The Cost of Winning is an HBO docuseries about the St. Frances Academy football team as they reach great heights of success thanks, in part, to a unique coach. Composer Kovas and music supervisor Joe O’Riordan painted the sonic picture that elevates the narrative.
In the Cost of Winning, the St. Frances Academy struggles from a lack of financial support. It’s located in a dilapidated area of Baltimore, lacks funding, and needs desperate repair. However, things change with the arrival of a new head coach, Biff Poggi, who helps bring a wave of change that propels the school to football dominance in Baltimore and beyond.
PopAxiom discussed making music for film and TV and the Cost of Winning with KOVAS and Joe.
In The Beginning
“When I was a kid writing songs and making music,” Kovas says, “I didn’t think at all I would be a composer.”
For Joe, becoming a music supervisor “wasn’t what I set out to do. I grew up playing in punk bands. My band broke up. I was dating a girl who got an internship working for the Jackass guys. My choice was either stay in Columbus as a broke musician or move to LA.”
Joe’s decision quickly led to a “job at Dickhouse Productions logging film and Fantasy Factory episodes. I became friends with the music supervisor. With my background in music, I knew a bunch of artists and people. I eventually got a coordinator gig, and now I’ve been music supervising for about ten years.”
“We started working formally with each other on On My Block,” Kovas explains, “but we’ve been intertwined for a long time. I was producing and doing remixes of songs … a bunch of stuff at the Fantasy Factory.”
Officially, Kovas explains, “the first project we worked on was a Netflix series called The Comedy Lineup.”
“We work great together,” he continues, “Joe’s able to put in such great music, and I can complement that with the score.”
Joe explains why he and Kovas click. “I pride myself on being an encyclopedia of music. I can talk about Baltimore club music, and he knows the difference between that and Washington DC go-go music. I don’t know a whole lot of people that know that type of stuff.”
“I DJ as well,” Kovas expands on their shared comprehensive understanding of music, “so I have that deep knowledge of both punk bands and the hottest rappers. I started in hip-hop, and to do that, you’re sometimes referencing the entire library of music.”
Joe credits family for part of the reason he knows so much music. “I’m 35, but my grandparents raised me, so my music knowledge goes pretty far back. I think having access to that toolbox is something that Kovas has too. I know a lot of younger composers who’ve never heard something like Abby Road, and I’m like ‘Whaaat?'”
Kovas shares his philosophy on excelling at whatever it is you like to do. “I feel like when you want to be a great music supervisor or composer, you want to know what existed beforehand. When I think about music, there are only 12 notes, but I want to study what everyone’s done with those notes.”
About Cost Of Winning
Filmmakers Rob Ford (Shut Up and Dribble) and Maurice Holden (Tiger at 30) followed the St. Frances steam in the fall of 2018 and created a four-part series that’s now living on HBO. “I was brought in when it was an indie project, and they hoped it would stream in places, but we weren’t sure. As the pandemic started, HBO was busy gathering up a bunch of sports films. We were beneficiaries of that.”
“I did Baltimore bass beats in the series,” Kovas says, “that’s authentic to the sounds of that city. So, I hope when people from Baltimore hear that music, they’ll recognize it as their own and not some cheap music library music that sounds like hip-hop from 2011.”
The film business requires a lot of give and take. But Joe says he was “very adamant that this film is about Baltimore and it’s important to Baltimore, so it was important to me that any music that didn’t come from a composer would be Baltimore music.”
“When they’re listening to Talib Kwali in the projects on The Wire,” Joe shares a pet peeve, “I’m like ‘c’mon man, they won’t be listening to that!’ It’s important to me that it’s true. That was my initial pitch for The Cost of Winning.”
Kovas laughs. “It’s like putting a 1950s car in Blade Runner. What are you doing?” He further cements their goal of staying true to the music of the area. “As a composer, I try to make it authentic as possible down to figuring out what software they were using mostly at that time or whether it was this drum machine or that drum machine. I try to make it sound authentic down to the equipment.”
“Kovas said to me, ‘let me sketch you out something,'” Joe says of the early days of the process. “He sketched the opening scene, and the producers said to me ‘don’t even bother with anyone else.'”
Kovas received good and bad news soon into the process for creating the Cost of Winning score. “At the early stage when they hired me, they said, ‘Good news is we want you, the bad news is that you’ve only got about two-and-a-half weeks to get it done.”
As a musical encyclopedia, asking Joe for some of his favorite influences is a slippery slow. “I’m inclined to list off all four members of the Beatles,” he says, “I mean, seriously, aren’t we all just trying to be the Beatles? I love Daniel Johnson so much, Andy Kaufman, and Hunter S. Thompson. Anyone who is doing real sh*t and not because of the tides of the time.”
“I think of music as art,” Kovas says and shares that he experiences synesthesia. “Music is a painting to me. People like Basquiat inspire me. You could send me a photograph, and I’ll compose music based on the work’s composition and colors. To me, Quincy Jones and the breadth of his work. From working with Miles Davis to Frank Sinatra to producing Thriller and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I’ve always wanted to be multi-dimensional in my creative output. I also love the Beatles,” he laughs. “I have to acknowledge Frank Lloyd Wright. Music is sonic architecture, and architecture was my first love as a kid.”
Joe’s time in punk bands was spent as a bass guitarist. Kovas plays “five instruments” but shares the truth about what his go-to instrument is today “my main instrument is the computer.”
If Kovas could compose the score for a remake, reimagining, or reboot of a movie he loves, he’d pick “Citizen Kane.”
“My gut says Goodfellas, but that’s like perfect. I couldn’t do it better,” Joe says, then shares a unique answer that for those who are in the know, it’s a great answer. “I would want NBC to get the rights to the NBA back so I can have a stab at re-creating John Tesh’s NBA theme. One of the most iconic pieces of music ever, the NBA on NBC.”
Cost of Winning is available on HBO. So, what’s next for Joe? “I’m working on Ridiculousness on MTV. A show on Starz called Men In Kilts. It’s the two guys from Outlander doing a travel show based in the Scottish Highlands. I got really into learning about Scottish music. Also, a couple of spinoffs of Ridiculousness, like Deliciousness, are coming out. On My Block season four, which I hope to get my hands dirty with that real soon.”
“Season four of On My Block, we’re coming out with a bang,” Kovas says. “An artist from Montreal called Empire-I, I just produced her new album. I have a new album that I’m working on with James McCallister.”
Is Cost Of Winning on your watch list?
Thanks to KOVAS, Joe O’Riordan, and Rhapsody PR
for making this interview possible.
Read more interviews from Ruben R. Diaz!