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Film Independent Thu 6.23.2022

‘Hacks’ Tracks: How Music Supervisor Matt Biffa Builds a Signature Sound

With a career spanning 25 years, music supervisor Matt Biffa is a specialist in source music research and copyright clearance. His projects include Sex Education, I May Destroy You, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Paddington, Carol, The End of the F**king World and, most recently, the HBO Max comedy series Hacks.

Biffa joined renowned music services company Air-Edel as a receptionist in 1996, where his impressive knowledge of music was quickly recognized. He cut his creative teeth sourcing music for commercials, such as Jonathan Glazer’s “Swimblack” campaign for Guinness. As Biffa began cultivating relationships with key members of the music industry, he moved into feature films, where he has garnered a reputation for being a canny negotiator and a veritable walking encyclopedia of the history of popular music.

In 2021, together with Ciara Elwis, Matt won the award for Outstanding Music Supervision at the Creative Arts Emmys, for their work on Michael Coel’s BBC Drama I May Destroy You. The New York Times described the soundtrack as “stunning.”

Aside from that Emmy win, he considers one of the high points of his career to be Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for which he brought together three wizards of the rock world: Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, and Jonny Greenwood and Philip Selway of Radiohead. He’s also quietly proud of being the man behind the appearance of Nick Cave’s “O Children” in Deathly Hallows.

We chatted with Matt about becoming a music supervisor, his music discovery process and creating Hacks’ musical identity.

Editor’s note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
 
How did your career as a music supervisor start?

Matt Biffa: I didn’t know there was such a thing as music supervision. In fact, it was quite a fledgling thing back when I started in reception [at Air-Edel]. Prior to that I was working at a landfill site, driving a dump truck. I just wanted to work in the music business.

Is there one project that was a key turning point for you?

MB: Finding music for commercials. [Specifically, while] still a receptionist, being asked by the [Air-Edel] head of production if I wanted to start doing creative work by finding music for commercials. The first film I did was Bodywork, starring Beth Winslet, Kate Winslet’s sister. There’s a scene with a couple in the back seat of a car, and the woman is killed. I put on Albert King’s “Everyone Wants to Go to Heaven, But Nobody Wants to Die,” and knew I was onto something.

How do you use music to tell characters’ stories in Hacks?

MB: I’m fortunate because the show features very different characters. When I was first told about Deborah, I thought, “oh, she’s old school Vegas,” like the Rat Pack, Sammy Davis Jr. – but that’s not where we landed with her. Ultimately, when we started to get further with her, I was thinking about her as someone in the 70s that was going to Studio 54. I imagined her hanging out with people on Fire Island. Actually, I went down a deep, deep hole. I found a playlist that had every set played by the DJ at The Sandpiper on Fire Island.

 
Oh, wow.

MB: So obviously, I thought of Diana Ross and people that, in my mind, she used to hang out with, like Cher. And then I thought of people that, quite frankly, Deborah would have a crush on, like Graham Nash. I suspect she would have a thing for Kenny Loggins, too. I sort of tried to put her past together, in conjunction with [series creators/writers] Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky and Lucia Aniello. We really dug down on this when I suggested “Fire” by Etta James for the first episode. It’s a cool song, and it became the final song of the pilot. It’s kind of a cute little thing – it sounds in Deborah’s world.

Ava is much more LA hipster. She’s real misanthropic; super entitled. That was more of a collaboration with Paul and Jen and Lucia. Until working on music for Ava, I wasn’t aware of the band Goth Babe, and from there we got into Moon King, etc. Ava’s thing is contemporary, Deborah’s is more old school. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

 
So, what is the process for music supervision?

MB: Normally what will happen on Hacks is one of the editors will contact me, or Paul, Jen and Lucia. They’ll say, “yo, we’re looking for a song, this is what is happening, what do you got?” I’ll ask them to send me a clip and then I’ll send over a playlist of maybe five or six things. I’ve learned you want to keep these things quite concise, otherwise you get option paralysis. Our music editor will then lay out the different pulls and send them out for everyone to look at. [The editors] will usually respond with, “yeah, we like this,” and we’ll go out to [music] clearance. Or they’ll say, “we kind of like this, but it’s still not really doing it.” Sometimes we’ll do five or six rounds of me sending ideas until we get it right.

We have an amazing clearance team at NBC Universal who will do the clearances for Hacks on my behalf. For other stuff I do, I will send the clearances out. These apply to all media, excluding theatrical, for the world, in perpetuity. We arbitrarily pick a licensing fee out of the air, that we think is going to work, that’ll then go to the rights holders. They’ll come back and there is a little back and forth on the number maybe, and then it gets approved. The music editor will finesse the song, which then goes to the sound stage to be mixed. Sometimes [this process] can happen literally three days before the mix – it’s not for the faint of heart.

What is your favorite needle drop moment from season two?

MB: My favorite needle drop is “I’ve Got the Music in Me” by Kiki Dee, from episode six. I’m a little song hoarder… I do keep stuff back in my secret stash. I’ve had that one, God, probably since I started. Paul asked me, even before they shot the scene that it’s in, for something to have in his mind to be shooting it to, so I sent that along with several other ideas. He was like, “that’s the one.” I kind of knew it was the one, but you know, you gotta couch it with some others.

Do you have a song recommendation for our readers?

MB: I am currently loving “Stevie,” from “Radiate Like This” by War Paint. When I listen to that song it feels like I’m driving down the Pacific Coast Highway.

I’ve seen them at the Hollywood Bowl! You’re absolutely right there.

MB: I really, super dig that album. It’s great.

 
You can watch all of season two of Hacks on HBOMax now.
 
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