If you’re in the mood for a Learning Experience, then watch HBO’s caustic comedy “Vice Principals,” for a constant refresher on what to do and what not to do.
Starting on the “not” side: don’t let your live devolve into a negative cycle of ambition, real and perceived slights, excessive revenge, blind rage and overall insanity. That’s the weekly pattern of Neal Gamby (played by Danny McBride), a scheming South Carolina vice principal who is passed up for promotion and sets out with his equally twisted partner — fellow vice principal Lee Russell (played by Walton Goggins) — to do something about it. And we mean really DO something about it, in ways that are one part evil genius, two parts badly bumbling, and all parts extremely funny.
Back to the “to do” angle: make a TV soundtrack this excellent. That’s the responsibility of music supervisors Gabe Hilfer of Full Pursuit, plus his partner DeVoe Yates, alongside composer Joseph Stevens. Fueled by the vision of “Vice Principals” co-producers McBride and Jody Hill, the show bristles with an extra-strength sonic identity.
Built around an arresting nucleus of military-grade drumline performances, the Season One soundtrack also captured ears with a creative musical mix that can veer from raw blues to classic tracks from Donovan, ethereal ambience and Iranian psychedelic rock. All those synchronization licensing gems get connectected by Stevens’ 1980’s-era inspired original music (Harold Faltermeyer would be proud) and you’ve got a series that seems like a music supervisor’s dream.
Hilfer’s film and TV credits go deep, including Suicide Squad, Sausage Party, Central Intelligence, The Night Before, Creed, “Red Oaks” “Black-ish” and “Superstore.” Combine that with Yates, whose long resume similarly Suicide Squad, Sausage Party and “Red Oaks,” as well as Black Swan, “The Mindy Project,” “In Treatment,” and “Entourage” and you’ve got a synch licensing supergroup.
With the recent launch of “Vice Principals” second and final Season 2 and an equally engaging playlist so far, that chemistry is in evidence once again. Among Hilfer’s and Yates’ many collaborations was the 2009-2013 HBO series “Eastbound and Down”, where the pair first got the feel for working with McBride and Hill’s (along with partner David Gordon Green) Rough House Pictures.
“Devoe had been the steadying musical force on all seasons of ‘Eastbound & Down,’” Hilfer recalls. “And then, on Season 4 I came in and joined him as somebody who had worked with HBO before and just helped facilitate, and make sure that he had all the support he needed.
“From there, we developed a great long-standing, lifelong friendship, and through a lot of those relationships and a lot of those same individuals who worked on that show and others, some new opportunities arose. I don’t want to speak for Devoe, but I’ve had some team-up music supervision situations in the past that haven’t been super-fun, but when they are you say, ‘Let’s do more of them.’”
“I think ours is a good collaboration,” adds Yates. “It’s cool when you find somebody you can work with and you can make the music better together. We’re like a band — Ike and Tina Turner, maybe?”
The opportunity to team up again on “Vice Principals” was a natural after the smooth collaboration between Hilfer, Yates and Rough House on “Eastbound & Down. “We just decided to get the band back together,” says Hilfer. “The pitch from Rough House was, ‘We have a new project. Do you want to do it?’ The answer was unequivocally, ‘Yes.’ ‘Eastbound & Down’ was the most fun project I’ve ever worked on and I was a huge fan even before I worked on it. The humor that these guys write, and produce, and act in is its own brand and I couldn’t conceive of not wanting to work on it.”
“Danny had a clear direction, with a marching band idea for the score,” Yates says. “He wanted to make it more of a cohesive sound than ‘Eastbound’ was. I think ‘Eastbound’ got a little bit all over the place, which was fine for what it was. ‘Vice Principals’ marching band concept evolved into more of the drumline score that’s currently in there.
“Then, besides the score, I think we all just kind of put whatever source tracks were in there, like the end credits or montages. We all collaborated to see what song worked best. There’s a little bit of an ‘80’s vibe in there as well that we always like to go back to. For Danny, and Jody and I think probably for Dave too, those are the kind of movies that we came up with, like the ‘80’s John Hughes films. It’s a very nostalgic sound to identify with. I think it might be getting a little played out these days, but it always seems to work — it’s a good nostalgic vibe.”
“We’re all about the same age within the parameters of two or three years — we have the same references, and the same basis for what we like in music and movies,” notes Hilfer. “I think that sound is really making a connection right now, because a lot of the people making content are around the same age and that was their frame of reference. It’s stuff that they grew up on and use as a basis for their taste.”
Music Supervision on Acid
One of the prime music supervision opportunities of “Vice Principals” lay in its planned obsolescence. From the start, only two seasons of nine episodes each were planned, allowing Hilfer and Yates to see the musical storytelling as a whole with a clear beginning, middle and end.
“The interesting thing about this show is that there’s two seasons and we did them back to back,” Hilfer explains. “So, we did eighteen episodes, with the intention of splitting them into two seasons of nine and nine, all at the exact same time. Knowing that affects the arc of the music, and one of the other things that music supervisors have to keep in mind is the budget.
“It gives you a little bit of an advantage,” he continues, “because knowing exactly how many episodes you have before you get into it lets you pick and choose, figure out what’s the most important thing, and budget backwards from there sometimes. You don’t necessarily have that luxury if you’re on a network show that could get canceled after any episode. So, it was kind of looked at like one complete package. It was a little liberating in that way, to work within that box.”
Along the way, Hilfer and Yates were always closely integrating their selections with the sensibilities of composer Joey Stevens (“Eastbound and Down,” Observe and Report). “We worked with Joey on ‘Eastbound’ as well so it’s a bit of a shorthand there,” says Yates. “Even before the show was shooting Joey was working on ideas for different sounds for the show, which are in there. We would send it to Danny and get feedback. Then there was a guy we found named Cassidy Byars who he collaborated with on some of the drumline stuff — he works with a lot of different colleges on their drumlines, and he collaborated with Joey to finesse the drum sounds.”
A personal favorite Season One synch for Hilfer and Yates comes in the crazed Episode 4, “Run for the Money,” when Gamby and Russell accidentally overdose on LSD and then make it through their high school’s homecoming football game. The scene stands as one of the best onscreen representations ever shot of a hallucinogenic experience, made all the better by the music supervisors’ unexpected selection of “Saraabe Toe” by Iranian psych music pioneer Kourosh Yaghmaei – it’s magic-carpet vocals and classical guitar, riding fluidly over mid-tempo rock rhythms, launch the addled educators right into the stratosphere.