My phone rang the evening after the Los Angeles premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Tarantino himself was calling to talk about his latest album: a very special approach to the film’s soundtrack.
But first, some context: Tarantino’s latest film is an ode to Los Angeles in 1969, when the Manson family ruled Spahn Ranch (and drew the sexual attention of more than a few famous men), spaghetti Westerns were just becoming a thing, and KHJ “Boss Radio” soundtracked the lives of white Angelenos with Deep Purple and the Box Tops, stitched together with the patter of jocks like Humble Harve and jingly ads for stuff like Pioneer Chicken and Montgomery Bank.
While Tarantino might be best known for his filmography — and if you haven’t heard of films like Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, and Inglorious Basterds, I envy your discovery process — his discography is crafted with equal intention and precision. He’s a music fan, and it shows.
I’ve heard you talk about how music is both the source, and often the clarifying agent, for many of your creative ideas. Word on the street is that you have an incredible “record room.” How many records do you have?
Oh, I’ve never counted. I don’t even know how many film prints I have. I’ve always been afraid to put my obsessions under a microscope that much. But the truth of the matter is — I have a really, really, really good record collection, but I haven’t kept up with it in a big way over the last five or six years. Now when I go traveling, one of my favorite things to do when I go to another country or state is to go and see if they have a used record store. So maybe three times a year, I find myself in some really cool place I’ve never been before and there’s a cool record store, and then I’ll go on a buying spree while I’m there.
And when you say you’re not “keeping up with your collection,” what does that mean?
It’s not like I’m always looking out for and buying discs all the time, or I’m really working hard to fill a run of somebody’s work or whatever. I’ve got enough stuff now to listen to forever, so it’s more now I go on record-buying sprees whenever I’m around a cool store.
Do you have your top three record stores in the world?
Oh, good question, actually. I would say Amoeba is pretty good. I don’t know if I’d call them “the best in the world,” but they’re pretty damn good for Los Angeles, I will say that! I think the best that I know of in the world is Pet Sounds in Stockholm. It’s just so fantastic because they have a great selection, and their records are just in perfect condition. I’ll buy stuff I already have. So I would say Pet Sounds, Antone’s in Austin, Texas, and yeah, Amoeba would be third.
So how did you get into collecting vinyl? When did the obsession start?
Well, I’m at the right age to collect albums. That was just the way you listened to music back then!
I was listening to records from as far as I can remember. My first records that I got were all children’s records. Particularly all the Disney movies … where they would get one character from the movie describing the story, and you had little splashes of dialogue from the movie, and then all the songs from the movie were always contained. And that was great. I got all kinds of really cool ’60s albums like Wilma Flintstone reads to Pebbles and Bam Bam, the story of Bambi — which was a record! [Laughs.]
And I was really into Hanna-Barbera at the time, so there were different Hanna-Barbera song records. One in particular had Fred and Barney and Bill Dana’s character Jose Jimenez get into a time machine and start going everywhere. It was a lot of fun!
I got to speak with [Mary Ramos, Tarantino’s longtime music supervisor who worked on this film] about the soundtrack. She was talking about how those are actual archival KHJ Radio samples on the soundtrack as part of the package, plus bits of dialogue from the film, and so on. Is there any throughline from those early narrative Disney albums to the presentation or special format of this particular album that’s being released?
Oh no. Not necessarily. You were asking when I first started getting records. Those were kids’ albums and they were cute and everything, but I graduated to records that didn’t have people talking on them. [Laughs.]
But you’re bringing up something that’s actually kind of interesting, because I’ve long been saying that I have a modus operandi where when I’m thinking about a movie, I go into my record room, and I start looking for music for the film. And that’s kind of how I’ve been doing it from the beginning.
That wasn’t the case on this one. I started working on the script for this a long time ago. So I [went into my record room] then. I had a whole little soundtrack — I wasn’t even finished with the script — that I thought would be terrific for the movie. And I was working from the assumption that that would be how I would do it.
But then I didn’t know I wanted to use the KHJ Radio as this kind of period narrator, as this instrument to play all this stuff. I got about 17 to 14 hours of KHJ recordings … and I started listening to it and it was amazing! I remember this from when I was 6 or 7, but to hear it all over again kind of blew my mind. It was great. I had to listen to it all just so I could chronicle it. Like: This is a Pioneer Chicken commercial, and then an RC Cola commercial, and this DJ outro, or whatever. I started getting into the groove of what KHJ was doing between 1968 and 1969. Also, [KHJ Radio] was really fun. There was a reason why it was so popular! It was really fun to listen to, even now.
And then I realized: I don’t think I should play any song in this movie (if it’s coming from the radio, anyway) that’s not from these tapes. So I can’t just take a song I like, and then throw a KHJ DJ in front of it. No. If it’s coming from the radio, and supposedly coming from KHJ, then I want it actually from KHJ, taken from those recordings, from this source.
The thing about it was … I remember how ubiquitous radio was back then. And KHJ dominated out here from like ’64 to at least 1974. Car radio was really big. You even would turn the radio on when you get home. And people wouldn’t search the dial. You kept it on one station, you played it really fucking loud, and you didn’t turn the volume down when the commercials were on. You talked over it. [Laughs.]
Was that just like the universal cultural standard of radio-listening?
It was just the way.
In an interview, you called this film a memory piece, and Mary called this soundtrack a time capsule. How did you create this time capsule experience?
We live in a world music-wise — well, things have really fractured, but even before they fractured the way they have, with Spotify and all that stuff — where when people talk about charts, it’s very nationally-oriented. But back then, it was not the case! A song would be a hit in Detroit. A song would be a hit in Texas. A song would do really well in Los Angeles. But it didn’t necessarily go national.
If you go and get that old Rhino record, The Box Tops’ Greatest Hits, the great Alex Chilton, it’s easy to scoff at it, like, Oh yeah, “greatest hits.” There’s The Letter, and there’s Cry Like A Baby. Well, actually, they had a lot of hits. Those were just the two that went national. But listening to KHJ tapes, all these wonderful Box Tops songs actually played and did well in Los Angeles. Sweet Cream Ladies, Choo Choo Train, I Met Her In Church, their version of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, all played big time on the radio in Los Angeles. They were part of that KHJ sound.
So I kept finding these really, really cool songs that I thought were wonderful, they fit the vibe, they were catchy, but they’re not going to be as known as Mrs. Robinson because they didn’t go national. And I really started loving that idea.
But they had to be great. Like, “Oh, wow, this is a hit I’ve never heard of before!” Like the Buchanan Brothers song, Son of A Lovin’ Man. That had that feeling.
Do you collect anything else besides records? What are these other “obsessions”?
Well, look. I’m now officially getting to the age where I’m like, do I need all this fucking junk? [Laughs.] But I just got to that age. I’ve been collecting the junk in piles since I can remember. I have a big video collection, a big record collection, paperback collection. I collect movie posters and lobby cards. You know, all that shit.
Did you ever play music?
No, I never have. My wife is a famous singer in Israel, but no. I never have. [Laughs.]
Sometimes I think that the greatest fans are not professional musicians. As someone who has been a professional musician.
Well, I feel a little silly because my stepfather was a musician. He was a piano bar musician. And it would have been nice if, during the time that we lived together, he had taught me how to play an instrument! He coulda done it. I woulda been into it! [Laughs.] He could have taught me how to play guitar. He played guitar every fuckin’ day!
So a lot of this movie happens in cars. People are whipping up and down the hills, and every character has their own car, and the driving style is really amplified and has a lot of personality. What role does driving play in this film? There’s the connection to the radio, yes, but is there another function?
Well, it’s kind of a three-way thing. One, this is life in Southern California. It’s part of the LA groove is you drive everywhere. And if you’ve got a fun car, that’s even funner. So now you’re driving, there’s the whole environment of moving from one part of town to another part of town, with the scenery flying by. And you mix it with the radio, which is almost your co-pilot or air traffic controller as you negotiate your boat through the Los Angeles freeway system and the hills and stuff. And then you combine the visual of driving in Los Angeles with the right kind of song — well now you’ve got something fun and cinematic to look at. I mean, some of those shots of Brad [Pitt] driving, I don’t need a story! I just want to sit back and watch how fun it is.
You have fans, and you’re very good to them in your work. You leave lots of references and clues for deep fans to find. Is there a crumb you want to leave in this interview for music lovers to track down and find?
When I kinda got into the whole KHJ Radio idea, I couldn’t help but think about the American Graffiti soundtrack.
That was another double record set with a bunch of ’50s hits. And it was punctuated with Wolfman Jack DJ stuff, from the movie. And that was a seminal record for me, because I was really, really into ’50s music. I didn’t have that many records of ’50s music, but I was listening to the oldies stations a lot in ’75 and ’76 and stuff. And so I got the American Graffiti soundtrack, and it was like BAM! I had a treasure trove. That was my primer to get into ’50s rock and roll — and I hadn’t even seen the movie! So I started using that record as a nice jumping-off point for us putting together this package.
That’s perfect! So you make mixtapes. When was the last time you made a mixtape?
Four days ago? [Laughs.] I still love making mixtapes. I can still play tapes in my car. As I was finalizing the track list, I would put it together, and I would make a tape of it. And for the next few days, I would play the tape in my car and listen to how the songs flew. How they went from one tune to another. And then I’d change it around for a little bit.
Is there something about having to spend that real time making a—
Oh yes! Here’s the thing. If you’re a friend of mine, and you burn a CD of a song list that you like that you think I would like, look — there’s no two, three, four ways about it. That’s a really nice thing to do. Thank you. I don’t know if I’m going to listen to it, though? I might? I might not? And not even because I’m making a big thing about not listening to it, it’s just … it just seems completely disposable. Even the disc itself seems disposable. It’s like a coaster.
But when you made a tape for somebody, you didn’t just hit a button and burn a bunch of stuff. No, you had to make it. You had to put records on, you found the groove, you had to put it all together, and you had to listen to it. And you’re listening to it as you go. And maybe you change your mind, and you think oh, no! That’s not the right song to put on! And you usually screwed up at least once. [Laughs.] But it was an effort. You were really doing something for somebody. You were investing time. You were investing love. It was a lovely act to make a tape for somebody. It was an act of selflessness. And it was a small devotion, but it was a devotion nevertheless.
Has anyone made you a mixtape recently?
Would anyone dare make you a mixtape?
People would. Yes. [Laughs.] People would. You’ve got me thinking.
I don’t think I’ve gotten someone who’s made me a tape in maybe a year and a half.
I hope you get one soon. That you like. [Laughs.]
Well, I have the equipment. [Laughs.] You know, if I make a tape for somebody right now, I know they just take the tape and burn it onto a CD. They don’t have anything to play it on. Or if they do have something to play it on, they’re so excited to have a tape from Quentin Tarantino, they’re afraid the tape’s not gonna work. Or they’re gonna ruin the tape.
It’s too precious?
I saw a tape in the street the other day with its guts hanging out, and was swept back to the ’80s and ’90s when that was a common sight. And now it’s like — whoa. Tape guts!
It was a big deal in the ’90s to make a tape for somebody! And when you made it for someone, you knew they were listening to it in their car!
I learned about The Cure because a girl made a tape for my brother.
I literally still have tapes that some of my friends during my video archives years in the ’80s made for me. Cassette tapes. I have some friends there that have some really eclectic, really cool taste. So, like, cool acts like the Collins Kids, I knew because one of their rockabilly tapes. The Collins Kids, they’re amazing! I even have a tape — back when new wave was getting started, I worked at a movie theater, and there was a guy there who made me a tape with, like The Plimsouls, The Cramps, The Pretenders, and Elvis Costello. And I still have those two tapes!
Is there anything else you wanna say about the vinyl that’s coming out this weekend? Your special small-batch, limited edition thing with the special label? Note: True believers can look for a limited-run, special edition vinyl at Amoeba Records or New Beverly Cinema now (if you’re in LA and get lucky!) in a plain white sleeve that has a special label designed by Tarantino.
That’s a good question. I guess the main thing that I wanna say is — I think this might be the best one! That says it all.
And just to be clear, I’m about as proud of my discography as I am of my filmography. I really really like my soundtrack albums, and I think for me they’re wonderful. Every single one of them. And I really love them. I’m very proud of them, and I actually have them in my record room. I have all of them up on the wall, and they all look really damn good together, and I get really proud when I look at them.
The vinyl will be available in the fall in the following formats, with the pre-order available now:
– Deluxe vinyl: 220 gram heavyweight “tequila sunrise” colored vinyl, gatefold package with four 11″x17″ numbered posters, a Once Upon A Time In Hollywood 24″x36″ poster and one Once Upon A Time In Hollywood 11″x17″ map
– Indie retail exclusive: 180 gram heavyweight orange vinyl, gatefold package with a Once Upon A Time In Hollywood 24″x36″ poster and one Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 11×17 Map
– Standard: includes a Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 11×17 Map
Anna Bulbrook is an interdisciplinary artistic director, creative curator and programmer, and speaker/writer at the intersection of music, pop culture, ideas, and social justice. Bulbrook is the founder and leader of Girlschool, the Los Angeles-based feminist creative-producing organization that uses interdisciplinary emerging culture to imagine paths forward. She is also a professional musician with an RIAA-Certified Gold Record from a decade as the violinist in major-label rock band the Airborne Toxic Event, plus additional credits with Edward Sharpe + The Magnetic Zeros, Sia, Beyoncé, Vampire Weekend, Kanye West, and more.
This article was produced in partnership with Columbia Records.