An Interview with Breaking Bad Music Supervisor Thomas Golubic

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An Interview with <em>Breaking Bad</em> Music Supervisor Thomas Golubic

That unique Afro-Cuban backbeat or the quiet folk song that haunts the scene in your favorite TV show is the domain of the music supervisor. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan compared music supervisor Thomas Golubic to an art director who “presents you with a Rembrandt or a Picasso.” The musical maestro behind countless hit TV series, like Six Feet Under and The Killing, Golubic works out of his home in Los Angeles's green, hilly enclave known as Silver Lake. His team, Yvette Metoyer and Michelle Johnson, have spent the majority of their day toiling in a basement office filled to the ceiling with CD racks. The ladies have been listening to score cues that would be appropriate for an upcoming episode of The Walking Dead.

The work on the final episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad is done, but Golubic and his team remain mum about what fans can anticipate. “What I love about Breaking Bad is that evil is really mundane,” says Golubic. “And it’s fueled by a capacity of someone to just allow something to happen. With evil, there’s a complicit quality to it. It can only flourish when people allow it to happen.” In the second half of the final season, which begins on August 11, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is both the protagonist and the antagonist. “I don’t know another show that embraces that element,” Golubic told me. “Tony Soprano was never the antagonist. He was the protagonist who was morally dubious.”

Breaking Bad has, over the course of five seasons, tapped into the American zeitgeist via Walt, a seething mass of masculine rage, entitlement, and ingenuity. Viewers have watched the mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher transform himself into something totally sinister, and the final eight episodes will draw this character transformation to a close.

The show’s success, according to Golubic, is due to the chemistry between its two leads, Cranston and Aaron Paul, along with its deft humor. Music has been used as a key element to lighten the mood of the otherwise twisted series. Take the opening montage of “Half Measure,” an episode from season four in which a meth addict, Wendy S. (Julia Minesci), is seen giving $20 blowjobs to get the cash necessary for her daily methamphetamine score. This day-in-the-life sequence is cut to the jaunty, classic-rock beat of the Association’s “Windy.” The lightness of the track is a subversive contrast to the ugliness on screen. “Source music gives you a little bit of breath,” explains Golubic.

Prior to his work as a music supervisor, Golubic worked as a DJ and programmer for L.A’.s eclectic radio station KCRW, which provided a collective hotbed of sounds and inspirations for many of the staff. Golubic says the station encouraged the employees to become well-versed in all musical genres. “You can’t really survive as a music supervisor if you only do one thing. If all you do is indie rock, you’re just not going to survive very long. You’ll get a few projects here and there, but you’re gonna get something outside of your range. It’s important to be well-rounded,” he says.

Golubic sees similarities between the live music space and the work of synching sound to image, such as the necessity to select music attuned to the energy of the room. He likens being a good live DJ to a “seduction process.” Storytelling plays a vital role in guiding his creative process, and music is just one of the many tools used to construct the template of the story.

“I think a lot of people just listen to cool tunes and throw in mixtapes and think that’s the job,” he says. “To do it really well, I think you have to really know storytelling, and know how to be in the right world for that character and that universe and be able to add something new and to add a surprise.” His process for creating those layers can appear to be random and in the moment. He tries to articulate how he works, but finds himself coming up short.

Music supervision is a trial-and-error process that requires a flexible, creative mind and a card catalog of musical references. “This [song] is like that Flying Lotus track, but feels too experimental. It doesn’t work here, but what else has that tone? Thom Yorke has a jittery quality, but his voice is so distinctive. But who else has that quality? And then suddenly you’re like, oh, there it is. How I got to that end I really don’t know,” he explains. Take the pivotal scene deemed the “Heisenberg” moment in season two of Breaking Bad where Walt confronts a fellow “cook” and warns him to stay out of his territory. “I remember Vince [Gilligan] saying that this is the first time [Walt] decides he’s not a teacher [anymore] and that he’s a drug dealer. If the Breaking Bad title comes into play, it does in this scene.” The pressure was on to find a track that would convey the character shift and mindset with scant screen time.

Golubic worked on the scene for three or four days. “I tried some UNKLE tracks for the tone. It was 4 a.m. and I’m really tired and thinking about TV on the Radio and how their new album just came out. I responded emotionally to ‘DLZ’ the first time I heard it.” At this time, the lyrics didn’t come into play when placed against the picture, but the synergy became even more apparent with time. The song echoes the phrase “death professor” over the track’s bass-heavy electro beats and singer Tunde Adebimpe’s falsetto vocals. An artistically prophetic note for a high school teacher turned meth kingpin. Golubic knew he hit his mark.

Many times, Golubic’s work is about knowing when not to use music. “If you have a compelling story, actors, cinematography, you don’t need music,” he says. And Golubic isn’t interested with inserting the latest chart-topper or hip musical act unless it serves the story. “Bad television tells you what you already know. Good television takes what you know and it puts in into a new context where it now makes sense in the world of the characters and the story that’s being told.”

While something around 77,000 new albums are released a year, finding and syncing music is still a tremendous challenge. Production budgets have been whittled away and many songs are just not of the scope or quality sufficient to be used in a big studio film or network series. Golubic believes music supervisors in this day and age act as “arbiters of fairness” who are battling for the creative quality of the production while maintaining conciliatory artist relationships. “I [got into the business] because I wanted to make art and wanted to do things that were interesting. I wanted to work with musicians, artists, and filmmakers and collaborate with them. To me, becoming a salesman is not part of my plan,” he laments. “But it’s getting more and more difficult to survive without that, and I think that’s a shame.” Golubic, however, remains hopeful about the field: “If you can navigate through that morass, you will ultimately do what you love, I love what I do.”