Music Supervisor Thomas Golubić on Breaking Bad, Stanley Kubrick and Finding the Perfect Song

Harley Brown catches up with the former radio host and DJ to discuss musical storytelling in the new era of television

Courtesy of Thomas Golubić

The magic of the marriage between a track and a scene on screen is undeniable. It can be the difference between ephemeral enjoyment and a moment so impactful it launches a song from obscurity into the collective consciousness, or gives an entirely new understanding to a well-known favorite. Music supervisors are the creative matchmakers who are tasked with navigating the vast sea of potential songs in search of that perfect one. One such force is Thomas Golubić, who has been in charge of enhancing the bleak moods of shows such as Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Six Feet Under, Better Call Saul and many, many more. In a career spanning nearly two decades, the former radio host and DJ has overseen the music selections for shows that have defined the golden age of television.

In this excerpt from his conversation with Harley Brown on Red Bull Radio’s Peak Time, the Los Angeles resident talks Stanley Kubrick, unexpected song choices and his approach to musical storytelling.

Can you tell us everything that your job entails? Because I know it’s much more than selecting music for film and other screen adventures.

Essentially, music supervisors are storytellers with music. It’s our job to work with the creators of a project, whether it’s a TV show or a film or an ad, and basically get a sense from them of what story they’re trying to tell. We then strategize about how best to use music to help tell that story.

In some situations, it might be figuring out how you’re going to be hiring a composer, and who the composer would be, what palette of instrumentation they might be working with, or what type of personalities you want to bring to a production. That can become a huge factor in the success of a project – how people work and what their personalities are like.

It can also be selecting source music – songs that are playing in an environment. If you have a simple thing where [the character] is in a bar or in a hotel room or any place that might have music playing, we establish the different options that work within that. And then most importantly, we make sure that everything is cleared, that everything is legally able to be utilized.

How closely do you work with the score composer? It sounds like you actually select the composers who do the score.

It depends on the project. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If you have a director who is working with a composer frequently, the music supervisor doesn’t necessarily need to throw alternative options. Sometimes our involvement can be very minimal. It could be that we just meet each other at some point during the music spots, and then we see each other again at the mix and that’s the end of it.

I don’t view myself as doing A&R – it’s not my job to make hits, it’s not my job to help an artist’s career, but I’m always extremely happy when it happens.

I think of music supervisors as being the Swiss army knives of post-production. We have many different roles and sometimes nobody ever needs to take the screwdriver out. Sometimes you just need the saw and a pair of scissors. We have to really know a lot and cover a lot of ground, and at the same time, know when to step away and know when to let things run smoothly on their own. It’s a balancing act in many ways, and it’s very much about being very intuitive about the creative energy and the synergy that’s happening, and making sure that we play a constructive role.

I want to take it back to the beginning of your career when you were still hosting radio at KCRW. I was reading that you did some live movie scores at one point in your life. How has that work informed the work that you do now, if at all?

When I started doing radio, I got itchy, and I decided that I really wanted to get into music supervision, but I wasn’t being hired. Nobody knew who I was, I didn’t have any credits. So I just decided I would music supervise the films that I loved and just look at them as if they were clean palates and figure out how I would tell that story if there was contemporary music involved.

I made no money on it, it was done as a bootleg thing. A few people saw one of the ones I did at home and said, “Hey, you should do that out somewhere.” So I started doing them as these bootleg shows, and they got popular. I ended up doing 32 different films. They were incredibly hard to do. I did it as a monthly residency. It would take me at least a month to put it all together.

I never got a clean version of the movie, so I would have to know exactly where the score or the songs that were in the film came in and when they went out. I would have both time code as well as visual references, like “Man pulls his hat off.” Sometimes they went really well and sometimes they had weird mistakes. I would miscue something; sometimes the mistake was even better.

The excitement was really, both trying to be a DJ and to do a lot of very technical things live. It was fun because I didn’t have a net. I couldn’t stop the film, it would just be running. And at the same time, I had to know the film really well, so I could tell the story in a compelling way. The synchronized project is one of my favorite things. It’s like the mixtapes that hip-hop artists do where they get to take whatever sample they want and whatever beat they love, and just flow on top of it. That was what it was for me.

We were just discussing in the booth whether or not we had watched the Wizard of Oz soundtrack to The Dark Side of the Moon. Is that something that you did?

No I didn’t, actually. I heard about it afterward. There’s a lot of fun synchronicity to it, and then at a certain point it starts to feel very indulgent; which is one of the reasons I decided not to do silent film. I have done one silent film, but it was really only because I was not getting permission from any of the studios to do live ones. I didn’t want to do silent films only because, I don’t want to say it’s easier, but in a way you can almost slap any good music against the visuals, and if you’re generally in the ballpark, it doesn’t have to synchronize that much.

I think that that was the feeling with Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz. It does a great job in the beginning of setting tone, and then at a certain point it drifts and then it really doesn’t really hold together that well. Except for occasionally, like, “Oh, the monkeys arrived. The flying monkeys,” and the music shifts. You’re like, “Oh my God, that’s amazing!”

I like more the craftsmanship part of it where you’re really looking at, how would Harold and Maude, a comedy about an 80-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man who fall in love, how would that work with contemporary music instead of Cat Stevens? Or what is the emotional experience of watching The Graduate without hearing Simon and Garfunkel songs in it? I put one of the first songs that Arcade Fire ever released in there because I happened to hear it at the radio station. I stuck “Neighborhoods” in there. It was magical. It was great. It gave an energy to the film that it didn’t have in its original formation. So, it was fun to present music people hadn’t heard before in this context of a film, which in many ways leads to the continuation of my work in music supervision, the joy of finding music that’s really powerful and finding a way to create the perfect home for it.

Arcade Fire - Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)

You’ve mentioned that one song and scene pairing that has inspired you is “Waltz on the Beautiful Blue Danube” by Richard Strauss in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s so beautiful. It’s just gorgeous. There’s so much I love about it. I think in many ways this is the film that probably most inspired me to start the synchronize project and maybe even have this entire career. Stanley Kubrick was both very sophisticated and very playful in how he used music. He would do things that were very counterintuitive. I think until 1968, when 2001: A Space Odyssey was actually released, including the years before it, you would always have this sort of Moog synthesizer music and these otherworldly kind of corny sounds that were used to show space. Kubrick had a different story to tell.

He was really telling a story about technology and about human beings becoming vulnerable to technology and losing control, hence the HAL computer sabotaging the astronaut’s world. This entire sequence is essentially a mating dance between technology and humans. Waltzes are mini-dances. They were where men and women could actually be physically close to each other, and they would be able to almost have a charged eroticism while at the same time being very proper.

In the film, you have a pen floating in space, and then you have the stewardess who can barely walk because she has to use the Velcro shoes to get to him, and puts the pen in his pocket. It has all these wonderful metaphors, and just by using the waltz, you suddenly get an idea about what he’s doing. It gives you a clue to the story he’s really telling. So, whether you pick up on all those nuances or don’t, you have this wonderfully counterintuitive old-school, old-fashioned waltz playing while you have these spaceships moving through space. To me, it’s just such a genius idea, and it gave me such a sense about the depth of storytelling, which is really what struck me the most.

Richard Strauss - Waltz on the Beautiful Blue Danube, Op. 314

It’s also the perfect encapsulation of something that you’ve talked about which is the mark of a truly successful music supervisor; if the music is so subtle that you almost forget that it’s there, it enhances your understanding of what’s going on on-screen.

Absolutely. I think that a lot of people look to Quentin Tarantino, for example, or even Martin Scorsese, who are masters of using music in films. They’re wonderful, but they’re very, very pronounced. So, you don’t miss when music is being used because it was written to the script. The entire sequence was probably filmed with it in mind. It was certainly edited with it in mind, so it’s a very exciting, featured way of using music as a storytelling device. I’m also very sympathetic and excited by really subtle uses. One example is Roma, which has a lot of source music, but it’s played at a very low, very natural volume. But, what it does do is it takes you to the early 1970s, late 1960s Mexico City. It does so in a very legitimate way. There’s something very artful about that process of being invisible, but also telling a story effectively.

I wanted to talk about some of your work, specifically your use of “Complicated Game” by XTC in the first episode of the first season of Halt and Catch Fire.

This one also was co-supervised with Yvette Metoyer. It was such a joy of a project. I loved this show so much. It’s a show that so few people saw compared to how great it is. It also was for me a sweet spot because I had graduated high school in 1987, so the ’80s was exactly a time period that I was very interested in musically and really digging deeply.

These characters were not mainstream people. They were always seers. They were always ahead of the game. So it was really fun to look for the artists that were that way too. In a sense, the music from the show reflects the esoteric nature of the characters. It captures the frustration that I think that they felt, the sense of challenges. It’s very much about the bands that people forgot about, bands like Wire or bands like XTC. “Complicated Game” is one of those songs. I think it came out in 1979, and it has such a powerful sense of helplessness and the sense that a lot of young people feel.

The character Joe, who has had a spotty past, and as we meet him in the pilot, is trying to figure out how he can escape the yoke of what it was and the sort of fuck-up that he was. And, at the same time, he wants to go somewhere else. He sees a broader horizon ahead of him and really wants to find that. I think that is why that songs feels so right for that show. I think for people who didn’t know XTC, it’s an opportunity to listen to them and see the resonance of their personalities and the show.

XTC - Complicated Game

It’s sort of common knowledge that you made mixtapes for your characters just for your own personal usage, but for this show, you actually published them on Spotify. What was the reasoning behind that? Did you want to give listeners an insight into your process, or just give them a fuller understanding of the characters as you saw them?

It made sense in a way both to promote the show and to get people to know about the show, but maybe also deepen their experience with the characters – to take the audience into the experience that we have, which is that we get to know our characters through these mixtapes.

They were very much explorations. We do this for all of our projects. We always try to get to know the characters this way and sometimes it’s music we think they might listen to, and sometimes it’s music that we think somehow captures a quality of their character that’s really important, or a perspective or an emotional tone, or even part of their history. Like for, Six Feet Under, the actress Frances Conroy had said that she felt that Ruth always wanted to be a ballerina and never really got a chance to do that and that was so helpful to me because forever after that I always tried to find ways of capturing music that felt like it could be dance or it has that sort of wonderful spirit to it.

When you first started doing music supervision and joined Six Feet Under for the pilot, were you aware that this was the dawning of a new era of television?

I don’t think so. I would love to pretend that I could somehow see into the future but I think the truth is, I was really excited about The Sopranos, and I was excited by the fact that they had a show that did not use score, that used source music. They had a budget that was astonishing, and we had a reasonable budget on Six Feet Under. I don’t think I knew how good I had it at the time, but now, many years later, I realize that was sort of the salad days of having a proper music budget to work with.

I think my many ways, all the work I’d done with film is really helpful because I wasn’t aware of all the clichés that exist within television so I almost, through ignorance, didn’t really know how to do that so I just did what I understood. I worked on that project with Gary Calamar and we both came from the background of radio and I think that we discovered the storytelling process together. Alan Ball and Alan Poul, the producers, were wonderful guides because they always talked about character, they always talked about story and by keeping the conversation about that, each time I felt I found something interesting, I had to ask myself, “How am I contributing to character or story? How am I adding an interesting surprise to it?”

Especially in Breaking Bad, that issue of surprise was always the next level. The work I did on Six Feet Under was wonderful but I think that the level of sophistication, exploration and the obscurity of the music that we were able to find on Breaking Bad, and still make it work, was kind of taking things to another level, and that was really part of the excitement of that project. It let me try even harder to get to the right answer and to have everyone feel like it’s a surprising answer, but it feels right.

“DLZ” by TV On The Radio was in the second season of Breaking Bad. How did you end up choosing that song?

The problem that we had on Breaking Bad, was there were a number of challenges to it. One of them was that we had an incredibly small budget to work with and it was tremendously frustrating at times to have these choices that we knew were great, but I couldn’t pitch them because I knew that we couldn’t clear them.

TV On The Radio - DLZ

In this particular sequence, we had Walter White going into a hardware store and he sees this sort of sketchy looking kid, who is buying all the materials that you need to basically cook crystal meth. He sees him and almost like a teacher, he says, “Hey, you’re getting this all wrong, you need to get the match strips, not the matches and don’t buy it all in one place, buy it in different places so that you don’t arise suspicion.”

So he’s being a teacher in essence. And I love the way it’s cut, they basically have the beeper from the cash register, click, click, click, and in those three shots, the camera zooms in on Walt, and he suddenly realizes, this is his competition. And he goes out, and does what is very brave for Walter White, he confronts a fellow drug dealer and tells him to stay out of his territory.

It’s a huge moment in the story because we’re going from him being one person, into becoming and choosing to be another person. So the right song to me was absolutely vital. It’s a turning point in the series as a whole and it took nights, and nights, and nights, and nights of trying different ideas out to capture something and at some point – it was one of those 4 AM things – I landed on “DLZ,” which is an amazing song, from an amazing record and it was just so perfect. It just fell into place. It felt like it was telling the story on every level in a really compelling way.

It has a nice trickle-down effect because maybe you introduced TV On The Radio to Breaking Bad audience members who hadn’t heard of them and then, if your budget was sort of smaller for subsequent episodes, maybe you found more up-and-coming bands and introduced more viewers to them as well.

Absolutely. I think the budget thing is a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse in the sense that sometimes it makes my job that much harder. And we’re not paid very well to begin with, so it becomes one of the situations where you really get pulled in too many directions, trying somehow to make it work and asking too many favors and it can really be a drain on the energy and the momentum that you have for a show.

On the positive side, it can also force you to make choices that are much more obscure and much more interesting and you can give music to artists who really need to have the moment of discovery. I don’t view myself as doing A&R – it’s not my job to make hits, it’s not my job to help an artist’s career, but I’m always extremely happy when it happens and I know that the work that I do in storytelling has a residual effect, where artists who otherwise are unknown suddenly have a platform, where they have something they can put in their press release that somebody will now pay more attention to it, or they can go to their website and say, “Hey, I’m part of this really cool thing.” There’s an association there that’s really positive.

By Harley Brown on February 25, 2019

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