Text & photos by Mike Mettler, resident Styxologist
Ozark images all courtesy Netflix
“To see Styx and ‘Renegade’ show up in the promos and in the trailer for the final episodes of Ozark like it did was a really amazing thing.” —Gabe Hilfer
Exactly how did “Renegade,” one of Styx's signature songs, make its way into the fabric of Ozark, the widely acclaimed Netflix drama series that's sure to garner a score of Emmy nods for its just-completed fourth and final season? Glad you asked.
To get the answers, I spoke exclusively with Gabe Hilfer, the music supervisor for Ozark who has also helmed the music supervision for other name shows like The Walking Dead, Mare of Easttown, and The Righteous Gemstones, to name but a few.
Let’s breakdown the impact of not only Styx in Ozark, but also of one of their Live & UnZoomed tourmates this summer, REO Speedwagon. In REO Speedwagon’s case, “Time for Me to Fly” played a key role in Season 3, Episode 3, which was titled “Kevin Cronin Was Here” — and indeed he was there, since REO themselves got to play that song live in the back half of the ep itself (in addition to having it appear in another key sequence in that very same episode).
In Styx’s case, “Renegade” factored into Ozark’s final season in two pivotal ways: 1) via a somewhat recast excerpt of the song in the trailer for Season 4’s final seven episodes that were made available for streaming back on April 29, and 2) the song itself plays an extended key role in a pair of scenes at the very outset of the second-to-last episode, S4 Ep13, “Mud.” As Styx guitarist/vocalist and “Renegade” songwriter Tommy Shaw told me, “Hearing ‘Renegade’ in the most anticipated season of Ozark was great news. And when I heard the way they had used the bits and pieces in the trailer, we were all blown away. We’ll be watching!” And watch we all did. Me, I’m currently rewatching the entire series because, well, taken as a whole, Ozark holds up even better on repeat viewing.
Recently, I got live and fully Zoomed with Hilfer to discuss how integral music is in general to the flavor of every Ozark episode, how the show’s lead actress Laura Linney interacted with the music she “heard” playing in her character Wendy Byrde’s car, and why “Renegade” was the hands-down perfect choice for inclusion in the series’ next-to-last episode. Oh mama, as the very beginning of our favorite song in question itself goes. . .
Mike Mettler: Gabe, you’ve been able to make some really great musical choices throughout the entire series of Ozark. From the very beginning, I feel like the sound design and the visuals have always matched up very, very well. Right off the bat, Radiohead was one of those first “perfect” choices from the very beginning [“Decks Dark,” which plays at the end of S1 Ep1, “Sugarwood,” that first streamed on Netflix on July 21, 2017]. Did you feel you had carte blanche to get anything you wanted from the start of the show?
Gabe Hilfer: (extends the beginning of his first word for maximum effect) Nnnnn. . . No! (MM laughs) Because with any first season of any show — no one’s seen it yet. So, you’re doing a lot of selling. You’re explaining what it is, what the tone is, and why people might want to be involved. Once it’s well-regarded or it’s out in the world, it’s a lot easier to sell the show to artists because then they’re like, “Oh damn, I love that show!”
Part of my job is I maintain relationships with artists, bands, publishers, labels, and stuff like that. When I come in and I tell them, “This is really good show — trust me. This is something you want to license me your music for,” they have to believe I’m credible. But I don’t always say that. Sometimes I tell them (whispers), “It’s ok.” (laughs heartily)
Mettler: (laughs) Yeah. Well, in this case, you could totally say how great Ozark was from the start, and the content of the show totally backs you up.
Hilfer: From the very beginning, like during the first season of the show, we were trying to find that different tone of what different characters’ music would be like. You’ve mentioned the Radiohead track. And then we had Ruth [Langmore, played by multiple Emmy Award-winner Julia Garner], where she’s wearing a Tupac shirt in one episode.
Chris Mundy, the showrunner, he used to write for Rolling Stone and other music publications — he knows his music. I came up in New York City in high school in the ’90s, so hip-hop was my music of choice, but that’s not always appropriate for every show. But when Chris sort of opened the door to using hip-hop, I was like, “Well . . . game on!” We had a great time trying to figure out the sound and the tone of what Ruth would like by going back to that established, golden era of hip-hop from the ’90s, which was a real sweet spot for her.
But like I said, hip-hop is not appropriate for every character in the show, so we’ve also used a lot of classic pop and rock music as well.
Mettler: Yes, you have used a lot of rock — and speaking of that, while we won’t give any actual spoilers here, you do have Styx’s “Renegade,” a song that’s in the commercials and promo teasers for the second half of the final season. It’s also a song that plays very prominently in the entire series’ penultimate episode, “Mud,” right from the start of it.
[Your Styxologist notes: Rock and Ruth do occasionally mix together on Ozark, as “Renegade” does indeed play during the opening moments of “Mud” while Ruth is supervising, shall we say, the “makeover” of the Langmore trailer compound.]
Mettler: Also during “Mud,” you have Laura Linney, who plays Wendy Byrde, driving in her car listening to “Renegade,” and then the DJ comes on to ID the song, and she interacts with what he’s saying. Did Laura have an earpiece in while she was doing all that so she could hear the song play? Is that how you lined it up so she could actually listen along to “Renegade,” and then have her “talk back” to the DJ?
Hilfer: Yeah, you’re right — that is how we do it. She had an earpiece, and she listened along to “Renegade” in that way so you don’t hear it in the room [i.e., where the Ozark crew was filming the scene], and then we added the song in later for the final cut. That’s how we get it all done.
Part of the job in post is figuring out how to get it to play in real time, and there’s often plenty of trial and error with the song choices. Like, “Let’s try this!” And then it’s, “Nope, that’s an awful idea.” And then you go, “Let’s try this!” And then it’s, “Nope — even worse idea.” And then you get the Goldilocks moment and you’re like, “Oh my God, the perfect song!”
But then part of it is the very-early-prescribed stuff that’s in the script, or you have a conversation super-early on with the writers and with Chris [Mundy] about how we’re going to shoot it, or what we’re going to do.
It was the same thing with the Gerry Rafferty track in the episode before the “Renegade” one, where they already knew it was “Right Down the Line.” In the episode they’re listening to it [S4, Ep 12, “Trouble the Water”], Wendy actually remarks something like — well, I can’t remember her exact line, but it was like, “I f---ing hate this song.”
Mettler: (laughs) And then she proceeds to hate on somebody, so to speak. Well, actually it was Marty [Byrde, her husband, played by Jason Bateman] who did that, I should say.
Hilfer: (laughs) Right! It’s more fun when you get to explain it when you have to go get the band or the artist to approve it with a line like that. And her line there — it’s honest, and it’s true. Her line about the song was more indicative of the fight she’s having with her husband at the time, because he’s grooving out and likes the song, and she’s not.
Mettler: Right. She’s not having it.
Hilfer: She’s not having it. And then he. . . [Your Styxologist intercedes to note: The plot-point spoiler of sorts here from Gabe about Marty’s ensuing actions has been officially redacted for those who haven’t seen the episode yet.]
Mettler: It’s such a great moment in the show too! Now, in the case of using “Renegade,” was that a writer’s room choice? Did they know they wanted to use that song for that particular sequence?
Hilfer: I think they did, yes.
Mettler: Cool. And as we already noted, Wendy also talks back to the DJ there. Was that a real DJ, or did you guys just have somebody on hand do that? Do you know who that was?
Hilfer: I gotta go back to check it, but I’m pretty sure it was someone in the crew. He wasn’t a professional DJ on a radio station, I don’t think.
[Your Styxologist clarifies: Listed as “himself” in the episode’s credits, DJ Townson Wells is clearly heard in Wendy’s car on a radio station nicknamed “The Hollow,” 107.2 FM. Townson Wells is actually an assistant director on Ozark, and COOL 102.7 FM, a.k.a. Lake of the Ozarks Radio – COOL 102.7 KQUL, can be heard on the dial and/or the Internet, “playing the greatest music ever made!”]
Mettler: I love that. Another thing I like about how you do that on Ozark is, many times when characters are in cars, it always feels realistic because we all almost have something playing in our own cars whenever we’re driving, just like Wendy has with “Renegade.” A song comes on like that and we react to it, sing along to it, or comment about it.
Now, I’m not going to assume Laura Linney knows those songs by Styx or REO Speedwagon, or any of that other stuff we hear in the show, from her actual life, but she did sing along to REO really convincingly. When she sings REO’s “Time for Me to Fly” in Season 3 [Ep 3, “Kevin Cronin Was Here”], it didn’t sound like she was “pretending” to do that. It was all very realistic. And I can also tell you, after that season went up on Netflix [or March 27, 2020], I personally heard from a lot of bands who were envious of REO getting to actually play on the show in real time like they did. Basically, every band was like, “Hey, we want to be doing that!”
Hilfer: Oh, I love hearing about all that! And it’s funny, because when I got those scripts, it was scripted that way. Early, early on, it was in there — like, “REO Speedwagon performs at the thing at the riverboat casino, and the [tour] manager shakes them [the Byrdes] down. If it’s money laundering, then we need this, and we need this!”
To me, our people were like, “What do you think the odds are of getting REO Speedwagon?” And I was like, “Honestly? Let’s try!” The thing about writers — and I’ll just say some controversial stuff right here — is writers can script in whatever they want, because that’s their job. They’re creatively and generally free. And then somebody kind of reins them in. Sometimes it’s me, and sometimes it’s not me, to be like, “You can’t afford that,” or “That’s not possible,” or whatever the case is. When someone scripted in “REO Speedwagon,” I was like, “Who knows? Let’s try.”
We reached out to them, and they were super-game for it. They were like, “How do we make it work? This feels like our perfect opportunity to be on camera. Let’s get it done!” They were pros, and they got it all done. That was actually the most seamless, real-band-on-camera situation I’ve ever been involved with — and I’ve been involved with many, many of them.
Mettler: I know you have, and I have to say that performance really looks and sounds great too. But if you actually step back from it for a second, you’re using the real guys there where, basically, REO Speedwagon is saying, “We’re going to launder money through our act.” Some people might say, “Hey, do you want to be associated with that?” But because it fits so perfectly into the world of Ozark, I don’t think anybody was overtly worrying about it. I’ve actually spoken to Kevin [Cronin] and other members of the band about it, and those guys couldn’t have been happier to have been involved with Ozark and that whole storyline.
Hilfer: Yeah, and their team and their publishing company were super-helpful — the guys at Mojo Music [& Media]. They called me after those episodes aired, and they were like, “Dude, the numbers of these REO Speedwagon streams and everything went through the roof!” — just like we’re seeing now with Kate Bush and the current season of Stranger Things [due to that uber-popular Netflix show featuring her great 1985 song, “Running Up That Hill”]. And, of course, we saw that with Styx and “Renegade” too.
Through thoughtful TV or film placement — everybody kind of rediscovers the music of these acts in that way. And you can see it in a scientific manner with some really, really big streaming numbers.
Mettler: So true! To finish up with “Renegade,” the lyrical foreshadowing there in the song itself — just like a lot of what happens with music on Ozark, you almost already know something dreadful might be coming before you see it, and “Renegade” is the perfect song for what’s in store for that episode.
Hilfer: It really is. And I will also say this. Not to butter my bread twice, but Netflix, more than any other studio I work with, their marketing team checks in with me like, “What music are you guys using in the show so we can figure out how we could use it?” They ask me for a list, so to see Styx and “Renegade” show up in the promos and in the trailer like it did was a really amazing thing.