We talk to prolific music supervisor Thomas Golubić about working on some of TV’s most exciting shows including Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch Fire, and The Walking Dead.
Hi Thomas, thanks so much for joining us today
Hi, nice to meet you, thanks!
So with SynchStories we like to dig in and start by learning a little bit more about people’s career trajectories. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started?
Sure. Well it was certainly a circuitous route. I went to film school with plans of becoming a writer and director and I was distracted half way through by journalism. My family is from Yugoslavia, from Croatia and the war broke out in 1991. Prior to that I was very active in politics and very interested in international relations at Boston University where I went to school, and I ended up writing a paper more or less predicting what would happen. I got a little bit of attention at the University and that led me to want to go over there and be a journalist for a while. So I dropped out of college for a bit and worked in Croatia from ’91 into ’92. When I came back I became a little bit disenchanted with the world of politics and international relations so I decided to bow out of that and no longer pursue law school and all of the stuff that I was going to do.
I ended up eventually moving to Portland, Oregon for a year and then down to Los Angeles to write a book. I temped for a long time and started working on this book and basically abandoned it after really falling in love with Los Angeles and no longer liking the premise of the book. I tried to start an internet magazine and it was a little bit too early unfortunately, it was 1995. I lost an enormous amount of money in a very short period of time trying to keep the internet magazine alive, it was called the LA Magnet, and I ended up basically broke, my girlfriend and I broke up, she took the cats and I lived in my friend’s living room.
I volunteered at KCRW radio station which is 89.9FM here in Los Angeles, which is a station I really loved and that I really connected to when I first moved here and in many ways was a big part of my falling in love with the city. I would just listen to shows and drive around the city getting to know it. So long story short, I spent a little bit of time there helping them get their internet presence off the ground, and that led to a volunteering position inside the KCRW music library. Some folks had been listening to music I was playing in the music library and they offered me a radio show. I took it and that led to realizing I was really not that interested in writing anymore.
I looked into other ways I could use my love of music in my career and someone said, “You went to film school, maybe you should look into music supervision.” And I said, “Well, what is that?” I had absolutely no idea about anything in the field. So I interned for a music supervisor named G Marc Roswell, and I learnt the ropes over the course of a year. After that I ended up breaking free and starting my own company and I eventually partnered up with one of my KCRW colleagues Gary Calamar. I got invited to meet on a pilot for an HBO series and I managed to get hired by them. I decided that it’d make more sense to do it with Gary, so the two of us did it together, and that was Six Feet Under. That was the beginning of my development moving outside of film and into television more and more. The timing was good as I think television has had a golden age in that window whereas films have become less interesting. So, long story short, that’s how I navigated my way into music supervision.
It’s interesting that you’ve come from radio as there seems to be such a crossover between DJing and music supervision. And, just as a DJ would, you create a lot of mixes in your work as a music supervisor.
I have been a club DJ as well as a radio DJ and the issue with being a club DJ is that you are trying to navigate a crowd. You have to be sensitive to the energy in the room and confident enough to lead them, but you also have to get a sense of who they are and what they’re going to respond to. You’re always leading them, they’re not leading you. I think with radio you’re dealing much more with storytelling in a sense, and I think it’s not surprising that there are so many successful music supervisors that come from KCRW. Part of it is that it’s a fantastic environment for music education.
With radio you really don’t have any aesthetic, you’re doing every genre imaginable from classical, to jazz, to rock, to hip hop, to electronic music, and you have to constantly adjust. It’s not just listening to what’s new but also being able to get a sense of the history, which means that if you suddenly decide old country music is kind of awesome, you now have a motivation to dig deeper into the history of it and really learn where those artists came from. For example if you like Sturgill Simpson, what is the long trajectory of his music’s sound? Whereas I think someone who works for a label, they’re just like, yeah I like the Sturgill Simpson record and very rarely do they kind of roll back into history and really get to know how this stuff all connects. By listening to so much music in that window of ten years at KCRW, I learnt what music is able to do and the impact it can have, it became like a paint collection for me.
And by watching films my entire life and going to film school and really thinking about the narrative process, I feel like in many ways I’m first and foremost serving the film by thinking as a director would and trying to basically please myself as the director, as a music supervisor. I think that many people who try to get into music supervision but don’t quite make it it’s because they are ultimately champions of music but not of storytelling. If you can really think in terms of the story and the characters then the audience senses it, they know it feels right. And they know when someone is trying to dictate a sound to a character because it reflects their taste and not necessarily the taste of the character.
What’s the process for creating mixtapes for the characters?
I think it’s a discovery process. Those mixtapes don’t necessarily always reflect the taste of the character, sometimes they try to express aspects of the essence of the character. I think in many ways it’s a way for us to get to know them. We’re working right now on a show called Grace and Frankie and part of the real joy of it is watching the entire first season and getting a sense of Jane Fonda’s character, and Lily Tomlin’s character and Martin Sheen’s character and Sam Waterston’s character, really getting a chance to know them. Even though music was not used very much in the first season, we can get a sense of who they are from their own personal history and the way they respond to things and extrapolate a little bit about what we think their music tastes might be. And then we collaborate with the show runners and the writing staff who know those characters really well and try to come together with an understanding of their music tastes and what they respond to.
One of the first conversations I had with Vince Gilligan was that we always saw Jesse as having aspirational music tastes. It wasn’t that he had a specific taste, he wanted you to think he was a certain way, and that music was trying to reflect a presentation of a persona even if it wasn’t necessarily real. And so for instance in season two when he fell in love, we began to shift his music tastes a little bit and get a little closer to the true Jesse Pinkman. So it can be an evolving thing that shifts with time, and as you get to know characters your hope is that you can kind of help navigate the truth of who they are with music, whether you end up using it in the episodes or not.
In many ways we do our character playlists as brainstorming exercises and most of the time the music never really gets used. We might occasionally pitch a song from that collection but it’s really more of us getting to know them. It may be music wildly outside of their palate or their knowledge base and I think in the case of Breaking Bad we had a lot of those. A lot of the music we used in Breaking Bad was not tied to either Jesse’s or Walt’s fates in any way, shape or form but it was catching the character and the sense of story and personality.
I think that if you are able to think hard enough and really dig deep with those characters, you can find the connections that make that character make sense. And that way when you do play that music and that does come up, you have an authenticity somehow that comes across. And again it’s very subjective and I’m sure there are people who will disagree and say, “Oh no, Walter was really into jazz”, but I have my own ideas about what Walter was into and it was one of those things where, you know, it was a collaboration with Vince and the team to figure it out.
It’s an amazing process, and often breaking away from the traditional is what works best, for example using a non-period song for the TURN: Washington’s Spies theme. How did that come about?
I want to credit Craig Silverstein and Barry Josephson who are really into using music as a storytelling tool for the show. From our very earliest conversations they were very open to the idea of telling what is essentially a contemporary story, or I should say a contemporary perspective on a historical story. They were very open creatively to trying to figure out how we can tell this story in a dynamic and compelling way for a contemporary audience without it feeling like a museum piece. I think that one of the successes of the show is that it really does bring historical stuff to life in that you realize that the characters and the struggles that they go through are simply adaptations of a lot of what we deal with today. And so when it came to the main title, we really explored which artist we felt captured the tonality of the show and also who would be interested in music from an older time period.
So when we were coming together with the different ideas for the main title, one of the strongest combinations was Joy Williams of The Civil Wars and Matt Berninger of The National. And it was a collaboration where both of them were very open to exploring older time periods and his voice has this wonderful resonance to it, it has an immediate sense of gravitas and fullness but he’s also a very warm character. So we were able to have something that wasn’t threatening like the Leonard Cohen main title theme for season two of True Detective. We really felt that his voice was bringing a great kind of warmth to it, and it was an experimental process. Matt also did a track (‘A Lyke Wake Dirge’) with Andrew Bird, which was used in the finale of the first season.
One of the things that was so exciting about working with him was he and Andrew have such interesting and very disparate skills. Matt is a great interpreter of lyrics, he was really able to take these old songs and find ways of contemporizing them, and his ability to adapt the vocals and the melodies was really impressive. And then you have Andrew who can play anything and has such dexterity both in music and voice that it was really just like watching two astonishing athletes performing at the top of their skills. We knew we had a very big finale and we wanted to find a way to really capture that feeling and we found the right song for it, this wonderful old dirge.
So it was a very collaborative effort and Tony Berg who was the music producer on this project was absolutely key. It’s basically Craig’s guidance, Barry’s guidance, Tony Berg’s amazing collection of musicians and the stewardship of myself and my team, all of us really worked very, very hard to make sure that we have an authenticity to the show. Michelle Johnson is sort of our lead creative on this project and her research has been astonishing and what she’s able to bring to the table is really exciting. When we feel excited about an idea, we know it’s the right idea and then we reach out to artists that we really want to get excited as well, and as they themselves get engaged, it begins to build into these beautiful things.
The collaboration between Laura Marling and Jonathan Wilson was so beautiful and was done really because the two of them wanted to collaborate. Laura had just moved from the UK to Los Angeles and Jonathan lives right nearby us and we ended up having meetings with both of them and they were really interested in working together and they built those tracks together. So I think in many ways the enthusiasm that comes from both the telling of the historical epic and this very interesting story about American history that people don’t know about, our ability to have these wonderful moments in the show and to help tell the story, it’s just a very enjoyable process. But the amount of research and effort that goes into it is astonishing. We try to make it as effortless sounding as possible when the episode airs.
It sounds like as a music supervisor you are taking on many roles.
I think that in many ways the benefit of music supervision is that you end up being many things at once. I think for people who are really interested in the field, you have the opportunity if you seize it to do many jobs at once. You have to think like a filmmaker and you have to really make selections, whether it’s choosing composers, or whether it’s choosing song options, the same way that a director will look into casting. If a director casts the wrong people in a project, they’re going to be struggling with that decision for a long time. And the same applies to composers and song choices to some degree, so you have that aspect of it. You have the job of a music producer in the sense that you are really ushering in the creation of new songs and your ability to articulate and to motivate the people involved to do their best work and to do work that surprises and excites them is a really important part of it.
I think that the best producers are people that recognize the talents in the people around them and find interesting ways of bringing that talent and enthusiasm out. And you also have the role of a business person because ultimately music supervisors are responsible for budgets and for an enormous amount of money that has to be handled correctly. There’s a lot of business relationships involved, a lot of egos involved. You have to kind of be all things to all people and also draw a very clear line which is saying, “These are my priorities, this is what’s important to me, I need you to follow that and help me achieve that goal.”
A good music supervisor has many different roles at once and is required to lean on different skill sets on different projects. It doesn’t happen often, that’s not really what we specialize in, but every once in a while we get a project where they’re honestly not interested in our creative input and so, you know, we do the job, we are professionals. Those projects don’t tend to last very long. I think our favorite projects are the ones where we get to be collaborators with the filmmakers and really adapt to their vision and deliver to them something that’s exciting, surprising and feels really truthful to the story that’s being told.
Do you find that you kind of go out with the same approach for all projects? Or do take those projects and build those processes on a case by case basis?
That’s a very good question, I think it’s a combination of both. We have our own process for how we approach any project, and then as we begin that process and dive in there’s an enormous amount of adaptation. In the case of The Walking Dead, we had three different show runners in the course of that show and each show runner was very different in how they approached music. So we had a very different relationship with each of those show runners and it was really our job to not dictate to them how things will work, but really try to figure out how they want to use music as storytelling device and how can we best deliver on that. And that’s different with each personality, with each team.
So I think in many ways adaptability is absolutely key. That said I know that we’re really very deeply interested in character and I think that the projects that we work on tend to be character based. We tend to do darker material but I think that’s partly because we really enjoy character based material and that tends to lean a little bit on the darker side. But Grace and Frankie is a very warm comedy with a lot of serious stuff underneath it. I think the great joy of working on that project is that we get a chance to have an enormous amount of fun, we get a chance to really get to know those characters, and I hope in the course of season two we’ll be able to deepen the emotional relationship of the audience with those characters by letting music be a bit more of a storytelling device.
I think regardless of the genre and the personalities involved, there are fundamental aspects of the job that are really clear. We make sure that our business stuff is really straight forward, we are not big on negotiating. We give everybody as much money as we can on any license and then hope that they’ll green light it and we can move forward. We tend to be very methodical about our paper work, we make sure that our preview sheets are very clearly written, and that there is an enormous amount of research that goes into it. We strongly believe in the professionalism of the job. Not everyone is willing to embrace that and there are certain times when you realize it’s overkill and those folks really just want to have the basic information and move on from that. So we have to adapt to each environment as we go.
Shows like Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul are wonderful for us because they’re such enjoyable collaborations, we’re involved in every level from the strip stage to post production. And we have show runners that are really interested in what we think and finding exciting and interesting ways of doing it. And they’re very good at the job themselves so a lot of the best ideas come from others. Vince Gilligan has been responsible for some of the most exciting music ideas in the show and it’s great for us because we want to make sure that you don’t know where the idea came from, you’re not thinking, “Oh that’s obviously put together by the show runner”, I want it to all feel seamless. If you’ve got a really, really talented group of editors as we do on Manhattan for example, you want to arm them with as many good ideas as early on as possible so they can make the most out of that music and integrate it into the show at an earlier part of the process. Again each project is a little bit different and you have to adapt to it and figure out how to deliver the best work in that situation.
When you look at Saul from Breaking Bad, does his mixtape change at all for Better Call Saul?
It does because of time period. He’s Jimmy McGill when we’re getting to know him in Better Call Saul. And in many ways, we’re doing an origin story so part of the joy of that project is that he has not become Saul yet. I think Dave Porter did something really brilliant with Breaking Bad’s main title and that was based on conversations he’d had with Vince, they decided that the main title’s sensibility would be not where we meet Walter White in the first episode but where he ends up. I think that there is a real sense of that sort of philosophy and that projection of time and aptitude and personality in that main title, as short as it is. To the point that in the penultimate episode when Dave took that main title and expanded it, it felt completely right for that moment because Walter White had arrived at the finale of his storyline.
I think that we did the same thing in many ways with Better Call Saul by bringing Little Barrie on board to create the main title for the show in that it was really getting a sense of where Saul is headed. I feel like the sound of the main title for Better Call Saul is kind of where he is in that first episode when we meet him in Breaking Bad. There is swagger, there is an improvisational quality, there is a confidence but there is also a little bit of a sadness that’s lurking beneath the surface. That isn’t where Jimmy McGill is when we meet him, it’s where we end up with him. I think part of good producing is being able to find a way to navigate people towards an idea where you don’t know whether it’s right but you feel that it’s right. And it feels intuitively right and to me. Dave Porter’s main title for Breaking Bad and Little Barrie’s main title for Better Call Saul really capture those shows each in a very effective way. I think a lot of that comes from us getting into character and figuring out the right angle.
We’d like to say an enormous thanks to Thomas for giving us such a fascinating insight into his work. Check out Part 2 where we discuss Halt and Catch Fire, budgets, musical discovery, and more! You can also listen to our interview with Thomas in full on our SynchStories Podcast.