With only one episode left before the season finale of Better Call Saul, music guru Thomas Golubić takes us behind the scenes on creating the sound of the show.
You might not recognize his name, but you definitely recognize his work. His pitch-perfect music placement has introduced viewers to a slew of talented artists across genres and decades and inspired a surge of interest in discovering music through television – including here on Tunefind.
Thomas Golubić and his company, SuperMusicVision, have brought us the music on some blockbuster hit shows, like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Six Feet Under (this project with fellow KRCW DJ and music supervisor Gary Calamar). They are among the iconic shows that helped to define a new role for music in storytelling, with Breaking Bad still one of the most popular shows on Tunefind (despite leaving the air four years ago). Thomas has also lent his talents to cult hits and critical darlings noted for their soundtracks, like Halt and Catch Fire, Netflix’s Love, Grace and Frankie, Sneaky Pete, and many more.
One of Thomas’ current projects is Better Call Saul. A prequel spinoff, BCS fleshes out the colorful backstory of the scene-stealing sketchy lawyer Saul Goodman (aka Jimmy McGill; played by Bob Odenkirk) that we first met in Breaking Bad. Thomas takes us behind the scenes on some of his favorite music moments, plus the Tunefind fan favorites from each season. He also chats about the evolution of music supervision, the highs and the lows of the profession, and tips us off on some of the artists and albums he’s got on repeat right now.
We’ve long been fans of his work here at Tunefind, so we were thrilled to chat with Thomas. Read on for his thoughts on how collaboration, patience, and serendipity all come together to craft the different sonic worlds he curates for us.
Your career path has taken some interesting turns. Can you tell us how you went from film student through a few twists and finally to music supervisor?
I am not sure there is a direct path to becoming a music supervisor, but mine was a pretty twisty one. I grew up in Boston and went to film school studying to become a writer/director of films. Before I graduated, I took a foray into journalism which led to me starting up an ill-fated internet magazine, and later to hosting and music programming in radio and eventually looped back into narrative film as a music supervisor.
Today, the role of a music supervisor is becoming more commonly understood and recognized – with a Guild and a new Emmy category this year – but when you started out, it was still a relatively new concept that was still developing. How do you think the role has evolved from when you were starting out, back with Six Feet Under?
I didn’t know what music supervision was when I first started. I’d never heard of the job before, didn’t know anything about music licensing, or the work involved. My first learning experience was by working as an intern, then as a coordinator for G. Marq Roswell, a veteran music supervisor. Once I struck out on my own, that education continued with Gary Calamar, my buddy from KCRW, and we worked on Six Feet Under together. Although there were music supervisors who paved the path before me, I don’t think we were aware of each other.
One of the great contributions of the Guild of Music Supervisors is simply in giving us a forum to get to know one another, share in our struggles, glories, and celebrate each other’s moments of success. We created the GMS ‘State of Music in Media’ conference as a way of creating a forum for the work, something we all wished we had when we were starting out. I love the fact that kids in high school, who like me were obsessed with films and books and music, now have a profession they can pursue, something they know about. I don’t think I ever heard the word ‘music supervisor’ mentioned in my 4 years of film school. We’ve come a long way.
What do you like most about the gig? What do you find most challenging?
There is a lot to love about music supervision. There is the joy in being part of the storytelling craft, starting from words on a page to working together with all the creative contributors – camera, production design, editing, casting, costume – and after everyone has added their contribution, you get to add your own, finding the right composer, selecting songs, working with music editors to get the cut just right, with mixers to strike the right balance. I love the creative parts of the job. I also love listening to music, working with our colleagues in the music industry, sleuthing clearances, getting everyone on-board with a crazy idea and collectively making it work, sometimes with very tight time deadlines and small budgets. The challenging parts are for me just in the struggles to keep a music supervision business running. We work so hard and deliver such excellent work, and the constant struggle to get paid properly is exhausting and often soul-draining.
Better Call Saul is a spin off prequel to Breaking Bad, focusing on the back story of the infamous attorney Saul Goodman, who helps Walter and Jesse with their various criminal undertakings. Having already had a relationship with Saul from Breaking Bad, how did you approach creating the new world of small time lawyer Jimmy McGill, some 6 years earlier?
One of the interesting things about the character of Saul Goodman in the Breaking Bad time period is that we didn’t really use music to tell his story – neither score nor songs (unless you count the patriotic anthems in his waiting room). We got a chance to really start from scratch on Better Call Saul. Additionally, we weren’t painting the character of Saul Goodman, but rather Jimmy McGill, who is a very different person. We know that the story is headed toward Jimmy McGill becoming Saul Goodman, and that is happening much more quickly in the 3rd season, but the man we meet at the start of Better Call Saul is much more vulnerable, and emotionally complicated. What Bob Odenkirk and the writers have developed with the character is truly awe-inspiring and [composer] Dave Porter and myself and my team have been taking each step of the journey carefully.
You’ve often mentioned how character playlists are an important part of your process, (fans can even check out the character playlists for Halt and Catch Fire on Spotify). How does Jimmy McGill’s playlist differ from Saul Goodman’s?
There is another really fun part of music supervision, how different the music in each project can be. The music that helps to tell Jimmy McGill’s story is really different from what we use for Cameron Howe, Joe MacMillan, and Donna and Gordon Clark in Halt and Catch Fire, and the music we use to fill Gus and Mickey’s world in Love is very different from Grace and Frankie. What drives the sound of Sneaky Pete is calibrated differently for Shut Eye. One of the great gifts of Tunefind and Spotify is being able to share all these different sounds and playlists with fans.
Better Call Saul continues your longtime collaboration with Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, that started with Breaking Bad. Can you describe how you work with them on selecting the music featured in the show?
I think that the success of creative projects often depends upon great leadership, and I’ve never met a greater leader than Vince Gilligan. I’ve learned more from him than any single other person and feel incredibly lucky to just be a fly on the wall, let alone add my own contribution to his projects. I think one of the secrets to our collective success is that Vince encourages us to discover the right answers together. We don’t use temp music on either project and that makes our music spotting sessions incredibly important collaborative experiences. Vince trusts in our ability to get to the right answers, or pose the right questions, or introduce the right challenges, and leads us on that journey. Vince and Peter are very clear about the story they are telling in Better Call Saul and as each of us presents ideas, we find that the best solutions come when we are all surprised and delighted with what comes from it. To get that sort of creative encouragement is a very unique gift.
What have been some of your favorite music moments so far in the series?
Looking back on 3 seasons of Better Call Saul, a lot of my favorite music moments have been collaborative song creations, or ideas that came from members of my team, or editorial, or from Vince and Peter themselves. If there is any one consistent joy in the series, it has been how many great ideas have been collaborative. I love all the Cinnabon season openings, especially the Ink Spots “Address Unknown” in episode 101 which was a Vince idea.
The ambitious “It’s Showtime, folks” / All that Jazz montage in episode 102 had editor Kelley Dixon taking Peter Gould’s vision and creating this amazing ‘day in the life of lawyering’ sequence. We worked with producer Tony Berg and his coterie of talented folk musicians and our tireless music editor Jason Newman to create a really unique “Jimmy McGill” version of Vivaldi’s “Alla Rustica.”
The Gipsy Kings “A Mi Manera” in Episode 205 was an idea from director John Shiban, and that did so much to tell Kim’s story, and inform our direction forward.
The Henry Mancini song “Banzai Pipeline” that fuels the amazing ‘grifter’ montage in episode 110 was a pitch from music coordinator Garrett McElver.
Another favorite moment was in Season 3 working again with latin music producer Chuy Flores to create an early incarnation of the Pollos Hermanos smuggling theme. He created this fantastic cumbia based upon a Pollos Hermanos montage we worked on together in Breaking Bad only stripped down to represent Gustavo Fring’s drug empire still in infancy.
Working in collaboration with others is one of my very favorite things about our show. You never know where the best idea will come from, and Vince and Peter share in that effort very generously.
The fan favorite song on Tunefind from season 1 is “Tune Down” by Chris Joss from episode 107, playing while Mike is surveilling the Kettlemans. Can you tell us a little about that sync?
That synch represents another unique gift that Better Call Saul offers us, opportunities to use the entirety of a compelling piece of music to score a long and detailed procedural sequence. This scene could easily have been scored by Dave Porter, but we have been finding Saul to be a project where we often overlap – sequences we thought would feature a song are built with score, and vice-versa. Chris Joss is a very idiosyncratic French artist who creates music like nobody else. The song has a mix of 1970s cool, a confident groove but also just enough space to allow for some humor as we watch Mike watching the Kettelman’s. You can’t help but smile as you watch him eat apples, listen to a baseball game as he patiently waits for the right moment to break in and take their ill-begotten money. In many ways, Better Call Saul is a show all about patience: both in the characters and for the audience. It’s moments like this one that you are reminded that, when in good hands, there is always a reward for being patient.
Season 2’s fan favorite is a song you had recorded especially for the show: Junior Brown’s version of “Sleepwalk,” originally recorded by Santo & Johnny. Can you give us the background on that one? Any plans to release that? Fans would love to get their hands on it.
That was tremendous fun. We were having a tricky time with a sequence that had Jimmy struggling with insomnia and trying to entertain himself in the fancy Davis & Main condo that he clearly doesn’t feel at home in. One of the songs we had pitched for the sequence was Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk.” It’s a classic instrumental with a slide-guitar sleepiness that we thought added a fun element to the scene. Unfortunately, the original recording didn’t quite give the scene the shape it needed, but Vince liked the idea. Thinking about that slide guitar, he asked if there was any chance we could see if Junior Brown could record a cover for us. Junior is the amazing country singer and guitarist who performed our original Better Call Saul jingle and one of the greatest slide guitar players of all time. Could he be available? It’s always worth trying. And sure enough, Junior was home between tours for a few days and we called at just the right time. We had a quick creative call about the sequence and two days later Junior Brown’s cover of “Sleepwalk” arrived. It dropped into the scene like it was born to be there. Serendipity is the most powerful force in music supervision.
So far, the top song from season 3 is BADBADNOTGOOD’s “Can’t Leave the Night.” Can you set the scene for us there?
Mike’s story in Season 3 starts off with a bang. His efforts to kill Hector Salamanca have been thwarted by a mysterious person that jammed a stick to the car horn of Mike’s stealthily hidden car and a simple note on the dashboard: “Don’t.” Mike is always in control and a step ahead of everybody else. For the first time, it looks like somebody has gotten the jump on him. Dave Porter built this amazing driving piece of score as Mike tries to figure out what is happening. Mike decides that there must be a bug in his car and he takes it to a junkyard to find it. And only seconds after we conclude the score, we needed find the right song to score his disassembly search. Again, underscoring that theme of patience and perseverance, our challenge was to find music that captured the serious state of mind Mike was in, to drive his relentless efforts forward into finding the bug he is convinced is there, but never quite satisfy or conclude that effort. After many nights digging, we found BADBADNOTGOOD’s “Can’t Leave The Night” and it struck the perfect tone of building tension, but never quite releasing the pressure.
What’s song/album do you have on repeat right now?
I have been listening to a first EP by a young artist named Amber Mark. The EP is called “3:33 am” and features a really compelling combination of good songwriting, smart dance production, great vocals and a really honest exploration of her feelings of grief about her mother passing away. There is something really exciting about young people creating emotionally vulnerable music that you can also move your body to.
Oh, and I am loving the new album from Death From Above 1979. I just have to be careful not to drive around with it on and scare pedestrians and bicyclists.
What’s the last concert you attended?
I was just in Aarhus, Denmark for the Spot Music Festival and saw a lot of bands. Among my favorites were a female singer-songwriter and dance producer named Lydmor, who just owned the stage. She has a new EP forthcoming that I am excited to hear.
I also really enjoyed a rock outfit called Palace Winter. We discovered their music when working on ‘Shut Eye’ and I’m looking forward to see what comes next from them.
What’s your favorite way to find new music?
I don’t have a favorite way of finding new music, but do really appreciate how much effort it used to take, and how much easier it is to find and explore great music. I am old enough to remember the days of walking a mile to get to a bus that would take me to a train that would take me out of the suburbs into the city to a record store where I would dig for hours through crates of records, poring over liner notes for recognizable names, artwork that seemed promising and overheard conversations from other DJs. By the time I would get home with the records, putting each one on felt like a prospector hoping to find gold, with everything riding on every piece of vinyl. I don’t miss those days, but it makes me appreciate what we have now. Happy digging!
Need something to keep you busy until next season?
〉Check out the full soundtrack from Better Call Saul on Tunefind
〉Browse more great soundtracks from SuperMusicVision projects