums, gave you a lot of opportunities. You were able to place music by Pell Mell, Lamb, Coldplay, Nina Simone, and Sia.
It was a great learning experience to be working with (series’ producers) Alan Ball and Alan Poul. Very talented people. Thomas and I grew immensely during the five years that we worked on that show. We came out of it knowing what we were doing.
Alan Ball and Alan Poul are very big on using music in their shows.
Exactly. All music supervision is a big collaboration. Everybody knows music to some degree--especially Alan Ball and Alan Poole. They know what they like and they have a certain style that they are going for. We took their vision which, thankfully, coincided with our vision. We just ran with it.
Often on a TV show, music is little more than Muzak used at a party or is thrown into the mix or over the end credit. HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” all heavily utilized music.
It was kind of like the Golden Age of HBO. They also had “Entourage” and a lot of other great shows. I think “True Blood” is in that tradition of the great HBO shows.
You grew up in Yonkers listening to DJs Scott Muni, Alison “The Nightbird” Steele, Dave Herman, Vin Scelsa, and Pete Fornatale on WNEW-FM?
Absolutely. I listened to WNEW all of the time. I was listening to WABC when I was a younger kid when it was (centered around the theme) WA Beatle C. I still hear Cousin Brucie (Morrow) on (Sirius) XM. He still sounds the same. Pete Fornatale I also hear on XM. I haven’t heard Dave Herman for awhile. Those were great days of radio and great days of music. Steven Tyler is from Yonkers too. Steve Tallarico. The Chain Reaction was his band when I was growing up. He was big down at the Yonkers Bowl.
Luckily, I had an older brother who turned me onto a lot of great stuff including WNEW and things like that. I had a nice tour guide taking me through
Did you collect records?
Yep. Absolutely. My brother was a record collector as well. So he brought me into the fold. He took me down to the Bronx to this store. We went on the subway which was quite a thrill for me at the time. I bought my first single. It was the Kink’s “All The Day, All of The Night.” I just went mad for that song. I was definitely buying records and singles back then. Everything from the Beatles, the Monkees, Herman’s Hermits. I gradually got into the harder stuff, the Who and Cream when they came along.
What acts were you mostly attracted to?
All of that British Invasion stuff. The Beatles, the Who, and the Kinks. I was a huge Monkees’ fan when the TV show was on. I was a fan of everything that was getting played on the radio in those days. Mostly, the British Invasion bands were my favorite. I felt that I was I one of the leaders of my little group of friends. I was just a little bit more into the music than they were. I would always try to turn them onto things.
The first concert I was at was the Who at the White Plains County Centre doing “Tommy.” Then in 1973, I saw the show in Boston the day after they got busted in Montreal. They had spent the night in jail and were not happy. The Who have always been my favorite band. I have been into them throughout their career.
[After a Dec. 2, 1973 show at the Montreal Forum, the Who were jailed for causing damages to a hotel suite. The band was bailed out early the following morning by local promoter Donald Tarlton who borrowed $6,000 cash. He lined limos up outside of Station 10, and the band headed to Boston. They paid him back the next day.]
You moved to Los Angeles in 1978?
Yes. Some friends were moving to Los Angeles and I figured I’d go and check it out. I didn’t plan on staying. But I was the one that stayed. They all moved back. I had worked in the record department of Gimbels department store and ran a record department at Korvette in New York. In Los Angeles, I started working at Licorice Pizza. I worked for Licorice Pizza for six years. I worked at three different stores. I ended up in the Wilshire store in West L.A.
Licorice Pizza was a great store. It was a very laid-back store. They gave out free licorice. (Working there) was about turning people on to great music. It was great getting to know Los Angeles and getting to know the music business a bit better and meeting people. It was a nice introduction to Los Angeles.
Also a great place to build a record collection and see a lot of shows?
Yeah. Absolutely. I got promos and employee discounts and I started going to a lot of shows because I got free tickets. I saw a lot of great shows at The Roxy. The first show that I saw when I first got to Los Angeles was Nick Lowe who was very hot when he was putting out his first few (solo) albums. I remember seeing a great Rickie Lee Jones’ show at The Roxy. Graham Parker. Just a ton of great stuff I saw there. A couple weeks ago, I saw the Dead Weather, Jack White’s new band there. Jimmy Page was in the audience.
With its booth seating, there’s an intimacy at The Roxy that is great for seeing acts that may go on to become arena and stadium headliners.
If I can pick between The Roxy and Dodger Stadium (for a show), I will take The Roxy every time. I think you just have to catch some of these artists on their way up. A lot of artists playing at The Roxy today will be play bigger venues in a year or two now.
In collecting records, were you a generalist or did you explore different genres of music?
I liked everything but I certainly had my favorites. I was still a big fan of the Who. I was buying up a lot of Who import singles back then. Even the Police coming over and things like that in the ‘80s I’d pick up. I was a big Warren Zevon fan. (My taste) was pretty general but mostly slightly left of center rock type of stuff.
Some record collectors become quite anal. They seek out obscure import singles and bootlegs.
I wouldn’t say that I was anal. I was pretty knowledgeable. I did love it all. I didn’t completely go anal. But I was pretty close.
Were you able to make many music industry contacts working at Licorice Pizza?
Yes. Label reps would come in and put up displays. I’d meet them as well as different managers of indie artists. I didn’t have any calculated plan to build up my black book or anything but I met a lot of people there that I still deal with today. Randy Gerston was a colleague at Licorice Pizza. He worked in the front office in the marketing department. He is now my agent for my music supervision work. There are others that I met back in those days who I deal with today.
You also managed the Los Angles band, the Balancing Act that recorded for IRS Records.
They were friends of mine. It was a lot of work but I learned things and met people and I got to travel around the country, albeit in the back of a van. It was a fun experience that I am happy I did. They had an EP (“New Campfire Songs” in 1986) and two full albums (“Three Squares and A Roof” (1987) and “Curtains” in 1988.)
What lesson did you pick up from management? That you never wanted to do it again.
Not really. I used to joke that I love the music business so much that I wanted to work my way up to the top and then work my way back down to the bottom. Because I loved working in record stories. I liked managing bands. It was a good experience working with a record label (as a manager). The Balancing Act didn’t have great success but they did okay. It was my first (music industry) experience. It was all fun. Dealing with the publicity and promotion departments and seeing how things worked from a slightly different perspective. Some of those people, like (former IRS publicist) Cary Baker, I still deal with. (Baker now operates the music PR firm conqueroo). I’m working on this book about American record stores and we’re in touch with R.E.M. That goes back to my IRS connection.
You were manager of a few more records stores?
I managed Moby Disc (in Santa Monica). I later managed the Rhino Records store for a year in the ‘90s. They were opening a second store in Santa Monica. I ended up getting laid off which led me to volunteer at KCRW which turned out to be a very good move.
When you started at KCRW, you were an assistant in the library?
Yes, I was the assistant. I was the volunteer. I would come in for a few hours a week. I wanted to get on the air.
But you were told that the library job wasn’t a stepping stone to being on the air.
I didn’t have anything to lose. I felt pretty confident that I knew music pretty well. People said that I had a good voice. So I figured, “What the hell?” And I had taken some radio in college and I took a refresher course. One thing led to another and I got on the air as a board operator between the NPR shows on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I got to know (the station’s music director) Chris Douridas a little bit. At one point, he mentioned that they were looking for someone for over nights. So I got on my knees and I begged him to give me a shot. And he did.
What attracted you to KCRW?
They had sort of a quality about them that spoke to me. They were playing a lot of great new innovative music. (Announcers) didn’t have to go on and do silly morning zoo jokes and stuff like that. It was stylish in a sophisticated way.
There’s very little true free form radio around today.
That’s what so special about KCRW. I think we are all aware of our audience. But we have no play list. We have no corporate ownership. Any DJ can play what they want to play.
Did you have an idea of what kind of music show you wanted to do?
I had an idea that I wanted to play things that were brand new and fresh and that I wanted to draw a line from the classic rock and blues from the ‘50s and ‘60s rock and tie a thread between the two in some form. I still try to mix it up between old and new music. Mostly new. But I certainly like to throw in that odd Yardbirds’ track or whatever it happens to be.
I would imagine that the show has evolved.
Yeah, but I can’t think really how. I have a basic description of the show that I use which is “Adventurous pop music, both timely and timeless.” That is sort of my mission and I don’t think it really has changed. I like pop music. I like listenable music but I do like (music) to be adventurous. A little bit left of center. Not just your basic stuff. As far as timely and timeless, I love the new stuff but I love the old stuff as well. I don’t want to forget where (today’s music) came from.
What is the demographic for your show?
I don’t really know. I don’t have that kind of info. I guess it is the basic KCRW demographic but I couldn’t really tell you. I know the management gets Arbitron (ratings) and things like that but I don’t really think about (ratings) too much.
How do you gauge popularity?
We have a subscription drive twice a year and that is one way that we gauge (popularity). If, all of a sudden, people stop calling in during my show, I’d know that I was losing some listeners. That is one gauge. I always try to do a show that people are going to like.
You are doing what you were doing in high school, turning people onto music. Yet, at 52, you are playing rock music that was once defined by its appeal to youth.
Yep. There is some truth to that. The main thing is to be aware that it is a young person’s game to some degree and not to close your mind off and say that the best music was in the ‘60s or ‘80s. You have to keep an open mind. There’s great stuff coming out today that is as good as anything that came out before. Many people think that there’s no good music coming out these days and that is just false.
How can people submit music to you?
My website (garycalamar.com) has the KCRW address. They are welcome to send music there. I am at the station every week. I get music there all of the time.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.