The Music Behind the Guru: Inside the Making of the ‘Wild Wild Country’ Soundtrack (EXCLUSIVE)

Despite working with a "micro-budget," music supervisor Chris Swanson weaves an inspired sonic accompaniment to the Netflix hit.

One of Netflix’s biggest success stories this year is unquestionably directors Chapman and Maclain Way’s “Wild Wild Country” docuseries. Now, an official soundtrack is set to be released this fall on Western Vinyl Records, home to Dirty Projectors, Caroline Says and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, among other indie darlings, Variety has confirmed. The compilation includes most of the songs heard on the six-part epic, including standouts from such artists as Bill Callahan and Damien Jurado. Variety caught up with WWC music supervisor Chris Swanson to find out more about the music selection process behind the hit series.

How did you first get approached for the project? Did you pitch for it, or did the directors come to you?
I didn’t pitch for it, I was a big fan of the directors’ last movie [‘The Battered Bastards of Baseball’], which was also on Netflix. Great storytelling and I loved the score, so I just wrote them a fan note. Turned out their brother Brocker Way did the score and we had a great back and forth. Fast forward to early last year, Maclain Way and Chapman Way [series directors] were wrapping up the edit of the first of six episodes, they and Brocker, who also did the score for “Wild Wild Country,” sent me the teaser and I was all in.

They told me they wanted an “American West” kind of “Cowboy Narrator” vibe for the music since the series was named after a Bill Callahan song, and Bill kind of embodied that. Then I met with Chapman. He knew it was gonna be very score heavy project, but they wanted my help, too, with additional songs.

What kind of budget did you have to work with?
It was under $100,000. Because it was done on a micro budget, we really had to sell our story [to copyright holders] about how culturally significant the documentary would be. Most everybody was on board. Once we had a few big names on board, it became easier to sell the project to other publishers [and master rights owners]. There were some songs we wanted but couldn’t get as a result of our budget, though. Early cuts had some Television songs.  We tried to get My Morning Jacket’s cover of “Leaving On A Jet Plane” and we had the master side ready, but we couldn’t clear the publishing.

You used multiple songs by artists such as Marlon Williams and Damien Jurado in the documentary, any reason why?
Damien really embodied that ‘Cowboy narrator’ vibe and I feel like his voice is just beautiful….the tenor, you know? Although he is a folk singer, there’s a psychedelic quality to some of his songs as well, so I think the songs we chose ended up fitting really well as a result. We actually had to do a radical re-stitching of his song “A.M. AM” because it needed to span about six minutes and because we needed to make room for dialogue. The directors loved it when I first played it. They’ve got a very keen sense of what they’re looking for when they hear it. I put a lot of songs in front of them that kind of fit the motif they wanted, and they were very quick to hone in on what, exactly, they liked. They spent thousands of hours listening to songs. I put together a lot of them, but they did most of the heavy lifting in terms of choosing.

The really great thing about Marlon is he dives into that “Manifest Destiny” vibe, in a musical form. Just like how Johnny Cash dived into it. His music has a real American West feel to it in a very interesting way.

Did the Bill Callahan song “America” pop up immediately and thematically for you and the directors?
Well, we knew we were going to use Bill Callahan music, he was first person I reached out to, because the namesake of the show is a lyric from his song “Drover.” They picked the song “America” before I even was on board. … They knew they wanted it. He was the archetype for music on the show. The low voice, the confidence, his embrace of storytelling, the surreal qualities of the music … and there’s a lot of room in the mix. My job was fairly easy, I just put a ton of songs in front of them, and [the Way brothers] picked them.

One of the songs that stands out, because it is so different than the others, is Void Vision’s “Sour” during the “disco” scene (part 3) at the Rajneeshpuram compound in Oregon, how did that come about?
We were having a hard time finding a song for that scene, actually. We had a Future Islands track originally in that scene, I think, but I remember we were having a hard time getting the tone right…. because there were objectives with regards to the narrative…we wanted a good beat, a sense of time but also conforming to the time. I think of all the songs [in WWC], the Voidvision song is the one that stands out….because it was different yet it sold the story that we were trying to tell.

The trailer song, Katie Kim’s “Day Is Coming,” is also a standout, did you choose it?
I actually didn’t have anything to do with the trailer song, pretty sure Netflix did that, but that song is fantastic.

Did you or the directors ever think about using Indian music for scenes in Poona that took place in India?
They were looking for a more consistent vibe. … Never once did we consider raga music or anything with sitar etc. The directors already knew they wanted Bill Callahan, even from the first episode [with archival footage from the Ashram in India]. They were so specific in how they wanted to seduce the viewer. I think they did a great job in that way [musically], starting to sow the seeds early.

You dove deep into the Americana well for the soundtrack, yet it’s notable that many of the artists you chose for the soundtrack are actually non-American artists from places like New Zealand, England and Canada. Was that coincidental, or on purpose?
[The directors] weren’t so much into the history of acts in the film, more just the vibe of each particular song. The impressions that they could pull from each song was important. It’s interesting because Marlon is doing very much an Americana thing. But from the outside looking in as a New Zealander.  The Timber Timbre [band from Canada] song is also interesting, with a nice use of space in “Run From Me” — that was a song we had a really hard time clearing, actually. It’s always nice when there is only one degree of separation from you and the artist, and I had a nice relationship there to help.

Another standout track from the soundtrack was Bill Fay’s “Thank You Lord,” did his religious leanings play into your choosing his music for a documentary partially about religion?
Maybe subconsciously, I didn’t really think too hard about it. … I was really inspired after my initial meeting with Chapman and when I went home, I just started putting together a playlist for them. It was all very instinctive. Then, when I went to refine the playlist, that’s when a few Bill songs really started shining through, and I saw themes. Then I removed a few Bill songs that didn’t fit, and left in the ones that fit perfectly, like “Thank You Lord.” I suggested quite a few Bill Fay songs to them [the directors] initially. He’s actually somebody I’ve been a deep fan of for a while. His albums from the early 1970’s are incredible.

What songs from the series have you personally received the most feedback on?
The Kevin Morby song [“I Have Been To The Mountain”] and Bill Callahan. But Bill really stands out. He wasn’t even on Spotify until recently. So I got a lot of feedback on that. People would see it, Shazam it, and then they couldn’t find it [earlier this year]. But now they can.

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