Gary Calamar calls True Blood "a music supervisor's dream show." He should know: for the past five seasons, the disc jockey turned award-winning music supervisor has anchored the hit HBO show's music department, recruiting an A-list set of musicians to soundtrack the twisted adventures of Sookie, Bill, Eric and the other blood-sucking inhabitants of Bon Temps.
"It is probably my most rewarding show that I work on," says Calamar, who also serves as music supervisor on Dexter. The latest volume in the sexy vampire show's collection of Grammy-nominated soundtracks, True Blood: Music From the HBO Original Series Volume 4, released today, features newly recorded tracks from Iggy Pop, My Morning Jacket and the Animals' Eric Burdon, in addition to a deep cut from the Flaming Lips and a track from breaking L.A. rockers Deap Vally.
Calamar says his work on True Blood is distinct from other shows in that each episode is named after a particular song. "So when I receive the script early on, it has a title, sometimes of a song that is well-known and sometimes a song that I've never heard of," he explains. He recalls a recent instance when he received a Season Six script entitled "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," its name derived from the much-covered song recorded by Nina Simone and the Animals, among others.
"So immediately I started running with it and we eventually made a new recording with Eric Burdon and Jenny Lewis," he says. "I put those two together, and they did an amazing version."
Burdon was happy to take part. "The True Blood recording has a really fresh feeling to it," he says. "It's way different than the first recording with the Animals."
As luck would have it, the episode's title has been changed. "Now we're finding a new spot for that song," Calamar says, laughing. "It's just the way crazy television works."
The process for soundtracking the show, Calamar explains, is a collaborative one. After he reads the script for an episode and sees a rough cut of it, he sits down with the show's composer, Nathan Barr, and the writing and production team to "map out the whole show musically – 'Is there going to be a score here? Is there going to be a song there? If there is going to be a song, what kind of song are we thinking?'"
He then retires to his "man cave" and drums up three or four ideas to present to the team, who help him narrow it down to one final choice. The process has changed slightly, however, for Season Six: the upcoming season, which premieres on June 16th, is the first without creator Alan Ball serving as showrunner. "Season one through five, Alan was at every music meeting," Calamar explains. "We would discuss virtually every song that was in the first five seasons. This season he's kind of stepped away a little bit. He's not quite as hands-on anymore."
Even after finalizing their choice of song, it's not a given that a particular artist or band will agree to participate. Calamar who has previously worked on Weeds and Six Feet Under, acknowledges that his stellar track record – he's previously enlisted artists including Bob Dylan, Beck and Robbie Robertson for True Blood soundtracks – makes securing artists a little simpler. "It definitely has gotten easier," he says of roping in top-tier talent. "But I wouldn't say it's a slam dunk [every time].
"There was no hesitation," Burdon says of his decision to partner with Lewis for the revamped "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." "I was really pleased when I got the invitation to be part of the soundtrack."
My Morning Jacket were eager but cautious when recording their whimsical cover of the Byrds’ "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)" for an episode last season. "We were equally stoked and intimidated," recalls the band's bassist, Tom Blankenship. “[It was a] great opportunity to record a great song, but it's just so recognizable and iconic that we wanted to do it justice without us getting lost in the process."
Calamar says that recruiting the Kentucky band "just made sense"; their label, ATO Records, is releasing the True Blood soundtrack. "We took [the song] to [frontman] Jim James, and we had a couple of conversations about it, and he just knocked out a beautiful version of it."
Blankenship says he's a fan of the show. "To be honest," he jokes, "I only watch for naked Eric."
Photo by John P. Johnson