We Interviewed the Music Supervisor for Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead
April 18, 2012
By Ned Hepburn
Ned Hepburn wrote to us and was like, "Hey, I've been in contact with Thomas Golubic, the music supervisor for Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, do you want me to interview him?" We were like "sure." This is that interview:
VICE: Everyone likes music. How did you make that into a career?
Thomas: It started by making mixtapes for girls. When I was in high school—this is back in the days when you had tape players and boom boxes and very little else, really, at your disposal—I'd take boom boxes and play stuff into each one and cut and paste these mixes together, and I was even sampling movies. Weird movies, too, like The Survivors (with Robin Williams and Walter Matthau, which for some reason I found incredibly funny). I'd put these things from movies in as bumpers between songs. I'd take the film dialogue and the songs and make these mixtapes for girls. The thing about a mixtape is that it's a way of letting someone else's creativity speak those feelings for you… maybe it's a cowardly pursuit, allowing these things to speak for you, you know?
True, but the best ones are intensely personal.
Sometimes they'll hold onto these tapes, though, so it's nice 20 years later having someone say "You know, I still have a mixtape from you."
Do you still make mixtapes for girls?
Uh, I do! Now I get a little more technologically advanced with it. I use Ableton now, but I still do. It's one of those things you never really quite stop doing.
Do you have a set of rules?
It's kind of like conversation at a party—if you come in trying to please everyone you're just going to seem dull and boring. And if you try to be too challenging and too confrontational you just come across like an ass. So, somewhere in between those two you try to find something true to them but also true to you. And to take them places that they wouldn't expect.
So how did you make the jump from making tapes for girls to becoming a music supervisor?
I had a radio show, actually, on KCRW. I was living in Los Angeles. I had moved here to write a book, which I quickly abandoned. I was working as a temp for a while and was learning little things about the industry and I ended up doing work as a script doctor for a little while. From there I worked kind of as a journalist and then started an internet magazine called The LA Magnet…
A magazine on the internet, huh?
... which was just a complete financial disaster. It was a little too early, there were no internet magazines yet. It was just too early. Everyone who had put up money basically pulled out and I ended up putting a lot of my own into it and lost an enormous amount on a failed business exercise. Being kind of broke, my girlfriend broke up with me, I lost my cats, and basically being in a rather shitty place, I heard a thing on the radio while driving that KCRW was looking for volunteers to help them with their website. So I thought: they're starting a website, maybe I can help them not make the same fuck ups that I did, y'know? So I helped them out with the website and someone said, "Hey, you like music, why don't you volunteer at the music library? It's not a paid position but if you want to come in on Tuesday, we'd love to have you," so I did. Gary Callomar - he was music librarian at the time—we'd just talk about music and try to make girls laugh. I played a lot of tunes when I was there because when DJ's weren't looking for songs I had free range of their beautiful music library. I'd play all sorts of stuff—things I didn't have in my collection. And one of the DJ's said I should put a demo together, so I did, and next thing you know I have my own radio show.
So you did that for how long?
Ten years. From 1998 to 2008. The last year that I did it I created a show called The Great Escape, which was essentially a mashup of movies and music – very similar to the mixtapes that I made as a kid. It was a huge amount of effort. After the end of the year it became pretty clear that KCRW really wanted me to play less arty stuff and more regular music, so I think my time there was up. I left it and decided to pursue music supervising, really.
You kind of went into my next question there. How did you make that jump, from being a college radio DJ, a kind of "hey look at my awesome musical taste" position, to a career in music supervising?
Well, I started because I got offered an A&R job. From some of the feedback I got from my colleagues at KCRW I realized that the kind of bands I liked weren't going to be terribly financially successful. They were cool, for sure, but ultimately I liked the kind of bands that wouldn't make a lot of money for the label. That's really want either kills you or keeps you alive as an A&R person. It probably wasn't the right job for me so I said 'no' to it. I still wanted a job in music so a friend told me about music supervising in movies and TV. I worked for about a year with a working music supervisor before deciding that I should move on to my own pursuits.
How did you get involved with Breaking Bad?
I got involved with Breaking Bad because of Christina Wayne (ex Mad Men / Breaking Bad producer). She had been developing the first projects for AMC's original programming. She had been a fan of mine since Six Feet Under and she was putting together a miniseries called Broken Trail – I began to throw some ideas around with her that I thought might be interesting but the production side wanted to go a more conventional route and we didn't end up working together on that. But she appreciated the ideas. When Mad Men came up she reached out and asked for me to help out a little bit with that project, but Mad Men already had an attached music supervisor there. So, I didnt get to work on that, either. But, the next project that came up was Breaking Bad.
The pilot for Breaking Bad is one of the best television pilots ever, hands down.
They showed me the pilot and I said I wanted to do it more than anything. I went into the meeting and said that I loved everything about it, except the music. I hated the music and I loved everything else. I guess being honest was the right approach, because they asked what I hated about it and we talked some more and at the end of the meeting I was hired.
I mean, they had selected the music themselves and they had thought it was great, and I was kind of dismantling their ideas right in front of them We redid the pilot with entirely different music now. It's one of those things where you think being honest will bite you in the ass but when you've got creative and confident people, y'know….
There's a very interesting opening to an episode where you showcase a very real Narcocorrido band. How the hell did you get hooked up with that culture?
Vince Gilligan (the show runner / creator of Breaking Bad) had sent me an email link to an existing narcocorrido video. I was familiar with the genre, but not with all the videos… and the video was astonishing. It was this homemade, really crappily edited music video of these three guys with cowboy hats singing in the desert, intercut with all these pictures of guns and chicks with huge tits and piles of cocaine and dead bodies. It was then intercut more with some images of these guys standing next to Escalades looking badass, and then back to the three guys in cowboy hats playing these songs in the desert. Now, the music itself was really square, y'know? They had an accordion and it sounded like German "oompah-oompah" music done Mexican style. It was such an unusual and crazy mix of things that Vince wanted to make one for himself. Almost every narcocorrido group I spoke to in Los Angeles wasn't able to be hired because they were either illegal immigrants or they wanted to be paid in cash (which Sony wouldn't let us do) or they had a warrant. It was near impossible. I reached out to Telemundo and they helped us pair together this group Los Cuartes de Sinaloa.
In the episode, It looked like this group of really fresh faced kids who sing these really badass gangster anthems.
Exactly. Drug lords will pay artists to sing songs about their exploits, to create their own rep, essentially. In our world, when you get famous as a drug dealer, you get a narcocorrida written about you. We went to this completely unassuming nouveau-riche house in Burbank of all places to record this thing. When Pepe Garza (a "star maker" in LA of the narcocorrido genre, who had helped Thomas and Vince write the song) walked in these three guys in the band straightened up like Catholic schoolboys when a nun walks in, man.
What happens when you hear a decision that a music supervisor has made and you don't like it? I'm sure there's a million places to put Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," but that doesn't mean you should.
I think it's a case of just digging a little deeper, y'know? One of the biggest mistakes that people make when they put music into film and television is they think that they should put in music that reflects what's already on the screen. There's a very tired cliché about a guy walking in the rain so you put a sad song about a guy walking in the rain. The problem with that is that it basically doesn't add anything. If you're good, you look for the subtext that isn't there on the page, or in the dialogue. It's just the trick of not going with the easy answer and trying to always find something unique. Adding something counter-intuitive or something that has another angle to it will often create a really interesting dynamic in the scene.
What song would you like to play when you walk into a room? What song would you pick?
I'd love to say Teddy Pendergrass "Love TKO" but if I'm honest I'll say "Everybody's Talkin'" by Harry Nilsson.
Interesting. One final question. Can you make us a playlist that will help us get laid?
I think it's such an individual thing. Every girl is different, every situation is unique. My suggestion for serious music heads who also want to get laid: don't think about music at all. Put your most chill mix tape together in iTunes, leave it near the bed, and forget it's even on. There are more important things to focus on, and no naked girl wants to play background to you finding the right song on your iPod.
That said, these would be in my bed-stand Bose iPod player:
Willie Nelson 'Ou es-tu mon amour' (from 'Teatro')
Cartola 'Preciso Me Encontrar' (from OST: City of God)