We talk Halt and Catch Fire, musical discovery and more in Part 2 of our interview with renowned music supervisor Thomas Golubić. Missed Part 1? Head here.
So we at Synchtank are big fans of Halt and Catch Fire.
I’m very happy to hear that.
How did you feel jumping into a project that exists in such an important era for music (the 80s)?
It was like a meal that we were just like dying to dive into. What’s so exciting is that you have these five protagonists, these really exciting characters. I’m 46, I grew up in the 80s, I was in high school from ’83 through to ’85 and graduated in ’87, so that era was, in many ways, my awakening towards music. I was a serious music head in high school, I had four best friends and we’d go down to Newbury Street in Boston and go record shopping together and go to a pizza place and, you know, slavishly look over the records and check out who produced them, who worked on them, who played saxophone, we were all serious music heads. So to be able to explore that time period is really, really exciting, and there’s a lot of music that I didn’t know. I grew up in New England and I was probably horribly unaware of all the amazing punk rock coming out of Texas in the time period.
We have the character Cameron, and she feels like somebody who is going to respond to music that really connects to her emotionally, and she’s probably going to be getting music from her friends and a lot of that’s going to be local. She’s the kind of person that would go to see punk rock shows. So we got a wonderful opportunity to research and explore the different punk rock bands that were happening in Dallas, Austin, Houston, in the early 80s and we reached out to people who were radio and club DJs at the time. We found a lot of fan announcements, you know, like band lineups, playlists, it was so much fun to research. And a lot if that was done because of economic reasons. We had a limited source of music budget and most of the major publishers and major labels were not really playing ball with us. They were not giving us reasonable prices for some of their punk rock tracks, especially songs that never had any licensing history. So we had to go for other resources, which was both creatively exciting and also economically viable because those artists were excited to be approached and we were able to work with them.
I think that that was one of those elements of the project that just came together really well just by serendipity. People don’t know this but financial limitations frequently, if you do it the right way, can become fantastic opportunities. And again, we have so many different characters in the show, and by creating a playlist for those characters we get a chance to really figure out who they are, and now in season two we get a chance to follow as they evolve. So it was really a lot of fun for us to update those playlists on Spotify and really think of how the characters have changed. People seem to be really responding to the Halt and Catch Fire playlist so we are very excited about that, and we think it’s a great way to extend the experience of a show and God knows, we certainly hope it comes back for season three. We are so excited by it, we just wish more people watched it. That’s been a running frustration, the low audience numbers, but the quality is there and I think that the show will really show the test of time. As people get caught up they’ll wonder why they’ve been missing it.
That’s also one thing that’s really important about music supervision for television, is that you never know when your show is going to get picked up. If you’re doing challenging television, and we generally do that, you never know. Audiences can take a long time to come around and we’re not doing The Big Bang Theory, you know, it’s not immediate gratification for folks. So it is a little bit like saying, alright these are not necessarily sympathetic characters, they are very dynamic and they’re complicated and you might be frustrated by them at times but we think that the journey is worthwhile, and we hope that you think so too. You just hope that everything lines up and people check the show out and want to see more, but you never know. You just have to do the work – I always feel like we’re members of a baseball team and sometimes that baseball team is struggling, but you’ve got to always play your best whether times are good or bad. To me that’s one of the fun things about the job is that regardless of how big or how notorious the project is, I try to make sure myself and my team are always delivering the very best work that we can, and that we feel really good about the results and that ultimately, when anyone looks back on it, they’ll feel that the music was a special part of that creative enterprise.
What was your favorite sync on the show?
Oh God, they’re so many it’s impossible. I always side step those questions because it’s like asking a nun which is their favorite child in an orphanage, you know, it’s like, I don’t know, I love them all. Some of them are very difficult to do and you love them because you spent so much time even though it might have been very frustrating. Other ones are just ones where someone else came up with a really good idea and you love it because it’s not yours, you know, it’s a surprise. You’re like, I never would have thought of that but it’s a fantastic idea and I’m so happy it’s there. So it really depends, there’s so many.
I also like the fact that we are able to integrate contemporary music into the show as well, which I think we have done in a deft and interesting way. That’s another big part of the show which I really love is that we’re able to be both in the contemporary world and in the time period, in I think a very honest way. And we’re very, very careful to make sure that the music in the show is realistic to the environments, realistic to the years. If you went to the Star Club back in 1985, you would hear those songs, those songs were exactly what was played, and that you would have that moment of recognition and be like, damn, someone did their homework, someone really paid attention to this. I do think whether you know the information intimately or not, you can sense if something is authentic and I think that that’s where all that research and all that energy and effort really pays off. There’s an authenticity to doing the extra leg work which I think is really important.
Did you work closely with the score composer Paul Haslinger on this?
Yeah, absolutely, we are together in every music spot. We’ll often send over music that we’re going to be using in a scene because he’ll be coming out of it and he wants to know what keys in and how to navigate it. Paul’s a fantastic composer and we brought him on board the project, he’s one of the people that we pitched for. I’m so thrilled that he’s doing it, he’s a perfect match for the show.
For people that don’t know, Paul is part of Tangerine Dream, a very pioneering electronic music group. Was that the reason you hired him?
There are a lot of very talented composers working in the field. I think Paul’s sensibility was really right and I think also his personality. Paul is Austrian, he’s very detail oriented, he’s a consummate pro and he has a great sensitivity and an ability to tell a story in interesting and subtle ways. I think I frequently love his score more than the films that he will be working on. I always felt that his score was at a higher sophistication level than some of the films he has worked on. So I was always a fan of his work and I always really liked him personally and really got a sense that he would be really right for this project. The fact that he is in Tangerine Dream is a wonderful aspect too but to be honest, that’s not the key one. His talents are extraordinary and he really is able to find just the right way of having a very compelling score but also of having it visible in the right way, and I think that that’s very important for the show. We don’t want you to notice the music as much as we want you to feel the music. I think that in many ways he struck that balance extremely well, you really get a sense of the subtext of each scene through his music.
You’ve spoken before about people being pulled out of the narrative because they notice a song immediately. Was using mostly unknown music in Halt and Catch Fire another benefit of the budget limitations in that sense? Or were you looking for unknown music regardless of the budget?
I wanted options and I think all show runners want options. It’s always a bit frustrating if you can only offer certain colors and palettes simply because we can’t afford the others. So in my mind not having money is not a good thing, it’s always a bad thing, it just means that you have to be very resourceful in how you use it. There can be wonderful results if you choose the right path. You’re probably right, there may be situations where we would have chosen a more iconic punk rock song, and it might have been one of those things where you’re thinking, oh, I remember that track and I was on a date with a girl when I heard it and we listened to that song together and blah, blah, blah. But I think it’s one of those things where yeah, sometimes you can get pulled out of a scene that way but I do think that if you tell the story the right way and if it really feels true to the scene, it sinks into it.
Again using the baseball metaphor, I’m always a big fan when you don’t have specific stars on a team, you just know that the team had chemistry and special powers. A bunch of players that would maybe not have been super stars on their own, simply because they played so well together were very effective. I think that the best approach for a music supervisor is to be on one of those projects where everybody is delivering great work. I don’t think of Breaking Badas simply the home run hitting of Vince Gilligan or Bryan Cranston or Aaron Paul, they all were home run hitters without a question but everybody in that show got a chance to shine and do their best work. And because everyone ahead of them was doing astonishing work, from Michael Slovis the cinematographer to the producers, everybody did fantastic work on that and so we all felt like we had to deliver our best game. I think that in many ways, that situation is really a key aspect if it. Having more money is always wonderful and is always appreciated and I’m always happy when a studio comes back and says, hey listen we really appreciate the work you guys did with so little money, here is a little bit more to make the next season a little bit easier. We realize you had to call in a lot of favors, now is a chance to pay back some of those favors, that’s the way it should be. And in my mind the source music budget should go up after every season.
Yeah, and when you do that great job for cheap, you are always running the risk of setting the mark of, oh these guys can get this done inexpensively.
Yeah, but what’s the alternative? The alternative is to do a mediocre job and pull a, told you so, you know, you should have given us more money. I don’t want to do that, I want to always be great. And you know, I hope that the studios involved will be more sensitive to that. We got more money in season two of Halt and Catch Fire which was wonderful, I really appreciate that. AMC did not have to do that and it helped us and it helped their storytelling, and we respect that by making sure we come in on budget and work well with the money that they give us. So to me it’s a very collaborative effort and I’m always very appreciative when people recognize the energy everyone is putting in and find a way to make the job a little bit easier.
Do you find that dealing with budgets and clearances is the most challenging aspect of the job generally? Or does it kind of vary?
I don’t know, they are all challenging in different ways. Trying to figure out the sensibility of a show when all you have is a script and a vague idea of the story is incredibly challenging. You know, trying to figure out a character and how they operate and what their trajectory might be is incredibly challenging. Dealing with everything from working with music editors to getting things cut just the right way. Or having problems with clearances where you’ve got a publisher that is simply not interested in art and is interested only in money, and has established a situation where you need to convince them to come on board because nobody else will is incredibly challenging. Sometimes you have to simply give up and say, you know what, we’re just not going to win this one, we’ve got to find some other choices that work as well, and that’s heartbreaking. It’s very hard to let go of your babies when you’ve found just the right song. Especially if the request comes from the show owner or from a writer. We always want to respect that because they put a lot of thought into what they do and if they are asking for a specific song, it’s really our job to find a way to get it.
It’s a very challenging job, it takes an enormous amount of work and effort but the work is rewarding in and of itself. If you really are fully committed to telling stories in a good way, you enjoy all those challenges and you get better all the time with them. I feel like myself and my team have gotten better as we’ve gotten older. I feel like our work is getting better as we go and is more diverse, and a lot of that is because we all love working, we all love the energy that goes into it and we have a lot of pride in our quality control. So anyone who is interested in music supervision, be prepared for long hours, be prepared for learning new stuff all the time, it’s a never ending process.
Do you have any surefire processes for discovering your music?
No, it’s just digging. It’s the same thing as digging in the crates. What I did when I was 15 years-old in record stores was flipping through records and looking for things, associations that are exciting to me, whether it’s a pretty girl on a cover or whether it’s a producer that I really like or whether it’s a side project for a band. Those things are all little things that catch my eye and I think, oh, let me see if this is worth exploring. And the same thing applies now online – I’ll flip through blogs and I’ll discover some interesting blog in Estonia of folk music from the soviet period and you’re like, alright, let see what they’ve got here. A lot of times that stuff is not licensable because nobody really has the infrastructure to license it, but finding it is really quite wonderful. So maybe that will be something that I’ll throw into a DJ set or something that I’ll just enjoy putting on a mix tape for a friend.
In many ways the music discovery process is constant and I have to say, it’s a lot easier now. For folks my age who remember having to go to the record store, not know what it sounds like, you know, carry it home which was like a two hour process for me, and then basically put the record on and listen. You’re really invested in it sounding good, you really want it to be great because you’ve bought it, you’ve carried it home, and you’re hoping it’s going to be an extraordinary experience. To me that’s a very exciting avenue where now you know a lot of it is very quick, you hop on a blog, you listen to a download link, and you move on to the next one. I think that you always have to be very sensitive and open to discovery and to been excited by things and listening to music with a very open ear, whether it comes from someone who is pitching it to you, from a blog, or whether a DJ friend sent it over to you, you just have to kind of open yourself up and be prepared to be wowed and not be to too broken hearted when it turns out to be disappointing. Most music is a little bit disappointing, most music is okay, you know. But the stuff that’s really great and is really special, boy does that resonate, and that never goes away, you know, that never goes away.
Do you have any best practices for people wanting to send their music to you?
A while ago we had to shut down unsolicited music submissions. We do have exceptions to the rule, you know, we meet folks in different places and as you can imagine the number of people who are pitching music to us is ridiculous and it’s impossible truly to keep up with. So it really, really goes down to research. If someone has done their research, if someone shoots over an email or sends it to you on our website and says, “Hey guys, you know, I’m a huge fan of Halt and Catch Fire and I love the trajectory of Joe in season two and I have an artist that I think is really, really right for it and it’s contemporary but has one foot in the 80s, and it’s a song that really feels special to me and I can’t stop thinking about Joe’s character and hopefully you guys will get renewed for season three and if so I hope you guys will consider that song.” I mean that’s like alright, you’ve done your leg work, you’ve paid attention, you have something that you are passionate about, you articulate it, I’m absolutely going to check it out.
If someone sends me an email and my name is in a different font than the rest of the email because it’s a chain letter that has been sent 100 people and they have like 200 songs and download links that have nothing to do with any of my projects and they’re just looking at getting sold somewhere, you’ve just wasted my time and my time is the most precious thing that I have, it is by far the only thing that I really, really need to protect. So that’s a very quick way of me saying, you know what, I’m really not going to be doing business with you and if we see that email again we just delete it. I try to be respectful of everybody’s time and I recognise there’s a lot of people who want to get their music licensed and there is very few of us that have the access to those projects. So we have to be respectful, we have to be thoughtful and we have to as efficiently as possible review the music that comes to us in a smart way, but I strongly recommend to artists, don’t reach out to supervisors directly, it’s generally not a good idea, we are so overwhelmed with stuff.
My email now is just so impossible to keep up with that it’s just not smart, you know, use the resources that are available to you. We do stuff through our website, our website is a great way of researching stuff, a great way of keeping track of it, we put a lot of energy into that to make sure that people are aware of what we are working on and what’s going on and if they are willing to put the energy in, we are willing to listen. But to me, if you don’t put that effort into figuring out what we are working on and how your music connects, why would I take the effort to listen?
That makes sense, and just so you guys know, you can check out the website at www.supermusicvision.com. Are you doing any DJing stuff at the moment?
I’m doing less DJing these days, partly because we have so many projects right now that unfortunately it’s tricky. I used to do club residencies which I loved and you know doing a DJ set in a club once a week, once a month was fantastic and honestly I do miss it. But it is economically not the most viable thing for us and the amount of time I put into everything that I do means I will put a lot of prep work into every DJ set and unfortunately economically it just really doesn’t make sense. I’ve got a team that I’ve got to keep together so we really have to make our priorities, so unfortunately the DJing has been put a little bit on the way side but I’m certainly open to bringing it up again if an opportunity arises. I just did some shopping in Nashville, I got a whole bunch of 45s so I’m waiting for somebody to invite me to do a 45 DJ set somewhere, I guess it will be a lot of fun. That sounds great.
Thanks so much for your time Thomas, is there anything else you’d like to add?
No, just, you know, find things on the safari and spread it to the world, it’s that simple. We live in a perfect time for people to find things that are inspiring and share it with others so I think just do that and you make the world a better place.