Some people seem so enmeshed in what they do — form merging with function — that in some ways they’re always doing it. There is no off button. Thomas Golubić is a music supervisor — someone who helps clear the copyright on songs and often creatively find music for a piece of media — who lives and breathes what he does. Part of his job is administrative, part of his job is communicative, and the fun part is making mixtapes.
He helps moments like this happen:
An obsessive, part of his job is spent trying to outthink the audience’s expectations to find the best music for a moment — or to decide when/if music is even necessary. Is this song too much? Is it forcing a moment? Is there too much “baggage’? These are the type of thoughts he wrestles with every day.
I met Thomas and his staff at his home-cum-office atop one of Silver Lake’s rustic hills. He and his crew are covering music for four shows at the moment, so everyone seems appropriately scrambled and slogged. Golubić’s dog, Eddie, follows us up and around his Long Goodbye-style porch and into his archives, obsessively organized, of course. It feels laid back and cozy, even though this is the place where music is sought, found and its rights haggled over for some of television’s most critically adored programs.
Though he originally moved to L.A. to write an admittedly cynical novel, he began falling in love with the serpentine city, intentionally getting lost while listening to the radio. He’s had stints as a KCRW DJ, a journalist, a professor, and most notably as a music supervisor. His CV includes Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Halt and Catch Fire, Ray Donovan, Six Feet Under, Turn, and now Better Call Saul. The Walking Dead’s mid-season premiere and Better Call Saul’s premiere hit as a double-bill this Sunday on AMC, as serious television takes back Sunday night after football’s end.
We drank too much coffee and spoke at length about L.A. versus everywhere else, staying one step ahead of the tropes, and emotional baggage in music.
Is it fulfilling to be able to work from home?
When I first got to Silver Lake, all my friends said “We’ll never see you again. It’s too far in the woods, too fuckin’ weird.” But I’ve been here 10 years now and love it.
Werner Herzog recently said, “If you go to Florence, it has all surface beauty, but like Venice, it’s simply a museum of Renaissance times. Los Angeles is raw, uncouth and bizarre, but it’s a place of substance. It has more new horizons than any other place.” Do you agree with this attitude?
I totally agree. What I like so much about Los Angeles is that it does a really good job of scaring away everybody who is not meant to be here. It does a very good job of getting everyone who thinks they know better and comes in with sort of a crappy attitude and just sort of leave the place and move out on their own.
Here it attracts everybody who works despite what they think the handicaps are, and you can actually create paradise here, simply by creating your own community and then cultivating that community. L.A. is a strange type of magnet for people from other cities. It’s like you’re leaving the planet because you’re coming to this weird desert landscape.
I didn’t want to live in Boston, where I grew up. It’s a very parochial city. It’s a wonderful city and a well-educated city, but it’s also very parochial. It thinks in very small terms and has a weird racism to it. How could you guys have not gotten across that hurdle? You get stuck. People there fall into bitterness very easily. They fall into the “How can I insult you and make you feel about your success?” mindset. England — London — is a good example. If you want to be shit on for being successful, go there. Here it’s like, “so-and-so did something great.” People don’t go “fuck, why wasn’t that me?” They go: “Hey, that’s fantastic.” You don’t celebrate people’s losses.
My family’s from Croatia. I love Croatia, but there’s an old joke: “A Croatian’s greatest dream is that their neighbor’s cow dies.” To me, that tells you so much. It’s not that “I do better”; it’s that my neighbor does worse.
How often do you use sound-alike songs? I know they’re frowned upon within the industry.
The problem with a sound-alike is that it’s a losing battle any way you look at it. If you recognize it as a sound-alike, it sounds cheap and lame. And if someone doesn’t recognize it, it’s referential to something that is taking you away from the experience of the scene, because you’re referencing something else. To me, music should be first and foremost serving the story. And if you’re in a situation where you are taking somebody’s attention away from the story, and into “Is that Fleetwood Mac?” or “Remember when I saw Fleetwood Mac two years ago, etc.…” suddenly I’m out of the scene. I’m not thinking about it. That said, you can have a scene where you put a Fleetwood Mac song in and you’re just like, “I never thought about that song that way. And I never thought about what that song means, and it means something different to me now, because you really served that scene.” There’s nothing wrong with using a famous song. The issue is that if you have that, it’s adding baggage. It’s like marrying someone who’s had eight husbands. You know there’s gonna be a lot of phone calls in the middle of the night from people you don’t know that are going to make your life more complicated.
Music does have baggage that comes with it. My job is not to break bands. My job is not to popularize music or to help fund a musician’s next studio. My job is to tell a story and to give the best options possible for both budget and time to the filmmakers and storytellers and think in terms like those storytellers of what will best serve the scene and these characters and the story. If I do my job well, you don’t notice my job very much.
It’s like the axiom about editing being invisible…
Right. You just know you’re emotionally affected by something. You don’t know quite why you have that resonance.
Of course, there’s the Tarantino version which is a really exciting way of doing stuff, too; where you say, “We’re gonna use music in a big, flashy way.” And it’s like we’re doing mashups and put a weird angle on it. Each project is different.
How would you describe Better Call Saul? Is it a procedural at all? Does it remind you of anything else?
It doesn’t, not really. I remember early on Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould] talked about “Well, if Breaking Bad was 80 percent drama and 20 percent comedy, this would be 80 percent comedy and 20 percent drama.” And even those formulas are very convenient. I think everyone was trying to figure out what we were doing. I think in the end it became its own beast. There were moments where we were doing playbacks — giving notes at the end of a session — where we were laughing so hard that we were missing things we were supposed to do. But it’s not like you’re laughing all the way from beginning to end of the episode. It’s a very unique piece. I don’t even know how to describe it exactly. I know I love it.
Tell us about the musical approach for Saul. Are there any musical call-backs (or call-forwards?) to Breaking Bad?
We haven’t, actually. I take it back — there’s one callback. We talked a lot about that. It’s one of those things — we’re self-aware — the audience is looking for something. You don’t want to either deprive the audience of what they’re looking for or give it to them too easily. So you run out of options. So I think we’ve been diligent about when a callback is nice, and they’re subtle. It’s one of those things where you go, “Is that what I think it is?” and realized that’s planting a seed of where we’re going to go.
How is the approach different for The Walking Dead?
With music we tend to be relatively minimal. Bear McCreary does the score. His score has changed a lot throughout the seasons. Part of what’s exciting for all of us is that we do different things all the time. The stuff we did in season 1, which included a Bob Dylan tune and a Wang Chung track after the first episode. It was such a bizarre choice. It was one of Frank [Darabont]’s choices. Then it changed a lot with Glen [Mazzara]. We also started doing soundtrack albums, so we were starting to commission songs for the show. All of that began to shift, and we began to change the identity of the show with it, using music as one of the voices that’s in there. But, again, we use it very sparingly. Every episode does not have a song in it. We don’t do the big ending montage thing that a lot of shows do.
Is there an industry name for that sort of Grey’s Anatomy music montage overkill?
No. It’s sort of unfortunately a cliché. In a way, it’s a very helpful bit of narrative storytelling, because it allows you to summarize a lot of the themes in an episode and bring it to a climax and so forth and so on. We did that on Ray Donovan quite a bit. I think it works. The problem with it is that it does become predictable at a certain point. I think one of the things AMC has done that is really unique is they’ve moved away from a lot of the tropes that have made network television so boring. We all avoid that. We’re a little over-aware of what we’re avoiding, if that makes sense.
So you use it every once in a while, somewhat sparingly?
In The Walking Dead episode “Coming into Terminus”, we had the Bill Fay song, “Be Not So Fearful.” We did a cover of it which came together really well. But that was a good example of one of those moments where we were selling you with a song, with an idea of what this place could be and the tone of it. Of course, when they figure out what Terminus really is, they realize it’s a very different thing. So, in a way we’re with the characters in the moment and letting the storytelling tell it but we’re not projecting into what the actually reality is. We’re letting the audience go along for the ride with that.
It seems like part of staying sharp is to not repeat yourself…especially in this cable world with specialty shows and people taking risks. Formula obviously has its place on network television.
One of the things I love the most about working on Breaking Bad — one of the goals we had, especially in the later seasons, was always to surprise ourselves. It wasn’t a question of throwing a curveball at the audience. “Let’s throw a curveball at ourselves, where we are surprised at something that seems completely counterintuitive and does something really magical. And challenges the audience to take that ride with us. Part of that is having music come in at different times, letting these featured music moments play a role as a sort of valve of tension or pressure. Like, if we’ve had a particularly brutal sequence sometimes we might have a moment where we say, “Let’s see if we can breathe some life into this” and let a montage take you into a new place.
We’re all very aware of the structure of television and the rules of it. I think as the sophistication level of television gets higher and higher — at this point I think it’s easily surpassed most feature films in theaters — it’s a situation where we think “How do we play with the format? How do we play with the genre? How do we play with the expectations of the audience? How much do we know what they are expecting from us? And how can we find interesting ways of delivering it in a surprising way so that it always feels fresh?”
I think Breaking Bad excelled at that. I think Saul will really excel in that. Walking Dead does that to a certain degree, because it’s very much its own beast — [executive producer] Scott Gimple in particular has really been very passionate about finding new ways to tell that story. And I think that keeps all of us on our toes.