Breaking Bad returned last night, kicking off its fifth and final season — which will be split into two eight-episodes chunks this summer and next — with a delightfully potential-filled flash forward. Our anti-hero, Walter White, fully bearded and enjoying a birthday breakfast at Denny’s, is on the run from something. The opening tease is precisely that. We don’t know who’s after him or why he’s meeting with shady people in restaurant restrooms, but the soon-to-unfold story is promising indeed. Flashing back to the present, we re-enter a world where fast-food chicken magnate/drug kingpin Gustavo Fring is dead, and Walter is as terrifying and unpredictable as ever.
Without spoiling anything for those who’ve yet to see the episode, let’s just say it’ll be interesting to see if Walter makes it out of this show alive, Saul Goodman’s decisions in this episode prove, once again, that a spin-off is a wonderful idea, and it sure was nice of the Breaking Bad team to give us an excuse to make Insane Clown Posse jokes.
Hive caught up with Breaking Bad music supervisor Thomas Golubić to find out what goes into to choosing the songs for one of television’s greatest shows. Golubić, who also supervises for The Walking Dead and The Killing, and worked on Six Feet Under previously, stresses that the show comes first. “The key to doing good work as a music supervisor is to always support the story,” he says. We discussed his process, from last-minute work the week before the premiere, to finding the perfect song at three in the morning and celebrating with his cat. Golubić who counts Daft Punk and Stanley Kubrick as guiding lights, was careful not to ruin any of the show’s final-season mystique, musically or otherwise. “There will be a lot of surprises in store,” he said. “Buckle up and enjoy the ride.”
What’s the office like the week leading up to the season premiere?
We have a lot of irons in the fire right now, so the days have been starting early and ending late. There are three of us on the Super Music Vision team: Yvette Metoyer, Michelle Johnson and myself, and between us, we search for music, do the music licensing, coordinate the music editing, prepare the music previews, supervise the mix, prepare cue sheets and coordinate all creative efforts on soundtrack albums. It’s an endless string of efforts that gets increasingly more complicated when there are a number of projects going on at the same time. That said, we work very well as a team and our coordinated efforts are smooth, efficient, and the quality of the resulting work is something I’m extremely proud of.
Breaking Bad music spotting sessions, where we creatively decide the role of music in an episode, have been happening early, around 9 a.m., and while I’m away at those, Yvette and Michelle are working on music clearances and reviewing music for the present searches. Once I’m back, we discuss as a team what the approach should be for the new episode and come up with a game plan, sometimes putting together music solicitation letters for the few companies that we reach out to. That is followed by phone calls to labels, publishers, and licensing companies to negotiate the rates, hear what music is forthcoming, and then working with our music editors to cut the songs to picture.
Add into this equation the music consulting we do for promos, the Comic Con trailers for Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, soundtrack albums in the works, semi-regular DJ gigs to bring in extra income and you have a pretty relentless pace.
Tell me about one of your favorite Breaking Bad musical moments.
I still remember working on the closing of the episode “Over” from season two, and Walt’s first big Heisenberg moment when he decides to confront and scare off a rival meth cook in the hardware store parking lot. It was one of the key scenes in Walt’s transformation from teacher to meth cook, and I found TV On The Radio’s “DLZ” at like 3 a.m. There was nobody to celebrate with but my cat who had no idea why I was so deliriously happy at that hour. I can’t imagine another song in that scene, and thankfully we were able to beg, borrow and steal to afford it.
Can you explain how you “find” a song like that? Is it happenstance, or more systematic?
That’s an excellent question, and a difficult one to answer. I think there is a special chemistry that happens when the ’right’ song plays against picture. There’s a lot of trial and error that goes into the process, and there’s no way of predicting how long it will take to find that answer, and likely there’s more than one. My job is really to deliver compelling music options, make sure they are licensable, affordable, and presented to the creative decision makers in the clearest way possible.
That said, I do work with the assumption that there is a “perfect” answer, especially when it comes to featured music montages and other key music moments. I just have to keep digging until I find it. I’ve fallen in love a few times in my life, and that sense of exhilarated inevitability is what I’m looking for. You can’t imagine these two ever being apart, and together they become one. That’s a bit idealistic, and I don’t hit that on every search, but when you are working on something as special as Breaking Bad, the pursuit of it feels right.
Walk me through choosing music for an episode.
We actually work with music throughout the process. I start by reading the script outlines, and begin by creating playlists based on my first impressions. As the outlines become scripts, my team (Yvette Metoyer and Michelle Johnson) and I revise those playlists and expand on the ideas. When directors request getting music to play for the actors or on-set for on-camera purposes, we create playlists and license the songs ahead of time. In the case of the episode “Negro Y Azul” in season two, our show-runner Vince Gilligan had the idea that we create our own narcocorrido [drug ballad] for Heisenberg. That involved bringing in Pepe Garza, who is a Godfather of the narcocorrido scene, to adapt Vince’s lyrics into a proper narcocorrido song structure, hiring the narcocorrido band Los Cuates de Sinaloa to sing and perform the song. We recorded the song at a studio in Burbank, thanks to some key help from Sony Latino and Nir Seroussi, and then brought Los Cuates to Albuquerque to perform in the video. It was a huge effort, but I’m really proud of the results. I don’t think anyone in mainstream America had seen anything like that in a television show before.
Once the episode is shot and edited, we have a music spotting session, which is led by Vince. That session also includes Breaking Bad composer Dave Porter, music editor Jason Newman and the editors of the episode, either Kelley Dixon or Skip MacDonald, among others. We watch the episode together and discuss what role music will play and then have about a week to deliver the options. It’s a very collaborative process, thanks to Vince’s openness, and we all try our best to fulfill his vision, using the tools and talents at our disposal.
You joked that you had to “beg, borrow and steal” to get that TV on the Radio song. What kind of difficulties do you run into trying to license songs?
There are a lot of hurdles that come with music licensing. The music budget we have to work with on Breaking Bad is a fraction of what we had to work with on Six Feet Under, almost 10 times less. What feels like a perfect find late one night ends in heartbreak the next morning when we find out we can’t afford the song, the artist doesn’t allow their music to be licensed, or there is some other business affairs reason we aren’t allowed to pitch it for the show. There’s a lot of heartbreak that comes with this job, but you have to learn how to bounce back and try again.
Is there ever a concern on your part about using a song you love and not a song that truly fits the scene?
I think the key to doing good work as a music supervisor is to always support the story. There are plenty of artists that I love, but never find homes for. Tom Waits is an example. He’s been one of my favorite artists since high school, but I’ve never found a scene that I didn’t think would ultimately suffer from including him. He has such a distinctive voice and storytelling style that inevitably he overpowers the scene or distracts you from it.
The best music placements, in my mind, are the ones that feel easy and natural, but unexpected. When the song just seems to fall naturally and comes as an honest extension of the storytelling. When it’s done right, you can’t imagine that scene with any other song or piece of music in its place. I feel that way about our use of Sia’s “Breathe Me” in the final sequence of the final episode of Six Feet Under. Although there was an enormous amount of work behind the scenes to make that sequence work, I can’t imagine it working in any other way, or having any other song in its place. That’s the magic of great filmmaking and storytelling: you never sense all the work that goes into the process because you never break the spell.