DuJour Navigation

The Sound and Style of ‘Vinyl’

Actor Max Casella hopes the new HBO series reignites some rock ‘n’ roll fever

In 1973, New York City wasn’t much like it is today. Crime was rampant, the city was on the verge of financial collapse and the idea of a skyscraper as a place for international billionaires to park their fortunes hadn’t quite been perfected. But if there was one way in which the city could have been said to be thriving, it was musically. It was in 1973 that CBGB (soon to be the most famous venue in the world) opened its doors and artists including The New York Dolls, Roxy Music, Lou Reed and David Bowie released seminal records. That’s the world that Vinyl, the new HBO series debuting February 14, inhabits.

The show, which was created by Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Rich Cohen and Terence Winter, follows Bobby Cannavale’s Richie Finestra, founder of American Century Records, as he and the people around him attempt to keep the company above water. Max Casella (Blue Jasmine, Inside Llewyn Davis) plays Julie Silver, Finestra’s right-hand man and A&R chief and one of the series’ most compelling characters. Here, he explains what makes the show special and suggests some extracurricular listening.

The world that Vinyl depicts—that of high-flying, hard-partying record execs at the top of their game—doesn’t exist at all anymore. What do you think is appealing about looking back on this bygone era?

As far as I can tell, rock n’ roll right now isn’t dead, it’s in a coma. I don’t know who the big rock n’ roll band is right now. I mean, who is the biggest rock band in the world right now that’s selling out stadiums? They’re not! The biggest acts are pop. I hope this show brings back some of that interest in rock ‘n’ roll. I’m hoping it will reignite some of that.

So, rock music from the 1970s is something you’re passionate about?

It’s totally my bag. When I started researching this show, I must have spent $1,000 on songs from iTunes just because I’d come across them while researching the history of rhythm and blues. Every time a song would be referenced, I would cross reference it and listen to it and then I would go fall in love with it and then I’d buy it. I ended up buying a bunch of music for the show, but I already had a huge music collection to begin with. I’m a huge jazz fan and a soul, rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n’ roll fan. From the get-go, one of the reasons I was so excited about Vinyl is that music is something I am totally passionate about.

Is that part of what made playing Julie interesting to you?

Going in, I didn’t know anything about the part. At my audition, which was basically one scene, I was a record executive, an A&R guy, and I knew very little about the role. I auditioned in November 2013 and I didn’t hear until the following March that I had gotten it. I had forgotten all about it, just kind of like, I thought it wasn’t gonna go any further. So I got the job, I’m gonna work with Martin Scorsese, and I was just over the moon, screaming. I mean, what is this, Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Winter and an HBO series about rock ‘n’ roll in 1973 New York City? It checks every box I could have hoped for.

When we meet Julie, he’s struggling a bit to keep his edge. He’s been at the top of his game, but there are kids in the office who are nipping at his heels. What’s in store for him this season?

Julie is desperately trying to maintain his relevance. He’s put in charge of this new punk band—he’s supposed to sort of polish them up and get them ready—but he doesn’t know anything about what punk rock is because it’s brand new. And he’s also not really hip anymore. He’s trying to work with this new band using skills that are a bit old-fashioned. I don’t want to give away any more than that. 

One of the most impressive things about Vinyl is the production design—everything from the clothes to the cars and the nightclubs are spot on. How does that play into your performance?

When I step into the clothes, or onto the set, I get right into this character. First of all, the clothes are fantastic and I have some of the best of anybody on the show. They give me such great stuff to wear. And then you step onto the set, into the offices of American Century Records, and you’re just there, you’re in the time. It’s amazing. You step right on there and it does so much of your work for you. It’s flawless.

Is there one record you’d recommend people buy to get them in the mood for Vinyl?

I’d recommend The Velvet Underground’s Loaded, the one with “Sweet Jane” and “Cool It Down.” That’s a good one. 

Is there anyplace you’d like to see the series go from here? Are there different cities or specific places in New York that could be a fit for these guys?

I’ve been begging them to do a story with Julie, who’s me, and maybe some of the other guys, and have them go down to Muscle Shoals in Alabama to record. You’d have three Jews and a black guy in the car and you know something fucked up would happen down there.