Flavorwire Interview: ‘Mad Men’ Music Supervisor Alexandra Patsavas on Her Favorite Music Moments and Matthew Weiner’s Vision

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Last night’s Mad Men Season 7 premiere ended with a musical moment that — like so many of the songs used prominently on the AMC series — encapsulated the episode’s overall tone. Vanilla Fudge’s cover of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” kicked in as Don, defeated and possibly suffering from a mental breakdown, takes his anguish to the balcony and looks up to the sky, hoping to be set free from his own mind. The scene before shows Peggy assuming a similar pose, tears in her eyes and looking upward to a force she may or may not believe exists with a plea: set me free from Ted, from my own heart.

Hits of longing and sadness sung by ’60s girl groups, like the original “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” are characterized by their deceptively upbeat nature. But Vanilla Fudge’s take starts with far less direction, seemingly navigating the song as it goes on. It’s a bit like Don and Peggy at this moment in time, as the ’60s become the ’70s and Sterling Cooper & Partners becomes more and more unrecognizable.

Mad Men isn’t TV’s most music-centric show, nor is it a tastemaking series that introduces viewers to brand-new bands. But it may just very well be the most thoughtful show on TV when it comes to the use of music. Set in a decade that is known as much for its musical renaissance as its shifting politics (and the intersection of the two), Mad Men could have really gone overboard with the rock ‘n’ roll tie-in. Instead, creator Matthew Weiner and music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas have consistently opted for sparing usage for maximum poignancy.

Flavorwire spoke to Patsavas, one of TV’s best-known music supervisors, about her experiences soundtracking Mad Men up to this point. (If you’ve read much about Weiner, you’ll know that he keeps a tight lid on spoilers and all Mad Men intel, so discussion of Season 7’s music was off limits.)

Flavorwire: I know Matthew Weiner is incredibly secretive about the show overall, and clearly he has a musical vision for it. So walk me through the process — at what point are you brought in with individual synchs?

Alexandra Patsavas: I’m definitely on copy with all of the scripts, and so if something is written in to the script, and he’s already decided what song he wants to use, I might start investigating the clearance issues, because these copyrights are older, and some of these artists are no longer with us. There are heirs and estates and a lot of international copyright, and we need to get everything cleared quickly. So certainly if there’s an on-camera moment, if the song has been chosen, like “Zou Bisou Bisou,” which Matt had, of course, selected and scripted, I might get into that very early on, to make sure that when it is shot, it is licensable.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXoILGnHnvM]

Other times, Matt selects things after the shows have been shot, and he’s working with editorial, and the songs might get selected later. It’s really not a specific formula every time. But one thing the music supervisor does is make sure that if a song is on-camera, that it is gettable, legally speaking.

Mad Men made history by synching a Beatles original, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” in Season 5, and I understand that took years of discussion with Apple Records to get it. Besides that, have there been other struggles over synch rights, or any songs the show tried to get but was unable to?

Honestly, not very many. If we run into stumbling blocks sometimes ­— as I said, this is the not-sexy part of music supervision, it’s the essential one — it’s making sure that we can clear these copyrights. And sometimes that takes a long lead time. But it seems like there’s a lot of fans in the music community — the labels and publishers, and especially the rights holders, from some of these great songs from the 1960s that might not get licensed very much anymore. We really have a lot of enthusiasm from the music community about using these songs. And I think Matt Weiner — the way he uses music, it is so thoughtful and says so much about the episodes. I think we really do get a very enthusiastic music community… which of course has made my job much, much easier.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afddyqxT1To]

What’re some of your personal favorite music moments on Mad Men?

There are so many. A few:

– Megan Draper’s unforgettable performance of “Zou Bisou Bisou” (Season 5, Episode 1)

– Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (sSeason 1 finale)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSazEWslOAU]

– The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (Season 5, Episode 8)

– The unexpected choice of The Decemberists (Season 2, Episode 6)

– The Nashville Teens’ “Tobacco Road” (Season 4, Episode 1)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGuZY6NVXqU]

With regards to historical accuracy, how important is that to the show? I know Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” got pulled from the Season 5 premiere because it came out six months after the episode took place, but then as you just referenced, you used The Decemberists’ 2005 song “Infanta.”

As you know, Matt [Weiner] has all of the big songs in mind. I can’t speak to how he decides on these songs, but I know he’s a big fan of music from the period and has so many of these songs in mind as he’s writing the script. They do a lot of research out of my office. And The Decemberists were clearly current day, rather than period. And we do spend a lot of time making sure that when these period songs were released, that they would have been on the radio if the song was playing on the radio in the scene. We have a really good time with it, actually. It’s really a pleasure to be able to work with these older gems, and the research process is interesting and fun, to speculate on when exactly a song would have hit and how that plays into the Mad Men universe. So most of the songs are definitely from the era.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnLpQuQ7Vs8]

Following your work on The O.C. and Grey’s Anatomy, viewers have come to look towards you to introduce them to brand-new music. But in a lot of ways — particularly in the early seasons of Mad Men that predate The Beatles, The Stones, and other big rock acts — I think of the show’s soundtrack as music discovery, just in a different sort of way.

I think as a music supervisor the job is the job, and as a music lover, it’s especially exciting to work on period material, because some viewers are actually experiencing these songs for the first time, even though some of them were quite well known in their day. And I got into music supervision actually because I loved all eras of music so much. It seemed like such a great way to work with classic songs, as well as songs that are extremely current or yet to be created.

You also do the music supervision on Scandal, which is also full of classic songs. Has working on Mad Men made you more likely to mine the past than look to emerging bands?

I was lucky enough to be hired right after the pilot was shot and assembled on Mad Men. I remember viewing the pilot and watching a cut with “Band of Gold” by Don Cherry, “Shangri-La” by Robert Maxwell, and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” one of the great songs of all time which has been covered a bit. We of course used the Gordon Jenkins version [in the show]. I think that storytelling with songs, both with and without lyrics is era-less, really. It is really about what the audience feels, and the lyrics, and what Matt was intending to say with those songs. Ultimately, all of these decisions regarding musical era and style overall are creative choices from the executive producers and creators of these shows.