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The Music of Louis C.K.'s 'Louie': Finding Inspiration in New York, 'Rocky' Soundtrack, 'Dirty Harry' (Q&A)

Matt Kilmer Louis CK L
Mike Shobe
Matt Kilmer (left) with Louis C.K.

Matt Kilmer, music coordinator for the FX comedy, explains how scores of original compositions come to life with a killer core band and guidance from the comic known as "the filthy moralist." Plus: What's the plan for a soundtrack release?

The thematic tone of the hit FX comedy Louie can be described in a litany of adjectives: dark, absurd, uncomfortable, kooky, brilliant and, yes, hilarious. But as much as Louis C.K.’s comedy tickles the senses, so does the show’s music, which ranges from jazz to be-bop to rock and classical-inspired compositions -- nearly all of which is original.

At the center of these incredibly diverse melodies is Matt Kilmer, music coordinator for the show and the man who put together the six musicians at the heart of the show’s soundtrack. Kilmer tells The Hollywood Reporter he got the gig through a mutual friend who recommended him to Louis C.K. and a subsequent hang where the crew “hit it off.” A renowned percussionist and producer in New York City who has worked with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Kilmer was used to pressure, but none quite like the time constraints he dealt with scoring season one.

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“We did the first season in a week and a half, he says. “It was very last-minute because they were rushing to get the episodes turned into FX, and the music was the last piece of the puzzle.” The hustle proved to the particular Louis C.K. that Kilmer could handle the job, and he’s been on it ever since.

So how does a musical mind approach a scene like the one from episode seven of the current third season in which where a former fling of Louie’s offers fellatio in exchange for a trip to Ikea? Kilmer explains his creative process -- guided by the comic known as "the filthy moralist" -- in an interview with THR.

The Hollywood Reporter: Musical direction for a TV show was a new thing for you?

Matt Kilmer: My title on the show is music coordinator -- I chose that because traditionally the role of music director is to call the shots based on the nuts and bolts of the composition and even down to chords and melodies. With Louie, it's kind of a collective of musical direction where all of the band members, and even Louis himself, write their own parts and we put them together.

THR: How much of the music is original?

Kilmer: Everything except for what’s licensed. In a whole season they'll probably license a couple of songs, like we just had one by The Who, or sound effects from libraries online. But yes, everything is original, and this season especially there's been really fantastic music. I have a great community of musicians to work with here in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

THR: What kind of direction and input does Louis C.K. give in terms of the music?

Kilmer: Louis knows what he wants, and that is a real pleasure to work with. He also has a way of expressing what he wants in very nonmusical terms that also makes sense to musicians. For this season, he wanted something that would reflect the personal struggle that he's going through. To pump us up, he had us listen to the Rocky soundtrack, which is like a '70s vibe of rock music and with orchestra. That was a challenge for us to pull off, but it worked out really well. A lot of the time, we'll look to other movies or TV shows for inspiration. Like the closing scene to Dirty Harry, which is really classic. It's got this long piano sound when he throws his badge in the water. We didn't have footage from the show, so we watched that to get the essence of what Louis wanted. 

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THR: What can you tell us about Louis’ process of choosing the music?

Kilmer: We’ve built a massive library of music that we've done over the past three years. But despite all that, Louis still wants to do new stuff to catch the vibe he's going for and to provide the most emotional impact. If we're in the studio, he's there a lot of the time. Then he'll leave, and I'll take over the session and get what I know he wants. But he's very hands-on with the music. If we're working the night away and come back with a tune that’s not what he's looking for, he'll stop us immediately, and we'll just drop it and move on to the next thing. Every once in a while, I'll get a text message or email from Louis that will say a random name of a song and maybe a YouTube link. I know he's going to want that in the next session, so I have to go and find the musicians that can get the job done.

THR: Where do you record?

Kilmer: We work out of a few different studios in New York. The main one we use is Stratosphere Sound, which is where our engineer, Adam Tilzer, works out of. But a lot depends on Louis’ schedule. He's incredibly busy these days, so the studio has to be in Manhattan and easily accessible to Midtown. We need a quick turnaround, so we'll basically go into the studio, record, mix and be editing it by the end of the day. And then that's the final cut. 

THR: How much of the music is New York-inspired?

Kilmer: I would say a lot, especially the jazz stuff. We also watch the show, and since it’s predominately filmed in New York … I remember last season there was a scene that was classic New York at Grand Central Station in black and white. We would go in and listen to some [Thelonious] Monk or [Charles] Mingus and just get ideas. Maybe we'll jam on a blues riff and then come up with the melodies. It's really a collective effort. But we recently had a Miami episode where the music was 70 percent of the screen time, so we listened to a lot of Cuban music and Latin jazz.

THR: Would you say the music is a co-star on the show?

Kilmer: A lot of people comment on the music and how much they love it. I get emails daily asking, “What was that song? I can’t find it anywhere!” Or, “When are you going to release the music?” People dig the music, but I don't see it as a co-star; I see it more as supporting the narrative, and I think that's very important. People have asked how music functions in comedy, and I think in the purest form, like stand-up comedy, music shouldn't be there at all. What Louis is doing with the show is different. It’s not “ha ha” comedy. He really works on character development and building the emotional arc of the narrative. So I think the music is there as a supplement.

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THR: What’s the plan as far as a soundtrack is concerned?

Kilmer: As of now, there are no plans to put out the music but we want to do it and Louis wants it so we have to figure out how to go about doing it. There's a lot of talk about doing a soundtrack and it's definitely in demand. It's complicated. There are issues that have to be resolved legally.  

THR: With all the attention that the music of Louie is getting, is there anyone else you want to work with? 

Kilmer: I’m a total fan of the work of Woody Allen -- I think he has a great sensibility for how to use the music to supports the narrative. Also, Martin Scorsese, though the music on Boardwalk Empire is definitely more period-based. But like on Louie, where we can nail any period of music and any genre, a lot of people can't believe when we record something a few months ago because it sounds like it's from the 1940s. So anything is possible now.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin