Ato Essandoh on HBO's Vinyl, His Vinyl, and the Garden State Soundtrack

On April 13, 2016

by Ben Munson


Ato Essandoh had forgotten about records until his friend, actress Tessa Thompson, randomly bought him a copy of Jimi Hendrix’s Midnight Lightning a few years back when they were in Toronto filming the TV series Copper. But that was the spark that Essandoh, who currently stars as blues musician done wrong Lester Grimes in HBO’s Vinyl, needed to start overflowing his apartment with records.

“I bought this credenza and I was like ‘I don’t want to go over the capacity of that credenza’ and I’ve already gone over capacity,” Essandoh said of the 400-plus record collection he’s already amassed. “I have to figure out another thing I can buy to hold the records. It’s slowly getting out of hand.”

Essandoh said his collection features a lot of blues, classic rock like the Rolling Stones, basically everything that Jack White does, and a ton of jazz. He recently bought a compilation from McCoy Tyner, who he calls a “beast on the piano,” and he’s currently working on building his Prince collection. It’s a record collection he’s careful to populate with stuff he loves like Nina Simone and Radiohead.

“I try to have it curated because, to me, the ultimate compliment to an artist is that, I bought you on vinyl,” Essandoh said. “If I’m going to take the time to buy this piece of plastic and futz with it on a record player, it’s because I think you’re awesome.”

Ahead of the season finale of Vinyl, which airs Sunday, April 17, we talked with Essandoh about the blues music that inspired his portrayal of Lester Grimes, whether any music could prepare him for his gruesome scene in Django Unchained, and if the Garden State soundtrack really did change his life.

Vinyl Me, Please: If you could only save one record out of your collection, which one would it be?

Ato Essandoh: Oh damn, I knew you were going to say that. One record out of my collection? Holy shit. That’s like deciding between kids. One record out of my collection? That’s way…fucking hell! It would have to be Hendrix. OK, I’m having heart palpitations thinking about this. Holy crap. There’s a Jimi Hendrix blues compilation I would save, but then I would just kill myself because all the records would be gone and I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.

But yeah, that Jimi Hendrix blues compilation is a badass album.

What records did you listen to when you were preparing for your role in Vinyl?

I listened to a lot of blues because Lester is a blues guy. So I was listening a lot of Son House, Lightning Hopkins, and Memphis Slim. What I love about those kind of blues people is that they’re mostly guitarists and they all have a presence. There’s an image of the blues man sitting there with his guitar, that’s maybe slightly out of tune, and he’s tapping his foot and singing. That’s evocative of what I wanted Lester at his core to be.

Speaking of that Jimi Hendrix blues album, there’s this great acoustic version of “Hear My Train a Comin’” and it’s Jimi on a 12-string. There’s a video of him playing that and I could watch that 1,000 times because it’s him just tapping his foot playing these beautiful, expressive blues lines on that guitar and singing. And that’s what my inspiration is. When Lester is alone, that’s what he does and it’s not for anybody, it’s just for love and the pure expression of the music.

Are there any cool new records you discovered through working on Vinyl?

I knew who the New York Dolls were but after hearing the song in the pilot, I’m so into the New York Dolls now that I’m trying to look for them on vinyl. I missed that whole thing so I never was a glam rock, punk rock type of person so that’s what’s been introduced to me through Vinyl.

What about the Nasty Bits? They’re a real band, right?

Yeah, they’re really great guys. They’re a band called Beach Fossils. I’m holding their self-titled album right now and I think they’re working on a new one. It’s great music and it’s cool to see what they’re playing on Vinyl and what they’re working on in their real life. They’re consummate, kind of nerdy musicians. It kind of reminds me of that Radiohead thing where there are a lot of melodic aural landscapes they like to evoke with their music. It’s really cool. I recommend it.

Did you talk to Scorsese about music? I’ve read that he has a huge record collection.

I didn’t know about the record collection but he’s a savant. I think that I’m a blues fan, for example, but we were talking during a rehearsal and he was popping up with names of blues people that I had never heard of. Finally I just shut up and listened. Some of these guys he knows personally. Obviously he knows Mick Jagger and the Stones. But he is like an encyclopedia of not just music but movies, New York history and world history. When you just shut up and let him talk you’re suddenly getting this amazing education about stuff he actually witnessed. He is like a historian.

Have you got to nerd out with any other actors you’ve worked with about music? Were you surprised by anybody?

Not really. I talked a lot with the Beach Fossils because I’m into people making music. Actually that’s not true because working with Randall Poster, who is the music supervisor [on Vinyl], and Meghan Currier and Stewart Lerman, when we were recording the music that Lester ends up singing, they invited me to Electric Lady Studios. I’ve passed it a million times in the Village but never had the occasion to visit to because who am I? And now suddenly I’m in my Mecca. I’ve seen the documentaries, I’ve read the books, so I kind of already know what it looks like inside. And now I’m standing there and I’m freaking out. I can’t contain how happy I am that I’m standing in the same place where Eddie Kramer put together Jimi Hendrix albums. I’m like, holy shit. So Stew Lerman, who’s one of the music supervisors, was like “So you’re a Hendrix fan?” and I’m like “Am I a Hendrix fan? You have no idea, man!” So we just geeked out because he’s also a guitarist so we just sat there and talked and that’s how we became very good friends.

A lot of the things that are happening on this show and a lot of the opportunities I’ve gotten because of this show, I still can’t believe that I’m the guy that gets to do this. And now I’m used to going to Electric Lady. I’m like “Oh, I have to go to the studio again…wait a minute!”


What kind of music did you listen to while you were working on Django Unchained?

I didn’t listen to much music, at least not purposefully for the movie, you know, because I get eaten by dogs. You know, unless there’s a funeral dirge out there…[laughs]

Did you get a chance to talk to Tarantino about music?

Yeah, he’s awesome. He plays music on set, like all the time, which is kind of cool. I think he does it just to loosen people up because we’re doing such an intense thing that we need to have a looseness about it. Also RZA was putting a lot of the music together as well, so there were a lot of heavy hitters. Tarantino’s movies are driven by music in much the same that Scorsese’s movies are driven by music. Like in Goodfellas when the Stones’ “Monkey Man” comes on, I love how that just blends into the storytelling and the craziness of what is going on in Ray Liotta’s character’s mind as he’s getting all paranoid and devolving into the end of the movie. That stuff is things I always remember and I go “Wow, music is fucking awesome.”

Guys like Scorsese and Tarantino put a lot of care into their movie soundtracks but I’m curious, how do you feel about owning soundtracks on vinyl?

On vinyl, I don’t go after soundtracks. I do have Jimmy Cliff The Harder They Come and that’s actually a soundtrack but I don’t think of it as a soundtrack to a movie. It’s just a bunch of Jimmy Cliff songs. If I like a soundtrack I look for it on iTunes. That’s my music snobbery.

Yeah, vinyl is more about the album format so a compilation seems counterintuitive.


But I have to ask, what about the Garden State soundtrack?

That’s a great soundtrack, man. I know it’s stereotypical but I have the Shins and I discovered the Shins because of that soundtrack. I know that I have a bunch of Zero 7 on iTunes. But I have a bunch of Shins’ albums because of that Natalie Portman line where she’s like “The Shins will change your life.” I listened to them and was like “They’re a great frickin’ band. Man, this is a great song.”

Vinyl’s season finale is this Sunday, April 17.

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