Although it isn’t often viewed on the same level as directing or screenwriting, original music is still an essential part of crafting a memorable film or TV series. This might hold less of a precedent in comedy than drama, but F/X’s Louie splits the difference–music has turned out to be a large part of the show’s appeal.
For its creator, comedian Louis C.K., whose material frequently shifts from touching to twisted, music serves a tangible role in evoking these emotions on screen, whether in the form of jazz, rock, classical, or bossa nova.
Since Reggie Watts left as music supervisor to tour with Conan O’Brien early in the first season, his friend Matt Kilmer, a Berklee-educated percussionist, has been responsible for creating the lush original music that accompanies Louie. As leader of the six-piece ensemble SweetPro, which features seasoned members of New York’s historic jazz scene, Kilmer translates C.K.’s ideas with a rich authenticity that often culminates in cinematic moments.
As Louie wraps up its fourth season and prepares for a soundtrack release later this year, Kilmer spoke to Co.Create about the importance of a strong collaboration with the director and defining a clear creative process. He also offered some tips on staying true to the sound of New York and how to get that distinct vintage sound so often heard on the show.
Kilmer says that the most important factor in developing a productive working relationship with your director is having a shared vocabulary, which makes communication much easier. This can be extremely helpful in determining the needs of the director, who, in this case, is also the star of the show.
In the case of Louie, Kilmer says he’s lucky to work with someone with such a dense musical knowledge outside of film and TV. “Louis is really into a lot of great classic jazz, and even though he has no music training and doesn’t have a musician’s terminology, he knows what he likes, and that’s good enough.” He adds, “Knowing exactly what you want is so important to getting a result that you’re happy with.”
Defining a clear process cuts down significantly on time and expenses. For Kilmer, the process on Louie typically begins with a reference from C.K. “He’ll say to me, “Man, I was listening to this Dewey Redman album,” and we’ll listen to it, and try bang out something in that style.” He adds, “I’ll always bounce references back and forth before we do anything. It really helps focus the energy and the intention into something that everyone’s happy with.”
C.K.’s knowledge of music has led to some wide-ranging references throughout the series. For the main character’s preparation to host the Late Show in season 3, SweetPro used the Rocky soundtrack as a template. Other references have included Dirty Harry and The Godfather, and for an upcoming flashback to the ’80s, Van Halen and Lou Reed.
From there, the band starts brainstorming ideas until they find something that C.K. approves. In this stage, Kilmer says he always leaves the mics on in case they come up with an idea that can’t be easily replicated. C.K. is usually in the studio during this early part of the process, and sometimes he even edits there on a laptop. But after he signs off on an idea, Kilmer’s job is far from over.
For every approved cue, SweetPro will develop up to 10 different versions, which vary in tone, tempo, and instrumentation. Kilmer says that his job is different from most music supervisors, in that he’s building up a library of music that his director can take from as needed. Having multiple variations on a theme allows C.K. flexibility in the editing process and cuts down on the need for re-recording later on.
Though he’s ultimately biased because of his training, Kilmer contends that jazz musicians are more adept at scoring because of their versatility and ability to improvise. “Being an improviser is so important to our process that we use for the show,” he argues. “Even if it’s a classical player or a string player, they most likely will have a jazz background.”
Aside from improvisational skill and versatility, Kilmer maintains that the other two most important components are obvious: talent and the ability to get along with others. “Every musician that’s on the show, I’ve played with in another circumstance, and I knew them as a great player, a great person to work with and a great improviser,” he states. “That’s the recipe for success.”
Outside of the regular crew in SweetPro, Kilmer has also tapped musicians to play non-traditional instruments like the oud and the erhu for scenes in China and Afghanistan. In season 4, Eszter Balint, who played Louie’s love interest Amia in the recent six-part series “Elevator,” collaborated with SweetPro in the studio, contributing vocals and violin to several cues that accompanied her scenes.
As a jazz musician living in New York for over 10 years, Kilmer found himself uniquely suited to the task of mimicking the sound of the city. “I think it just comes naturally,” he insists. “All of us have lived here for a decade or more, and it just seeps into you. I don’t think it’s anything we’re doing intentionally really, so much as it is just working and letting it happen.”
Still, he says the band regularly revisits Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk for inspiration. Kilmer explains that Woody Allen set a precedent with films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, and since then, the connection between uptempo jazz and the fast pace of New York has been reinforced in TV and film. “Watching all those movies and seeing how that sound is portrayed throughout made it a lot easier for us to do it,” he says.
At C.K.’s request, a large portion of the music on Louie is muffled and distorted to sound like an old mono recording. Kilmer’s engineer Adam Tilzer uses a Neve mixing console, but the audio goes straight to ProTools, and several filters are applied to rinse the recording of any modern digital quality.
“We do a vintage mix on almost everything now, even the rock stuff,” Kilmer elaborates. “We put it through a SansAmp, which is basically a distortion pedal. Then we put it through an EQ and make it mono. Then we’ll cut out a lot of the low end and a lot of the high end, so it takes out all of the richness of the sound.”
Though it’s been nixed in season four, the most recognizable piece from Louie is its title theme, a re-recorded version of Stories’ hit cover song “Brother Louie.” C.K. had the initial idea to combine the chorus from Stories’ version with the intro from the original by Hot Chocolate. But not long after, he discovered that the band’s singer Ian Lloyd was in New York and invited him to the studio to record a new version with SweetPro.
“It was really cool to watch him build the harmonies on it like he did in the original version,” Kilmer remembers. “That was the first thing we did as a group, and it just turned out great.” The result is something modern and classic, a definite breath of fresh air from the dry adult contemporary fare that opens many shows.
For the title theme, Kilmer recommends something that attracts viewers’ attention and makes the show stand out. On the other hand, he says a closing theme should be mellow and comforting, something that offers a sense of resolution and doesn’t overpower the credits. “I think we were listening to some Bird when our sax player came up with that, something really down tempo,” he recalls. “You definitely want the opening theme to stand out more though.”