Vinyl music supervisor Randall Poster talks show's wildest music moments
Learn how the HBO series shapes the show's soundtrack, from Bowie to Buddy Holly
There are many contenders for the title of Busiest Man in Show Business — or at least lengthiest IMDB page — but Randall Poster ranks pretty high up there: After making his official bow as a music supervisor with Larry Clark’s seminal Kids in 1995, he’s gone on to apply his distinctive style to the soundtracks for both iconic indies (Carol, Boyhood, Boys Don’t Cry, Velvet Goldmine, nearly every Wes Anderson film) and mainstream hits (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Hangover films, Zoolander, School of Rock) as well as numerous TV shows (Lost, Boardwalk Empire, Mozart in the Jungle).
So it’s not surprising that the creative team of Terence Winter, Martin Scorsese, and Mick Jagger would tap him to oversee their ’70s-set music-industry bonanza Vinyl, which concluded its first-season run on Sunday.
Following the finale and the the release of the official soundtrack, Poster spoke to EW about the wild and often convoluted origins of many of the show’s most memorable moments.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I have to be honest, it’s hard not to wonder how the show can consistently afford to use tracks by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin… Those songs’ rights are not cheap. Do you even have a budget?
Well, yeah, we have a budget. [Laughs] And look, it’s a couple things. I think that we obviously are spending a solid amount of money, and you have to, given where this story lives. And I also think that we’ve been really met with a lot of enthusiasm. Bands and writers want to be part of it — so that’s something to help maintain a certain economy.
So it’s not like, Mick Jagger just calling up his friends and asking for a favor?
No, no. It’s more deliberate and a team [effort] than that. But look, I think people see this show as being a way to reach a new audience. So it’s been good.
Certain things, like the building collapse at the New York Dolls concert in the opening episode, actually happened in real life. But did the show’s creators ask you for specific input when it came to putting particular bands in club scenes, or just making the mix right and true to that time period?
I think so. We’ve been in dialogue, you know — I’ve worked with Terry Winter on Boardwalk Empire, I mean there’s a lot of conversation that goes on between us and the writers and, you know, I think that some of these elements are dictated clearly by the architecture of the story overall.
Sometimes you’re working on an earlier episode while a later script sort of gets born and its, “Oh well, now that this is going to happen maybe we need to plot it musically a little bit differently.” So when we get a script obviously we have to prepare for the on-camera musical elements, and oftentimes we’ve been in conversation with the writers about who it’s going to be and what they’re going to play and all of that. But in a sense, the drama dictates the core musical elements of each episode.
Is there anything you couldn’t get? Did you have any white whales?
No, no, it’s been pretty good.
Another interesting element is the mix of real artists like the Dolls or Donnie Osmond or Lou Reed with fictional ones like Hannibal. Is that a cool thing to get to play with?
Yeah, that’s really the most fun. It’s like in [episodes 8 and 9] when Jack Quaid’s character is going to the underground music club and taking records by Indigo, which is a band that’s on the label that everyone else has kind of forgotten about.
So we shot the scene and the extras are all dancing and the song was played over and over again. And then in between during the breaks, you could see that they were all Shazam-ing trying to figure out what it was. They were like, “I know this song, I know this song!” It was great, because we created it — no one had ever heard it. So that’s very satisfying. It’s really fun to blur the lines between fact and fiction.
It’s almost a mean prank, like the Jimmy Kimmel sketch where they quiz people on the street about fake bands at Coachella and the people pretend to know who they are.
Right, right. [laughs]
There are also a number of easter eggs scattered throughout for music fans. Like DJ Cool Herc appears early on in a tiny moment, and you’re thinking, “Okay, is Ritchie Finestra going to be the first major-label white guy to discover hip-hop?” That’s pretty fun.
I think so. What’s interesting about this moment in 1973 is that it’s on the verge of so many things — the verge of punk rock, the verge of the disco explosion, and the elements of what will become hip-hop are all kind of aligning.
Can you talk a little bit about getting so many current musicians involved? You’ve had Aimee Mann, Beck, Charlie XCX, Neko Case doing “Danny’s Song”… Like the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas singing the Lou Reed songs — is it just your own matchmaking that made that happen?
Well, Julian, I’ve worked with him before, and he’s a Lou Reed aficionado. There’s nobody who is more passionate about the music of Lou Reed than Julian, or more insightful, and who can, when he wants to, sound so much like him. So that didn’t take much brain-wracking.
But again, a lot of times we’re motivated by thinking if somebody can deliver something credibly and with excitement. And sometimes we do things that we just think will be fun.
And what made you decide, for example, to not just use an original live recording of Lou Reed?
Oftentimes you do it because it allows you to have control over the elements of a song. Being able to mix it with precision and creativity. And then otherwise sometimes you can’t access the original material. And then sometimes it’s just because it would be fun to be a little bit different and bring a little bit of nuance to it.
It’s funny, you know, I’m sure you’re well aware that we have a lot of professional haters of the show. And I don’t read all of the reviews, but I do try to treat myself to some punishment now and again. And [there are online comments] like, “Oh, they totally destroyed that David Bowie ‘Suffragette City’!” and it’s like, really dude? That is David Bowie’s “Suffragette City.”
We really don’t want to disrupt people’s response to the song if it’s too different and that was why the Bowie camp let us have all the stems [i.e. original recordings] of the songs. So we were able to do the stop and start that we did in the scene.
Do you have any personal favorite moments from the season, just things that really satisfied you as a music fan?
There’s a song I love that ends episode 9. Chris Cornell sang “Stay With Me, Baby,” a song that was sung by Terry Reid, who they had asked to be in Led Zeppelin but he declined. And Cornell is just such a magnificent singer and he really responded to it, and I think he does a monstrous version of it. That was a real joy.
Elvis Costello also worked with us, and he’s one of my all-time favorite artists. He did a song in the last episode called “Point of No Return” that’s on the soundtrack and he did a version of “Backstabbers” for our finale soundtrack. It’s really incredible.
With the character of Lester Grimes, you really got to get back to some of the R&B and soul sounds of the previous decade.
To me that was really a treat to be able to explore that, the Lester Grimes world of 1958-1960. The real R&B. Ike Turner was someone that we identified really early on as someone who could take us down this road with this character — we wanted to explore his production from the late’ 50s and early ’60s.
The first song that we hear Lester sing, “The World Is Yours,” is a track that was produced by Turner. And then later on in the episode, Ritchie is stuck in traffic and that’s when he pulls off and he finds Lester again. So we used a song called “Black Coffee” that was done by this English pop-rock group called Humble Pie and that was another Ike Turner song. So that’s really exciting, to make these connections and really reinforce the legacy of an earlier era’s music on rock n’ roll in the ’70s.
I wondered sometimes, too, when certain real-life characters like Robert Plant or Bowie also have to have dialogue, what the balance was between casting a great look-alike and getting someone who could really perform and capture that artist’s charisma and essence. Or just, you know, deliver a line decently.
[Music Supervisor] Meghan Currier, who works very closely with me, had to get very involved. There are so many on-camera bands, you know, and the casting directors would say that if there was dialogue then they really have to be principal players, but there were so many background musicians, Meg was chasing people down on the subway who had the look, like “Hey wait a second, can you play guitar?”
The whole process sounds pretty above and beyond what would be involved for a typical TV show’s music elements.
It is; it’s been really intense. But it’s great, to do this is kind of like becoming a mixed martial arts master. There are so many points of contact and so many characters that you’re negotiating with and negotiating for.
The show got renewed for a second season almost as soon as it first aired — have you started thinking about that yet?
I need to take, like, a two-week nap first. [Laughs]