Thomas Golubic has been the music supervisor for the Breaking Bad universe since its inception. Over that time he has seen the role of music supervisor earn more distinction and recognition from the industry and the Television Academy. The category was created in just 2017, and since then Thomas has been nominated three times for Better Call Saul—including this year.
In our conversation, we discuss the challenge of choosing exactly the right songs on the tightest of budgets. As a couple of guys who love all kinds of music, you may find that we geek out a little bit talking about obscure records. Don’t hate us, we couldn’t help it.
Awards Daily: Better Call Saul has a very distinctive vibe when it comes to song choice. How do you go about creating that feel through song selection?
Thomas Golubic: That’s actually a very difficult question to answer, partly because we have a very open palette of music in the show. I think it hearkens back to Breaking Bad. Because we had a very small music budget to work with on Breaking Bad, it meant that we had to have a lot more flexibility with the variety of sounds that we would have in the show. We really couldn’t afford recognizable songs, so we had to focus on discoveries. I think, with Better Call Saul, that palette has expanded quite a bit. But I would say that we are shifting slowly from music that was aspirational for Jimmy McGill—music that he thought reflected who he was, which leans towards sophisticated jazz along the lines of Dave Brubeck—and now as he’s becoming Saul Goodman we are leaning much funkier, more loose and a bit sleazy in a really fun way. The sound of the show is moving from what he thought that he was into who he actually is.
AD: That makes me think of the Labi Siffre song “I Got The…” used in the desert montage of the “Bagman” episode. That song has so much personality and it cuts against the sparseness and despair of that sequence. How did you choose that cut?
Thomas: I gotta give that one to Vince. That was Vince Gilligan’s episode, and he put that song forward. He had this song in his mind for a while and we looked into other options for the sequence, but it works so well that we just felt that we were going to be doing nothing more than replacing something great with something that was almost as great. That’s very much a Vince Gilligan pick, but it’s also within the general sound palette that we’ve been working with. One of the great things about Better Call Saul is that it’s such a collaborative environment. As we’re talking about different ideas and setting a general trajectory for where the music is moving to, everybody from Vince to Peter to even the editors are slowly getting into that groove as well.
We’re all steering the ship in the same direction. That’s why it doesn’t matter who specifically suggested the song, because it’s usually always fitting in within the general trajectory of the show. I don’t think we’ve had any songs that felt like they were out of tune with the show even though we have music from all over the map. I mean, we had Burl Ives in an episode, and we had a new song from Lola Marsh, a duo out of Israel. It’s this constant shifting palette, which is really exciting, but I also think there’s a consistency to all the music used in the show—it always feels like it’s anchored in the character and in the environment of the world of our characters.
AD: I’ve also noticed more Latin music over the last couple of seasons and also a little more twang. It almost feels like a modern day Western.
TG: I would say that there’s two streams that are both moving in the same direction towards a bigger river, and that bigger river is Breaking Bad, which was fundamentally a Western. If you look at the early episodes of Better Call Saul there’s very little sign of it being a Western. We were actively moving in a different direction for the show. But we’re almost naturally finding ourselves paddling towards a Western. Also, we’re spending more time with the cartel figures—Lalo plays a big role this year. When we’re hanging out with Lalo we are frequently in locations where there’s regional Mexican music playing. The time period was interesting for reggaeton, because reggaeton was beginning to explode in Albuquerque around 2003-2004, which is where we are in our story. That sound was very much part of Albuquerque in that time period. We had a really interesting opportunity to anchor our characters to an actual time and place with the music that was happening at that time, while also moving slowly towards the Western. It’s a very astute observation, but I think it’s just part of the natural paddling that we’ve been doing.
AD: We’ve been talking about the use of below the radar music, but every now and then, we will hear a song that is familiar. As a secret Rick Springfield fan [Laughs], I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear “Affair of the Heart” during Kim’s flashback sequence. I also loved that it wasn’t “Jessie’s Girl” or “I’ve Done Everything For You” or something more obvious.
Thomas: Tom Schnauz (BCS Producer/Writer/Director) was a big part of that. He’s a fan of Rick Springfield. We talked a little bit about Kim’s mom, what type of parent she was, as well as the time period. What’s so great about that episode is it’s essentially an origin story. We’re getting to know Kim and trying to understand how vulnerable she is to turning towards crime the same way that Jimmy is. We’re also trying to figure out to what degree her stubbornness and her perseverance is something that she’s cultivated in herself. You get a sense of an extremely determined girl and how she grew this massive cello on her shoulder while she’s in the freezing cold waiting for her mom.
Her mom was at a bar, got a little drunk, lost track of time and forgot that she has a kid who has to get picked up. What music would she listen to? And we realized Springfield felt absolutely dead on right—it would fit within her taste range and within the time period. It would also be not commenting in any way on anything really, but just capturing a moment in time. Rick Springfield is not forgotten. His hits are still a big deal. It’s nice to hear that song in that context. Maybe she has a cassette in her car or maybe it was playing on the local radio station. I’m glad that you appreciated it because it was a a great joy to get Rick Springfield in the show.
AD: I also love how song choices can illustrate character. This is more of an El Camino question, but the character of Todd has always fascinated me. This sort of banal sociopath who tools down the road cranking up England Dan and John Ford Coley.
Thomas: [Laughs] Todd is a blast for us, going back to the Breaking Bad days when we first introduced him. One of the things that I think was really quite genius about the character was how Jesse Plemons played him, which evolved so beautifully over the course of the show. We see Todd in only a handful of scenes, but in every single one of them we have such a clear and compelling sense of the enigma of this character. You could spend hours trying to understand the psychology of the interior design of his apartment. One of the great joys of the show is that nothing is done by accident. Everything is carefully thought through, even if we have a character like him who is really all about mundane evil. His capacity to make an unemotional, practical choice—whether it’s killing a kid on a bike or the cleaning lady, or chaining up Jesse and keeping him in a hole—it’s just business to him. That’s the world that he comes from.
With music, we thought the cliche would be to give him some sort of rough and tumble or dark music, or no music at all. I think that his music taste was really introduced when we were expressing his interest in Lydia, and we realized that it made sense that he would probably listen to AM gold radio stations. He was not a guy who was going to be into contemporary music. He likes things that are pleasant. He doesn’t want things that are complicated. We ended up using a Steve Perry song called “Oh Sherrie.” It has this yearning, emotional quality. If you think about Steve Perry’s voice, it’s so emotional. You can hear in how he sings that he can’t hold that back. That’s something that Todd does not have. So, his appreciation of American pop music with real emotion is really compelling. It works as a counterpoint to the blank face of the cold-eyed killer that he is.
AD: Do you think Todd listens to that kind of music as a replacement for emotions he wishes he had?
Thomas: I don’t know if he does that. That’s the question I’ve asked myself, too. I don’t know if he wants to, I think that he just finds himself leaning in those directions. There’s something very interesting about manufactured emotions, and I think that for people who are sociopaths, there is something compelling about the lack of integrity in the packaging. It feels consumable. It’s almost like food you get at the store that has all of the trappings of nutrition, but isn’t really nutritious. [Laughs]
AD: I’ve always admired the lack of “on the nose” choices when it comes to songs in the show. You never play a song about a drug deal while a drug deal is going on. The songs set the tone and backdrop for the scene, but they don’t explain the scene. I assume that’s a conscious choice.
Thomas: Absolutely. In many ways, every department does that. We’ve been working together for so long that I feel like we’re a really good jam band, and everyone knows when it’s their turn to solo and when it’s their turn to be low key. If there’s a scene where we’re offering up a flashy car, we don’t need the music to be doing the same thing. You don’t need to put a hat on a hat is what is Vince always says. Sometimes the lyrics are really important, but generally speaking we avoid having lyrics that are supposed to be giving you meaning by weird coincidence—like someone talking about a drug deal while there’s a song about a drug deal playing—unless it’s part and parcel of the structure of the scene.
Like what we did in Breaking Bad where the song itself is a drug ballad (“The Ballad of Heisenberg“) and the whole thing is being made as a representation of Heisenberg. Otherwise, we really try to be smart about being realistic. We don’t always want you to notice the music. We just want the music to always feel integral to the scene and take you to a deeper place. It’s like a good flower arrangement. If you’re adding flowers to a beautiful bouquet it’s always nice to say, what can I add here that won’t distract, but will add more to the whole? Maybe it’s just a couple tiny little stringy leaves, or maybe it’s a big sunflower in the middle because that’s the part that will pop in a really nice way and complete the picture. We have to always figure out to what degree do we want to pull back and how much we want to lean forward. Because it’s such a collective effort, we get to the right answer together.
AD: You were talking about discovering music earlier. How do you go about finding such great, affordable songs? I’m a big-time music person and I’m lucky if I know half of what you’re playing on the show. I’m always looking up your playlist.
Thomas: We have a very open space for it. I think music comes probably in in three primary categories. One of them would be music that has been submitted to us, and frequently that’s just for budgetary concerns. If we need Mexican regional music, we need to know if we can license it. If you’re trying to pursue clearances on six or seven different songs and they’re all owned by major labels and they don’t know where the songwriters are, and we have to Google Translate emails to try to get to different countries to find people, it becomes impossible on a TV schedule to do that. We really rely upon our music library, or a Latin music specialist that would have music that’s one-stop licensing and affordable. Then we go through the songs to figure out what are the lyrics, what is it trying to say, are we trying to add anything on that level, what’s the culture of the music, what’s the EQ (equalization) like? We work very closely with our music editor to get the EQ right so it reads like it’s in the venue where it’s being played. And if Lalo is singing along to it, what is Lalo singing? Is it a song that’s well known, or is it something from his personal world? Then we think about where he came from and how he would have access to it. There’s a lot of depth that goes into even the small pieces of background music to make sure they always work.
Number two would be we have a good collection of music that is just simply coming from our massive library of music. One of the things that’s really great is that I have a team of four and we all collect different ideas. And because each person is from a different cultural and ethnic background, it meant the ideas that we were presenting always had a little bit of a different angle to them. We would be very democratic about it and say, what’s the best idea? How does it best tell the story? Because there’s more than one person collecting things, we were able to have really exciting ideas, and some of it would be pitched, and some of it would be pitched for another show.
Then the third category would be the deep dive, which is usually me going into my collection to try to find something that is not willfully obscure but not necessarily well known. Something that might have grabbed me from my ten years in radio. The one good thing about the job of music supervisor is we love geeking out and digging up music. So, to be able to say, we’re in Japan in 1975 and we’re with a psychedelic funk band that are a little anglo-centric [Laughs], how do we find something that captures that? Now that we have the internet and I have a pretty epic collection of music, because I’ve been collecting things over the years, if I saw something and it said Psychedelic Japanese pop music, I probably picked it up. [Laughs]
Every once in a while I go to my international section and I’m like, oh my god, I’ve got all these really great resilient Funk records that I haven’t listened to for years. Let me see if any of this is workable. Sometimes I’ll spend all night looking, but then we’ll go with one of the ideas that one of my team members came up with in a very short search. There’s plenty of lost time in that, but every once in a while we have a home run where you realize there’s no other way anyone would have found this thing. It feels idiosyncratically part of our group and part of this story. To have a show that allows you to put in Swiss yodeling music from the eighties is such a joy. We have such a fearless group that when we throw a crazy idea forward and say, maybe Jimmy is really just a mountain climber trying to climb to the top of this minty green hill of money, and all of the red ants in the underworld are going to overwhelm him and he’s not going to be able to stay at the top for very long—Let’s find some mountain climbing music!
AD: As a guy who used to run a record store and loves finding obscure music, I totally get that. I was listening to a band the other day called The Druids of Stonehenge, who are these guys in their seventies that had a major record label deal in the sixties but came and went in a blink. Now they are back together and they made this great rock and roll record. I actually thought while I was listening to a couple of tracks, “These would sound great on Better Call Saul!”
Thomas: Well, first of all I just scribbled down The Druids of Stonehenge. [Laughs] That’s a good example of where we find music. It’s a conversation like this one, and suddenly I’m going to go down a rabbit hole and meet these seventy year old guys who are having an incredible time creating music again. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the band Wire from the UK that have been around a long time.
AD: Oh yeah, I know Wire.
Thomas: They’re still putting albums out—albums as cutting edge and progressive as they’ve ever made because that’s who those guys are. We were able to use Wire in Halt and Catch Fire, which was the perfect show for them. But it would have been great to see those characters again and to be able to update the music with the fact that they became even more uncompromising and just as compelling. There’s something really exciting about the idea that with time some people mellow and some people don’t. Some people get reignited with the excitement of it. I’m thinking of that great documentary of the Canadian hard rock band Anvil. What’s so great about that doc is that they are such charming and lovely musicians—the humanity of them and the passion they have for rather lunk-headed hard rock. The spirit and soul of an artist, if they’re sincere, is almost always in the package.
One of the reasons we don’t use a lot of pop music is the lack of sincerity in the production. There’s examples of pop music that has sincerity, but there’s something missing a lot of times when it’s been over-polished. What’s really nice about these discoveries is that it has a little bit of the ramshackle quality of Jimmy McGill. Because we do really like Jimmy McGill. He is genuine in his own corruptness. We don’t want to denigrate his character by putting something in that misrepresents him. Even if we are putting in music that is a deluded version in his own mind of who he is. In a sense, the fun balancing act is his own self-awareness. Who he is and how much joy he gets when he lets go of the old version of him that was too hard to keep up with. The one that would please Chuck. The one that would gain the love and respect of Kim Wexler. By letting go of the need to be that person, there’s a sort of unadulterated joy that comes out of him. One of the really fun parts of Better Call Saul these recent seasons is being able to explore how that joy manifests when it arrives.
AD: Moving away from the manifestation of joy a little bit, next season will be the last for Better Call Saul. You’ve been on this ride since the beginning of Breaking Bad. How does it feel knowing the end is near?
Thomas: When we were coming to the end of Breaking Bad, I think it was a short period of time when we all began to get overly nostalgic. And it’s like we don’t want to mourn the death before the death has happened, before the body is cold. We just kind of thought, let’s just keep going and we’ll know that when the time comes, the time will come. I think this is a very similar thing. Like, I love these people. I genuinely love Vince and Peter, and Diane Mercer, and Melissa Bernstein, and the cast and the crew. Every time I get a chance to see Rhea Seehorn or Bob Odenkirk, there’s a genuine loving hug that we share. These are people that I adore personally as well as professionally. The idea of not working with them or getting a chance to work with the the fabric that they created for us is sad.
But on the flip side, I also feel like I’d much rather be very present right now as we’re coming to the end of our story, and really make sure that we’re all doing something that feels special. No one is getting nostalgic and no one is getting sentimental. Everybody is willing to stay true to the principles of what we’ve grown. Our hope is that we’ll get to work together again on something else. We were so lucky with Better Call Saul that, not only did it work, which it easily could have not, it’s become in my mind as great a show as Breaking Bad, just in a different way. It’s like we got to be in the best rock and roll band of the mid 2000s and now we get to be in one of the best jazz or funk bands of this time period with a lot of the same players.
AD: You get to be Parliament and Funkadelic.
Thomas: Totally. And I get to play left handed some of the time. [Laughs]
AD: This is your third Emmy nomination. I know you are always thinking about just doing your best work regardless of awards, but I’m sure it’s a gas hearing your name called.
Thomas: It’s tremendously exciting. Music supervisors have been for a long time the kid that nobody would call on in class. We’re always the lowest paid on the totem pole. When you see budgets for shows, it’s always just shocking how much lower music supervisors are paid compared to any other department. I think for a long time people didn’t know what to do with us. We would frequently be like jukeboxes for them, trying to clear ridiculous requests for music. I think that has changed a lot. We are now really being recognized as contributors to storytelling and as allies of the filmmakers in trying to find ways to work with sometimes very compromised budgets, and adding in a lot of value to the scenes.
The Television Academy recognizing that and having an Emmy Award for music supervision is huge. I’m obviously tremendously honored to be in the group of of nominees. I respect them all very much. We do very different work. Each of us are on very different projects and have different challenges. That’s part and parcel of supervision. I don’t envy people who have to make decisions on who to vote for, because they are such different shows and they all contribute in a different way. So, I think just being in that group is really the big win, and the fact that it’s been recognized is great. Because we have been working for a very long time, essentially in obscurity, and now people are beginning to recognize what our contribution is, and to be part of that roll call is really flattering and honorable.